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Leaving their mark: NFL legends make impressions that last forever

With Peter King on vacation until July 26, NFL Films president Steve Sabol took time away from getting ready for the 2010 season to write this week's Monday Morning Quarterback column. Sabol has received 34 Emmys for writing, cinematography, editing, directing, and producing. No one else in television has earned as many Emmys in as many different categories.

One question I'm asked more than any other is: Who is the greatest player in NFL history? I can't answer it. It's like asking me to name my favorite noodle in a spaghetti dinner. It's tough to name the top 10 players, even the top 100. But at NFL Films, we're taking a crack at it anyway.

Airing in September is our latest project for the NFL Network called The Top 100: The NFL's Greatest Players. The players were selected by a vote of 85 panelists, which consisted of Hall of Fame selectors, coaches, general managers, owners, scouts, journalists, TV analysts and statisticians. Ranking the great players is, in a way, like rating the saints. Is St. Peter better than St. Paul? Would you pick St. Mark over St. Matthew? Our show won't end any arguments, but it will certainly start some.

This season will be my 48th filming the NFL. I've watched, met, known, filmed or interviewed almost every player in our Top 100. What follows is a personal list of thoughts and observations about men, not all great, who in one way or another made a lasting impression on me.

Greatest Defensive Player: Dick Butkus

A force of unmanageable proportions, he was Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl. His career as the middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears stands as the most sustained work of devastation ever committed on a football field by anyone, anywhere, anytime. In 1969, the Bears won one game and Butkus was voted the Defensive Player of the Year. He stood for something just as important as victory -- he gave everything he had on every play. No one ever played harder or better than Dick Butkus.

Greatest Running Back: Walter Payton

Jim Brown was the greatest ball carrier, but no one ever played the position of running back as completely as Payton. He was a crushing blocker. I saw him lift blitzers off their feet. When it was required, he was an effective decoy who followed through convincingly on all his fakes. He once led the Bears in kickoff returns. He's Chicago's all-time leading receiver. When he threw passes, he completed most for touchdowns. The Bears threw enough interceptions for Payton's skill as a tackler to be noticed and, in addition to all of that, he missed only one game in his entire career. And when he retired in 1987, he had carried the ball more times for more yards than any player in history.

Most Uncoachable Player: Joe Don Looney

He was drafted in the first round by the New York Giants in 1964 and was proof that sometimes your name is your destiny. He was an outrageous non-conformist, even for the 60's. In scrimmages, he often ran one way when the play called for him to go another. His reason: "Anyone can run where the blockers are. A good ball carrier makes his own holes." Once after skipping several practices, Joe Don explained his absence to Coach Allie Sherman. "If practice makes perfect and perfection is impossible, why practice?" Sherman traded him to the Colts, who traded him to the Lions, who shipped him to the Redskins. After a tryout with the Saints, he quit the NFL and became a bodyguard for Swami Muktananda. He traveled the world doing anything from washing elephants' feet to sitting for hours at the Swami's feet, listening. Joe Don died in 1988 when he lost control of his motorcycle on a winding section of a Texas highway.

SI VAULT: Looney is playing a new tune (08.04.69)

Most Influential Player: John Unitas

Due solely to his presence, the quarterback position Unitas left when he retired was different than the position he found when he began playing. The combination of poise, skill and field generalship which Unitas brought to the position was something no statistics can measure and he had to be seen to be appreciated.

Best Runner With No Speed: Walt Garrison

As Garrison's Cowboys teammate Don Meredith once said, "Walt's slower than the steam off horse manure, but he's dependable. He always hits the right hole and never fumbles." Coach Tom Landry explained Garrison's value this way, "If you need three yards, Walt'll get you three yards; if you need five yards, Walt'll get you three yards." What Garrison lacked in speed he made up for in toughness. He led the Cowboys to a 17-10 win over San Francisco in the 1970 NFC Championship game playing with a dislocated shoulder.

Best Player Not In the Hall Of Fame: Jerry Kramer

He was the lead boulder in the avalanche that was the Packer Power Sweep. In the 1962 Championship game in Yankee Stadium, he kicked three field goals through the bitter wind to provide the winning margin over the Giants, 16-7. In the Ice Bowl, he became the most famous right guard in history with his goal-line block on Jethro Pugh; so celebrated that some people think the deodorant was named for him. He endured 23 operations. He was All-Pro five times. And finally, when the NFL celebrated its 50th anniversary, the Hall of Fame selected its All-Time Team and Jerry Kramer was the guard. He was a striver, a man of straight ahead will and determination who epitomized the essence of Vince Lombardi's Packers.

Classiest Competitor: Bart Starr

If gallantry, generosity and humility were lost in the world, they could be found again in this Hall of Fame quarterback.

Most Thrilling Ball Carrier: Gale Sayers

Barry Sanders is a close second. Barry made moves that were indescribable. Sayers had moves that were unimaginable.

Most Memorable NFL Funeral: Carroll Rosenbloom's

Rosenbloom owned the Los Angeles Rams and Jonathan Winters and Don Rickles did stand-up comedy routines during the services. Among the guests were Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Ricardo Montalban. Carroll's son Steve said, "It was the only funeral that could have played 8 weeks in Las Vegas."

Most Photo-Dramatic Face: Larry Csonka

His nose was so bent and re-bent he had to breathe through his ears.

