Alan Page, former defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, is one of football’s all-time greats. He was a 9-time pro bowler, 2-time defensive player of the year, and the first ever defensive player to win MVP. He has a legacy that, even without a championship ring, can’t be taken away or tarnished. His spot in the game’s history is secure.
He would never play in today’s NFL, though.
A 6’4’’, 245 pound defensive tackle? He would have been too small to play defensive tackle in college these days.
In the ‘70s and ‘60s, offensive tackles were around 260 pounds; tackles are undersized if they’re 290 now. The size of the players in the game has risen exponentially in the past twenty years – blame the steroids we give to cows. And the steroids we give to pigs, orange juice, corn, chickens, and chicken McNuggets.
By all accounts, the speed of today’s game is in another stratosphere, also. Imagine Larry Csnoka or Franco Harris running away from Mario Williams or Haloti Ngata, let alone Karlos Dansby or Troy Polamalu.
That doesn’t take away or diminish previous periods in the game or previous players; they were the best of the best at the time. But the game has changed and the players are not the same. So yes, many of the game’s greats would not make it in today’s football through no fault of their own. Things change.
However, there were several players from the past who could play today, who would still dominate in today’s game.
Let’s first set the parameters for exactly what “today’s NFL” means, though. When looking at NFL films, books, history, one comes away with the idea that the NFL is BLT and ALT: Before Lawrence Taylor and After Lawrence Taylor.
The game changed with LT, he was the keystone for the size and speed of the modern player. Since LT began his career in 1981, any player that played in the ‘80s is disqualified from this list. Apologies to Mean Joe Greene, Earl Campbell, and others who are no doubt crying into a bowl of soup after being left off this subjective list due to arbitrary requirements by some guy.
Got to make the cut-off somewhere, however. That’s the cut-off for this list; only players who never played in the 1980s will be discussed. On with the list that is wholly unscientific and will unfortunately neglect plenty of deserving names.
Mel Renfro was an integral part of world-record setting track teams at the University of Oregon; he had unquestioned athleticism. He was a speedster who was also a playmaker with 52 interceptions in his career.
Renfro was a ten-time pro bowler playing on Dallas’ Doomsday Defense, starting at safety before switching to cornerback in the middle of his Hall of Fame career. He was a return specialist early in his playing days and had three returns for touchdowns.
At 6’0’’ and 190 pounds, with world-class speed, Renfro possessed the size and speed today’s game requires of defensive backs, in addition to the aptitude required to excel.
At 6’1’’, 245 pounds, Lanier would still be a prototypical middle or inside linebacker in today’s game – Patrick Willis is 6’1’’ and 242 pounds. That present-day size in a bygone era is what helped Lanier become an eight-time pro bowler, eight-time All-Pro, and a Hall of Famer in eleven NFL seasons.
Lanier missed only five games in his career and had 27 interceptions, which he returned for 440 yards and two touchdowns. He was called ‘Contact’ for his hard-hitting, punishing play.
Lanier was a fast, disciplined player who was the leader of a Kansas City Chiefs defense that dismantled the heavily-favored Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. A three-down linebacker in any age.
Hutson was a two-way player in the ‘30s and ‘40s at 6’1’’ and 180 pounds; on one side of the field he was Jerry Rice and on the other side he was Deion Sanders.
He led the NFL in interceptions one year with eight and was in the top three two other times. But it was on offense that he made his case as one of the great players of all-time: led the NFL in receptions eight times, led in receiving yards seven times, led in receiving touchdowns nine times – including a then-record 17 touchdowns in 1942 that would stand for 42 more years. An eight-time All-Pro, Hutson retired with the all-time record for receiving touchdowns with 99, a record that would stand four more decades.
He was the first wide receiver, inventing pass routes and overwhelming the opposition with his unmatched speed. While he would not be the burner now that he was then, Hutson outperformed his peers to such an extent that there is no doubt he would have been successful in today’s football game – especially with the new rules that favor receivers.
In his rookie season, ‘Night Train’ set an NFL interception record of 14 – in only twelve games – that still stands today. He had receiver-like speed, hands, instincts, and size at 6’1’’ and 190 pounds. He was a gambler that won more than he lost, ending his career with 68 interceptions, the fourth-most in NFL history, and 1,207 return yards, the sixth-most in NFL history.
