Nothing says the NFL like…well, plenty of things say the NFL.
And here are 100 of them, fitting as the league enters its 100th season.
From its humble beginnings as the American Professional Football Association in 1920 – it was renamed the National Football League in 1922 – to the 32-team corporate behemoth that reported $8.1 billion in revenue in 2018, the NFL has spun a web of history and sired a complex culture.
Trying to encapsulate all of it is nearly impossible, and a myriad of debates can be sparked by trying to compose lists based on perceived importance.
Who is the GOAT – greatest of all time? Is it Tom Brady? Was it Joe Montana, or Johnny Unitas? Could it have been Lawrence Taylor?
Or, what is the greatest NFL-based video game? Is it EA Sports’ Madden NFL? How many votes would there be for Nintendo’s Tecmo Super Bowl (especially if you were playing with Bo Jackson or Randall Cunningham)?
The greatest coach? The greatest game ever? The worst defeat? The best stadium? The best fans?
The following is by no means a definitive ranking of all things NFL. Rather, it is 100 players, moments or other associated things that have made an impact or stand out in the memory banks, separated into six categories and ranked from No. 1 on down.
No doubt, it will lead to more debate. Feel free to disagree.
PLAYERS AND PERSONNEL
1. Bill Belichick/Tom Brady: Six Lombardi Trophies in nine Super Bowl appearances – and, to the dismay of Jets fans, likely counting – for the greatest coach/quarterback combo in history. More to consider: Belichick was a mediocre coach with the Browns, twice was the Jets coach without ever coaching a game, and Brady was a sixth-round pick out of Michigan.
2. Lawrence Taylor: A unique combination of speed, size and technique made the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker the defensive GOAT, though often an unsavory character off the field. He changed the way the game was played.
3. Pete Rozelle: Rozelle shepherded the NFL from a 12-team, mom-and-pop operation when he was named commissioner in 1960 into its modern, money-making, made-for-TV product by the time he retired in 1989.
4. Rooneys and Maras: The ownership families – Tim Mara founded the Giants in 1925 and Art Rooney started the Steelers in 1933 – are still as close as it comes to royalty in the NFL.
5. Vince Lombardi: The man for whom the Super Bowl Trophy is named won five NFL titles in seven seasons with the Packers and the first two Super Bowls, although, oddly, they were called the AFL-NFL Championship Game. Many still consider him the benchmark for an NFL coach.
6. Joe Namath: The Super Bowl III guarantee. The rock-star lifestyle. That arm. And, alas, those poor knees. Going on 43 years since he played for the Jets, Broadway Joe is still, in many ways, the face of the franchise.
7. Tom Condon: Drew Rosenhaus is likely the most well-known NFL agent. Condon, a longtime offensive lineman for the Chiefs, is the most powerful.
8. Jim Brown: The greatest NFL player to come from Long Island was an unstoppable force for nine seasons as the Browns’ fullback and is still the only player in NFL history to average more than 100 rushing yards per game. Not a bad actor, either, and many still consider him the best college lacrosse player of all time.
9. Joe Montana/Jerry Rice: The Hall of Famers formed the best quarterback/wide receiver duo. “Joe Cool” threw to the most precise route runner, and the combination led the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles.
10. America’s Team: The Dallas Cowboys, specifically the 1970s Dallas Cowboys of Tom “The Hat” Landry, Roger Staubach, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and Ed “Too Tall” Jones.
11. Johnny Unitas: Once considered the greatest NFL quarterback, the Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer is certainly the prototype for modern quarterbacks. Oh, and his black, high-top cleats are still iconic.
12. Steel Curtain: “Mean” Joe Greene. L.C. Greenwood. Ernie Holmes. Dwight White. The Steelers’ defensive line was the backbone of a dynasty that won four Super Bowls in six seasons from 1974-79. (Holmes played on only the first two championship teams).
13. George Halas: Papa Bear. He attended the meetings in 1920 that led to the NFL’s formation and owned the Bears – first as a player-coach – until his death in 1983. The Bears’ uniforms still sport his initials, GSH. He was also a Yankees outfielder in 1919.
