25 Influential Individuals Responsible for Making the NFL World's Greatest Sport

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIMay 16, 2012

25 Influential Individuals Responsible for Making the NFL World's Greatest Sport

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    Who would you consider to be the 25 most influential people responsible for making the National Football League the world's greatest team sport? Who shaped the game and had the most influence on how the game changed and evolved to what it is today?

    Try to come up with a list on your own, and see how many of your choices wound up matching what we came up with here.

    Last July, there was an article written by Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.com that listed the 50 most valuable sports teams. The NFL dominated the list. 

    Here is an excerpt from Badenhausen's article:

    The NFL has grown explosively over the past 25 years as TV revenue jumped 700 percent. The league’s 32 teams now divide $3.8 billion annually under the current round of broadcast deals, which expire after the 2013 season. With ratings at record levels, the next TV contracts are bound to be even more lucrative. Teams that were selling for $70 million in the mid-1980s are now worth $1 billion on average.

    The NFL has clearly evolved over the decades. With apologies to football fans for how many important names could not possibly be squeezed into this list of only 25, we did add an honorable mention page at the end of the presentation.

    Photo courtesy of NFL Films.com

25) Pete Gogolak

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    This picture includes Buffalo Bills coach Lou Saban, kicker Pete Gogolak, quarterback Jack Kemp and running back Wray Carlton. You are probably wondering why we are starting off our presentation with a kicker from the mid-1960's. Allow me to explain.

    Gogolak plays a key role in the NFL on two very different fronts.

    Gogolak was a soccer-style field goal kicker for the Bills on their AFL Championship teams in 1964 and 1965. Gogolak was considered to be the pioneer of the soccer-style approach to field goal kicking in the NFL. He proved that the soccer approach to kicking field goals could be more accurate, and his leg was stronger, allowing him to kick in Buffalo, dealing with the elements coming from Lake Erie.

    A wave of soccer-style kickers soon followed. All of those kickers that received huge deals during the 2012 offseason can send a debt of gratitude to Gogolak for paving the way.

    The second area of importance involved the issue of players jumping from the American Football League to the National Football League. For the time period in question, 1965-1966, there was a gentleman's agreement in place between owners of the AFL and NFL teams that they would not sign established players away from the other league.

    The New York Giants had a rookie kicker at the time, Bob Timberlake, who missed 13 consecutive field goal attempts. The Giants ignored the gentleman's agreement and made an offer to Gogolak that he subsequently accepted.

    From that point forward, the gloves were off and there would be an open war between the two leagues, as each league would attempt to convince players to jump from one league to the other. The best way to do that was to increase the amount of pay for the players, which was a very positive development for the NFL. The more money they made, the better the caliber of the athletes and players would be attracted to the game.

    Gogolak went on to kick for the Giants from 1966-1974. He was recently included in the New York Giants Ring of Honor in 2010.

    Now you know why we included Gogolak in this list.

    Photo courtesy of NFL.com

24) Junior Seau

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    Junior Seau graced the NFL for 20 seasons, playing for the San Diego Chargers from 1990-2002, the Miami Dolphins from 2003-2005 and the New England Patriots from 2006-2009. In total, Seau was voted to 12 Pro Bowl teams and 10 All-Pro teams. He is a member of the NFL 1990's All-Decade team.

    Seau committed suicide on May 2, 2012, by shooting himself in the chest. It has been widely speculated that Seau took his own life due to the physical impact the game of football had on his head and brain, from all the hits and concussions that he absorbed.

    While the level of Seau's play is unquestioned, and his ability to still perform into the 20th year of his career is an amazing accomplishment, the impact of his suicide and calling attention to concussions might wind up being the most meaningful impact of Seau's career and legacy.

    But, it might be the impact that Seau will leave on the NFL posthumously that makes the greatest impact. His sudden suicide took many people by surprise. To end one's life so soon after retiring from the NFL, Seau caused players to sit back and do some soul searching and taking a gut check.

    There was an immediate impact on one player. Case in point is guard Jacob Bell. Bell is only 31 years old. He had been a starter for most of his life, and signed a new deal to play for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2012 offseason. One month later, Bell announced his retirement from the NFL.

    What happened to him in that one-month time period to change his mind?

    According to this story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Seau's suicide weighed heavily on Bell. He told the Post-Dispatch that he would see stars a couple times per week while playing in the NFL, so you are talking about roughly 30 concussions per year. Bell decided to get out before it was too late.

23) Joe Montana

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    Joe Montana, legendary quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers (1979-1992) and the Kansas City Chiefs (1993-1994). Montana was an eight-time Pro Bowl player and voted to six All-Pro teams. He was a member of four Super Bowl championship teams (Super Bowls XVI, XIX, XXIII and XXIV). He was named Super Bowl MVP three times and NFL MVP twice.

