For an industry that often relies on discussions of the greatest to ever do it, the “best of the NFL” is a notoriously difficult thing to pinpoint. From the strongest coaching to Cinderella Super Bowl runs, every NFL fan and pundit looks for something different when it comes to the NFL’s best.
As such, it is less about finding the definitive proof of who is greatest and more about breaking down the road to success on the biggest fields in football.
The best NFL teams in the Super Bowl
Ironically, the greatest team to ever play in the Super Bowl may have dropped the ball when it mattered most. The New England Patriots were chasing history going 18-0 heading into Super Bowl XLII. With Tom Brady throwing the ball and Randy Moss running it, it took a gutsy performance by Eli Manning and company to show how unforgiving the NFL can be.
It’s hard to put the impetus on teams who have the most season success to go with Super Bowl titles. But it also seems unfair to take the title from the 1972 Dolphins who went 14-0 and didn’t suffer like Brady’s Patriots. Others may argue dynasties such as the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys in the ’80s and ’90s, who took turns pummeling opponents en-route to several wins between them.
From Cinderella teams like Mahomes’ Chiefs to the Patriots, Steelers, 49ers, and Cowboys, whose breadth of experience over several eras make them constant favorites to return, the best Super Bowl teams are as boundless as the list of winners. Sometimes looking at the game itself is the best way to measure its dominance.
The top Super Bowls of all time
Finding the best Super Bowl performance, as the NFL officially tried to do, might be the most subjective of the quest for greatness. If you ask a 49ers fan, their 55-10 shellacking of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV may not have been the most entertaining game in history, but the way they embarrassed John Elway and Co. is proof enough of Montana and Co.’s goodness.
Others may measure the best Super Bowl by teams who were not favored to go all the way and triumphed in the face of adversity. Sure, Eli Manning’s Giants were never all-time great NFL teams, but defeating an undefeated juggernaut then defeating them again a few years later is one of the most impressive underdog feats in NFL history. Similar things can be said about Mahomes’ Chiefs doing it against the 49ers in 2020.
Classic games include Super Bowl XIII’s showdown between the Steelers and championship-regular Cowboys as well as the St. Louis Rams making Kurt Warner a household name while winning by mere inches. Super Bowl success is great from year to year, but the criteria for greatness is as vast as the ways one can win. Sometimes, all it takes is a leader who can make the best of everything from the sideline.
The top NFL coaches
NFL coaches have different paths to success. What Bill Belichick lacks in people skills and relationships with other coaches, he makes up for in his ability to get the best out of teams regardless of age and talent. Tom Landry consistently led the Cowboys through good and bad on a quest to become America’s Team, while Vince Lombardi’s success before the Super Bowl existed forged his name onto the trophy forever.
The Dolphins’ Don Shula and the 49ers’ Bill Walsh not only coached dynasties that experienced several years of success, but they did so with a changing roster of talent. Tony Dungy, on the other hand, found great success with many teams and is often credited for Jon Gruden’s Super Bowl run the year after he left Tampa Bay. He later won with Indianapolis.
Dozens of teams, coaches, and players can be the best at certain aspects, but finding an objective way to measure them can often yield frustrating results. It goes to show just how great one has to be in the conversation, but the criteria to get there is a hard puzzle; many pieces fit in many ways.
Top NFL No. 1 picks
Sporting News notes that it’s easy to pick the best based on what happens over the course of an NFL career. But it’s tougher to remember how they started. While No. 1 picks who turn into busts often go down in NFL history, the picks who meet the hype almost get underrated, given their ability to meet the expectations.
Oftentimes, the No. 1 pick is the best available quarterback. As such, when the Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton Manning in 1998, all he needed to do was throw the football to his targets to secure his title as a solid pick. Instead, he made the Colts one of the marquee teams in the NFL. When the team moved on to Andrew Luck, he did it again with the Denver Broncos, earning him a spot in the NFL Top 100, according to NFL.com.
John Elway also transitioned from the Colts to the Broncos, but he did so after the former drafted him. The QB threatened not to suit up if they didn’t trade him. In turn, the Broncos became one of the most consistent contenders in the NFL for well over a decade. Terry Bradshaw was a superstar in college and a bigger star with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, Troy Aikman showed that individual numbers and winning don’t always go together to Super Bowl glory.
Bruce Smith did it a different way. A defensive superstar in college, Smith was never going to get the spotlight as Peyton did. But this didn’t stop him from showing his worth by becoming the all-time sack leader while bolstering the Bills’ historic defense in the process. Orlando Pace managed to show his worth as the rare No. 1 offensive lineman to go first overall and still manage to meet expectations.
