By: Jake White https://twitter.com/JakeWhite58
How do we measure greatness in the NFL? Is it wins? Rings? Stats? Can we allow one person to be great for one reason and another for another? In the NFL we have all levels of greatness and some of the most significant debates of our time have been about certain players’ levels of excellence. We can look at some players over history and see how we would measure them.
The first level of greatness, the S tier, the best of the best has been and always will be Rings. Championships. If you have the gold, then you should be a shoo-in for one of the Greatest of all Times. But… what if you weren’t the focal point of the team that won those Championships? Tom Brady is arguably the greatest Quarterback of All Time, but do we put Charles Haley up there as the Greatest Linebacker of All Time?
Championships are an easy measurement. When we talk about the greats it’s one of the first things brought up. When you compare Jordan and Lebron the 6 rings to 4 rings is inevitable to bring up. But no one brings up Robert Horry who has 7 rings or Ron Harper who has 5. Hell, those guys aren’t even in the NBA Hall of Fame.
So when we consider Championships, guys like Tom Brady, Jerry Rice, and Joe Montana are always considered. But your Bill Romanowski’s, or Marv Flemings aren’t in that conversation due to their contribution or guilty-by-association reputation.
The next easy-to-digest measurement is stats. We all look at stats and are either impressed or see it as another inevitable record coming down. When we watch the older Quarterbacks break the touchdown or yards record we aren’t surprised that they did it, we knew it would happen because they have been playing at such a high level for so long. But remember in the early 2000s when Priest Holmes, Ladanian Tomlinson, and Shaun Alexander were breaking the single-season rushing records every year? We were shocked it was happening so often. Now we see Derrick Henry rush for 2000 yards in a season and we aren’t impressed or even shocked.
Stats are where I think a lot of votes from the feel-good factor come in. In the NFL we aren’t as wowed by stats as baseball fans are. When Cal Ripken Jr. broke the ironman record for most consecutive starts there was jubilation and joy. When Joe DiMaggio broke and set the record for most consecutive games to get a hit in, we remember those moments and those players. In the NFL few stats have that romance. Jerry Rice has 22,895 career reception yards or Derrick Thomas’s 7-sack game. But those players were great before those records and some are great because of them.
The next tangible stat to be considered wins. Wins seem odd to me. There are only two positions we consider wins for, quarterbacks and head coaches. Offensive linemen or Defensive Backs aren’t considered in the win column. And Quarterbacks that have these records are already great for other reasons. Wins are a by-product of being great. QBs like Elvis Grbac or Tyler Thigpen arent in these conversations because they were never great and never had those stats.
Wins are nice to have, but not needed to be considered great. Honestly, the measurement of greatness comes from the eye test. When we look at NFL players that we know are truly great but may not have the numbers, like Barry Sanders. We all watched him and knew he was great, or any of the great receivers not named Jerry Rice. The eye test is what tells us that Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes are great even before their time is done. It tells us that Deandre Hopkins, Devante Adams, and Christian McCaffery are great even though they don’t light up the stat books.
The measurement of greatness is objective, subjective, and meant to bring up debates. Arguing about who was better is a core of sports fandom. People love to debate between Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, Tony Gonzalez and Travis Kelce, JJ Watt, and Bruce Smith. These are great debates and there is no wrong answer.