If the first batch of players revealed on the NFL’s Top 100 list is any indication, history will be served. Six of the 12 running backs chosen on the team played in the first 50 years of the professional game, and a seventh, O.J. Simpson, was a rookie in the league’s 50th anniversary season in 1969. It shows the 25 voters looked at the full century of football and not on the gaudy numbers of the past three decades or so, with longer schedules and longer careers.
The running backs were made public Friday night, on the first of six one-hour shows on NFL Network (Fridays through Dec. 27, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT; front seven players are on the docket this Friday). The 25-member committee that voted for the 100 best players put Steve Van Buren, Dutch Clark, Lenny Moore and Marion Motley—none among the top 90 rushers of all time—on the list of 12 and skipped Marshall Faulk, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett and LaDainian Tomlinson—all in the top 15.
I feel for the great players of the TV era who got left off. (I was one of the voters.) I voted for the last running back to win the league MVP, Peterson, and not Campbell. I gave strong consideration to Faulk and Tomlinson. The way it ended up, Emmitt Smith was the only back who played in this century to make it, and he played only the last five of his 15 seasons after 2000. I don’t love that. But I’m glad greats from the early days were honored. Van Buren, a four-time NFL rushing champion in an era when every team ran the majority of the snaps, deserved his spot. Moore was the best runner-receiver of the first 60 years of the pro game, with 63 rushing TDs and 48 through the air; he averaged 128 scrimmage yards a game in the Colts’ championship season of 1958, and ranked in the top 10 in the league in both rushing and receiving yards for an iconic team. Paul Zimmerman called Motley the best running back he’d seen.
It’s tough to measure the contribution of Clark, who rushed for 2,772 yards for the Lions in the thirties, to Tomlinson, who rushed for 11,000 yards more seven decades later. In those days, backs threw and ran and caught. Clark was probably the best all-around back of his day, a six-time all-pro in seven seasons. He was the game’s best drop-kicker, which was a thing then. Clark played only seven years, but that’s how football was in those days … not a lot of long careers. Still, a great player in the thirties, when the game was growing most often painfully, mattered to me as much as a great player in the nineties.
Whittling to 100 was hard too. “This could easily have been 500,” voter Bill Belichick said. Another voter, well-respected Dallas writer Rick Gosselin, said: “The toughest part was keeping in mind that the NFL has been around for 100 years, not just the last 30 or 40, and that there were great players in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when there wasn’t a lot of tape to watch, nor was statistic-keeping at a premium like it is today. How do you judge an Al Wistert against an Anthony Munoz, an Ed Sprinkle against a Reggie White, a Red Grange against a Walter Payton, a Sammy Baugh against a Brett Favre? In each case, both players were dominant in their eras. But in each case, one player played on television and the other didn’t. Does the heightened visibility of the game’s modern era dictate that one player should be declared better than another? I felt strongly there needed to be a mix of the old with the new.”
The most surprising things about the process? I’d guess—no one was keeping a clock—that the most talkative voter among the 25 was Belichick. A task like this was right up his alley. He has a Ph.D in football history, and it showed in the meetings, when he talked more about the players from the first 30 years of pro football than the last 30. In some cases, he and another influential voter, John Madden, educated the room on why the old timers matter.
One thing that’s notable about the team: We voted for a set number of players at each position group, and we voted in no order. In other words, we didn’t rank running backs 1 to 12 on our ballots; we just voted for 12. There will be 10 quarterbacks, 12 backs, 10 wideouts, five tight ends, seven tackles, seven guards, four centers, seven defensive ends, seven defensive tackles, six middle/inside linebacker, six outside linebackers, seven corners, six safeties, two kickers, two punters and two returners. Do the math and you may howl. We elected 55 players on offense and 39 on defense, with six on special teams. Some may argue it should have been 50-50, or closer than 55-39 offense, and I’d appreciate the argument. But that’s how it was laid out to us.
The committee of 25 had two long conference calls in April 2018 to handle the nominating process. Belichick and Madden were tabbed to pore over film and their own knowledge to issue a report to the committee on the players in the early years of the league. There was a vote to trim the list to 160 in mid-May, after considering the true old-timers recommended by Belichick and Madden. Over a long meeting in late May, final discussions and debates were held. Our votes were due June 15, 2018.
As for the TV show: The NFL matched a professional and smart host, Rich Eisen, with the equally smart Cris Collinsworth and Belichick to host this series. I screened the first two shows, and they’re a good and natural trio. (Eisen and Collinsworth engage Belichick on his love of football cards in show two—that’s a keeper.) Some of the selections, Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders in the first show, appear on set. Belichick showed he’ll have a future in TV if he ever wants it. He’s into it, and his stories are very insider. A natural love of the game flows from him. Watching Belichick gush over running-back pick Emmitt Smith—with Smith sitting there on set—showed he doesn’t have to be professionally dour.
“I tell you, I never, I’m just … I’m absolutely flabbergasted at the way you could consistently run the ball for positive yards,” Belichick said, in a fanboy voice that I wasn’t sure existed in him. “I’ve never seen anybody take so many two-yard gains and turn ‘em into eight-yard plays.”
Smith, the all-time leading rusher, was clearly moved by what Belichick said. “Bill, coming from you, that is monumental.”
Then a couple of Smith clips were shown, and Belichick took over the conversation, asking Smith: “Tell us how you ran the ball … Tell me what you saw.”
Best thing about the science of his game I’ve heard from Smith. He said: “For me, it was always playing chess against a defensive player, trying to get the defensive player to be undisciplined. Force him to make a decision that’s really not the right decision. And that is pressing the line of scrimmage, pressing the run play as far as I can, to get him out of position and overcommit.”
Just a great discussion about how a great running back did his job.
Belichick drops some interesting news in the show airing this Friday about Mick Jagger and a Rolling Stones tour from the early seventies that impacted football history. (Belichick the reporter, discussing a Stones concert, with Mick Jagger being carried offstage in the midst of some mayhem … I’ll say no more, other than there’s a story I never thought I’d hear.)
One other thing about more recent football history that I never realized, per Belichick: In April 1995, when Belichick was the Cleveland coach and de facto personnel czar, he made a draft-day trade with San Francisco. Belichick dealt the 10th pick in the first round to the Niners for first, third and fourth-round picks in 1995 and San Francisco’s first-round pick in 1996. The Browns, of course, shocked the football world in November 1995 by announcing a move to Baltimore. Belichick was fired at the end of 1995, and the franchise started over in Baltimore. The new team, christened the Ravens, had one parting gift from Belichick—the 49ers’ first-round pick in 1996. That pick turned out to be the 26th pick in the 1996 draft, and it turned out to be a player who would torment Belichick in his next head-coaching job in New England for 13 seasons: Ray Lewis.
The first two shows I screened amounted to a celebration of football, and of football history. We’ll be arguing about the results, and maybe about the process. But the TV result looks very good.