In our ongoing discussion and analysis of the best player in NFL history—or the Greatest of All Time, as some like to say—we advanced three defensive players to the finals: Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Ray Lewis.
Now, we have the bigger task of looking at offensive players today, and this could take awhile. We will go through skill positions to figure out which players should be advanced to our GOAT finals on May 1.
Here we go again …
This is a challenge, because most of the “efficient” QBs come from the post-1978 era when the NFL rules made it a lot easier to throw the ball downfield. Prior to then, a lot of QBs tossed more interceptions than touchdowns on a regular basis.
We combed the all-time lists for quarterbacks in terms of career Approximate Value (AV) and QB rating to come up with a very short list of players who averaged close to 1 full AV per game played. While some QBs have a lot of volume, few have a lot of quality within that volume.
Here are our QB finalists with their per-game AV marks combined with (some) longevity:
- Tom Brady: 280 AV in 285 games
- Peyton Manning: 271 AV in 266 games
- Drew Brees: 265 AV in 275 games
- Fran Tarkenton: 236 AV in 246 games
- Aaron Rodgers: 184 AV in 181 games
- Matt Ryan: 179 AV in 189 games
- Steve Young: 171 AV in 169 games
- Roger Staubach: 128 AV in 131 games
On this list, only three QBs have averaged more than 1 AV per game in their careers, and while others like Brady (0.982), Staubach (0.977), and Brees (0.964) are really close, we have to have a top tier.
Manning (1.019), Rodgers (1.016), and Young (1.012) all have superior per-game AV marks, and that means something since all three of them also have very high QB ratings. That’s not a huge difference between the top tier and the next one, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and the 1.000 mark makes sense.
One note: Russell Wilson also has 129 AV in 128 games, but his career is short(er) right now, so we can’t quite put him in the conversation yet. He’s clearly just as good as Staubach, though, and in time, maybe he makes the conversation if he keeps it up.
Obviously, Rodgers is still playing, but Manning set the bar very high in terms of longevity and efficient productivity. Young had the much-shorter career, for a few reasons, and we don’t count that against him right now. All three guys get a pass to the offensive finals discussion below.
This is a tough category due to career longevity at this skill position being so brief, on average. Great RBs have been durable and productive, deep into their careers, but inevitable, they will decline, too, making analytical context hard to compare to other positions.
A back like Terrell Davis averaged over 1.00 AV per game, but he only played in 79 career contests due to injury, etc. Can we really compare him to LaDainian Tomlinson, for example, who played in 170 games and put up 0.924 AV per game? Not really. Davis, like Gale Sayers, was a comet that couldn’t sustain a pathway to eternal greatness.
So, like we did with QBs above, here is a short list of RBs that achieved both longevity and productivity over time:
- Tomlinson: 157 AV in 170 games (0.924 per game)
- Marshall Faulk: 166 AV in 176 games (0.943)
- Walter Payton: 168 AV in 190 games (0.884)
- Edgerrin James: 136 AV in 148 games (0.919)
- Jim Brown: 122 AV in 118 games (1.033)
- Barry Sanders: 150 AV in 153 games (0.980)
For the record, Emmitt Smith posted just 170 AV in 226 games, dropping him from consideration. Sometimes too much quantity dilutes quality. The list above is a great short list of the best backs in history, blending productivity with durability.
Remember, Brown and Sanders both walked away from the game early, when they could have kept playing. That is something important this position, which we discuss below. Payton’s effectiveness declined as he played one season too long, for example.
Without that last season, Payton would have 162 AV in 178 games and be closer to James’ overall stature. As it is, Payton is probably the “weakest” of this elite bunch, while it’s clear that Brown and Sanders are the best of the group, with Faulk in the conversation.
Generally, though, a RB dances a fine line in his career, in terms of knowing when to call it quits before it’s too late, and in that case, Brown and Sanders did it right, and it pays off in this analysis. Those two advance to our offensive finals discussion below.
This may seem like a no-brainer category, considering all the hype someone like Jerry Rice gets. However, something we have to remember about wide receivers (and tight ends, too) is that they’re always made better by playing with better QBs.
A note on tight ends: They just aren’t/weren’t used enough consistently to rank in our list here, really, as the best TE of the bunch—Tony Gonzalez—posted just 0.552 AV per game in his long career, so we are generally focusing on WRs.
Here’s the short list then:
- Jerry Rice: 250 AV in 303 games (0.825 AV per game)
- Marvin Harrison: 161 AV in 190 games (0.847)
- Michael Irvin: 129 AV in 159 games (0.811)
- Lance Alworth: 120 AV in 137 games (0.876)
- Julio Jones: 113 AV in 126 games (0.897)
It’s tough to measure a guy like Don Hutson statistically, since so much information from back then was incomplete. However, he dominated an era—leading the league in major offensive categories a whopping 34 times in his 11-year career—that was “weak” by NFL standards, so while we would always include him in a conversation about the best WRs ever, we can’t pass him along to the finals of this GOAT semifinal discussion today.
