B/R's Best NFL Team of All Time

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IMay 14, 2012

B/R's Best NFL Team of All Time

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    As you well know, we here at Bleacher Report are big on lists: 

    "The 10 Best Draft Picks in Saints History"

    "The 25 Worst Free Agent Signings in NFL History"

    "The Top 10 Linebackers in the Game Today"

    "The Stupidest Decisions by Every NFL Head Coach"

    And so on.

    But all of those lists are pretty narrow and specific. 

    So if you're looking for one that's not terribly nuanced yet addresses the entire history of the game, here's your list.  

    I give you the Bleacher Report All-Time NFL team.

    If by some bizarre time-space continuum mishap were to occur and these 22 men could be assembled, it would result in the most unstoppable, high-scoring offense and the most ferocious, suffocating defense imaginable.

Defensive End: Reggie White

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    Career: 1985-98, 2000

    Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers

    Stats: 198 sacks

    Achievements: 13 pro bows, 10-time All Pro, one Super Bowl championship

    Runner-Up: Bruce Smith

    There are several defensive ends worthy of a place on this list, both pass rushing specialists and complete defenders, who played the run just as well as the pass.

    But I think we can all agree that the Minister of Defense deserves one of the bookend spots on this list. He was the central figure on two outstanding, championship-caliber defenses, one in Philadelphia and one in Green Bay. 

    In an era where Bruce Smith, Neil Smith, Chris Doleman, Howie Long, Greg Townsend and several others dominated the game, White shone above even those elite rushers. 

    And there was no better example of that than Super Bowl XXXI when (at 36 years of age) he dominated the Patriots offensive line late in the third quarter, silencing New England's comeback rally. 

Defensive End: Deacon Jones

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    Career: 1961-74

    Teams: Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins

    Stats: 173.5 (unofficial) sacks

    Achievements: eight pro bowls, five-time All Pro

    Runner-Up: Chris Doleman

    A major problem with these types of lists is the whole "difference in era" factor. And perhaps the best example of that issue is Deacon Jones. 

    Right or wrong, a defensive ends productivity is essentially measured by one stat: sacks. And despite coining the term, you won't find Jones' name anywhere on the list of sacks, either career or single- season. 

    That's because the stat wasn't official during his prime. Nevertheless, conservative estimates have him ranking somewhere between Reggie White and Kevin Greene on the all-time list and putting up the absurd number of 26 sacks (well past the current single-season mark) during one 14-game season in the late 1960s.

    Jones was so innovative and so dominant as a pass rusher that he has to be included on a list such as this.

Defensive Tackle: Alan Page

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    Career: 1967-81

    Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears

    Achievements: 1971 NFL MVP, nine pro bowls

    Runner-Up: Bob Lilly

    Aside from perhaps Lawrence Taylor, no defensive player was ever quite as disruptive and frustrating (for opposing offenses, at least) than the Vikings Alan Page.

    His instincts were uncanny, so couple that with his quickness off the snap and strength when he engaged a tackle or guard and it's no wonder why he remains the only defensive lineman to win the NFL MVP and why, as teammate Jim Marshall once said, the referees stopped calling holding at times—he was that dominant.

Defensive Tackle: Mean Joe Greene

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    Career: 1969-81

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers

    Achievements: two-time Defensive Player of the Year, four Super Bowl championships

    Runner-Up: John Randle

    The true cornerstone of the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s was not Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount or any of the other Hall of Famers that Pittsburgh somehow managed to land via the draft in the early 1970s. It was the defensive tackle from North Texas.

    And not just because he was the team's first pick under new head coach Chuck Noll.

    Greene was so scary and so consistent in that tilt-tackle position that it made the job of those other 10 defenders exponentially easier. He almost always drew double-teams yet still managed to make play after play. 

    It's worth pointing out, however, that neither Greene, nor Alan Page, nor Bob Lilly, nor any of the other tackles who are considered for this spot were quite as magnificent a pass rusher as the runner-up here, John Randle.

    For Randle to record 137.5 sacks, mostly from the inside of the defensive line, is a truly remarkable feat and certainly worthy of the "honorable mention" title for tackles. 

Outside Linebacker: Lawrence Taylor

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    Career: 1981-93

    Teams: New York Giants

    Stats: 132.5 sacks

    Achievements: three-time Defensive Player of the Year, 1986 NFL MVP

    Runner-Up: Derrick Thomas

    There really are only two "no-brainers" on this list: on offense, aside from Jerry Rice at wide receiver, the title of Greatest [insert position] of All Time can be debated. Even, as you'll see later on, the great Jim Brown has some worthy challengers for spot of top running back in history. 