    Other distinguishing highlights of Montana's career include being named to the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, a member of the NFL 1980's All-Decade Team, inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 and is ranked No. 4 on NFL.com's Top 100 Players of All Time.

    Montana engineered a number of stirring comeback wins over his career. He kept his cool under pressure and found a way to deliver when his team needed him to come through. Montana was at his best in Super Bowls. The bigger the stage, the better he played. He excelled when it came to dealing with pressure situations.

    From his entry in Wikipedia, in 1999 Montana was ranked by the editors at The Sporting News as third on their list of Football's 100 Greatest Players. Also in 1999, ESPN named Montana the 25th greatest athlete of the 20th century. In 2006, Sports Illustrated rated him the number one clutch quarterback of all-time.

22) O.J. Simpson

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    We realize that this is a controversial entry in a list like this, so if you would hear me out, I will break this down into two parts.

    First part: Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson was the first player to break the 2,000-yard barrier in the NFL. Not only did he set a new record in 1973 by rushing for 2,003 yards, but back then NFL seasons consisted of only 14 regular season games. Simpson wound up becoming the only running back in NFL history that was able to crack the 2,000-yard barrier in a 14-game season.

    He was named NFL Player of the Year in 1973, and played in six Pro Bowl games. He was the only player in NFL history to rush for over 200 yards in six different games in his career. Simpson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, his first year of eligibility.

    Simpson went on to become a national star of sorts, and was featured in a number of commercials. Most notably, the rental car spots for Hertz, where he ran and hurdled over obstacles running through airports.

    There were stints as a broadcaster on Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell and movie roles, where he appeared on a cast along with actors such as Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren and Martin Sheen.

    The time period from 1969-1992 is the time frame that I feel Simpson did a number of things that helped to advance the image of football players in a more positive way and not thought of as dumb jocks, and that is why he is included in this list.

    Second part: The subsequent trial for the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994, and the arrest for committing armed robbery in the attempt to steal back some of his memorabilia will forever tarnish Simpson's name.

    The amount of good that he did for the NFL, as we outlined above, is basically cancelled by all of the outrage and sadness he created by his malicious acts. Needless to say, Simpson is a controversial figure but he did play a key role in helping the development of football.

    Simpson's mental health has not been discussed very often, but in light of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson's suicides, is it conceivable that Simpson was suffering from his own mental demons that were created from years of violent collisions?

    Photo courtesy of News Sky.com

21) Bert Bell

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    The name Bert Bell may not mean much to many football fans around the country, but whenever you sit down to watch the NFL Draft, you can thank Bert Bell for creating it.

    Bell was a co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and he was struggling to put a good product on the field. According to his Wikipedia entry, in 1935, Bell proposed a draft be instituted to enhance the competitive parity on the field in order to ensure the financial viability of all franchises. His proposal was adopted unanimously, and the NFL Draft was born. 

    Bell's plan stopped players from joining only the most prestigious teams in the league, and gave the other teams a fighting chance to compete each year. The draft has changed over the years in regards to trimming some of the rounds and making tweaks like adding compensatory picks, but the draft is now what essentially Bert Bell envisioned that it should be.

    The NFL is much better off thanks to Bell's insight and creativity. Bell also served as NFL Commissioner from 1946-1959. Bell had been a partial owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers team, but had to sell his shares of the team to accept the commissioner role.

    Most football fans are aware of the AFL and NFL merger, but Bell was responsible for the real first merger of the NFL. That merger was between the NFL and the All-America Football Conference. He also dealt with a gambling scandal in 1946 and encouraged players to report whenever somebody approached them to attempt to bribe a player.

    Another little known accomplishment of Bell was that he created the NFL league schedules on his own, in addition to coming up with the revenue-sharing system that allowed teams from smaller markets to compete with teams from larger markets, who brought in much higher revenue streams.

    Bell was responsible for many positive developments that still are followed by the NFL today.

    Photo courtesy of Pro Football Hall of Fame.com

20) Howard Cosell

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    Love him or hate him, but Howard Cosell, the voice of Monday Night Football on ABC, was a key figure in bringing football into American homes during the working week in prime time. The game changed forever as a result of Monday Night Football.

    Cosell served on Monday Night Football from 1970-1983. It helped over the years that Cosell had assistance from other people in the booth with him like Frank Grifford, Don Meredith, O.J. Simpson and others. The cast of Monday Night Football continues to evolve over the years, but it was the style of Cosell that football fans had to deal with every Monday night, if you wanted to listen to the broadcast.

