More Than Ten Top Non-Quarterback Offensive Players - The Part of Tens - Football For Dummies (2015)

Football For Dummies (2015)

Part VI

The Part of Tens

Chapter 20

More Than Ten Top Non-Quarterback Offensive Players

In This Chapter

arrow Runners who combined power with speed and fancy moves

arrow Huge men who dominated defenses, opening up the passing game

arrow Receivers who could play in any era and who blocked, too

With a few exceptions, this chapter’s main criterion was choosing talented offensive players who were also great champions. And because the NFL has become such a passing league, I decided to list the greatest quarterbacks separately (in Chapter 21).

One player who could have made this list but didn’t is Bo Jackson, the most gifted physical specimen I ever played with. Bo won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn University as a running back. In the pros, he was a two-sport star, playing football with the Los Angeles Raiders and baseball with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and California Angels. A severe hip injury suffered in a football game ended his career prematurely. What a shame — he had the most incredible, natural, raw physical talent I’ve ever seen. I left Bo off this list only because his career was cut too short.

Choosing players for all-time teams is extremely difficult. I ended up with 13 players in this chapter. I just couldn’t help myself.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown was light-years ahead of his time. He also played in an age (1957 to 1965) when the running game was a big part of the offense. Still, with every team geared to stop him, none of their efforts seemed to work. Brown was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 232 pounds — 10 to 20 pounds heavier than most running backs today and huge for a player in his day. In nine pro seasons, Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times and totaled 12,312 yards, 106 rushing touchdowns, and 756 points. He was Rookie of the Year in 1957 and MVP three times, in 1957, 1958, and 1965.

What’s even more amazing about Jim Brown is the fact that he retired from football at age 30. He decided to become an actor and retired during the shooting of probably his most memorable movie, The Dirty Dozen. Had he continued to play, Brown might still hold every rushing record, may have gained 20,000 yards, and may have scored 150 touchdowns. To this day, every great runner — from Barry Sanders to Emmitt Smith to Adrian Peterson — is judged by his standards.

Brown, a splendid all-around athlete, dominated his era with a rare combination of power, speed, and size. For such a huge man, his waist was only 32 inches around. He was durable, and his head coach, Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns, never shied away from using him. At Syracuse University, he lettered in basketball and was an All-American in lacrosse as well as football. He competed in track for one year and finished fifth in the national decathlon championship.

When fans rank their top five players of all-time, Brown should be on everyone’s list. Two statistics set him apart: He never missed a game in nine seasons, and his 5.22 yards-per-carry average remains number one.

Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell ran like an out-of-control bulldozer, but he had Ferrari speed after he broke into the open. Campbell was 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighed 233 pounds, and people said that his thighs were as big as tree trunks. If he couldn’t run around you, he simply ran over you. A Texas native, he was given the gentle label “The Tyler Rose,” although he simply wreaked havoc on defenses. He won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Texas in 1977 and was an instant superstar when he joined the Houston Oilers the following season.

In his first pro season, Campbell won the rushing title, was named Rookie of the Year, and was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. The highlight of his rookie season was a Monday night game against the Miami Dolphins in the Astrodome. Campbell rushed for 199 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Oilers (a franchise that has since moved to Tennessee and changed its name to the Titans) to a 35-30 victory.

Campbell was a repeat winner of the MVP award in 1979, but his best season was in 1980, when he rushed for 1,934 yards — at the time the second-best single-season mark ever, behind only O.J. Simpson. Campbell made my list because although he was a punishing runner, he missed only 6 games out of 121 due to injuries.

Dave Casper

I picked Dave Casper as my tight end because he started his college career at Notre Dame as an offensive tackle. Right off, playing that position at that school means that he was a tough, physical player. In 1972, when Casper switched to tight end in his junior season, he instantly became the best blocking tight end in college football. The only way defenders could stop him was to hold him when he tried to run a pass route. He was simply too big (6 feet 4 inches, 240 pounds), strong, and fast for the average college player.