    But, as with Rice, you'd have to be insane to compile this list and leave Lawrence Taylor off.

    He redefined his position in a way that perhaps no other player in the history of the NFL can say. Prior to Taylor's incredible rookie season in 1981 (and for the 12 years afterwards), outside linebackers didn't rush the passer with the type of ferocity and frequency that L.T. did. 

    All the great pass rushing backers of today (DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Clay Matthews, Terrell Suggs, etc.) owe Taylor for what he was able to do, namely make outside linebacker a position just as central to rushing the passer, if not more so, than defensive end. 

Middle Linebacker: Ray Lewis

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    Career: 1996-present

    Teams: Baltimore Ravens

    Stats: 31 interceptions, 40.5 sacks, 3 TDs

    Achievements:13 pro bowls, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, one-time Super Bowl MVP, one-time Super Bowl champion

    Runner-Up: Dick Butkus

    When it comes to comparing and contrasting different eras, the rubber really meets the road here.

    There are several people from several different eras who deserve a place as the all-time middle linebacker: From the 1960s, Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke; from the 1970s, Jack Lambert; from the 1980s, Mike Singletary, etc. 

    But I have to take Lewis, the modern-day version of all those superstars and Hall of Famers.


    Well, aside from his ability to transition form a 4-3 to a 3-4 and not skip a beat, he plays in an era where running games and passing games are equal in terms of precision and complexity. A middle linebacker in today's game has to be fast, strong, and smart enough to defend both the run and pass with equal skill and consistency—and that's exactly how Lewis has racked up all his many, many honors. 

    His sideline-to-sideline speed, closing speed, instincts, and tackling strength is unmatched. And since he's been one of the best players (not just the "best linebackers" or even "best defenders" in the NFL for over a decade and a half), he surpasses any other challenger for this All Time team. 

Outside Linebacker: Jack Ham

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    Career: 1971-82

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers

    Stats: 32 interceptions, 21 fumble recoveries

    Achievements: eight pro bowls, six-time All Pro, four-time Super Bowl champion

    Runner-Up: Ted Hendricks

    As great as L.T. was and as important as his contributions to the game have been, it's important to remember that rushing the quarterback isn't the only responsibility of an outside linebacker.

    That's not to say that Taylor didn't do other things like contribute to stopping the run or playing zone coverage or picking up backs out of the backfield, but that really wasn't his forte. 

    So for this list, I think it's important to have—opposite a player like Taylor—an outside backer who was more "traditional" and a bit more of the "complete" player.

    That's Jack Ham to a tee. 

    Ham was quick, smart, powerful, and opportunistic on the edges of that Steel Curtain defense and one of the most durable, reliable players of his era.

    But what's most forgotten about Ham in today's modern context of outside linebackers rushing the passer and grabbing 15-20 sacks a season is just how many turnovers Ham forced on the other end: His 32 interceptions are still seventh on the franchise's all-time list. And—as this list proves—there have been a handful of truly historic Steelers defenders. 

Strong Safety: Troy Polamalu

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    Career: 2003-present

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers

    Stats: nine sacks, 29 INTs

    Achievements: seven pro bowls, five-time All Pro, 2010 Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Super Bowl champion

    Runner-Up: Ken Houston

    This is probably the first "controversial" pick on this list, but it's justified, especially if you do put several other safeties, specifically Ed Reed and Ronnie Lott, in their appropriate slot of free safety.

    Despite the relative shortness of his career, Polamalu fits the strong safety mold better than any player before or since. He's a tremendous pass rusher, he hits with great intensity, he is as likely to catch a ball in the air as any wide receiver in the NFL and, most importantly, he can cover tight ends and the slot receivers that cornerbacks cannot. 

    Few strong safeties are that diverse and resourceful and few players in today's NFL mean as much to their team as Polamalu means to the Steelers. That's a tremendous litmus test for a player's candidacy for an All Time team. 

Free Safety: Ronnie Lott

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    Career: 1981-95

    Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders, New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs

    Stats: 63 INTs

    Achievements: 10 pro bows, four-time Super Bowl champion

    Runner-Up: Ed Reed

    Choosing between Lott and Ed Reed is one of the most difficult decisions I had to make for this list. Both epitomize the term "ball hawk," both hit ball carriers like a linebacker, and both play/played with a toughness that was unmatched in their time.