    Cosell could be overbearing at times to listen to, but he had a style that made him unique. He had a special relationship with Muhammad Ali and that also contributed to his mystique. I also recall the famous story that Cosell shared live with viewers in 1980 that John Lennon had just been shot in New York City.

    Prior to Cosell's arrival in the broadcasting booth, the conventional idea was that football broadcasters were there to build up the image of the players and to champion their cause. Cosell on the other hand was highly critical of players. A quote I liked from this New York Times.com article; "He entered sports broadcasting in the mid-1950s, when the predominant style was unabashed adulation, [and] offered a brassy counterpoint that was first ridiculed, then copied until it became the dominant note of sports broadcasting."

    This may seem hard to believe, but in 1996, TV Guide came out with a list of the 50 Greatest TV Stars of All-Time, and Cosell made the list at No. 47. He never played a down of football, but Cosell truly helped to develop the sport by making players be accountable for their actions and performance, especially in front of a national audience.

    Photo courtesy of Franklin Now.com

19) Dick Butkus

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    From the late 1950s up through present day, you will find a steady stream of intense linebackers that patrolled from sideline to sideline in the NFL, looking to separate the player from the ball, or his head, or both.

    I could pick any one of these players from this group for this slide, but this in tribute to the group of fierce linebackers from yesterday, such as: Ray Nitschke (1958-1972), Dick Butkus (1965-1973), Mike Curtis (1965-1978), Tommy Nobis (1966-1976), Jack Lambert (1974-1984), Mike Singletary (1981-1992) and Ray Lewis (1996-present).

    We selected Butkus for several reasons. We definitely like that he is a member of not just the NFL 1960's All-Decade Team, but the 1970's All-Decade Team as well. He is a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Butkus was elected to eight Pro Bowls and to eight All-Pro teams.

    He was very direct about what his purpose was on the field and he was not one to mince his words. He was there to take the guy's head off if he could, and if you stepped on the field, then you would find out sooner than later that he meant business.

    A 1970 Sports Illustrated cover called Butkus the "Most Feared Man in the Game". That is a very adequate way to describe Dick Butkus. It was due to the brutal collisions and violence of the game that turned so many NFL fans into becoming hooked on the sport for their lifetime.

    Photo courtesy of Pic Search.com

18) John Madden

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    From John Madden's on-air love affair with Brett Farve, to the bus trips he would take from one city to the next, to his infamous Turduckens on Thanksgiving, Madden is as lovable a football broadcaster as the sport has ever known. He was a broadcaster for a long time, from 1979-2008.

    Madden tried in his best eloquent manner to break the game of football down into a way that everybody could understand it. Many of his expressions had a certain Yogi Berra-like quality to them, and you would inevitably crack up at listening to his logic on the air.

    He brought a unique passion to his work, and it carried over into his broadcasts. The exposure from his network appearances led to a number of commercial gigs for Madden, and his personal branding continued to grow and gain momentum.

    Having the EA Sports video game named after you is quite an accomplishment. Kids that are more into video games than playing in sports no doubt have a better feel for the NFL, from the actual teams and specific players due to their involvement in playing the video game.

    Photo courtesy of Lesters Legends.com

17) Don "Air" Coryell

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    Don Coryell, the genius behind Air Coryell, was clearly an important person in the development of the National Football League.

    Coach Coryell had winning teams with San Diego State and the St. Louis Cardinals, but it wasn't until he took over the San Diego Chargers that he was able to put his personal stamp on the game of football.

    He was the Chargers head coach from 1978-1986. During that time, Coryell put together a dynamic passing attack that featured Dan Fouts at quarterback, Kellen Winslow at tight end and wide receivers such as Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler and John Jefferson. This combination of skilled players was referred to Air Coryell.

    Air Coryell led the NFL in passing yards for a NFL record six consecutive years from 1978-1983. Nobody could stop them. They had a momentary drop in 1984, and then came back again to lead the NFL in 1985. The Chargers offense led the NFL in total yards on offense from 1980-1983 and in 1985.

    Coryell developed an offense that had so many weapons that you could not stop them all. Pick your poison another words. From this group of players, Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow were all inducted in the NFL Hall of Fame.

    Sadly, Coryell is not yet inducted into the Hall of Fame. He passed on July 1, 2010 at the age of 85, so hopefully the NFL Hall of Fame will enshrine him so that his family can accept on his behalf. He did so much to help develop the passing game that NFL fans love to see.

16) Bill Belicheck

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    New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has proven over the years that he is as creative and genius a mind as there is in the game of football.

