G.O.A.T Debates: Who Were The Greatest NFL Players Of All-Time?

Is it just me? Is anyone else getting tired of the endless debates about who was the NFL’s “Best of All Time”, or as they call it now, the GOAT!

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good debate as much as any other football fan, but comparing across generations is pointless. Who was the best quarterback? Was it Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, or Roger Staubach?

First of all, can you really go wrong with any of these guys leading your team? Secondly, how can you make a comparison between Johnny Unitas and Tom Brady when they not only played in different eras but under different rules. When Johnny Unitas played there were no special rules to protect quarterbacks. Roughing the quarterback was rarely called. There wasn’t a tuck rule. No spiking of the ball was allowed to stop the clock.

Back then there was also no such thing as being a full-time football player. Players didn’t make enough money during the season to live on NFL salaries. So, once the season was over, they went to work as insurance salesmen, car salesmen, construction workers, or whatever job they could get to support their families.

They also didn’t have much time to train during the off-season. And few football players were on a weightlifting program, knew much about proper nutrition, or what vitamins and supplements they should be taking. They also didn’t have arthroscopic surgery, a team of doctors, therapists, and chiropractors to tend to injuries.

More G.O.A.T. Debates

Want to talk about receivers? It’s widely accepted that Jerry Rice is the best receiver ever. But have you ever heard of Lance Alworth, Charlie Taylor, Fred Biletnikoff, or Don Hutson? Want to compare numbers? It’s not even close. Rice has far greater numbers than any of these guys, so doesn’t that mean he was best? Not necessarily.

Once again we’re talking about players who played in different eras and under different rules. Pass interference was rarely called prior to the late 1970s and there wasn’t a five-yard rule, either. Those guys were getting bumped all the way down the field.

My goal here isn’t to disparage the likes of Tom Brady, Joe Montana, or Jerry Rice. I’m simply pointing out that it’s not so simple to say this or that player was “The Greatest Ever” when the eras they played in were so vastly different.

Another debate that makes very little sense is for linebackers, where they lump all the linebackers together, regardless of position. The responsibilities of a middle linebacker are vastly different from an outside linebacker. How can you compare Lawrence Taylor to Dick Butkus? Now we’re not only talking about different eras, but also different positions.

Want to compare running backs? I think it’s fair to say that rule changes haven’t had as much of an impact on the running back position as it has with other positions. But if you want to discuss the longevity of a running back, then today’s back has a huge advantage.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many running backs I watched in the 1970s who didn’t have Hall of Fame careers, but might have if they had played today. Why? Knee injuries and surgeries either slowed them down considerably or ended their careers altogether. Many of those knee injuries would only require arthroscopic surgery today. And let’s not forget that the rehabilitation is 100 times better today than years ago.

Another debate I get tired of hearing is this one: Who was better, Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith? It’s a complicated debate because these guys had completely different running styles. Why does one have to be better than the other? The Dallas Cowboys offense was built around the talents of Emmitt Smith.

The Detroit Lions offense was built around the talents of Barry Sanders. If they had switched teams, then the offensive schemes of both teams would have been very different. Barry Sanders never made it to a Super Bowl. Would he have made it had he played for the Cowboys? Yes, probably. But I could make that same argument with any number of players.

Would Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw have four Super Bowl rings each if they had played on bad teams? Would Jerry Rice have all the receiving records if he hadn’t had two Hall of Fame QBs throwing him the ball? Would Archie Manning have made it to the Hall of Fame if he had played for the Steelers rather than for the Saints? It’s all speculation. The debates could go on forever.

My Final Perspective

I enjoyed watching all of these players. I don’t need to say this one was better than that one or compare statistics. It’s likely that Johnny Unitas’s statistics would have been much more impressive if had he played in the 1990s instead of the 1960s.

And it’s likely that Jerry Rice’s statistics would not be off-the-charts had he played in the 1960s instead of the 1990s. But I’ve always believed that a great player would be a great player no matter what era he played in.

I grew up watching 1970s football so; of course, I’m always going to be partial to the players of that era. If you grew up watching 1990s football or 21st-century football you’ll likely be partial to those players.

Times change, the rules change, players change, but the game goes on. So you can keep debating over who was the greatest ever if that’s what you enjoy. I prefer to just cherish the memories.

Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. 

He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

Mark Morthier headshot - host of Yesterday's Sports podcast on the Sports History Network
Photo Courtesy: Mark Morthier
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