Football's all-time alpha male

Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 30, 2005



There's been a lot of talk in recent years – and in recent days – about Jerry Rice's place on the totem pole of gridiron greatness. He's certainly the best receiver of our time. That contest ended long ago. But is he the best football player of all time?

Rice's recent signing with Denver has re-ignited the debate. He's returning to the NFL for a 21st campaign and will turn 43 during the season. No receiver – and few players at any position – has ever played to such an advanced age. Rice holds a keg full of regular-season and postseason receiving records. He's a three-time Super Bowl champion and was the Most Valuable Player of Super XXIII, a dramatic 20-16 victory by San Francisco over Cincinnati. He's one of the true greats in the history of the game.

But he's not the best ever.

That honor continues to belong to Jim Brown, who plowed over defenses as a running back for Cleveland from 1957 to 1965, dominated the league like no other player before or since, and then walked off the field at the height of his greatness with his pride, body and reputation fully intact. Forty years after he last played a game, Brown continues to hold a position of singular greatness in the history of football.

We were reminded of Brown's dominance on and off the field during an appearance he made last week on NFL Network's "Total Access." Brown was interviewed by hosts Rich Eisen and former Atlanta and Oakland offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy, and by guest host Brentson Buckner, the Carolina defensive end.

Brown, who announced during the appearance that he's now employed by the Browns organization, was there to talk about Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., who issued a public apology last week after tearing up his knee while riding a motorcycle this offseason. Winslow will miss the entire 2005 season, after missing all but two games in his rookie campaign of 2004.

Buckner and Kennedy had roundly criticized Winslow in an earlier episode of Total Access. They questioned his maturity and his decision to issue a written and not a spoken apology. Brown defended Winslow's character and his method of apology (the apology was posted on Brown's Web site, www.64browns.com).

It took all of 10 seconds to realize that Brown ruled the floor.

During the segment, Brown calmly, clearly and forcefully attacked Kennedy and Buckner. He told Kennedy (who deferred to the NFL great as "Mr. Brown") and Buckner that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones and reminded them of their own moments of public immaturity.

Brown said he remembers Kennedy, whose playing weight was listed at 335 pounds and whose flesh virtually poured from his uniform, dancing on the field. "There's nothing dignified about that," said Brown.

Buckner attempted to rebut his accuser. Brown quickly put the 310-pound, 33-year old defensive end in his place. "You better leave it alone, big fella," said Brown, who turned 69 in February.

Buckner, like Kennedy, was left virtually speechless. It was a triumph of old school dignity over mouthy modernity and said volumes about Brown's status in the uber-macho realm of professional football.

The exchange made for great television, but it was little more than a symbol of Brown's reverential status in the world of football. The Cold, Hard Football Facts offer a concrete assessment. And they show that Brown still stands above Rice as the greatest player ever to snap on a helmet and shoulder pads.

Quite simply, Brown dominated football in a way that Rice never has.

In Brown's worst statistical season, his rookie year of 1957 (a 12-game season), he led the league in rushing (202 carries, 942 yards, 4.7 yards per carry), ran for nine touchdowns, scored a 10th receiving, was named NFL rookie of the year, made the Pro Bowl and was named the league's MVP. Again, that was his worst statistical season.

Brown walked off the field eight years later at the height of his power. In his final year in football, the 14-game 1965 season, Brown rushed for 1,544 yards on 289 attempts (an awesome 5.3 yards per carry). He also caught 34 passses for another 328 yards and scored 21 touchdowns (17 rushing, 4 receiving). He was again named the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

His dominance is truly apparent when you consider that Brown played just 118 NFL games. During that time, he rushed for 12,312 yards, compiled 14,811 yards of offense (an average of 125.5 per game), and ran for 106 touchdowns. All were NFL records.

Forty years after he last played, Brown continues to hold numerous rushing records. His average of 104.3 yards per game remains the best of all time. Barry Sanders is second with 99.8 rush yards per game.

Brown also averaged 5.2 yards each time he ran the ball, a per-carry clip unmatched in NFL history (among running backs with 750 or more career attempts). Think of that for a moment. Last season, Curtis Martin had the best year of his career and led the league with 1,697 yards rushing. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Brown bested that by more than half a yard over the course of his entire career.