    From serving as head coach, to defensive coordinator, to general manager, to master of draft day trades, there really is not anything that Belichick cannot do. He has worn a number of hats over the years, paid his dues and has seen his amount of power grow with the New England Patriots organization. The long winning streaks, domination of the AFC East and annual threats in the postseason are just some of the things that allow Belichick to be considered one of the people that make the NFL so great. 

    Consider that from 2001-2011, Belichick guided the Patriots to win five AFC Championships and three Super Bowls. He has not had a single losing season since 2001. He has been honored as AP NFL Coach of the Year three times (2003, 2007 and 2010). He trails only Andy Reid for being the longest tenured head coach in the NFL.

    One of the things that is unique about Belichick is that he will take an athlete and use him in multiple ways. From utilizing linebacker Mike Vrabel as a receiver in the red zone or putting wide receiver Julian Edelman in at cornerback, Belichick is not afraid to think outside of the box. His use of the dual tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski has proven to be almost impossible for NFL defenses to contain.

    Belichick's detractors will want to point to Spygate and I understand that will be a stain on his legacy. But is just a very small stain compared to the lengthy winning streak and ability to find a way to stay ahead of his fellow coaches. For being creative, and knowing how to shape and mold a football team, Belichick deserves to be on this list.

15) Don Shula

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    Don Shula served as head coach of the Miami Dolphins from 1970-1995 and the Baltimore Colts from 1963-1969. He also had a stint as the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions from 1960-1962, before he became a head coach.

    Shula retired after the 1995 season, having coached in 490 games. He compiled a winning percentage of .678 and had a record of 328-156-6.

    His 328 regular season wins are the most victories of any head coach in NFL history. He also has the most Super Bowl appearances as a head coach with six to his credit. He was voted as the NFL Coach of the Year four different times, and is a member of the NFL 1970's All-Decade team.

    Shula led his team to two Super Bowl wins, in Super Bowls VII and VIII. His Miami teams won five AFC Championships in 1971, 1972, 1973, 1982 and 1984. His Baltimore Colts team won the 1968 NFL Championship game.

    From John Unitas to Dan Marino, Shula had the chance to work with some legendary quarterbacks and players. He found a way to continue to reach his players and motivate them, even though he had already turned 65 years old when he retired.

    The ability to coach one team for 26 straight years is an amazing achievement. That is a tribute to Shula in the way that he worked with his players, and learned how to make adjustments so that he could relate to the different eras of players he coached during his tenure and still be effective with them.

    We have to also pay homage to Shula for his great 1972 season, when the Dolphins swept the regular season by going 14-0, and winning all three playoff games, including the Super Bowl and finishing up with an overall record of 17-0. No other NFL team has been able to match their feat.

14) the Rooney Family

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    The owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Rooney family, have consisted over the years from original founder Art Rooney Sr. to his son Dan Rooney. The Rooney family has continued to operate the Steelers as one of the best run professional sports organizations for any team sport you want to examine.

    Art Rooney Sr. turned the team over to his son Dan Rooney after the 1974 season. Art Sr. stayed on as Chairman of the Board until he passed away in 1988 at the age of 87.

    Both Rooneys, Art Sr. and Dan, have been elected to the NFL Hall of Fame. Dan Rooney doubles as the US Ambassador to Ireland.

    One of the biggest key contributions that the Rooney family is credited with, is the creation of the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach or general manager opening around the league. This has been a tremendous development for the game, since such a high percentage of the players are minorities.

    Another illustration of how well the Steelers are run can be witnessed by the longevity afforded their head coaches. Since 1969, the Steelers have only needed to hire three head coaches; Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. That is a great boost for your head coach to know that ownership has your back and won't fire you the first time you have a bad season.

    From the Wikipedia entry on Art Rooney Sr., we find this little gem that is referred to as "Art Rooney's North Side Golden Rule". It goes like this:

    Art Rooney's North Side Golden Rule

    My father always used to tell us boys, "Treat everybody the way you'd like to be treated. Give them the benefit of the doubt. But never let anyone mistake kindness for weakness." He took the Golden Rule and put a little bit of the North Side in it.

    — Art Rooney, Jr. on his father

13) Ed and Steve Sabol: NFL Films

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    Thanks to Ed Sabol, creator of NFL Films, the game of football was transformed into film masterpieces that made the game bigger than life. From the great sweeping musical scores to the dulcet tones of John Facenda, NFL Films are able to package and present the NFL in a way that had never been done before.

    With all of the innovative technology that Ed and Steve Sabol came up, they allowed fans to get a closer look at the game of football. Players were miked and the resulting audio feed revealed some amazing banter, some unbelievable smack, and the ability to hear one crushing bone-crunching hit after another.

    While your favorite team might have had a miserable year and be many players away from being a contender, NFL Films had a way of packaging the best plays or games from a season and show your team in an entirely new light to the point that you started thinking that your favorite team was not so bad after all.

