With Tom Brady’s unprecedented seventh Super Bowl victory at age 43 this year, it seems safe to say that he has cemented his status as the greatest quarterback of all time. A strong argument can be made, using his combination of individual statistical accolades and team success, that he is the single greatest player in professional football history.
This argument is relatively straightforward, particularly if you put an emphasis on ring counting.
What is less straightforward, is collectively ranking players of different positions with completely different roles and responsibilities on the field. Comparing stats of quarterbacks to skill position players to defensive players is the equivalent of comparing apples to oranges to ketchup packets.
But today we are going to give it our best shot to determine the top four overall players in NFL history. To do so, and to make sure we cover both sides of the ball evenly, we will pick the top quarterback, the top skill position player, and the top two players from the defensive side of the ball.
Sorry special teams, you will not be addressed here. Let’s just say Adam Vinatieri gets a special plaque on the site of this imaginary monument as the greatest special-teamer of all time. However, he does not get his face on the mountain.
So without further ado, let’s get started:
Face #1: Tom Brady, QB
As mentioned, seven Super Bowl victories with two different teams in ten appearances (essentially every other Super Bowl since he entered the league), and still arguably the greatest quarterback in the game at age 43, Tom Brady is a no-brainer to represent his position on this Mt. Rushmore. His Patriots squad won 11 consecutive division titles which is also a record.
In terms of his individual statistics, they are damn-near as impressive as his team success and championships. Brady holds the record for career touchdown passes with 581. He has the most career wins as a quarterback with 230. He has a record four Super Bowl MVP awards. Brady has a record 33 playoff wins. He has thrown a record 80 playoff passing touchdowns. Brady is tied with Peyton Manning with 14 Pro Bowl appearances.
Along with the numbers, Tom Brady’s leadership and ability to build a winning culture can not be understated. He, along with head coach Bill Belichick, created the “Patriot Way,” the winningest culture in the history of the sport.
In one year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he reset the culture and led them to Super Bowl victory. Brady’s influence has turned some of the NFL’s loudest malcontents, i.e. Randy Moss and Antonio Brown, into model citizens for their say under his umbrella. The Bucs, by the way, are historical the NFL’s losing-est franchise.
Brady is not only the greatest player but the greatest leader in the history of the sport. He without question deserves his headshot, front and center, on Mount Rushmore.
Face #2, Jerry Rice, WR
Jerry Rice is the greatest skill position player in NFL history.
In terms of team success, Rice is a three-time Super Bowl champion, making the big game four times with two different teams (three wins with the 49ers and once with the Oakland Raiders, a loss to Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers). He also played in eight conference championship games in his career.
Despite playing primarily in an era when passing games were far less explosive than they are now (contact with quarterbacks and receivers was not only allowed but encouraged), he still holds a ton of individual receiving records that are seemingly untouchable. Rice is the all-time leader in receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), and receiving touchdowns (197). He previously held the record for total yards and touchdowns in a season. He holds the record for points scored by a non-kicker with 1,256.
These records are just the tip of the iceberg, as all told, he holds over 100 NFL records, which is a record in and of itself. He was a 13-time Pro Bowler and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
It would be almost impossible to argue any other skill position player deserves their face on the NFL Mount Rushmore over Jerry Rice.
With that, let’s flip to the defensive side of the ball…
Face #3: Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis led the Baltimore Ravens to two Superbowl Championships in his 17-year career. These teams won Super Bowls thanks purely to Lewis-led, utterly dominant defenses.
The first ring he earned was in 2001. He was joined by Tony Siragusa and company for one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. They dominated the Giants that game 34-7 despite having a pedestrian offense quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer. Lewis was named Super Bowl MVP for the game.
The second was in 2013, his final season, in which his defense led the Ravens to a 34-31 victory in the “HarBowl” over the Colin Kaepernick-led 49ers. The Ravens were once again dominant despite being quarterbacked by far-from-elite Joe Flacco.
In terms of his individual statistics, he is the only player in NFL history to record at least 40 sacks (with 41.5) and 30 interceptions (with 31). Lewis is the only player to ever win Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP in the same season (in 2001). He holds the record for total takeaways by a linebacker.
He is (unofficially) third all-time in tackles with 2,061 total. Lewis is a 13-time Pro Bowler, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, seven-time First-team All-Pro, and a three-time Second-team All-Pro. Lewis was elected to join the NFL Hall of Fame in 2018.
A Complex Legacy
Ray Lewis faced his share of controversy during his career. He pled guilty to obstruction of justice regarding an investigation into the murder of two men in 2000 following a Super Bowl party in Atlanta. This case also led Lewis to settle out of court with several of the victim’s family members. Obviously, this involvement in a very dark, violent crime has had a notable impact on his legacy and how he is remembered.
However, the legal process played out and Lewis paid his retribution, and this is purely a football debate, so we will not hold this against him in the argument for his football greatness.
You could go on and on with his list of individual accomplishments as a player, but the numbers do not truly define the type of leader he was. There are legends of his pre-game and halftime speeches, many of which can be found on Youtube, and his ability to galvanize and inspire the troops may be second to none.
Taking his impact on the sport, his individual accolades, and his leadership into account, there is no question that Ray Lewis deserves his face on the mountain.
With that, let us take a look at the last face on the mountain…
Face #4: Lawrence Taylor, another complex legacy
Last but far from least, we have Lawrence Taylor.
Interestingly, he joins Ray Lewis as one of the most controversial players in league history. LT’s reputation can be summarized by the fact that he was made the face of the cartoonishly violent video game NFL Blitz: The League.
Lewis long endured a struggle with substance abuse. He had several run-ins with the law, including a hit and run, a DUI, and a statutory rape case. Before praising Taylor for his incredible influence on the game of football, it must be noted that his greatness comes with the notable asterisk that some of his behaviors were truly indefensible. Great football player yes, but a great role model and good person, no.
That said, with this being purely a football conversation, let’s start with the fact that Taylor led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories.
Taylor is one of just two defensive players in league history to win the NFL MVP Award (in 1986, he also led the league in sacks with 20.5 that season). Taylor kicked off his career winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award three times. Taylor made 10 Pro Bowl appearances in his 13 years. LT was named First Team All-Pro eight times, and Second Team All-Pro twice.
LT finished his career with an incredible 142 (unofficial) sacks and 1,089 tackles in his 13-year career. Taylor was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1999.
Like Ray Lewis, these impressive individual statistics don’t tell the story of just how valuable Taylor was to his team. He was a fiery locker room leader who could rally the troops as well as any wartime general.
All four of these guys were winners, leaders, and incredible individual performers. Some brought with them complex legacies, controversies, and even troubling histories. Perhaps, as LT had been quoted in 1987, there is a “real relationship between wild, reckless abandon off the field and being that way on the field.”
While Joe Montana, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and many others certainly have a valid argument to make the mountain, there is not a better fantasy lineup in the multi-verse than a Tom Brady/Jerry Rice offense with a Ray Lewis/Lawrence Taylor defense.