Quite simply, Brown's productivity over such a short period – his nine-year dominance – is unmatched by any player at any time in football history. His record of 12,312 rushing yards has since been surpassed by seven of the greatest running backs in NFL history. But a comparison of each player's first 118 games leaves no question that Brown was better than any of them.

Player

Yards

Attempts

Average

Rush TDs

Jim Brown

12,312

2,359

5.22

106

Eric Dickerson

11,903

2,616

4.55

86

Barry Sanders

11,338

2,315

4.90

82

Emmitt Smith

10,943

2,526

4.33

110

Walter Payton

10,517

2,420

4.35

73

Curtis Martin

9,842

2,489

3.95

68

Tony Dorsett

9,525

2,136

4.56

59

Jerome Bettis

9,187

2,303

3.99

47

Given an equal number of games, only two of the seven leading ballcarriers of all time are within 1,300 yards of Brown's rushing output.

Brown was also a pretty fair pass catcher. He caught 262 passes for 2,499 yards and 20 touchdowns. Over the course of their careers, none of the other top-eight ballcarriers caught as many touchdown passes or posted such a lofty receiving average (9.5 yards per reception).

Among the eight leading rushers of all time, Brown is also the only player who averaged better than one touchdown per game over the course of his career (or within a 118-game period). He scored 126 touchdowns in his career.

Of course, the debate here is not Brown vs. the other great running backs of all time, but Brown vs. Rice.

Rice is an incredible football player, one of the true physical marvels in modern sports history, and he holds a mountain of receiving records. But his records are mostly a product of longevity. If Rice's career ended after 118 games, for example, he'd have 9,687 receiving yards and 16 players would be ahead of him today on the all-time receiving list. In other words, he simply cannot compare to the sheer dominance with which Brown ruled the league for nearly a decade.

* Brown led the league in rushing a record eight times in nine seasons. No other player has more than four rushing titles.

* Rice led the league in receiving yards six times in 20 seasons. The record is held by Green Bay's Don Hutson, who led the league in receiving seven times in 11 seasons.

* Brown led the league in rushing a record five straight seasons (1957-61). Next on the list are four players who led the league in rushing three straight seasons. Brown's also among those four who have three straight rushing titles (1963-65).

* Rice led the league in receiving yards three straight times (1993-95). Hutson led the league in receiving a record four consecutive seasons (1941-44).

* Brown led the league in rushing attempts a record six times in nine seasons. No other player has led the league in attempts more than four times.

* Rice led the league in receptions twice (1990 and 1996) in 20 seasons. Eight players have led the league in receptions three or more times. Hutson led the league in receptions a record eight times.

* Brown led the league in touchdown runs a record five times in nine seasons

* Rice led the league in touchdown receptions six times in 20 seasons. Hutson led the league in touchdown receptions a record nine times.

* Brown led the league in touchdown runs three straight years (1957-59), a record he shares with four other players.

* Rice led the league in touchdown receptions three straight years (1989-91). Hutson led the league in touchdown receptions a record five straight years (1940-44) and again for four straight years (1935-38).

* Brown led the league in overall touchdowns three times in nine seasons.

* Rice led the league in overall touchdowns twice in 20 seasons.

* Brown is one of just four players in history to rush for five or more touchdowns in a game. Gayle Sayers holds the record with six rushing touchdowns in one game.

* Rice is one of just three players in history to catch a record five touchdown passes in a game.

* Brown is the only running back in NFL history to twice win the league's MVP award.

* Rice has never been named the league's MVP (but no receiver has won the award since the Associated Press began issuing it in 1957).

* Brown made nine Pro Bowls in nine seasons.

* Rice made 13 Pro Bowls in 20 seasons.

Rice, of course, deserves mountains of credit for playing to such an advanced age. He is, again, one of the true physical marvels of our time. In fact, he made the Pro Bowl as recently as the 2002 season, when he was 40 years old. He also deserves lavish praise for his brilliant performances at the height of his career. Still, even at his best, Rice was not the force on the football field that Brown was.

But don't feel bad for Rice. There's no shame in playing second football fiddle to Jim Brown. And there's no shame in deferring to him. Just ask Brentson Buckner and Lincoln Kennedy.

 

 


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