Article: Greatest Players in 100 Years of the NFL: Howstuffworks
Greatest Players in 100 Years of the NFL
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About This Article
When the National Football League was formed in 1920, no one saw the rip-roaring success the operation would have or the number of interstellar players who would arise over the years. As you rush down the field of our list, you are sure to learn about a few players who you will find most impressive. From the rushing yards of some of the greatest wide receivers to the number of completions thrown by the best quarterbacks, you'll delight in the knowledge of the game you learn here.
Although franchises and teams have changed over the years, the NFL's tradition of greatness has remained the same. During its 100 year legacy, the sport has produced some of the best to suit up and take the field. With stats that might leave your jaw on the 50-yard line, some of them seem to have a supernatural ability to move the ball toward the end zone or to defend their team.
Players like Anthony Munoz and Joe Montana will always stick out in our memories, but what about some of the lesser-known players? After you read through our picks, you'll feel inspired to start a team or go back and watch old Super Bowl games. We know you're ready! Now, let's talk football.
He threw almost 500 touchdown passes
Considered by some to be the best NFL quarterback of all time, Dan Marino played for the Miami Dolphins from 1983 to 1999. With a career passing total of 61,361 yards and 492 touchdown passes, he was well known for his ability to dominate the field with his throwing arm alone. Despite his power on the field, Marino made it to the Super Bowl only one time. During the game—Super Bowl XIX—he completed 29 out of 50 passes and threw two interceptions, one of which cost the Dolphins the championship.
Emmitt Smith idolized Walter Payton
Emmitt Smith began his career with the Dallas Cowboys in 1990 and retired from the Arizona Cardinals in 2004. With 515 receptions and 18,355 rushing yards, he was one of the best running backs the gridiron had ever seen. Even more impressive, he is one of the only players in the NFL to accumulate 11 consecutive seasons with 1,000 rushing yards or more. Born in Pensacola, Florida, Smith was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2010. During his speech, he cited Walter Payton as his idol.
He frightened his competitors
Hailing from Chicago, it was a dream come true for Dick Butkus to join the Bears as a middle linebacker in 1965. During his nine seasons with the team, he helped lead the way to eight straight Super Bowl visits. With 25 fumble recoveries and 22 career interceptions, Butkus was a true warrior on the field. His former coach, Dan Reeves, described Butkus as being so competitive that opposing players feared him even before stepping on the field.
He was a Saint before winning a Super Bowl ring
Now heading into his 18th season, Drew Brees is considered one of the best quarterback to throw the ball. With a 67.3% pass completion rate, Brees is quickly heading toward taking the record away from Payton Manning. With 520 touchdown passes under his belt, he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers after graduating from Perdue University. In 2006, after suffering a serious injury to his throwing arm, he signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent and took them all the way to Super Bowl XLIV where he won the MVP award.
"Johnny U." had "The Golden Arm"
No one can disagree that Johnny Unitas was one of the greatest players to hit the field. Until his record of most touchdown passes in consecutive games was broken by Drew Brees, Unitas had held it for 52 years! After being rejected by Notre Dame for being too skinny, "The Golden Arm" enrolled at the University of Louisville. Although he began his career with the Pittsburg Steelers, he spent most of it with the Baltimore Colts. There he received the MVP award three times.
The Lions roared with him as running back
After playing for Oklahoma State University, Barry Sanders was drafted by the Detroit Lions. During his first season, he took home the Rookie of the Year award, but it wasn't his last. His decade long career was full of awards, like the Offensive Player of the Year award in both 1997 and 1994. Although he racked up 15,269 career rushing yards, he was still outdone by Walter Payton. Much to the chagrin of fans, Sanders retired unexpectedly in 1998.
A cornerback with four Super Bowl rings
Hailing from New Mexico, Ronnie Lott was added to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 for his work as one of the best cornerbacks in the history of the sport. When drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1981, he was an instant sensation. He also helped the team to win Super Bowl XVI. During his 13-year career, Lott was part of four Super Bowl winning teams. After retirement, he joined "Fox NFL Sunday" where he worked as a football analyst.
He always kept his cool on the field
On the field, Joe Montana knew how to hold it together, and it earned him the nickname "Joe Cool." As a four-time Super Bowl starter, Montana's precision helped win all four games. His efforts earned him the NFL's first-ever Most Valuable Player award, which he won three of the four times he was on the world stage. During his 14-year run with the NFL, he had only eight fumbles and 139 interceptions. His type of focus is the stuff of football legend!
No one has won more than he has
More of a legend than a quarterback, Tom Brady has been one of the winningest players in NFL history. With six Super Bowl rings and four Most Valuable Super Bowl player awards, he has been an asset to New England since 2001. With over 6,000 completed passes in his career, it's easy to see why the Pro Football Hall of Fame was honored to have received his jersey and the official ball from his 201st win for their permanent collection.
He shined on the baseball field, too
Deion Sanders has bragging rights for something no one in the NFL can claim. He competed in both the World Series and the Super Bowl. His skills on the football field as a cornerback and a punt returner were as solid as they were dynamic. From 1989 to 2005, Sanders kept fans glued to their seats as he worked his way into the Pro Bowl eight times. With 53 interceptions throughout his career, he was known for being as smart as he was fast.