Jones is still playing, of course, and Rice’s pure longevity puts him way ahead in quantity categories. It is interesting, though, to see both Alworth and Harrison with better AV-per-game numbers than Rice. Those numbers are finalized, too, while Jones has nowhere to go but down. Like Wilson in the QB category, we can’t quite put Atlanta Falcons superstar in this discussion (yet).
That leaves Alworth, Harrison, and Rice as our receiving finalists for the overall analysis.
We have eight players now in the discussion for our greatest offensive skill position players ever: Manning, Rodgers, Young, Brown, Sanders, Alworth, Harrison, and Rice. That’s not a bad list at all, for sure.
How do we narrow that down? Can we name active players to this final discussion, like Rodgers? How much does longevity count, really, for someone like Rice? Do the “short” careers of Brown and Sanders top someone that played longer?
Purely based on AV-per-game numbers, this is the order we’d put them in:
- Brown (1.033)
- Manning (1.019)
- Rodgers (1.016)
- Young (1.012)
- Sanders (0.980)
- Alworth (0.876)
- Harrison (0.847)
- Rice (0.825)
Context always matters: QBs need offensive linemen to help them (and we will look at those numbers next week), while RBs need both decent QBs and good OLs to break them loose. WRs need OLs to protect good QBs in order to get them the ball, and they need good RBs, too, to keep the defense honest enough to get open a lot.
In fact, WRs are the most dependent players on offense, in terms of relying on others to get their own chances. Look at Rice, for example: He was drafted by the defending Super Bowl champs—Joe Montana won two NFL titles without Rice, remember— and he spent over 85% of his playing career with QBs who won NFL MVP awards (Montana, Young, and Rich Gannon).
The two years he had Jeff Garcia as his QB in San Francisco (1999-2000), Rice put up merely solid numbers (averaged 71 catches, 816 yards, and 6 touchdowns). The year before, he was great with 82 catches, 1,179 yards, and 9 TDs; the two years after, he was great again (averaged 88 catches, 1,175 yards, and 8 touchdowns). That’s a huge flaw in his career stature, to sink so much lower without an elite QB to throw to him.
It also tells us a lot about Rice’s productivity: It was QB-reliant, although his longterm health certainly enabled him to play for a long time, too. But he was only ever as good as his QB’s ability to get him the ball. Ironically, too, those two seasons with Garcia were the only losing seasons Rice ever had in his career (not counting his final season when he split time with Oakland and Seattle): He was only ever as great as the team around him.
Young likewise benefitted from playing for S.F. after his Tampa Bay days were pretty rocky. He went 3-16 as the starter on a bad Bucs team in 1985-1986, and then Young posted a 91-33 record with the 49ers, a better quality team across the board—the best money could buy before the salary cap in 1994 and afterward, too, since the S.F. organization cheated the salary cap and got caught doing so.
Not throwing 49ers under the bus, but context matters: Just like Rice and Young, it’s obvious Manning and Harrison benefitted from similar conditions playing together (minus the shady finances). Does that count against either of them? It should not, but context does matter. They helped make each other better, perhaps, than they would have been in isolation on their own.
This is how we end up with Alworth, Brown, Rodgers, and Sanders as our top four guys on offense. They did just as much as the other guys—but with a lot less help. Consider:
- Can you name anyone Alworth played with in his San Diego Chargers career from 1962-1970? Doubtful. The QBs in his prime (1963-1969) were … drumroll, please … Tobin Rote, John Hadl, Steve Tensi, and Marty Domres. Of that quartet, only Hadl should ring a bell, and he’s not in the Hall of Fame or anything with that career 67.4 QB rating.
- Can you name any of Brown’s teammates in Cleveland from 1957-1965? Probably not. The Browns did win the NFL title in 1964, with … drumroll, please … QB Frank Ryan calling the shots. Admit it, you’ve never heard of him.
- Can you cite one quality teammate of Sanders in Detroit from 1988-1997? Generally, no. QBs like Bob Gagliano, Rodney Pete, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Scott Mitchell, and Charlie Batch weren’t exactly lighting it up in support of the running game. Sanders played with those six different QBs in 10 seasons who ended up leading the team in passing AV over a single year.
For Rodgers, his teammates have come and gone during his time in Green Bay (2005-2019), and he still keeps producing, regardless. He’s the one starting constant in a current 12-year run of Packers success that includes a Super Bowl title in 2010.
In fact, here’s the clincher on why Rodgers is the best QB in our group above: In his first three seasons, he played just seven games, accruing just 1 AV. That means that in his starts—174—he’s accumulated 183 AV, which puts him above Brown and Manning on the per-game list (1.052).
So, in terms of quality production in context over time factoring in team support, we end up with this quartet of offensive players who have a legitimate claim to being the GOAT in NFL history: Alworth, Brown, Rodgers, and Sanders.
Stay tuned for next week’s analysis of other players we haven’t covered yet. We have seven finalists so far, including last week’s defensive players. Will we had anyone else to the final debate on May 1?