For such a physical player, Casper had soft hands — an attribute associated with wide receivers and running backs. Most big, tough guys, which Casper was, have hands of stone. He was a very reliable underneath receiver when he joined the Oakland Raiders in 1974. Had Casper played in today’s wide-open offenses, he probably would have caught 80 passes a season. In his only Super Bowl appearance, Casper caught four passes, including one for a touchdown. No tight end was more complete than Casper; he could block anyone and also find a crease, that tiniest of open spaces, in any defensive secondary. He was very smart. When I think of the term wily veteran, I think of Casper.

Mike Ditka and John Mackey

Among all the tight ends ever to play, Mike Ditka and John Mackey went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one-two. Fans’ first impression of Iron Mike Ditka was his toughness, but he, like Mackey, had exceptional hands. Mackey was faster and more of a breakaway threat than Ditka, but both were head and shoulders above every tight end over a 20-year period. They were powerful blockers and ultimate tough guys. Ditka didn’t miss a start for the Chicago Bears in his first 84 games, while Mackey missed only one game in his nine seasons with the Baltimore Colts and one with the San Diego Chargers.

Ditka burst onto the pro scene with 56 catches for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in his rookie season — staggering numbers for a tight end. He was a tremendous two-way player at the University of Pittsburgh, plus he was the regular punter. Ditka caught 75 passes in 1964, a season-high record for tight ends that stood until 1980 and the era of 16 games. Together, these two players caught 758 passes for 11,048 yards and scored 81 touchdowns. Mackey averaged 15.8 yards per catch during his career; as a rookie in 1963, he averaged 30 yards on nine kick returns. He was such a scoring threat that, in 1966, he scored six touchdowns of 50 yards or more.

These two tight ends were similar in size, with Mackey at 6 feet 2 inches, 224 pounds and Ditka at 6 feet 3 inches, 228 pounds. Both men were fierce competitors on and off the field. Ditka was “Papa Bear” George Halas’s personal pick to coach his beloved Chicago Bears. The franchise won its only Super Bowl after the 1985 season with Ditka as head coach. Ditka returned to coaching for three years starting in 1997 with the New Orleans Saints. He has since returned to being a television commentator.

Mackey, who was one of quarterback Johnny Unitas’s favorite targets, served as president of the NFL Players Association. Many in football believe his passionate pursuit of player rights as the union leader initially held back his selection to the Hall of Fame.

John Hannah

John Hannah was big, mean, athletic, and a steamroller — all perfect ingredients for one of the game’s finest all-around offensive linemen. When he came into the NFL in 1973, a first-round draft choice of the New England Patriots from the University of Alabama, Hannah was the first guard of such size (6 feet 3 inches, 265 pounds) who could also run well; he was a devastating pulling guard.

Some people had doubts about Hannah’s ability to adjust to the pro game because he was strictly a zone, straight-ahead blocker while playing at Alabama. At the time, Alabama ran a wishbone offense, which featured option running by the quarterback, who also pitched wide to running backs. A lineman didn’t have to leave his stance and run wide to block or concentrate on pass-blocking techniques in the wishbone offense. But Hannah had football in his genes (Herb, his father, played pro football with the New York Giants), and he was an adaptable athlete, having won varsity letters in wrestling and track, as well as football, at Alabama.

During his career, the Patriots were a few players and a little luck away from being a championship team. Hannah played in only one Super Bowl (and lost), but he was named All-Pro for ten consecutive seasons (1976 to 1985) and Offensive Lineman of the Year by the Players Association four times. In 13 seasons, he missed only 5 of 188 games due to injury.

Don Hutson

Everyone knows that Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers was the best receiver ever, but old-timers will tell you that Green Bay Packer Don Hutson was the best. From 1935 to 1945, Hutson’s receptions and receiving totals were almost three times greater than his nearest competitor. Teams didn’t throw a lot in those days, but the Packers did because they had “The Alabama Antelope,” one of the fastest and most graceful men in football. In 1942, Hutson caught 74 passes, more than all receivers on the Detroit Lions combined; his 1,211 receiving yards were more than two NFL teams; and his 17 touchdown catches were more than six NFL teams. Hutson was the consummate deep-ball threat, leading the NFL in touchdown receptions in 9 of his 11 seasons. In his second game as a pro, he caught an 83-yard touchdown from quarterback Arnie Herber. Teams never double- and triple-teamed players until Hutson showed up on the scene.