14. Paul Brown: The longtime coach and executive helped found two organizations, his namesake team in Cleveland and later the AFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. Brown coached the Browns to 10 straight championship games – four in the All-America Football Conference and six in the NFL – from 1946-1955, winning eight. His insistence on calling the offensive plays was a harbinger of the NFL’s future.
15. Pete Gogolak: The native of Hungary was pro football’s first soccer-style kicker, joining the Giants in 1966 after playing out his option with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. That sparked a contract war between the leagues that was ultimately a factor in their merger.
16. Fearsome Foursome: The Los Angeles Rams’ dominant defensive line, first in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Rosey Grier (then Roger Brown), Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy and, later in the 1970s with Olsen, Fred Dryer, Jack Youngblood and Larry Brooks.
17. Pat Tillman: The very definition of a hero. He left the Cardinals in 2002 to enlist in the U.S. Army in reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan but was killed by friendly fire in 2004.
18. Chuck Bednarik: The NFL’s last full-time, two-way player as a center and linebacker for the Eagles. A ferocious tackler, he is well known for two plays: His devastating hit on the Giants’ Frank Gifford in 1960 and his game-saving tackle of the Packers’ Jim Taylor on the final play of that season’s championship game.
19. Gale Sayers: Arguably the most graceful runner in NFL history, though knee injuries effectively limited his career to five full seasons with the Bears. His friendship with Brian Piccolo through Piccolo’s cancer battle was immortalized in the tearjerking movie “Brian’s Song,” and they were the NFL’s first interracial roommates.
20. Barry Sanders: So enjoyable to watch the Lions’ elusive runner make tackler after tackler miss.
1. 1958 Championship Game: “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the Colts’ 23-17 win over the Giants at Yankee Stadium was the NFL’s first to go to sudden-death overtime and, more importantly, ushered in the league’s TV age and its ascension to the top of the U.S. sports pile.
2. AFL: The 1960s rival league, which eventually forced a merger in 1970, had a lasting impact on the older NFL, from its more wide-open passing offenses to names on jerseys.
3. The Immaculate Reception: Franco Harris swooped in to catch the deflection of Terry Bradshaw’s pass to Frenchy Fuqua, which either hit off Fuqua’s hands or the helmet of Raiders safety Jack Tatum, for a last-second touchdown as the Steelers won the playoff game, 13-7, in December 1972. (The play may not have stood today under instant replay review. Back then, if a pass deflected off one offensive player to another, it was ruled incomplete.)
4. The Catch: Joe Montana rolls right and Dwight Clark elevates in the back of the end zone over the Cowboys’ Everson Walls for a 28-27 win in the 1981 NFC Championship Game as the 49ers’ dynasty takes flight.
5. Two-a-days: A thing of the past under the collective bargaining agreement, but almost everybody agrees that these brutal, dual-session training camp practices prepared the players well for the regular season.
6. 17-0: The 1972 Dolphins pop the champagne every year after the last undefeated team loses, preserving their legacy as the only NFL team to go through the regular season and postseason unblemished.
7. The Helmet Catch: The Patriots entered Super Bowl XLII having gone 16-0 in the regular season and with two more playoff wins. But the Giants spoiled their chance at a perfect season when Eli Manning miraculously avoided a sack and his fourth-quarter, downfield heave was caught by marginal receiver David Tyree with the help of his helmet, leading to the Giants’ 17-14 upset. Probably the best play in Super Bowl history.
8. The Ice Bowl: With a gametime temperature of minus-13, a wind chill of 50 below and the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field an icy sheen, Bart Starr called a quarterback sneak after right guard Jerry Kramer assured him he could get enough traction to block. The touchdown with 16 seconds remaining earned the Packers a 21-17 win over the Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Championship Game.
9. Riggins’ Rumble: Perhaps the best run in Super Bowl history, certainly the most physical. Bruiser John Riggins muscled his way 43 yards for a touchdown on a fourth-quarter, fourth-and-1 after being hit at the line of scrimmage by the Dolphins’ Don McNeal. It gave the Redskins their first lead in a 27-17 win in Super Bowl XVII.
