Jerry Rice: Is He the NFL's Greatest Player?

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Jerry Rice: Is He the NFL's Greatest Player?
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

I watch a lot of sports programming on TV, but this year, one sports show really stands out: The NFL Network’s 10-week long documentary series, The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players.

This well-produced series, which concluded its run this week, was pure, lump-in-your-throat TV viewing. Thank you DVR!

The series, which was produced based on the voting of a blue-ribbon panel of former players, coaches and media members, was also a walk through my own life as a fan, as I relived many memorable football moments.

I like all kinds of countdown shows, and the NFL Network does a variety of them. But this was the ultimate countdown—the very best all-time players from America’s favorite pastime.

We may not agree on the order but we generally know who belongs on the list. And what a list it is, including Deacon Jones, Peyton Manning, Dick Butkus, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Ronnie Lott, O.J. Simpson and Reggie White, among many other NFL superstars.

The series had its special moments and was presented in a way that often seemed a nod to the sport’s immense reach, giving actor Billy Dee Williams a chance to wax appreciatively about the remarkable 68-game legacy of Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers. And who better to do it than Billy Dee, the man who helped immortalize Sayers in the unforgettable 1971 tear-jerker, Brian’s Song.

The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players also replayed the final moments of the so-called greatest game ever in saluting the No. 6 all-time player, Johnny Unitas, who led the Baltimore Colts to their much-hallowed overtime win against the New York Giants in 1958.

Even though I’ve been an NFL fan for more than 40 years and know quite a bit about the league’s history and its stars, watching the series nonetheless gave me a much fuller appreciation of the sport and its legends.

I needed to be reminded about No. 9 on the list, Don Hutson, the brilliant wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers who held the record for the most touchdown receptions for more than 40 years. Or the list’s No. 14, Sammy Baugh, who was simultaneously the NFL’s best quarterback, safety and punter when he played for the Redskins in the 1930s and 40s.

And the series gave me another glimpse of one of my childhood favorites, the brutal Bears middle linebacker, Dick Butkus, who was voted the 10th-best all-time player.

The top five are in this order: Walter Payton, Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown and No. 1, Jerry Rice. The only major disagreement I have with the list is that I believe Jim Brown is the NFL’s greatest player.

But I will concede, Jerry Rice was pretty good, too. And his numbers make a compelling case: 22,895 yards receiving, 208 TDs, 1549 receptions—each of them all-time NFL records. Jerry Rice’s accomplishments and work ethic have no peers.

Okay, at least they got the top two right.

Football will continue to evolve and new stars will emerge, meaning this list will be revised again and yet again. But no matter where your hero places, now or in the future, sometimes all we as fans need is a look back at the great players and their plays. That’s usually more than enough.

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