In college at the University of Alabama, Hutson was an all-around jock. In fact, one day, he was playing outfield in a baseball game and left to compete in a track meet. He ran a 9.7-second 100-yard dash, winning the event, before hustling back to his baseball game.

Hutson, a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a two-way performer, playing at left end and in the secondary on defense. In his final four seasons, Hutson intercepted 23 passes. His record of 99 touchdown receptions stood for 44 seasons. And he was great until the bitter end, leading the NFL with 47 receptions in his final season.

Before he died, Hutson was asked about modern athletes and whether he could play with them. “How many catches would you have today?” the young reporter asked. “Oh, probably about 50,” Hutson replied. “Fifty? That’s not as many as you had in your prime,” the reporter retorted. “Well,” Hutson said, smiling, “I am 74, you know.”

Hugh McElhenny

People referred to Hugh McElhenny as “The King.” On his first play as a pro with the San Francisco 49ers, he ran 40 yards for a touchdown. Some say that McElhenny was the greatest running back to ever catch a screen pass. He was dangerous in the open field, owning the complete repertoire of moves: He could pivot, sidestep, spin, change his pace, and fake you out of your pants. McElhenny likened running in the open field to walking down a dark alley: He instinctively knew what was lurking in every dark corner — he knew where the 11 defenders were hiding to nab him.

More than 60 colleges offered McElhenny a scholarship, and when the University of Washington won his services, the college’s football program was immediately investigated for recruiting violations. When McElhenny became a professional in 1952, his teammates laughed, saying that his $7,000 salary meant that he was taking a pay cut.

McElhenny played many of his 13 pro seasons in pain. He needed a steel plate in his shoe and pain-deadening shots in his right foot because of severed tendons that he had suffered as a child. When he retired after the 1964 season, he had played for four different teams and totaled 11,369 all-purpose yards. He was a true game-breaker; he could score from anywhere on the field via the run, the pass, or the kick return. He averaged 4.9 yards a carry in his first ten seasons, plus he had touchdowns of 94, 86, and 81 yards.

Jim Parker

Jim Parker was the first offensive lineman elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A first-round draft choice from Ohio State, Parker played both ways — offensive and defensive tackle — but Baltimore Colts coach Weeb Ewbank changed all that by starting him at only offensive tackle in 1957. The plan was pretty simple: Parker, all 6 feet 3 inches and 273 pounds of him, was supposed to protect quarterback Johnny Unitas, one of the greatest passers of all time. Unitas attempted 47 passes in his very first game and wasn’t sacked once. Parker was magnificent at his job.

Parker was the first huge man — who possessed the quickness of a man 60 pounds lighter — to emerge as an outstanding blocker. Until men like Parker arrived, defensive players generally dominated pro football’s line of scrimmage; most athletic big men preferred playing defense to offense.

Parker’s gifts were immeasurable. He was a Pro Bowl player at tackle for four years when Ewbank was forced to shift him to left guard because of injuries to other players. Parker fit perfectly in that role and was named All-Pro at guard for four consecutive seasons. A knee injury ended Parker’s career in 1967.

Walter Payton

Mike Ditka, the great Chicago tight end and coach, called Walter Payton the most complete football player he had ever seen. Payton’s nickname was “Sweetness,” but maybe it should have been “Toughness.” He missed only one game in 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears, and that was due to a coaching decision made by Jack Pardee in Payton’s rookie season (1975).

Excluding his rookie year and his final season, when he no longer was the hub of Chicago’s offense, Payton touched the ball an average of 24 times a game for 119 yards, combining rushing and receiving gains. Payton is the NFL’s second-leading all-time rusher with 16,726 yards (Emmitt Smith is first).

