If one were to ask who was the greatest player in baseball, the vast majority would say either Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, or Hank Aaron. With basketball, it’s Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, or Bill Russell. For hockey, it’s Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, or Mario Lemieux. For most sporting associations, it’s clear who the standout players are – and fans tend to agree.
When it comes to the NFL, however, it’s a different situation. While names like Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Montana tend to pop up, none of these carries the weight of consensus as Michael Jordan does in the NBA. It may be because roles in football are so structured and inflexible, or it may be that success in the NFL is dependent on team dynamics – it is difficult to think of a successful quarterback, for example, without considering the exceptional running backs and receivers and strong blockers that make his job possible. So it’s almost impossible to crown a Greatest of All Times among league players. Typically, such discussions will lead to raised voices, hurt feelings, and – occasionally – a bar fight or two.
Fanatics asked over 3,000 fans who they think is the most iconic NFL player for their team. The results, shared below, reflect the fact that NFL Nation is not homogeneous, but a vibrant and dynamic mix of fanatics and casual fans who carry their own perceptions and philosophies to the sport. Every fan is drawn to something different, and the results of the fans’ polling helped to prove this.
Depending on which franchise a fan roots for, his or her opinion of what constitutes an icon will vary, as seen in the polling results. For example, New York Jets fans see Joe Namath as their greatest icon – 32 percent of all Jets fans voted for him.
“Broadway Joe” Namath is a New York City legend, once famously guaranteeing a win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III (coached by Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history) and then delivering on that promise. Namath threw for 1,886 passes for 27,663 yards and 173 touchdowns. The Hall of Famer is the franchise all-time career leader in career wins, passing touchdowns, pass attempts, passing yards, pass completions, and interceptions; he is also the only Jets player to be included in most top 100 lists, including 1999 Sporting News’ 100 Greatest Football Players and 2010 NFL’s The Top 100.
Among San Francisco 49ers fans, Joe Montana (aka “Joe Cool” and “The Comeback Kid”) is the greatest – despite the fact Montana completed his career in a Kansas City Chiefs uniform. The eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time Super Bowl MVP, and four-time Super Bowl champion was named Sports Illustrated’s 1999 “Sportsman of the Year” and the No. 1 clutch quarterback of all-time in 2006. The Sporting News named Montana third on its 1999 list of 100 Greatest Players, and the originator of “The Catch” was named to the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and the NFL 1980’s All-Decade Team.
Seattle Seahawks fans go with running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch. A relatively young addition to the icon list, the five-time Pro Bowler has been included on every NFL’s Top 100 Players list since 2012. Lynch, 27th on the all-time rushing touchdown list, was essential to Seattle’s winning Super Bowl XLVIII. Lynch is also one of the rare non-quarterbacks to be chosen as a greatest icon.
A Constellation of Greatness
When asked to identify the greatest St. Louis Rams player, people may name an absolute litany of players: 11-time Pro Bowl selectee offensive guard Tom Mack with his 184 consecutive game streak; running back Marshall Faulk with his seven Pro Bowl selections and distinction of being one of only two players to receive and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season; and quarterback Kurt Warner, who was the star of “the Greatest Show on Turf.” All emerge as likely contenders. This, however, does not dissuade those who would mention Norm Van Brocklin, Isaac Bruce, Jackie Slater, Merlin Olsen, David Jones, Jack Youngblood, or a very large number of exceptional individuals who could also meet the criteria of greatest icon.
In a sport that has as heterogeneous a fanbase as football, it is unsurprising that different fans gravitate to different aspects of the game in determining greatest. Fans of hard-nosed football would look at the rushers and the defensive line toward being the stars of the gridiron. Fans of the aerial games would look at the quarterbacks and the receivers. Fans of red zone play would favor tight ends and the offensive backs.
Some teams – such as the New England Patriots, which have had both a limited term of top-tier productivity and an exceptional high-profile player – will only produce a small number of icon candidates among their fans. Teams with more storied pasts and fewer standouts – such as the Rams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Oakland Raiders – appear to have many favorites, as seen in the poll. St. Louis fans had 58 candidates for their greatest iconic player, while New England only had three – quarterback Tom Brady was the heads-on favorite for 94 percent of New England fans, the most for any player named.
Getting NFL fans to agree upon anything is a stretch, even in the same franchise. The NFL inherits all of the diverseness and differences that can be found in the states and regions its teams represent. As such, getting a diehard Jets fan to agree with someone else who the greatest Jets player was is just as likely as getting the two to agree who has the best pizza in New York. It may be, ultimately, a good thing and a sign of the league’s strength that there is no consensus on who is the most iconic player; the NFL is a constellation of stars – all great and unique in their own ways, working together to create something more exceptional than any one player can create on their own.
This speaks to the fact that both the NFL is a game where there are no individuals and that there’s something in the league for every fan, regardless of how he or she looks at it.
We surveyed 100 fans of every NFL team and asked who the most iconic player to ever play for that team was. We then analyzed the responses to identify the most iconic players and determine which teams have the most divided fans.
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