If it were real paper, the Google doc used by The MMQB staff to draw up our NFL 100 package would be frayed from overuse, torn in a dozen places, smeared in red cross-outs and blue insertions, covered in question marks and exclamation points, dirty fingerprints, stains from sweat and maybe even tears.
List-making is an inherently fraught enterprise. Top 10 rushers in NFL history? Easy enough. Just add up the yards. Top 10 running backs? That’s a different story. Now you’re bringing in subjective factors: era, surrounding talent, offensive scheme, longevity, even style and artistry. So it was a challenge, to say the least, when The MMQB set out to commemorate the NFL’s 100th season with three lists—100 people, objects and photos—meant to capture a century of professional football. Who and what to include? Who and what gets left out? What’s the governing principle: performance on the field, impact off of it, lasting influence, newsworthiness?
We decided early on that we wanted to differentiate our list from the many that were sure to come. The idea was to present a broad picture of pro football at the century mark, one that would encompass not just the game as it’s played—though that would, of course, be a major component—but its place in the wider culture, the de facto national pastime that consumes millions of Americans over the course of fall Sundays and throughout the year. How is this sport experienced by fans? In what ways, obvious and less so, has it shaped our culture, sparked civic debate, reflected the best—or worst—of us?
So these lists, especially of the figures who shaped the league, are meant to be thought-provoking and hopefully a little surprising. There are players and coaches, commissioners and owners—but also doctors, judges, media figures, good guys and bad guys, and a few names that are likely unfamiliar to most fans. George Halas and Jim Brown and Tom Brady are here, but Lee Clow? Wilfred Winkenbach? We also knew we had to convey the NFL’s darker side. Can you tell the full story of the NFL’s first century without O.J. Simpson? Lyle Alzado? Ray Rice?
Our NFL staff has scores of cumulative years covering the league, and the SI franchise itself has been around for six and a half decades. So we polled our NFL experts: Who do you think must be included? Who would you like to see? From an original list of hundreds, editors and writers winnowed the pool down, week by week. Should we have both Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, or would the inclusion of Ricky Williams or Whizzer White make for a fuller picture? Could we really leave off Fran Tarkenton? Dan Marino? Joe Gibbs? Paul Tagliabue? Georgia Frontiere? Eric Dickerson? Andrew Luck thrust his way into the discussion in the last week before we went live, but we placed him in abeyance until the full impact of his sudden retirement is evident. Leave him for the next century.
The debate was rich and engaging, the arguments occasionally heated but always constructive. Michael Jackson, for instance, makes the 100 Figures list, and some questioned both his relevance to pro football and the propriety of including him, considering the child abuse accusations that arose in his later years. But Jackson’s performance at the Rose Bowl in January 1993 marked the start of a strong nexus between sports and pop music, turning the Super Bowl halftime show into a major national event and the most-watched 20 minutes of television in America every year.
There was also issue taken with the inclusion in our 100 Objects of Barstool Sports’ t-shirt mocking Roger Goodell. But whatever you think of Barstool, when NFL coaches are wearing an image depicting the commissioner in a clown nose, it says something significant about the sentiment among a certain segment of Football America toward the man who oversees the game,
Lists are made to spark debate. We’ve had ours. Now, as always, we welcome your feedback. Send your comments and questions, kudos and rants, to firstname.lastname@example.org.