He wasn't always a Bronco
Known as a whiz kid on the field at Stanford University, John Elway was first drafted by the Baltimore Colts. However, the team wanted more experienced players, and he was traded to the Denver Broncos before he hit the locker room. During his 17-year career with the Broncos, Elway led the team to two Super Bowls and made the Pro Bowl nine times. His TD–INT ratio of 300–226 remains one of the strongest in the history of the NFL.
Hitting people was always his style
When Mike Singletary said "hitting people has always been my style," he wasn't kidding! Now the head coach of the Memphis Express, Singletary racked up 885 career solo tackles during his time with the Chicago Bears. When his career as a linebacker came to an end in 1992, he took a few years off. Then he continued to follow his passion by becoming a linebacker coach for the Baltimore Ravens. Since then, he has dedicated his career to coaching.
A short career but a lot of yards
Born in Georgia, Calvin Johnson always wanted to play football. Upon graduation from the Georgia Institute of Technology, he was immediately drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2007. Although his career was short and it ended in 2015, he remains unsurpassed in 100-yard games and receiving touchdowns. In 2012, he set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards. Johnson played in the Pro Bowl for all but one season of his career.
There's something about Brett Favre
Few NFL quarterbacks hold as many records as Brett Favre. With a long list of distinctions like most sacked, most interceptions thrown and most fumbles, it might not sound like he should be considered near the top. However, Favre's 20-year career is full of victories, including 11 Pro Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl trophy and 6,300 pass completions. He also once made a guest appearance in a film as a love interest in "There's Something About Mary."
He only missed three games in his entire career
Although offensive tackle Anthony Munoz didn't go home with a Super Bowl ring, his stats prove why he's such a great player. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998, Munoz started in 182 of the 185 games he played, missing only three games during his career because of an injury. As a cornerstone for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1980 to 1992, his work on the field earned him a spot in 11 straight Pro Bowl games. He was also voted the NFL's Man of the Year in 1991.
The "Minister of Defense"
During his 15-year career as a defensive lineman, Reggie White was known for his ability to deliver sacks. During his first year with the Green Bay Packers, White revamped their defensive game and eventually helped the team to a Super Bowl victory. As a minister in his daily life, his teammates were quick to give him the "Minister of Defense" nickname. Although White died in 2004, his defensive record was enough of a legacy to earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He removed his teeth to play
When Jack Lambert was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990, he was named the best linebacker of his time. During his 10-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he helped the team make four different Super Bowl appearances. In 146 games, Lambert racked up 1,479 solo tackles. In both 1976 and 1983, he was voted the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was best known to remove his dentures during games, giving him an intimidating look.
Jerry Rice went to the Pro Bowl 13 times
Known for his dynamic performances as a wide receiver, Jerry Rice Sr. enjoyed a 20-year career on the field. In 2010, he was both inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and voted as a member of the NFL's top 100 players of all-time list. With 22,895 rushing yards and an average of 14.8 yards per receptions, few could keep up with Rice. As a three-time Super Bowl winner and a 13-time Pro Bowl participant, Rice is considered one of the greats!
Joe Greene wasn't really mean
His reputation for being a tough defensive lineman earned him the nickname "Mean Joe Greene" during his 12 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Originally from Texas, Green was drafted in 1969 and quickly earned the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award. Though he left the field in 1981, he returned to coach the Steelers in 1987. With four Super Bowl visits and countless other awards, he is knowns as the best football player of the '70s.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame didn't waste any time
When Ed Reed left the University of Miami, he must have known that he was destined to become one of the NFL's best safeties. With 64 interceptions during his 12-year career, Reed was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Although many players must wait for years to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Reed was added in during his first year of eligibility in 2019. In addition to one Super Bowl win, he also received the honor of the interception leader in three different years.
They called him "Sweetness"
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, Walter Payton is described as one of the best running backs of all time. After joining the Chicago Bears in 1975, it only took him two years to reach MVP status by rushing for 275 yards during a single game. Since his early college days at Jackson State University, he was known to have a generous personality. Before his death from bile duct cancer, he could be found raising awareness for others suffering from the disease.
His sacking game was on point
Deacon Jones may have never made it to the Super Bowl, but growing up in a family of 10 certainly taught him how to work on a team. His unique approach to being a defensive end went unnoticed for many years, but his speed and his penchant for delivering sacks eventually saw him gain notoriety. With 50 interceptions during his 13-year career, Jones was a fearsome opponent. Six years after retiring in 1974, Jones was honored with a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His work continues after retirement
During his 15 years playing in the NFL, quarterback Steve Young continued Joe Montana's legacy with the San Francisco 49ers. With a TD to NT ratio of 232–107, it's easy to see why Young took his teams to the Super Bowl and won three times during his career. As a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he now spends much of his time advocating for the head injuries that many players suffer on the field.
He now talks about the game
From 1978 to 2000, Harold Warren Moon dominated the position of quarterback for teams like the Houston Oilers, the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs. With nine Pro Bowl appearances and countless most valuable awards, Moon always made an impressive show on the field. Although he never made it to the Super Bowl, Moon's legacy has outlasted his career. These days, he works as a broadcaster for the Seahawks.
He went to 'football heaven'
As a running back for both the Indianapolis Colts and the St. Louis Rams, Marshall Faulk had a whopping 767 career receptions. With 136 touchdowns under his helmet, Faulk racked up several awards, including one Super Bowl win and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award three times. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, Faulk said the honor was as close to football heaven as he could imagine getting.
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