10. Wide Right: The Giants had the perfect game plan in Super Bowl XXV to keep the ball away from the Bills’ potent offense. Yet Scott Norwood still had a chance to win it with a 47-yard field goal in the closing seconds. Wide right! Giants 20, Bills 19. It was the closest the Bills would come in their four straight Super Bowl defeats.
11. The Heidi Game: The Raiders scored two late touchdowns to beat the Jets, 43-32, on Nov. 17, 1968, in Oakland. But the game ran over its allotted three-hour TV slot, so back East, NBC switched to its scheduled movie presentation of “Heidi,” leaving Jets’ fans in the dark about their team’s collapse. In the future, NFL TV contracts stipulated games be shown to their conclusion.
12. “Playoffs?” Jim Mora’s 2001 tirade after being asked whether his 4-6 Colts could reach the postseason was priceless and will forever be replayed.
13. The Drive: John Elway leading his Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the 1986 AFC Championship Game with 37 seconds left in regulation – Denver beat the Browns, 23-20, in overtime – is The Drive.
14. Miracle at the Meadowlands: Look at the bright side, Giants fans: Herm Edwards’ fumble return for the Eagles’ winning touchdown after Joe Pisarcik inexplicably tried handing off to Larry Csonka rather than taking a knee finally forced the Giants to change their losing ways. George Young was soon the GM, Bill Parcells became coach in 1983, and two Super Bowl wins followed. Still, the November 1978 boggle is the worst play in Meadowlands history, and that includes the Butt Fumble.
15. The Fake Spike: Speaking of bad plays at the Meadowlands, how bad did it look when the Dolphins’ Dan Marino tricked the Jets into thinking he was spiking the ball, then threw the winning touchdown to Mark Ingram? The Jets’ downward spiral for the rest of the 1994 season convinced aging owner Leon Hess to fire coach Pete Carroll and hire Rich Kotite because he wanted to win now. Double ouch.
16. The Fumble: The Browns and Broncos met again in the 1987 AFC Championship Game and, again, there was heartbreak for Cleveland. This time, Browns running back Earnest Byner fumbled at the Broncos’ 1-yard line with just over a minute to play in regulation. The Browns lost, 38-33.
17. The Fog Bowl: The Bears beat the Eagles, 20-12, in an exciting 1988 NFC playoff game. Yet few at Chicago’s Soldier Field or among the television audience actually saw the game, because a thick fog descended upon the stadium for about three hours. Even the players complained they couldn’t see the sidelines or the yard markers.
18. “Wrong Way” Jim Marshall: The Vikings’ defensive end was an elite player. But on Oct. 25, 1964, he picked up a 49ers fumble and rumbled 66 yards into the wrong end zone, resulting in a safety and one of the most embarrassing moments in NFL history. Not as well remembered: The Vikings won, 27-22, on fellow defensive end Carl Eller’s touchdown after Marshall’s sack forced a fumble.
19. Super Bowl shuffle: What screamed the 1980s more than this video of Jim McMahon (love the shades), Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, William “The Fridge” Perry and Co. rapping about the Bears’ awesomeness? Bonus points to defensive back Reggie Phillips for his pretend work on the congas.
20. The Steagles: World War II drained many NFL rosters of talent. So, in 1943, with the Steelers having just six players under contract and the Eagles having 16, the Pennsylvania rivals temporarily merged. It allowed the NFL, which needed a minimum of eight teams to conduct a season, to continue operations.
THE FOOTBALL EXPERIENCE
2. End zone celebrations: From a simple spike to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s dance to the Lambeau Leap, nothing gets a crowd going more.
3. Team logos: The good: The Cowboys’ star, the Giants’ NY, the Rams’ horns; The Bad (as in menacing): The Raiders’ crest; and The Ugly: the Bengals’ stripes and whatever the heck that Buccaneers’ flag is. All create an identity.
4. Perfect spiral: What’s more beautiful than watching a quarterback’s tight rotation drop gently into a receiver’s arms?
