CANTON, Ohio – Colts president Bill Polian has no idea where to begin or end the conversation when asked to name the greatest football player.
"It's like asking me who is the greatest hitter of all time. I'll start with Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle and you can take your pick," said Polian, who is a big baseball fan from his days growing up in New York.
In other words, Polian is asked, you'd be fine with the No. 4 pick.
"Exactly," he said.
Picking the greatest football player is a similar equation. Is it Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana or some other quarterback because that's the most game's most demanding job? Is it Jim Brown because his staggering career numbers stand the test of time? Is it Reggie White because he was a game-changing force on defense?
As hard as this question is to answer (and as hard as it is for this boyhood Los Angeles Rams fan to write), the pick may be one of the seven men who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
"Oh man, that's a good one," said former NFL quarterback and long-time assistant coach Zeke Bratkowski, whose pro career started in 1954. "Rice, Jim Brown, Unitas … I don't know how you decide.
There are four reasons Rice is atop the list.
Stats don't lie
What Rice did to receiving numbers is what Babe Ruth did to home run numbers. When Rice retired, he had nearly 50 percent more receptions (1,549), yards (22,895) and total touchdowns (208) than the closest player in all those categories. He still has more than 400 more receptions than the next guy (Marvin Harrison(notes)).
Some of that is due to playing 20 seasons, but it's not as if Rice was simply playing out the string. He made the Pro Bowl 13 times (tied for second-most of any player) and was named first-team All-Pro 10 times. He was twice the NFL Offensive Player of the Year, was named to the All-Decade team for both the 1980s and 1990s and was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary team.
He's got rings
Rice was a champion and played significant roles in big games. He helped the 49ers win three Super Bowls (1989, 1990 and 1995) and helped Oakland get to the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. In the three victories with San Francisco, Rice had 215, 148 and 149 yards receiving. He was MVP of Super Bowl XXIII, where he had his most receiving yards in any of his title games.
He got the most from his talent
Rice was an overachiever with a tireless work ethic. At practice, Rice finished every catch he made by running all the way to the end zone. In the offseason, he led teammates on an exhausting regimen that included running up hills in the Bay Area.
He redefined the position
Rice changed the game. This is a standard few players achieve. Unitas did that with the passing game and with his play under pressure in historic games, such as the 1958 NFL title game.
Rice showed the NFL that the passing game was more than a phase and that wide receivers weren't simply occasional contributors. Since Rice, receiving numbers have increased, the use of three- and four-receiver sets has become prevalent, and teams throughout the league consistently throw more than they run. Rice made receivers into essential players, so much so that they are considered more important than running backs these days.
"His influence is pretty dramatic," Bratkowski said. "The 49ers were already on the way there, but what Bill Walsh and Joe Montana did with Rice was more extensive than anybody ever did."
Here's a look at the NFL's top 10 players:
1. Rice – For all the above reasons.
2. Jim Brown – Brown dominated in every way imaginable. His stats were stunning (he averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game). Physically, he was tough and fast. He was also a huge man by the standards of the day, sometimes not much smaller than some of the linemen he faced. Brown is one of the greatest all-around athletes in the history of American sports.
3. Johnny Unitas – When Unitas retired, he owned every important passing statistic. He was a champion, an important player in critical games and, in some ways, was a mythic figure by the end of his career. He was the John Wayne of football with his blend of talent and toughness.
4. Joe Montana – Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories and posted stunning numbers along the way. He returned from injury to win titles and was perhaps the greatest pressure player in the history of the game. He also took Walsh's West Coast system and perfected it. The system's principles are used in just about every offense in the league today.
5. Reggie White – At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, White had a defensive tackle's body and the speed to play defensive end. He finished his career with 198 sacks despite playing primarily at left end, as opposed to the right side where most speed rushers play. If White hadn't spent two years in the USFL, he might still hold the sacks record.
6. Bruce Smith – If you draw up what a right defensive end is supposed to look like, it's Smith. He was gifted in just about every athletic way you could imagine. In a league where great pass rushers run second only to great quarterbacks, Smith is the standard for pure pass rusher.
7. Lawrence Taylor – People who played against Taylor still believe he might be the greatest athlete they ever saw on a football field. His combination of size, speed and power was unreal. He may be the greatest linebacker in the history of the game and revolutionized the use of the 3-4 defense.
8. Dick Butkus – Butkus defined the malevolence of the game in the 1960s. His huge size (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) made him fearsome and he remains the prototype for that position. Every middle or inside linebacker in the game is measured against Butkus.
9. Anthony Munoz – When Bratkowski was asked to select players for an imaginary game of all-time greats, Munoz was his first selection. Great left tackles are a staple of the modern game (somebody has to block guys like Smith and Taylor). Munoz is the standard for that position.
10. Joe Greene – Mean Joe was the lynchpin of Pittsburgh's famed Steel Curtain defense, which was the foundation of the most dominating team of any era. The Steelers won four titles in six years and only injuries prevented them from going six for six. Greene combined White's power and Butkus' ferocity.
- Joe Montana
- Jerry Rice
- Bill Polian
- Jim Brown
- Zeke Bratkowski
- Reggie White