He was more than just a cover corner, though, as evidenced by any clips of him performing his notorious “Night Train Necktie,” which was essentially a straight-arm clothesline to the neck. That wouldn’t work today – thanks a lot, concerned citizens – but Lane would still be a physical corner who could make a play on the ball.
As a running back, O.J. had few equals. The first running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, he had 2,003 yards in only 14 games during the 1973 season. Simpson was a six-time pro bowler, five-time All-Pro, led the NFL in rushing four times, and had 23 touchdowns in 1975. At 6’2” and 212 pounds, Simpson is comparable to Adrian Peterson’s 6’2’’ and 217 pounds. O.J. had the speed, size, and ability that would translate seamlessly to today’s NFL.
And then, well, you know.
The Secretary of Defense, Deacon Jones was a revolutionary defensive end with size and speed and ability that nobody had seen. At 6’4’’ and 270 pounds, similar to Osi Umenyiora at 6’3’’ and 280 pounds, Deacon registered an unofficial 173 sacks (which would be third on the all-time list today), including three years of more than 20 sacks in his 14 seasons.
Along with Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, and Rosey Grier, Jones was part of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, a defensive line that had Los Angeles in contention for the NFC Championship year-after-year. And while those other three were renowned players in their own right, it was Jones whom the opposition feared most of all – if only for his brutal head slaps.
Butkus was forced to retire after nine seasons due to knee injuries, but he had established himself as one of the best – if not the best – middle linebackers to ever play the game, and as a guy with a real sour disposition. “I wouldn’t ever set out to hurt anyone deliberately,” Butkus once said, “unless it was, you know, important – like a league game or something.”
He used that mentality – along with sideline-to-sideline speed, modern size at 6’3’’ and 245 pounds, and incomparable instincts – to terrorize the NFL during his career. Butkus was an eight-time pro bowler and six-time All-Pro whose tenacity and skill would have allowed him to be a dominant player in any time.
The old-timers talk about Sayers like the disciples talked about Jesus, with slightly more hyperbole thrown in. But when looking at his stats before injuries cut his career short after just seven (but really, five) seasons, one can see that Sayers was an implausible force on the field.
When LaDainian Tomlinson scored 31 touchdowns, he did it with 404 touches for an average of a touchdown every 13 touches; Gale Sayers scored 22 touchdowns on 232 touches for an average of a touchdown every 10.5 touches – in his rookie season. His legendary six-touchdown game on a muddy field is more reverently discussed than Revere’s Midnight Ride or that time your friend did that thing.
Sayers undoubtedly possessed speed and quickness that was before his time.
Unitas’ list of accomplishments is, quite simply, long. Ten-time pro bowler, five-time All-Pro, the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards, top-five in passer rating ten times, his 290 passing touchdowns are still seventh all-time, three-time MVP, two-time world champion, and one Super Bowl win.
His place on the Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks is protected, as his ability to play in any era in NFL history. Anybody who thinks Unitas wouldn’t be a top-flight quarterback in today’s game should watch highlights of his game-tying drive, let alone his game-winning drive, in the 1958 NFL Championship, also known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Unitas possessed everything anyone would want from a quarterback: arm strength, accuracy, toughness, and leadership.
In the nine seasons and 118 games Jim Brown graced professional football with his divinity he left a legacy that unfathomable numbers can’t sum up.
But they can try: he led the NFL in rushing yards eight times, in yards from scrimmage six times, in touchdowns five times, a nine-time pro bowler, eight-time All-Pro, was the rookie of the year and MVP in 1957, went on to win MVP two more times, and he retired as the all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns (is currently ninth and tenth in those categories respectively).
Despite leading the league in touches in seven years and being in the top four the other two seasons, Brown never missed a game. Brown was 6’2’’ and 230 pounds; for comparison, bruising running back Steven Jackson is 6’3’’ and 230. But Brown wasn’t just a pile-mover. He could elude and evade and outrun any would-be tackler. He had modern-size and modern-speed combined with an unsurpassed tough, physical attitude.
Jim Brown is still and probably forever will be the gold-standard at running back.