5. Coin toss: A gentlemanly way to begin a brutal contest.
6. Tackling sled: The old-school method still works for teaching new-school players proper techniques.
7. Canton: Only a select few earn the gold jacket that goes with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
8. “Just win, baby”: The late Raiders owner Al Davis was described in many ways, not many of them nice. But his pirate personality still hovers over the soon-to-be-moved-again franchise.
9. The chains: How can an inch look so far? Nothing causes fans to hold their breath more than the stretching of the first-down chains.
10. Dallas Cowgirls: Now, most teams have cheerleaders or dancers, or both. But, in the 1970s, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were as famous as the players. There were even two made-for-TV movies about the group.
11. Gatorade baths: Nothing says sweet victory like dumping an icy bucket of sports-themed drink over the coach’s head.
12. Marching bands: At one time, a staple of the halftime show.
13. Two-minute warning: Sure, it’s a way to fit more ads into an NFL broadcast. But, in a tight game, the tension meter goes to 11 at the built-in timeout.
14. Victory formation: Watching a quarterback take a knee to run out the clock is a huge relief for one fan base, the start of a restless week for the other.
15. Rookie hazing: No matter how much guaranteed money high draft picks get, all rookies are just training-camp grunts who must prove themselves to the veterans. Often by singing their school songs to teammates at dinner.
FOR THE FANS
1. Fantasy Football: It has changed the way many follow the NFL, as individual stats are more important than the team. A big business that grows each season.
2. Tailgating: For many, the most important and best part of the stadium experience. Fire up the grill, open up that cooler and toss me the football.
3. Sundays: The best day of the week. Kickoffs at 1, 4-ish and 8:20 p.m. Requirements: A comfortable couch or recliner, pizza, chips and a cup holder. Team merchandise optional (but recommended).
4. Super Bowl Sunday: There’s a good chance the first pregame show has already started for The Big Game on Feb. 2. This has become a de facto national holiday. What should be under consideration is making the following Monday an across-the-board day off.
5. Thanksgiving Day: Yeah, it was cute when we could watch the putrid Lions play year in and year out. But now, with three games shown on the greatest holiday of all time, Thanksgiving has gone next level.
6. NFL Kickoff Game: Finally, after waiting since the final gun of the Super Bowl, opening night is here, even if it is on a Thursday.
7. Punt, Pass and Kick: Such a cool tradition for youth football players.
8. Lambeau Field: Hands down, the most storied stadium in the league. Even renovated and modernized, it is an amazing experience to drive through the streets of what in New York would be considered a mid-size to small suburb, turn a corner and see an NFL-sized structure.
9. The Dawg Pound: Every fan base is loyal. But, man, Cleveland Browns fans have been through some rough times. Even losing their original franchise to Baltimore didn’t dampen the Dawg Pound’s ardor.
10. Open practices: Training camp is a tough slog for almost all involved. But the chance for fans to come watch their team practice – something that even the media doesn’t get a chance to do during the regular season – livens everything up.
11. Bad weather: So much fun to see a game played in the rain (too bad turf fields have eliminated the muddy uniforms). Even more fun to see a game in the snow.
12. Monday morning quarterbacks: Every fan is smarter than the losing coach the day after the game.
13. America’s true pastime: Baseball can say what it wants, but football trumps it in mass popularity in the U.S.
14. It’s not soccer: Seriously, no offense meant to the sport most of the rest of the world calls football. But American football is just more exciting. And less predictable. Plus, the players writhing on the ground in apparent pain are really hurt, not that that’s a good thing.
15. The Terrible Towel: Granted, the Packers’ cheeseheads are cool. But Steelers fans waving a small, yellow towel is iconic. And often intimidating.
Xs AND Os
1. Offensive linemen: Teams can’t win a game without winning the line of scrimmage. The upfront tough guys are the key to the whole attack.
2. West Coast Offense: The NFL used to be a running league. The AFL influence started to change that. The Chargers’ “Air Coryell” popularized the passing attack in the late 1970s, but it was Bill Walsh’s scheme with the 1980s 49ers that truly turned the NFL into a throw-first league.