The top NFL draft picks
If early draft picks are judged more harshly than the average player, late-round picks suffer from different problems. Often coming in with either shoddy reputations or a college career that did not excite NFL scouts, late-round picks are lucky to enter the NFL. However, many of the greatest picks in history weren’t even in the first half of the draft.
Tom Brady’s legendary career famously started when his unspectacular college career was followed by a surprise sixth-round pick after a Draft Combine that failed to impress. However, Brady was just the latest in a long line of picks — from Jim Brown to Jerry Rice and Joe Montana — who secured their worth not based on where they landed but despite it. Five-time Super Bowl winner Bart Starr waited for a mind-blowing 17 rounds before hearing his name, for example.
Drafting well is more important than drafting first. Many of the biggest names in history are a testament to this. However, sometimes the loaded draft classes they choose from help the teams find these diamonds in the rough.
Top NFL draft classes
Certain drafts are absolutely loaded. On top of Elway, the 1983 NFL Draft shows how important it is to know a player’s worth beyond the first few picks. This class gave fans eight Hall of Famers, from Elway to Jim Kelly and Dan Marino on top of three dozen other Pro Bowlers. Two years earlier, Howie Long, Mike Singletary, and Lawrence Taylor shined alongside four other Hall of Famers and 33 Pro Bowlers.
The 2004 NFL Draft was too recent to measure by Hall of Fame speeches. Still, with 30 Pro Bowlers and several surefire Hall of Famers like Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, it’ll likely age well as the remaining players conclude their careers. Building a winner is not about one superstar or team but the overall winning culture. As such, knowing who’s available at specific football positions is more important than getting that pick. There’s NFL talent in every round. The best thing one can do is know who best suits one’s potential to make their future dreams a reality.
The top NFL quarterbacks
Any list of the greatest NFL quarterbacks in recent memory starts and ends with Tom Brady. While a case can be made for other quarterbacks, none come close to the superstar’s two-decade dominance. The 44-year-old has earned Seven Super Bowls — five with an MVP — and a tradition of excellence that defies his age. However, it doesn’t mean he’s the only name.
Aaron Rodgers may have only one Super Bowl. Still, his individual dominance at the position and ability to elevate his team toward the ultimate goal has given him similar longevity without the number of rings. Of course, any conversation about Brady must also include Peyton Manning’s legacy, which lacks in rings but may outshine Brady with individual performances.
From Brett Favre’s brush with dominance with the Packers to the younger generation of superstars like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the best quarterback in the NFL is in the eye of the beholder. At the same time, older fans will still go to bat for Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Troy Aikman despite playing in a different era.
Furthermore, the greatest-of-all-time label can unfairly skew in a quarterback’s direction. At the same time, other football positions, like center, can arguably have as much of an impact without needing the ball in their hands.
Top NFL centers
NFL quarterbacks are the face of the offense and often the team. But a good center can overcome a mediocre quarterback to bring his team to the top of the rankings. This is why Erik McCoy, Ben Jones, Jason Kelce, JC Tretter, Ryan Kelly, and Rodney Hudson are valuable in NFL circles. The offense may get the credit, but the defense gets the wins. However, many accolades go to prior eras, as Gil Brandt’s nostalgic look at greatest centers ever on NFL.com confirms.
The rise in how leagues advertise their superstars combined with the advent of social media have made the days of superstar centers like Jim Otto a relic of the past. Any list of all-time centers likely features more players from before the current crop of talent was born. While Jim Ringo and Dermontti Dawson were products of their time, their impact should never go into the wayside.
Being the center of the defense comes with many picks. While casual fans may never give players their debut, it’s no mistake that NFL quarterbacks often pay their defenders for allowing them to show such dominance with the ball. The understated MVP, the center shows the unequal disposition between star quarterbacks and the rest. It’s also why many of the NFL’s most iconic players were not quarterbacks at all.
The NFL’s most iconic players
247 Sports‘ list of the greatest NFL players included Brady, Manning, Starr, Joe Namath, Aiken, Elway, and several younger quarterbacks. However, it doesn’t mean that they were the most iconic. Michael Vick’s career has become a complicated mix of good and bad both on and off the field. Still, for a time, he was undoubtedly the face of the league for a generation of fans who appreciated his take at quarterback.
Furthermore, stars like Randy Moss or Terrell Owens may not have been universally loved. But a media storm followed everything they did on the field and off of it. Bo Jackson’s short career made him one of the greatest athletes ever, while Lawrence Taylor showed that one did not need the offense to earn the MVP.
Younger players like Mahomes and Jackson may eventually reach this level of iconography. But time is often the biggest factor in securing an all-time place. Not-quite-superstars like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees have what it takes to win, but so many treat it as a race to the top.
Whatever the case may be, being the best of the best is not an easy street to guide. For every stat and win that goes your direction, another proves someone has a stake to the claim, too.