Judy Battista served on the 26-person blue-ribbon panel that voted on the NFL’s All-Time Team, a collection of the 100 greatest players and 10 greatest coaches in the league’s 100-year history. Different positions from this dream team will be revealed each Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network through Week 17. Judy will review all of the selections in this space. This week’s reveal included 13 defensive backs, six special teamers and another coach (who joins Bill Belichick, Paul Brown and Chuck Noll among coaches already named):
CORNERBACK (7): Mel Blount*, Willie Brown, Darrell Green, Mike Haynes*, Dick “Night Train” Lane*, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson.
SAFETY (6): Jack Christiansen, Ken Houston, Ronnie Lott*, Ed Reed, Emlen Tunnell, Larry Wilson.
KICKER (2): Jan Stenerud, Adam Vinatieri.
PUNTER (2): Ray Guy, Shane Lechler.
RETURNER (2): Devin Hester, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.
HEAD COACH (1): Joe Gibbs.
*Denotes unanimous selection.
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When candidates for the NFL’s All-Time Team were considered, active players were at a bit of a disadvantage.
It is difficult enough to compare guys who played during different eras of the game, when rules changes and the differing lengths of seasons/careers made comparing statistics an imperfect measurement. The difficulty was compounded when trying to weigh active players against retired ones. After all, when we considered these candidates during the spring before the 2018 season — nearly two full seasons ago, when voting transpired — it was impossible to know what the full breadth of a career would look like when it was done. It’s no surprise that during the first two unveilings of all-time team members — running backs and front seven defenders — no current players were included.
That was not a problem for Adam Vinatieri. He would have made the cut if he’d retired five years ago — and he’ll still be an all-timer if he hangs ’em up five years from now. In 24 seasons, Vinatieri, the oldest player in the NFL at age 46, has made some of the biggest and most pressure-filled kicks in the history of the game. The most famous is the 45-yarder in a blizzard that sent the “Tuck Rule” game into overtime and essentially launched the Patriots dynasty. He also had game-winning kicks in the final seconds of two Super Bowls. That made Vinatieri one of the most obvious picks for the all-time team and the first current player to be named to it.
So why wasn’t Morten Andersen, whose records for field goals and points scored were broken by Vinatieri, the other kicker chosen? Mostly because Andersen spent all but three seasons of his 25-season career playing for teams with domes. And Jan Stenerud, the first kicker ever elected to the Hall of Fame, spent all but two of his 19 seasons in the nightmare conditions of Kansas City and Green Bay.
Shifting conditions certainly played a role in the selection of the all-time defensive backs. Rules changes have steadily opened up the passing game, but that puts the most recent defenders at a real disadvantage. Nobody playing now could get away with the physical style of cornerbacks Dick “Night Train” Lane or Mel Blount. In fact, Blount’s play was so physical and so effective that the rule put in place before the 1978 season prohibiting contact with a receiver beyond 5 yards became known as the Mel Blount rule. The game changed practically overnight into an aerial show and it has only opened up even more since then. The result: Of the seven cornerbacks selected to the team, only three — Darrell Green, Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson — played into the 2000s, and none past 2005 (Sanders). And, not surprisingly, the three unanimous selections at cornerback — Blount, Lane and Mike Haynes — played before the current offensive explosion. Lane’s career, in fact, stood out because he had 68 interceptions in 14 seasons that ended in 1965, well before the NFL was fully a pass-first league.
Of the six safeties, only Ed Reed — who Bill Belichick said should be on the all-time team just for his ability to block punts (he had three blocks returned for touchdowns) — played in the current millennium, retiring after the 2013 season. Sanders believes Reed would have been a Hall of Famer as a cornerback, had he played that position. Reed was especially dangerous with the ball in his hands. He had 64 interceptions, seven returned for touchdowns, and 1,590 return yards, an average of 25 yards per return. He was the rare safety to win the Defensive Player of the Year award; in 2004, he had nine interceptions (one returned for a 106-yard touchdown), 78 tackles, three forced fumbles and two sacks.
Still, Reed was not a unanimous choice. Only one safety was. Ronnie Lott may be the most feared hitter in the history of the game — and he was prolific, too. He had 1,146 tackles and 63 interceptions. And he was a four-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers.
Lott’s coach, Bill Walsh, is almost certain to be one of the 10 coaches named to the all-time team. But the coach named Friday, Washington’s Joe Gibbs, holds a mind-boggling distinction. He won three Super Bowls during the 1980s and early 1990s — with three different quarterbacks. And his fingerprints are still on offensive game plans today: Gibbs popularized the one-back offense.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.