Whether we build the greatest of all-time list to release as an article or we do it for our own enjoyment, we all have criteria for how we build these lists. Whether it’s stats, wins, championships, or something else, everyone has certain criteria they value more than others. While these and other criteria are very important, it is also necessary to understand that there isn’t one criterion that is the most important. Compiling these lists is just like evaluating a draft prospect: they will all have different strengths and weaknesses and it is important to compile a final grade just like you do for the draft. For example, Dan Marino has zero super bowl titles but has one of the best arms of any quarterback to ever play the game. Both factor into his evaluation but neither makes him the best ever or disqualifies him from the list. In order to make any of these lists, I have 5 criteria that need to be utilized in order to make them.
As much as stats are important, they need to be put into perspective. For example, passing the ball in 2019 in ten times easier than it was in 1979, 1989, 1999 and even 2009 because the rules have changed quite a bit in each decade making it easier for offenses. For this reason, statistics must be utilized with dominance.
One example: Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards in 1984 and the 5,000-yard mark would not be reached again until Drew Brees did so in 2008. The feat of 5,000 passing yards has only been met 9 times but the last 8 have happened in the previous 12 seasons.
With passing becoming much more frequent and easier to do in today’s game, we must compare the stats to their era so each player can be properly rated. If we only used stats for quarterbacks, we would be talking about Matthew Stafford as a top 10 player, whereas logic would tell us otherwise. The best way to judge stats between eras is to find stats that can translate eras (Interceptions Per Attempt, Yards Per Carry, and Yards Per Attempt are a few) and how each player’s stats compared to others during their era.
In order to put up any kind of stats, you have to have talent. Every year at the combine we obsess over measurables. Whether it be the 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill or bench press, we as fans and analysts use these to project each player’s ability. While talent is an important part of the equation, how talent is judged for these lists is crucial.
These lists don’t always have the fastest player, the strongest or who can throw the ball furthest. While raw skills are very important, having them doesn’t always translate into success. The Raiders drafted JaMarcus Russell first overall because he could throw the ball a country mile, but that same arm couldn’t hit a target 15 yards in front of him consistently and wouldn’t watch game film. On the opposite side, Tom Brady is not great when it comes to any athletic trait, but he has done a great job maximizing his abilities to become one of the greatest football players to have ever played. The best way to use talent in the discussion is how a player has used their talent to be successful.
One of the more polarizing arguments with these lists is the inclusion of titles won. Is it fair to have a player not on the list because he hasn’t won a title or higher up because they have won a title? When talking about the ultimate team sport, it is a little bit unfair to penalize a player for not winning a title. The best way to utilize this metric is by measuring how a player performs in high pressure and elimination situations.
Players like Joe Montana and Tom Brady are often criticized for being too high on lists for having 4 and 6 rings respectively. While using the “he has this many rings argument” isn’t a great one, what we can look at is how each player performs in clutch and playoff situations. Tom Brady does have 6 rings, but his performance in the playoffs is one major reason why he is thought so highly of within most circles. In 40 career playoff games, Tom has an incredible .750 winning percentage, at least one win in 14/16 postseason appearances, 73 touchdowns, and 13 game-winning drives. While the wins are impressive, stats like game-winning drives really prove how great a player is in the biggest moments.
Maximizing Talent Around You
The last two criteria are a little frustrating because they are very subjective. When I talk about how players rank with people, we almost always have a different perspective. In order to fully understand the greatness of each player, you must look past the stat sheet. Did Tom Brady and Peyton Manning shatter records when surrounded with elite talent? They absolutely did, but are those seasons more impressive then what Cam Newton did in 2015 throwing to the likes of Philly Brown, Devin Funchess, and Ted Ginn Jr.? A great player will elevate lesser talent around him to play at a higher level than they normally would have and will at the same time dominate with top-level talent.
Far and away this is the hardest one to quantify. As I alluded to when talking about maximizing talent, each individual has different traits that they find more important. This is also where stats have to be taken with a grain of salt. Using Blake Bortles 2015 season is a great example of this. If you were to only look at the stats, Bortles had an excellent season. He threw for almost 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns. However, almost all of that was in garbage time and meaningless to his team’s success.
This is also where we can utilize analytics paired with the eye test. We have seen a massive increase in bubble screen usage and effectiveness in recent years. Watching how far quarterbacks throw the football down the field and what the receivers do with the ball in their hands can impact how you view each individual. With that in mind, you can use the same logic for pass rushers. Sacks are a great statistic, but it is also important to see how pass rushers are played. Quite often you will see the best pass rushers double and triple-teamed, which makes incredibly difficult to get sacks. However, watching the film can tell you an entirely different story. Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack are great examples of players who affect the game beyond the stat sheet. Not only do they cause disruption on nearly every play, but their presence also gives opportunities for their teammates to make plays.
At the end of the day, we are all going to have different evaluations on each player when building these lists. What is important, however, is that we understand why each criteria is important and how to best utilize them. We must also understand that using different arguments to justify your position on a player is okay. While it may seem hypocritical, each player is different and needs to be viewed as such. Just like we see with scouting reports on draft prospects, each individual will prioritize different stats, traits and elements of each position, but making sure that you have the entire picture of each player is what is most important.