***

In producing The Top 100 we researched over 100 million feet of film in our library. All of our film is organized, cross-referenced and categorized. We are constantly required to identify many aspects of football, not just excellence. For instance, here's how we identify plays that may appear in our year-end show that reviews the season's most outrageous miscues and foul-ups. We have a specific category for each botched play:

• A FOLLY is a physical error. A fumble, a stumble, or a mishandled exchange.

• A BLOOPER is a mental error, like Jim Marshall's wrong-way run.

• A BLUNDER is a mental error compounded by a physical one, like the Miracle of the Meadowlands when, instead of taking a knee to run out the clock, Giants QB Joe Pisarcik fumbled the hand-off to Larry Csonka. The Eagles' Herm Edwards scooped it up and scored the game-winning TD. Garo Yepremian's ill-advised pass in Super Bowl VII and subsequent interception also qualifies as a blunder. So now, when you're watching the game, you'll have the correct terminology to describe whatever screw-up occurs.

1. I think Adrian Peterson's fumbling problem -- he did it more times last year than any other running back -- is an outgrowth of what makes him so effective. He runs more viciously than any back in the league. Adrian should watch some film of Jim Taylor, the Packer Hall of Famer. Like Peterson, he perceived every play as an examination of his manhood. He spat, elbowed and battled his way to five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in the 1960s, and he fumbled less than any top back of his era.

2. I think football practices are notoriously boring -- unless you have the access that we at NFL Films have on "Hard Knocks." For a filmmaker, training camp is a laboratory of emotions. Funny things happen, unfortunate things happen, unpredictable things happen. That's what makes our HBO series the most challenging show we produce -- we don't know our storylines until the day they develop. It's like building an airplane in flight -- and with Rex Ryan and the New Jets this season, fans better buckle up because it's gonna be a rough and tumble ride.

3. I think my favorite football movie is still Brian's Song. Every football team is a group of men joining together to pursue a dream. Brian's Song followed that dream, and from it grew a special friendship that become more meaningful than the dream itself. Brian's Song was Brokeback Mountain with football helmets instead of cowboy hats -- and minus the scene inside the tent.

4. I think this was the quote of the week: Last week, my 94-year-old father and founder of NFL Films, Ed Sabol, visited our studios in Mt. Laurel, N.J. A young intern put his appearance in the proper perspective when he said, "It was like being in Mt. Vernon and seeing George Washington walking the halls."

5. I think the obscurity into which 49ers running back Hugh McElhenny has fallen is both puzzling and shameful. I couldn't believe he wasn't selected as one of our Top 100! He ran with a style and kind of joyous élan that made his long runs delightful to watch. Sports are supposed to fill you with wonder. Hugh McElhenny was the first football player who did that to me.

6. I think emotion is an overused word and overrated factor in the NFL. Everyone in football is charged up, but emotion is a commodity with a notoriously short shelf-life. You can't replace preparation and execution with emotion and hope to make it. There was a lot of passion at the Alamo, and they all died.

7. I think many coaches today magnify turnovers and use those plays as a reason for losing. By turnovers, they mean, "My staff did everything right, our game plan was sound but our players screwed up." In 1979, the Steelers led the league in turnovers yet won the Super Bowl. In 1981, the 49ers had six turnovers in the NFC Championship game but still beat the Cowboys.

8. I think we have seen some of the most exciting NFL seasons in recent memory, with closely contested division races and postseason thrillers, but it comes with a cost. The NFL now is all about competition -- that's its appeal -- but not necessarily greatness. In today's era -- with the salary cap and free agency -- you can't build super teams (like the '62 Packers with 10 Hall of Famers or the '79 Steelers with nine) that dominate all phases of the game. Those days are gone. Everybody has flaws. Each year we have four or five really good teams, but no great ones.

9. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. The best advice I can give to aspiring filmmakers is get a good opening and a good ending and get them as close together as possible. I think everything today is too long. Movies run over two hours. High Noon, the greatest western ever made, ran 84 minutes. TV opens and teases are overproduced, overcut and repetitive. After-dinner speeches are interminable. Pregame shows are like telethons. I think this article is getting too long.

b. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller influenced how I live my life. It taught me to approach every problem, no matter how difficult or disheartening, as a potential source of humor. The world belongs to those who can laugh at it.

c. My aggravating/enjoyable travel note: The only thing I dislike about my job is the travel. The planes are dirty, often late and the service is lousy. I have travel anxiety. I call it tripidation. But, on my last trip to San Francisco, a flight attendant began our journey with a good laugh:

"Good morning everybody. It will be our pleasure to serve you breakfast. Our choices are a cheese omelet and Belgian waffle. Because it is not possible for us to board exactly as many of each meal as we may need, we apologize in advance if your first choice is not available. Please do not be upset, however, as both entrees taste exactly the same."

d. The two most underappreciated things in life are a good bed and a comfortable pair of shoes. If you're not in one, you're in the other.

10. I think I'd like to close with this: Erma Bombeck once said, "If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally brain dead." I say, "What a way to die."

***

More Special MMQB columns:

Matt Ryan: How to become a better NFL quarterbackEric Winston: Five ways to change NFL, plus 2010 predictionsNnamdi Asomugha: Advice for rookies on adjusting to life in NFLMaurice Jones-Drew: What separates great players from good in NFL

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