    But Lott gets a slight edge for two simple facts:

    1. Lott didn't have a Ray Lewis playing beside him: There were great players on that 49ers defense, but none who could be considered as dominant for as long as Lewis. 

    2. Lott owns four Super Bowl rings; Reed has none.

    And don't forget that, in his day, Lott was also deadly in the open field when he nabbed a pick out of the air. Reed may have been more prolific, with the 100-yard returns and six total scores, but Lott was nearly as dangerous and did score just one fewer career TD. 

Cornerback: Deion Sanders

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    Career: 1989-2000, 2004-05

    Teams: Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens

    Stats: 53 interceptions, nine touchdowns

    Achievements: two-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Super Bowl champion

    Runner-Up: Willie Brown

    Much like I did with outside linebackers, I tried to choose two very different—yet no less dominant—cornerbacks: the cover-specialist and the truly "complete" corner. 

    In the history of the NFL, no cornerback has ever been more adept at simple man-coverage than Prime Time. So say what you will about his allergy to tackling or his lack of contribution to stopping the run, but Sanders almost always put opposing offenses at a disadvantage from the very first snap: If he was covering your No. 1 receiver, you might as well not count on him making any plays down field. 

    And since Sanders was so dominant and so consistent in an era where receivers smashed through existing receptions and yardage records, his play was exceptionally worthy of a spot on this list. 

Cornerback: Mel Blount

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    Career: 1970-83

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers 

    Stats: 57 interceptions

    Achievements: five pro bowls, four-time All-Pro, four-time Super Bowl champion

    Runner-Up: Rod Woodson

    As I said in the previous slide, I wanted one corner who fit the "cover-only" mold and one who was far more complete. And, in relation to the latter, while his Steelers successor Rod Woodson has a claim to the title as well, Blount is a slightly better choice. 

    Like Lawrence Taylor he changed the idealized concept of the position, and like Alan Page he changed the way the referees called games. Blount was so physical at the line of scrimmage that the "five-yard chuck rule" had to be implemented so that wide receivers could actually get off the line of scrimmage. 

    Via completely different means than Deion Sanders, he, too, practically negated the presence of one of his opponent's top receivers—and that's ultimately the chief responsibility of a cornerback. 

Left Tackle: Anthony Muñoz

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    Career: 1980-92

    Teams: Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Achievements: 11 pro bowls, nine-time All Pro

    Runner-Up: Art Shell

    And, over to the offense.

    After quarterback, the offensive position that teams look to build around is blindside tackle. And there are numerous players who lived up to those lofty expectations: Art Shell, Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Tony Boselli. 

    But Muñoz should be considered the greatest.

    He was arguably the most athletic lineman of all time, possessing incomparable footwork and strength despite a frame (not even 280 pounds) that didn't necessarily overwhelm opposing pass rushers. 

    And while those Bengals offenses of the 1980s never produced a championship (they did come close twice), they were among the most balanced in the NFL. Under both Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason they had excellent passing games, and with James Brooks, Ickey Woods and Pete Johnson, their rushing attack was top notch.

    Muñoz's presence was the key to both. 

Left Guard: Gene Upshaw

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    Career: 1967-81

    Teams: Oakland Raiders

    Achievements: six pro bowls, three-time All Pro

    Runner-Up: Randall McDaniel

    There's little debate as to who the best guard-tackle combination in NFL history was: The Raiders duo of Gene Upshaw and Art Shell blows all contenders away for that honor. 

    But that does leave some question about whether Shell benefited more from Upshaw's presence or vice-versa.

    That's probably a debate for another time, but I will say this: Upshaw played inside and had to deal with the likes of truly incredible defensive tackles like Mean Joe Greene, Buck Buchanan, and in Super Bowl XI, Alan Page, more often than Shell. So there's a case to be made that Upshaw had it a bit harder than the teammate to his left. So we'll give him extra credit for that.

    And since he didn't miss a start for the first 14-plus years of his career, he was not only dominant, he was reliable, a critical part of being a great offensive lineman. 

Center: Mike Webster

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    Career: 1974-90

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs

    Achievements: nine pro bowls, nine-time All Pro, four Super Bowl championships

    Runner-Up: Chuck Bednarik

    At least six (Ham, Lambert, Greene, Polamalu, Woodson, Blount) Steelers defenders are worthy of a spot—or at least genuine consideration—on this list, but really only one offensive player is. 