    NFL Films creator Ed Sabol was recently elected into the NFL Hall of Fame with the class of 2011.

12) NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

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    NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to be considered the most powerful man in sports right now.

    Of the various things that Goodell is responsible for that has made the NFL even better, he has gone out of his way to address NFL player safety, from sweeping rule changes of how players are tackled, to ordering studies on the impacts of concussions, and changing other rules that could cut down on potential concussions, like those suffered by special teams players on kickoffs.

    He has pushed for drug testing and keeping players off of steroids and from dependency on drugs. Goodell also created the NFL Personal Conduct Policy rules, that holds players accountable for their actions on a 24/7 basis, both on the field and off-the-field. 

    Helping to bring about a win-win in the NFL's labor negotiations and collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, will be viewed as another major coup for the commissioner.

    Allowing every NFL team to have at least one game on prime time per season is another way that Goodell has made the game even more popular.

    Goodell had worked extensively with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue since the latter became commissioner in 1989. He has played an extensive role in league expansion, realignment, and stadium development, including the launch of the NFL Network and securing new television agreements.

    Clearly, there are a number of tougher issues he has needed to address, from Spygate to the New Orleans Saints bounty-hunting under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Through it all, Goodell is not afraid to fine his bosses (the NFL owners) if he feels that is the right thing to do. Stripping the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys of millions of dollars in 2012 salary cap is just one more example of the power he holds, and demonstrates that he plays favorite to nobody.

    To be sure, the commissioner's job is not an easy one. As the years advance, the issues seem to be bigger, and the pressure more intense. But Goodell remains un-wavered, acting in a manner that he does whatever he thinks is best for the game.

11) Pete Rozelle

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    Former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle ran the league from 1960-1989. Twenty-nine years as the top dog in the NFL placed Rozelle as the key person in overseeing the dynamic growth of football during the three decades in question.

    Consider that when Rozelle assumed the role of NFL Commissioner in 1960, the NFL consisted of a 12-team league, that played a 12-game schedule, and most teams had less than 50 percent of their stadiums filled for home games. Just a few of the 12 teams had a television contract in place. Think of how all of that has changed so drastically is the 50-plus years up to today. Unbelievable.

    It was under the watch of Rozelle that the merger between the AFL and NFL was completed. Rozelle came up with the Super Bowl and assisted in pushing for Monday Night Football to be created.

    Commissioner Rozelle negotiated large television contracts to broadcast every NFL game. He allowed the networks to bid against each other, helping to make the team owners richer in the process. He also encouraged the owners to participate in revenue sharing, just like the AFL was doing.

    Rozelle had issues with Al Davis, first as the AFL Commissioner, and later as the owner of the Oakland Raiders, who sued the NFL and won. But, the NFL generally grew by leaps and bounds under Rozelle, not just getting richer from network contract negotiations, but by further expansion to a total of 28 teams.

    Photo courtesy of NFL Hall of Fame.com

10) Joe Namath

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    How much of a factor was Joe Namath in the NFL merging with the AFL? From a national perspective, the AFL was still considered to be a joke, and the NFL Championship teams never really considered the AFL Championship teams to be any kind of a threat to beat them in the Super Bowl contest. That all changed when Joe Namath guaranteed that his New York Jets would defeat the Baltimore Colts in the Third AFL-NFL World Championship Game, (which is also referred to as Super Bowl III). 

    Namath was able to back up his claim, as the Jets outplayed the Colts, easily defeating them 16-7. From that point on, the AFL no longer had to feel inferior to the NFL, and the national perception clearly changed for the better.

    The leagues eventually merged and helped to bring the NFL to more cities, creating new rivalries and new stars for the country to follow.

    As for Namath, his overall career numbers are far from spectacular. He lost more starts than he won (68 wins and 71 losses), and he threw more interceptions than he did touchdowns (173 touchdowns compared to 220 interceptions).

    But he was still Broadway Joe, and due to his swagger and confidence, the NFL would be changed for the better thanks to his guarantee and play. Namath was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1985.

    With respect to our topic of making the game better, there are some other issues with Namath worth raising. For example, Namath was the first and only NFL quarterback that was able to top 4,000 yards in passing in a 14-game NFL schedule. That was when Namath still had good knees and was mobile enough to fully utilize his quick release. In this Pro Football Reference article, Bill Walsh said of Namath; "he has the most beautiful, accurate and stylish passer with the quickest release I've ever seen".

    Another little known compliment regarding Namath comes from legendary coach Don Shula, who referred to Namath as one of the three smartest quarterbacks of all-time.

    Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated Kids.com

9) Paul Tagliabue

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    Paul Tagliabue, former NFL Commissioner, is our highest ranked NFL Commissioner on this list. Deservedly so, as Tagliabue was able to keep the NFL in harmony during his tenure from 1989-2006.

    Just a few of the highlights of Tagliabue during his tenure as NFL Commissioner include: the elimination of any unrest between the NFL and the labor union. Creating the salary cap for the NFL and raising the importance level of revenue sharing between the haves and the have-nots.  Tagliabue pushed for youth programs to promote the game of football, to keep the game going for generations to come.

    Tagliabue stripped the state of Arizona from hosting a Super Bowl after the state rejected creating a holiday for Martin Luther King Day.

    In addition, he helped NFL teams build 17 new stadiums during his tenure. He was skilled at bridging the gaps and working with all sides of the equation to bring in a resolution that led to the necessary funding. To say that he was a skilled negotiator is an understatement.

    Tagliabue took a hard-line stance against drugs and created the strictest substance abuse policy of any of the major team sports.

8) Jim Brown

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    Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown played for the Cleveland Browns from 1957-1965. By the time that Jim Brown retired from football, he still had the ability to walk and lead a full life outside of football. Many people were surprised that he walked away when he did, still in his athletic prime.

    But consider that when Brown did retire, he was already the NFL all-time leader in rushing yards for a single season (1,863) and for a career (12,312), as well as for rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126) and all-purpose yards (15,549). When you consider what Brown accomplished, it is even more amazing when you realize that he played his first-four seasons with just a 12-game season, and then they were increased to 14-game seasons for his final five years of the career.

    He is a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, as well as a member of the NFL 1960's All-Decade Team. He played in the NFL for nine years, and was elected to the Pro Bowl every year. He was elected to the All-Pro team every year. He was the NFL rushing champion for eight of his nine years, which is still an NFL record. He was the NFL MVP three different times.

    NFL.com ranked Brown as the No. 2 overall player of all time in their 2009 presentation. Other sources such as the Sporting News, called Brown the greatest professional football player ever in 2002.  Brown is the only rusher in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game for a career.

    Whenever you watched Brown play, he would get up from a pile really slowly and would then lumber or stroll back to the huddle. You weren't sure how badly he was hurting during the course of a game, because his walk or expression never changed. But when John Mackey was asked about Brown, he came back with this quote: "Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts." Jim Brown lived by that philosophy and I always followed that advice.

    Brown ran with power, balance, patience and stamina. He had the ability to make many defenders miss, and his strength to break tackles and stay on his feet when you thought he was going to go down were some of the traits that I recalled from watching him play as a kid.

    Everybody knew each week that the Browns were going to feed the ball to Jim Brown, but defenses just could not stop him. He was that good.

    Photo courtesy of Pro Football Hall of Fame.com

7) Brett Favre

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    Brett Favre probably did not go out of the NFL the way he envisioned. He would have preferred a John Elway type of exit, going out on top, but it was not meant to be.

    Favre played up until he was 41 years old, proving that quarterbacks can continue to play and be effective much longer than was the norm. Playing for as many years as he did, Favre was able to bridge generations of families as football fans, which not many players can say that they did during a single career.

    His career allowed Favre to be with four different teams, Atlanta Falcons (1991), Green Bay Packers (1992-2007), New York Jets (2008) and the Minnesota Vikings (2009-2010). When his career finally ended, Favre wound up being named to 11 Pro Bowl teams, and six All-Pro teams. He was named the AP NFL MVP for three straight years from 1995, 1996 to 1997.

    Favre won one Super Bowl during his career (Super Bowl XXXI) and is a member of the NFL 1990's All-Decade Team.

    What most NFL fans will remember about Favre is his resiliency to learn to play with pain and bounce back to keep playing. He was as tough a quarterback as the game has ever known. Favre also played with a boyish enthusiasm that endeared him to many fans. His ability to grin and bear it through pain can be summed up by his NFL record consecutive game streak of 297 games.

    Many fans will recall the Favre performance on Monday Night Football in 2003 when he decided to suit up and play the day after his dad passed away. They beat the Oakland Raiders 41-7 and Favre wound up with the highest passer rating of his entire NFL career.

    There are record books, and then there is the Brett Favre list of records. It is far too long and comprehensive to even begin trying to list, so if you want to view this at your leisure, here is the link.

6) Bill Walsh

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    Bill Walsh, legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers is another influential person on the NFL. Walsh served the 49ers as head coach from 1979-1988, and then later returned to the team as VP and General Manager from 1999-2001 and then consulted to the team from 2002-2004.