Players marveled about Payton because he did whatever he needed to do to win, and he stood out because he spent more than half his career on non-playoff teams. In fact, in Payton’s first eight seasons, Chicago was a dismal 61-70. His passion for the game ran deep. He enjoyed blocking and would run a dummy pass route like he was the intended receiver. Heck, he even passed for eight touchdowns. In 10 of 13 seasons, Payton rushed for at least 1,200 yards. He needed arthroscopic surgery on both knees after the 1983 season, in which he gained 1,421 yards on those two gimpy knees. Tragically, he died in 1999 at age 45.

Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears was a speedster with shake-and-bake moves — a dazzler in football pads. The only sad thing about Sayers is that two knee injuries shortened his career. Still, in basically a five-season career, he accomplished enough to gain entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Sayers enjoyed nothing more than returning punts and kicks. In his first preseason game, he raced 93 yards with a kickoff and 77 yards on a punt return, and he also threw a 25-yard touchdown pass with his left (non-dominant) hand.

In 1965, Bears coach George Halas, who coached more than 40 seasons, remarked after Sayers scored six touchdowns on a muddy Wrigley Field against the San Francisco 49ers that it was the greatest performance he’d ever seen. Sayers gained 336 yards that day, and some people say that he covered more than 130 yards while scoring on an 85-yard punt return in which he zigzagged all over the field.

In basically 12 full games that season, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns and averaged 31.4 yards on kick returns and 14.9 yards per punt return. His 2,272 combined yards by a rookie still ranks second in NFL history. Sayers had only two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but he did average 5 yards per carry and scored a touchdown one out of every 23.7 times he touched the ball.

Art Shell

Art Shell arrived with the Oakland Raiders as a third-round draft choice from tiny Maryland State-Eastern Shore in 1968, a year after Gene Upshaw. However, the two players eventually united to form the best guard/tackle combination in the history of the NFL. Shell, who was 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 265 pounds, became the starting left tackle in 1970 and was named to eight Pro Bowls in the 1970s. He became the Jim Parker of his era. Shell and Upshaw worked as one, dominating their side of the offensive formation on run sweeps.

However, Shell also evolved into a picture-perfect pass-blocker. In Super Bowl XI, Shell virtually buried talented Minnesota defensive end Jim Marshall to help lead the Raiders to victory. Shell was a mammoth man with a dancer’s feet. He could slide-protect (he had quick feet, which allowed him to shift his body easily in any direction when protecting his quarterback in passing situations), and he could also hammer defensive linemen with his brutish strength. Shell developed his agility while earning All-State honors in basketball at Bonds-Wilson High in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Shell later became one of the first African Americans to become an NFL head coach in the modern era. He owns a 56-52 record in his two stints as coach of the Raiders. He opened the door for other African American coaches like Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, and Lovie Smith.

Gene Upshaw

Before his untimely death in 2008, many fans knew Gene Upshaw as the executive director of the NFL Players Association, a title that translates into the leader of the players union. As leader of the union, he fought on the players’ behalf for better free agency terms, more money, and stronger benefits. The former Oakland Raider seemed destined for such a role because he entered the league in 1967, when its popularity was mushrooming, and left in 1981, knowing that pro football had surpassed baseball as America’s pastime. Also, he was a Raiders captain for eight seasons, which is the same number of years this left guard was named to All-AFC or All-Pro teams.

Upshaw was the first of the really tall (6 feet 5 inches) guards, and he was drafted in the first round to block a specific Oakland opponent: Hall of Fame tackle Buck Buchanan of the arch-rival Kansas City Chiefs. Upshaw had never played guard, but he won the starting job as a rookie and kept it for 15 seasons. Upshaw is the only player to start on championship teams in the old American Football League and in the NFL. The Raiders won the American Football League title in 1967 and then Super Bowls XI and XV, with Upshaw leading the way. Upshaw was a fierce competitor who was equally adept at run-blocking and pass-blocking. All told, he played in 307 preseason, regular-season, and postseason games with the Raiders, 24 of them playoff games.