    Sure, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth are in Canton—Dermontti Dawson will join them in August, and Hines Ward will someday down the line as well—but Webster is the only one who was truly peerless in terms of his position.

    Although he lacked many of the physical tools teams looked for in an offensive lineman, Webster's grit and determination, as well as exquisite technique, enabled him to become a starter for the second-half of the Steelers dynasty and continue on through virtually the rest of the next decade.

    And, much like Gene Upshaw, the level of competition that Webbie had to routinely play against (Jerry Sherk, Curley Culp, Bobv Baumhower, Joe Klecko—as well as Randy White in Super Bowl XIII), clinches his place on this list.  And that doesn't even count the fact that he had to face Joe Greene everyday in practice. 

Right Guard: John Hannah

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    Career: 1973-85

    Teams: New England Patriots

    Achievements: nine pro bowls, ten-time All Pro

    Runner-Up: Larry Allen

    Hannah wasn't just the best right guard of all time, he was the greatest guard, period, and maybe even the greatest offensive lineman ever to play the game. 

    Despite being somewhat tucked away in New England, back when the Pats weren't on national television each week, Hannah went to the pro bowl almost every year of his career. 

    Few lineman could drive block with his consistency and show as much agility and discipline in pass protection. And as if that weren't enough, his ability to pull and get out on the edge—whether it was on a trap, counter, toss or screen—was unmatched. 

Right Tackle: Dan Dierdorf

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    Career: 1971-83

    Teams: St. Louis Cardinals

    Achievements: six pro bowls, five-time All Pro

    Runner-Up: Jackie Slater

    It's fitting that Hannah would be joined by Dierdorf on the right side of this list: Both were Hall of Famers from elite college programs, but both also played on teams that were greatly overlooked by the Cowboys, Raiders, Steelers, Dolphins and Vikings of the 1970s. It's hard enough to get noticed as an offensive lineman, but it's even harder when few people care about the team you play for. 

    Nevertheless, Dierdorf dominated defensive ends in the NFC East for over a decade and did an equally outstanding job of protecting Jim Hart's front side and opening up holes for Jim Otis and O.J. Anderson to become pro bowlers. 

Tight End: John Mackey

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    Career: 1963-72

    Teams: Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers

    Stats: 331 catches, 5,236 yards, 38 TDs

    Achievements: five pro bowls, three-time All Pro, one Super Bowl

    Runner-Up: Antonio Gates

    Tough call here for several reasons. 

    Firstly, there are certainly modern-day players with much better stats than John Mackey: Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez come to mind. 

    Secondly, Mackey's contemporary, Mike Ditka, was nearly as highly acclaimed and did nearly as much to reshape the position as Mackey.

    Thirdly, players like Kellen Winslow (the original Kellen Winslow) were far more dangerous in terms of taking over a game from start to finish, essentially being wide receivers at the tight end position.

    But Mackey just had a knack for big plays, whether it was his epic catch-and-run against Detroit, or his wacky touchdown in Super Bowl V, or the fact that he twice averaged over 20 yards per reception for a single season, including his rookie season in 1963. Couple that ability with the fact that he more than pulled his weight as a blocker (unlike many other pass-catching tight ends) and he was the most complete tight end of all time.  

Wide Receiver: Jerry Rice

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    Career: 1985-2004

    Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks

    Stats: 1,549 catches, 22,895 yards, 197 TDs

    Achievements: 13 pro bowls, twelve-time All Pro, three Super Bowls

    Runner-Up: Steve Largent

    I would hope that I could leave this slide completely blank: no explanation, no mention of stats, not even a mention of what teams he played for or the years he was in the NFL. But as a mere formality, I'll say this: You could split Rice's total stats in half and you'd still have numbers that were Hall of Fame worthy.

    That should say it all. And if it doesn't, remember this: Rice played in four Super Bowls. He caught 33 passes for eight touchdowns. 

    Since all the words listed above are already overkill, I'm going to turn my attention to the Runner-Up for this entry.

    Largent didn't have the size, the strength, or even the speed to be considered a starter by most teams, let alone a superstar. Yet he ran routes with unrivaled precision and had hands perhaps even better than Rice, Lynn Swann, or any other receiver ever to play the game. 

Wide Receiver: Lance Alworth

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    Career: 1962-72

    Teams: San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys

    Stats: 819 catches, 13,089 yards, 100 TDs

    Achievements: seven-time All AFL

    Runner-Up: Randy Moss

    While technically this list is for all-time NFL greats, I am going to make a well-justified exception in the case of Lance Alworth, who played most of his career for the AFL's San Diego Chargers. 