    Walsh is credited with creating the West Coast offense, which he worked on from 1968-1975 as an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals under Paul Brown. It wasn't until later on with the 49ers and working with quarterback Joe Montana that the West Coast offense started to flourish.

    His teams excelled in postseason play, as they went 10-4 during his tenure with the team. Walsh led the 49ers to six division titles, three NFC Championships, and three Super Bowl victories (Super Bowls XVI, XIX and XXIII). He was twice named NFL Coach of the Year and was elected to the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Walsh is a member of the NFL 1980's All-Decade Team.

    As for success in regular season games, Walsh had a .609 winning percentage, going 92-59 in his 152 games. He would have coached in more games in the NFL, but it turns out that Paul Brown was sabotaging his NFL coaching career by calling around the league to convince teams not to hire him. Thankfully, the 49ers were not paying attention to Brown.

5) Jerry Rice

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    Jerry Rice is simply known as the greatest wide receiver to have ever played in the NFL. Period. Depending on who you talk to, Rice is considered to be the best player that ever played the game, regardless of position.

    An example of that kind of respect was demonstrated by the NFL Network. They aired a presentation on November 4, 2010, of The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players in NFL history. Rice was selected as the No. 1 greatest player of all-time.

    What made Rice so great? He was durable. He ran great routes. He was able to break tackles and pick up significant yards after the catch. Rice kept himself in great shape and that allowed him to stay strong throughout the long and grueling seasons. It also allowed him to play in the NFL for 20 years.

    Rice played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1985-2000, the Oakland Raiders from 2001-2004 and for the Seattle Seahawks in 2004. During those 20 years, Rice was named to 13 Pro Bowl teams and 12 All-Pro teams. He was a member of three Super Bowl teams (Super Bowls XXIII, XXIV and XXIX). He was also Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl XXIII.

    He was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame in 2010. He is a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and is also a member of both the NFL 1980's All-Decade Team and the 1990's All-Decade Team.

    Rice holds many NFL records, but the most significant ones are that he has the most career receptions in NFL history (1,549) and his 22,895 receiving yards are the most in NFL history. He also holds the record of catching 197 touchdown receptions, again the most in history of the league. He has scored a total of 208 overall touchdowns, which is more than anyone in the history of the game.

    For anyone that ever desired to be a wide receiver in the NFL, all you had to do was watch Jerry Rice perform. Study the routes that he ran, watch the way that he demonstrated his work ethic in practice and in the offseason, and you would be off to a good start.

4) Paul Brown

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    According to his Wikipedia entry, Paul Brown is "a major figure in the development of the National Football League. A seminal figure in the game's history, Brown is considered the "father of the modern offense", and one of the greatest football coaches of all time".

    Brown coached the Cleveland Browns from 1946-1962 and the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968-1975.

    Some of innovations that Brown was responsible for were covered in great detail by Bleacher Report correspondent Christopher Maher. Here is the list of Brown's innovations that Maher sighted:

    • Brown was the first to integrate professional football, prior to Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson integrating baseball.

    In 1946, Brown put fullback Marion Motley and defensive lineman Bill Willis on his squad, and both have busts in the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

    • Brown was the first coach to have his players wear facemasks.

    • Brown was the first to have his players undergo classroom instruction on the professional level.

    • Brown was also the first professional football head coach to use film study.

    • What we now know as the "practice squad" in the NFL was begun by Brown and McBride, who owned a cab company, as the "taxi squad."

    Players who did not make the final roster cut, but might be able to fill in in the case of injury, drove cabs for McBride. Generations later, Clevelanders still call the practice squad the "taxi squad."

    • And finally, the commonplace radio helmet for quarterbacks was experimented with by Brown in the preseason of 1956.

    Brown is also credited with founding both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals franchises, with the former named after him and the latter naming their stadium in his honor.

    Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com

3) Al Davis

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    Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis played a huge role in the history and development of the NFL. 

    From his time serving the AFL as both an owner and commissioner of the league, Davis was instrumental in creating the merger between the two leagues.

    Davis successfully sued the NFL and won in court. He moved his Raiders franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles and then back again to Oakland.

    Davis put an emphasis on speed and built his teams around fast players. The anthem of "Just Win Baby" and "Commitment to Excellence" were synonymous with the Raiders teams from 1965-1985, as the Raiders only had one losing season during that 21-year stretch.

    One of the characteristics that Davis was known for was his desire to be a winner. That propelled him to utilize speed in helping to create the vertical game, which is something the Raiders teams were known for.

    The American Football League named Davis as their commissioner in 1966. Davis felt that the league could succeed on their own, due to the revenue sharing plan that the league had in place. Davis went out and started signing NFL players to new deals. This helped to force the NFL and AFL to merge, even though Davis himself was against the deal. He thought the AFL was superior to the NFL.