3. Turnovers: The team that wins the turnover battle almost always wins the game.
4. Instant replay: Technology encroaches on the NFL more and more each season, as more and more plays are subject to review. Or at least at-home scrutiny.
5. Kick return for a TD: Few things demoralize a team more than having a punt or kick returned for a touchdown, especially on the kickoff after a score.
6. The huddle: Eleven men standing in a flattened circle with one barking out combinations of words and numbers that make no sense to 99.9 percent of the world’s population. Football.
7. Two-minute drill: The hurry-up offense used to be limited to the end of either half. Now, the no-huddle attack is used at any point in a game.
8. The sack: In today’s pass-happy NFL, getting after the quarterback is what makes or breaks defenses.
9. RPOs: Run-pass options. This is the NFL now. Get used to it.
10. Wide receivers: The quarterbacks must have great talent to throw to, but often the receivers are also the most outlandish personalities. Thinking of you, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Odell Beckham Jr.
11. Cornerbacks: The proliferation of passing has turned cornerback into a star position on equal footing with wide receiver. Think of outsized personalities such as Josh Norman, Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis, who had a whole island named after him.
12. “Omaha, Omaha”: Just about everyone turned Peyton Manning’s barked signal into a running joke, but it speaks to the responsibility today’s quarterbacks have to read the defense at the line of scrimmage and audible into a play.
13. Middle linebackers: Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher. And that’s just from the Bears. The signal caller used to be the nerve center of any defense. Still can be. Other greats include Ray Nitschke, Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert and Sam Huff.
14. Safety blitz: The ultimate risk-reward play, the result typically a sack or a big gain.
15. Hail Marys: Defenses know these last-minute, heave-ho prayers are coming. And yet, a small percentage still work.
TV AND MEDIA
1. Super Bowl ads: The games are great (more so recently than previously). But the TV commercials seem to receive more scrutiny these days.
2. NFL Films: Founder Ed Sabol and his son, Steve, did more to humanize the NFL, to show its quirks, humor (“Football Follies,” brilliant!) and brutality than anybody else in league history. And John Facenda could have read the phone book and it would have been riveting.
3. Madden NFL: First released in 1988 and updated yearly, this is as good as it gets when it comes to sports gaming.
4. Monday Night Football: Pete Rozelle had always pushed for NFL games in prime time, but it wasn’t until ABC started airing games weekly in 1970 that his dream blossomed into an institution. Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and “Dandy” Don Meredith would make it must-see TV.
5. The Red Zone: This NFL Network brainstorm is perfect for fantasy owners. Skip the rest of the game, watch the touchdowns. Literally, a game changer.
6. Slow-motion replay: Every play can be dissected from various angles and at various speeds multiple times before the ensuing play.
7. The Draft: Now the ultimate made-for-TV event as the NFL has stretched out its seven rounds over three days.
8. Adam Schefter: The Nassau County product, now with ESPN, is always atop the standings in terms of breaking news across the league.
9. Pat Summerall/John Madden: With apologies to all the other great play-by-play announcers and analysts, the best-ever NFL broadcasting tandem.
10. Peter King: His Monday Morning Quarterback column for Sports Illustrated was required reading for any NFL fan.
11. WFAN’s Joe Benigno: Honestly, listening to this crazed Jets fan rant after another brutal loss or another brutal coach and/or GM hire is radio gold. Oh, the pain, Bro.
12. Dr. Z: Paul Zimmerman, who also spent much of his career at Sports Illustrated, analyzed the NFL as well as any sportswriter.
13. Dave Meggyesy: Just as Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” revealed baseball’s inner sanctum, the former Cardinals linebacker’s 1970 memoir “Out Of Their League” exposed the NFL’s pettiness and hypocrisy.
14. George Plimpton: The participatory journalist attended training camp with the Lions in 1963 as a quarterback and wrote “Paper Lion” about the experience. A terrific window into the NFL also made into a good film with Alan Alda.
15. North Dallas Forty: The 1979 film starring Nick Nolte and Mac Davis, a thinly veiled representation of the Dallas Cowboys, was another peek into how football teams operate. Former Cowboys receiver Peter Gent’s novel, published in 1973, was even more brutally honest.