    In his time, Bambi was nearly as prolific as Jerry Rice and nearly as explosive as Randy Moss.

    Sure he played in the "wild" AFL, where the vertical passing game was a major draw, but no other AFL receiver at the time (and not really until the arrival of Rice in the 1980s) was as consistent or explosive.

    As I did with the previous slide, I think it's necessary to touch on the Runner-Up to this entry.

    Moss' flaws (admittedly taking off plays) are well-known and do greatly hurt his image as a wide receiver and a football player in general. But there's no denying what he was able to achieve when he actually tried.

    He was arguably even more explosive and even more dangerous down the field than Rice or Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald—or whomever else. That's ultimately what a wide receiver's greatest threat is. They can be silent for 59 minutes, but if they make that big-time grab in the final seconds, they've done their job. And that was/is Moss' legacy. 

Running Back: Jim Brown

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    Career: 1957-65

    Teams: Cleveland Browns

    Stats: 2,359 carries, 12,312 yards, 106 rushing TDs 

    Achievements: eight-time NFL rushing champion, one NFL championship

    Runner-Up: Emmitt Smith

    You hate to just look at stats when it comes to selecting a team like this. But Brown's raw numbers make it unnecessary to look at anything else. 

    He's the only man to average more than 100 yards per game for a career.

    He won the rushing title in eight of his nine seasons.

    He retired before he even turned 30 yet owned the career rushing mark for 20 years. 

    And if numbers don't do it for you, his unprecedented blend of speed, size and strength should. He ran with the power of a fullback yet the speed of a halfback, something perhaps no other player ever was able to do.

Running Back: Barry Sanders

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    Career: 1989-98

    Teams: Detroit Lions

    Stats: 3,062 carries, 15,269 yards, 99 rushing TDs

    Achievements: four-time NFL rushing champion

    Runner-Up: Walter Payton

    Earlier, I said that choosing between Ronnie Lott and Ed Reed was one of the most difficult decisions on this list. Well, in some ways that decision was easy—like choosing between Jerry Rice and Freddie Mitchell—compared to choosing the "second" running back spot. 

    Although they were completely different backs, both Walter Payton and Barry Sanders have a legitimate claim here. 

    And since Payton won a Super Bowl and carried the ball far more times (nearly 800 more attempts) he's probably just as deserving. 

    But given his size (or lack thereof) and the fact that he had such minimal help on offense (especially in terms of other skill players) Sanders has to narrowly edge out Sweetness.

    Sanders was mere decimal points shy of averaging 100 yards per game, a remarkable feat considering just how many times he was held to negative yardage because of his preference for pausing behind the line of scrimmage. 

    But because he was capable of running to daylight at any point in the game from any spot on the field no matter how small the crease was, he has to be considered (at least) the second greatest running back of all time. 

Quarterback: Joe Montana

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    Career: 1979-94

    Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs

    Stats: 40,551 yards passing, 63.2 completion percentage, 273 TDs, 139 INTs

    Achievements: four Super Bowl championships, three-time Super Bowl MVP

    Runner-Up: Johnny Unitas

    As fans and members of the media, we have such a strange way of measuring quarterback success in the NFL. At times, we only care about stats, and at other times we only care about championships. 

    Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls, but he'll probably never be in the Hall of Fame. Bart Starr won five NFL championships, but almost no one would say he's the greatest QB of all time. Why? Because their overall stats aren't very impressive. Even Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls, doesn't really get mentioned in the argument of greatest quarterback ever, because he didn't post mind-boggling numbers, throwing just two more TDs than INTs. 

    Yet Dan Fouts and Fran Tarkenton tore through the record books but few would give them the GOAT title either. 

    But if there is a player who somehow managed to straddle the line of remarkable stats and championship greatness, it's Joe Cool.

    He certainly had the regular season numbers, finishing his career with (since surpassed) the highest QB rating ever, winning two league MVPs, and throwing nearly twice as many TDs as INTs.

    Then, in the ideal quarterback model, he not only played up to those expectations in the postseason, he took it to the next level. Aside from a few bumps in the road (1985-87), he almost never made a mistake in the playoffs and in Super Bowls was virtually flawless, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.

    No quarterback was ever more clutch (1981 NFC Championship, Super Bowl XXIII) in the final moments of a big game than Montana, and that's the top line on the list of qualifications for the man behind center.