    In protest, Davis resigned as commissioner rather than remain as commissioner until the end of the AFL in 1970.

    Davis operated as both owner and general manager of the Raiders. Other owners that held the dual role were Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys.  Davis was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1992.

    Davis passed away in 2011. The Raiders have since split up duties, naming a new general manager and a new coach for the 2012 season.

    Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com

2) Vince Lombardi

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    Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers is clearly an important figure in the history and development of the NFL. Lombardi served the Green Bay Packers as head coach from 1959-1967 and then one more year as their general manager in 1968. Lombardi also coached the Washington Redskins for one year (1969) before he retired from football.

    The Packers were a dynasty under Lombardi, winning three straight NFL titles and five times during a seven-year stretch during the 1960s. The Packers won both Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II under Lombardi.

    Lombardi never had a losing season in the NFL, which is born out by a winning percentage of 73.8 percent in the regular season, and 90 percent during the postseason. He found a way to motivate his team and was very detail oriented in his coaching approach.

    Whenever you see him on film going over plays on the chalkboard, you could see how fine the details were in his coaching style. He expected his players to execute their jobs, and he demanded that they carry out their duties.The legendary Packers sweeps were a staple of Lombardi's offensive attack.

    Lombardi's coaching excellence is duly noted due to the Super Bowl trophy being re-named as the Lombardi Trophy. Lombardi was enshrined at the NFL Hall of Fame class of 1971, which was one year after he passed away at the age of 57. 

    He was named the AP Coach of the Year in 1959 and led his Packers to NFL titles in 1956, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967.

    Photo courtesy of NFL Hall of Fame.com

1) George "Papa Bear" Halas

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    In Chicago, they refer to George "Papa Bear" Halas as Mr. Everything. That is because Halas literally did everything you could conceivably do for the Bears organization. He was a player, a coach, and an owner of the team. He sold tickets. He played on offense as a wide receiver, and then played defensive end on defense. Did we mention that while he played both ways, he also coached the team as well? He literally did it all, including selling tickets before the games started.

    Halas coached the Bears from 1933-1942, from 1946-1955 and then again from 1958-1967. He also served as the Bears owner from 1920-1983.  Halas led the Bears to six NFL Championships, in 1921, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1946 and 1963. He was voted AP NFL Coach of the Year in 1963 and 1965. Halas is a member of the NFL 1920's All-Decade Team.

    Papa Bear led the Bears to 324 wins in his coaching career, and his regular season overall record was 318-148-31. He complied a winning percentage of .682. Halas was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. 

    Halas also had some recruiting skills, when he convinced Red Grange to join the Bears team. That was a significant event, because it allowed the Bears team to gain greater credibility and respect. Another key development for Halas was creating the T-formation along with Clark Shaughnessy. Sticking with the T-formation, the Bears routed the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship game 73-0. That was when the NFL became a copycat league, as everybody tried to adopt the T-formation.

    It was not very easy to copy however, as you needed specific skills to complete the necessary spins, fakes and turns that were required to run the offense effectively.

    In 40 years as a coach, Halas only had six losing seasons. Halas was 88 years old when he passed away on Halloween of 1983.

    Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Post.com

Honorable Mention

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    The problem with creating a list of the 25 most influential people responsible for making the National Football League the world's greatest team sport is deciding which people to leave off of the list.

    There are probably at least 50 names I could think of to include in this list, but for whatever reasons, I decided not to include them. Here is a quick list of 25 players that I could have easily made a case for that could have been added to this group.

    Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Bill Cowher, Bart Starr, Jimmy Johnson, Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach,  Jerry Jones, Emmitt Smith, Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders, "Mean Joe" Greene, Michael Irvin, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, Ronnie Lott, Walter Payton, George Allen, Otto Graham, Norm Van Brocklin, Jim Thorpe, Tom Landry, Randy Moss and John Elway are people that I would have really liked to include, but then I would have to delete somebody from the group of 25 people that I selected.

    No sooner did I type those names, then new names started popping up. How about a case for Ralph Wilson, Lamar Hunt, Sid Gillman, Dick LeBeau, Dick "Night Train" Lane, Gene Upshaw, DeMaurice Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith, Red Grange, Ernie Nevers, Chuck Noll, Fran Tarkenton, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, John Mackey, George Blanda, Joseph Carr, Thurman Thomas, and.... I could keep going on and on. The point is that there are just too many important figures involved in the NFL history to limit the group to just 25 names. If you disagree with my choices, so be it.

    If you would like to leave a comment regarding somebody that you would like to make a case for inclusion that I omitted, feel free. Thanks for checking out the presentation.

    Photo courtesy of Fan IQ.com