First, we looked at defensive players; then, we examined the offensive skill positions. Finally, we analyzed offensive linemen and kickers. Now, we have a group of finalists in our sabermetric exploration of the NFL’s greatest player of all time.
(No, it’s not Tom Brady. He didn’t even make the QB cut.)
Here are our finalists, with their career Approximate Value (AV) per game contributions:
- RB Jim Brown: 1.03
- QB Aaron Rodgers: 1.02
- LB Lawrence Taylor: 0.99
- RB Barry Sanders: 0.98
- DL Reggie White: 0.97
- LB Ray Lewis: 0.97
- OL Anthony Muñoz: 0.94
- WR Lance Alworth: 0.88
We have the best of the bunch here, in a variety of positions, considering context and quality of production over time—although it’s been demonstrated that career longevity isn’t always a good thing, in any sport.
On the surface, and few would argue with this rationally, Brown is the best of the bunch. Look at his career: The dude led the NFL in rushing eight times in his nine-year career, while also leading the league in rushing attempts six times and rushing touchdowns five times. That’s insane.
Throw in this tidbit, too: AV can’t be calculated for his first three seasons in the NFL, due to a lack of statistical data. So—and we didn’t look at this in our initial analysis, because it was irrelevant then—his official AV numbers (122) came in just six seasons, which for him was just 82 games.
Let that sink in for a moment: Straight up, there has been no more dominant player in league history than Brown, period. Even if we adjust Rodgers’ AV for actual starts in his career, his number jumps to just 1.05 AV per game. Now, despite Brown’s clear dominance in sabermetric production, we have one major caveat to address.
It’s not like Brown played on bad teams: Cleveland posted a .690 winning percentage during his career, playing in three NFL title games and winning one of them (1964). Also remember this: the Browns played in six straight title games to start the 1950s, so it’s not like Brown joined a bad franchise in 1957. After he retired, the team posted a .647 winning percentage over the next eight seasons, although the Browns never played in a title game again.
What does this tell us? Brown was a football god, but he only played in his physical prime, and his team was always very good—with or without him—due to unique franchise stability over a sustained 25-year period from 1950 to 1973. Literally, Brown’s career chart is both optimal individually and perfect in a team-support sense.
Look at the list of finalists above and below: Only Sanders and Muñoz never won an NFL title, and only Sanders never even played in an NFL title game. We have to contextualize for that in a team sport …
- Rodgers: He’s made 18 career playoff starts over 9 total postseasons from 2009-2019, winning one Super Bowl. Before he became the starter, the Green Bay Packers posted a .629 winning percentage over 16 seasons.
- Taylor: He played in 15 postseason contests over 7 total Januarys from 1981-1993, winning two Super Bowls. Before he joined the New York Giants, the team posted a .284 winning percentage over 8 seasons. After he retired, the Giants won 49 percent of their games in the next 10 seasons. Taylor literally rescued the franchise from moments like this, and his career started two years before Bill Parcells became the head coach.
- White: He played in 18 playoff games in 10 total postseasons from 1985-2000, winning one Super Bowl and losing another to John Elway and the Denver Broncos. White played for three different teams in his career, but the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t turn it around until a few years after his arrival, and they did fine without him, too. He joined a Packers franchise on the rise already that sustained its success long after he retired.
- Lewis: He played in 21 postseason contests over 9 total Januarys from 1996-2012, winning the Super Bowl twice. The Baltimore Ravens didn’t post a winning record until his fifth season, and after he retired, the team has had just one losing season in 7 years.
- Alworth: He played in 7 playoff games in 4 total postseasons from 1962-1972, winning one AFL title with the San Diego Chargers and one Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys. The Chargers had lost the first two AFL title games in the two seasons before Alworth joined the team, and then San Diego played in three straight title games after he became a Charger. By the time Alworth joined the Cowboys, they were defending NFC champions, and after his retirement, they continued their sustained success deep into the mid-1980s, winning another Super Bowl, to boot.
- Sanders: He played in just 6 postseason contests over 5 total Januarys from 1989-1998, never even reaching a Super Bowl. Before he joined the Detroit Lions, the franchise had posted a .310 winning percentage in the five prior seasons, and after he retired, the Lions won just 29.2 percent of their games over the next 12 seasons before notching double-digit wins in a single season again.
- Muñoz: He played in 7 playoff games in 3 total postseasons from 1980-1992, losing two Super Bowls to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers by a total of nine points combined. He joined a Cincinnati Bengals team that had gone 8-24 in the 1978 and 1979 seasons, and in his second year, the franchise was in its first Super Bowl. After he retired, it took the Bengals 13 years to finish over .500 again.
So, context leaves us with Brown, Sanders, Taylor, and Muñoz as the best players in NFL history. How do we pick among them for the overall GOAT title, now that we’ve reduced our field of contenders to just four players?
[It’s coincidence that all four of these über studs played for just one team in their careers. But it’s an interesting fact. We will have to ponder its meaning some other time.]
Three of them changed the fortunes of their franchises, not single-handedly as this is a team sport in every way, but individually, it’s hard to match what Sanders, Taylor, and Muñoz did for their franchises at the times they played. That gives emphasis to the AV-per-game marks above, while Brown’s overall dominance was greatly impacted by the timing of his career—both beyond his control and within his control as noted above.
Compared to Brown, Sanders led the NFL in rushing four times in his NFL career, while playing for a mediocre franchise with mediocre talent— and even with his team and franchise advantages, Brown ran for just 4.5 yards per game more than Sanders did. That’s not that much of a stat edge, at all.
Taylor led the league in sacks just once (although sack totals are not officially available for his first NFL season), and overall tackling stats are not available, either, for his career. Muñoz played a position that’s impossible to measure, really, in traditional statistical methods. The AV info is the best we have to measure their overall impact.
The two non-RB players dominated the game at their own levels for a sustained time period, turning around their franchises in the process. To a lesser extent, Sanders did the same in spite of significantly less team and organizational support—and a distinct lack of postseason success, in comparison, when he was all Detroit had to rely on in January.
In the end, to us, it’s that singular dynamic—Sanders did it alone more than any of our considered players from sabermetric analysis—that elevates the Lions star above all the others: He did amazing things with next to no help from his teammates or his franchise.
[If pushed, we’d give the GOAT title to both Brown and Sanders, in two separate categories: the former for players with franchise fortune, and the latter for players with no franchise fortune at all.]