NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Playmakers in NFL History
There are many ways to define "playmaker." For this countdown of the best playmakers in NFL history, our watchwords are versatility, elusiveness and consistency.
- An all-time great playmaker must have the versatility to beat opponents in many different ways. With one or two exceptions, this is a countdown for rusher-receivers who also returned kicks and for scrambling quarterbacks who perhaps punted now and then.
- A playmaker must have the elusiveness to get away from defenders in the open field. Don't worry about those workhorse running backs: They will soon get their own countdown. Not many of these guys toted the rock 25 times per game. But they did make defenders worry about every screen pass, kickoff return or escape from the pocket.
- An all-time playmaker demonstrates consistency over multiple seasons. Percy Harvin was versatile and elusive, but he couldn't stay on the field. The players on this countdown supplemented their niftiness and shiftiness with a healthy dose of sturdiness and, well, healthiness.
In short, these are the players who made things happen with the ball in their hands, year in and year out, with or without a quality supporting cast. Some of them redefined NFL strategies. A few infuriated their own coaches as much as they vexed opponents. All of them provided many unforgettable moments.
25. Eric Metcalf
One of the best things about writing this NFL Nostalgia series has been taking occasional breaks from the Tom Brady/Joe Montana/Vince Lombardi worship to talk about nearly forgotten players like Eric Metcalf.
Metcalf was the son of Terry Metcalf, an all-purpose back who starred for Don Coryell's Cardinals teams in the 1970s who almost made this list himself. The Browns drafted the younger Metcalf 13th overall in 1989 but weren't sure what to do with the dynamic multipurpose back from Texas. Their defense-oriented coaches of the era (Bud Carson, then some monosyllabic guy named Belichick) were still using old-fashioned two-back offenses. So Metcalf shared carries with bruisers like Leroy Hoard and Kevin Mack, caught passes out of the backfield and returned kicks the way small speedsters had done for decades.
Metcalf excelled as a return man, with a touchdown off a kickoff in the 1989 playoffs (shown) and seven other punt-return touchdowns in five seasons for the Browns. But on offense, Metcalf was just another guy running draw plays.
Falcons head coach and run 'n' shoot pioneer June Jones knew a slot receiver when he saw one, so he traded for Metcalf and placed the 5'10" jitterbug in a four-receiver set with Terance Mathis, Bert Emanuel and J.J. Birden. Metcalf caught 104 passes—100-plus catch seasons were still pretty rare in 1995—and helped Jeff George throw for 4,143 yards and lead the Falcons to the playoffs. Metcalf also caught a 65-yard touchdown pass in the playoff loss to the Packers.
"Imagine a player with the kick-return skills of David Meggett, the quick feet of Barry Sanders and the sure hands of Michael Irvin," Timothy W. Smith wrote of Metcalf in the New York Times in 1995. Nowadays, imagine a durable Percy Harvin, a more explosive Julian Edelman or a Tyreek Hill without the baggage. That's who Metcalf was. He finished his career with 12 return touchdowns, 12 rushing touchdowns, 31 receiving touchdowns and 17,230 all-purpose yards, 15th on the all-time list.
The NFL didn't quite have a role for Metcalf in the '80s and '90s, but he put his stamp on the roles he was given.
24. Darren Sproles
Reggie Bush nearly made this list. Let's say he ranked 27th. Bush may have been overpriced and overhyped in his heyday, but he was a heck of a receiver and return man early in his career who developed into a capable running back as he matured.
But Darren Sproles replaced Bush in New Orleans and was better—more dangerous as a running back (5.7 yards per carry with the Saints), more versatile as a receiver (16 touchdowns in three seasons; Bush scored 12 receiving touchdowns in five Saints seasons) and more reliable as an all-purpose return man.
Brian Westbrook nearly made this list. Let's say he ranked 26th. Westbrook is revered in Philadelphia. He carried the Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb Eagles at times as an all-purpose weapon, and he was a respected figure in the locker room as well.
But Westbrook was nearly finished by his 30th birthday, and the Eagles spent the beginning and end of his career carefully rationing his touches. Sproles, now 34 years old, has been one of the Eagles' most important all-purpose players for three seasons. His punt returns in 2015 kept the Eagles competitive when just about everything else then-head coach Chip Kelly touched was falling apart. Last year, he averaged 4.7 yards per rush, 8.2 yards per reception and 13.2 yards per punt return for a team with a rookie quarterback and problems just about everywhere else on offense.
Sproles also had an excellent early career for the Chargers, complementing LaDainian Tomlinson as a third-down back and return man. Add it all up, and Sproles is now eighth on the all-time list with 19,011 all-purpose yards. That's almost as many as Westbrook (11,259) and Bush (10,001) combined.
Sometimes, the fireplug-shaped all-purpose guy is just an all-purpose guy. In Sproles' case, he's an easy-to-overlook all-time great, hiding in plain sight and outperforming better-paid, better-regarded players at their own games.
23. The Fabulous Brady Boys
Tom Brady always has a playmaker to turn to. Sometimes he has two, three or more of them than the Patriots can put on the field at the same time.
At first, there were Kevin Faulk, David Patten and Troy Brown. Then came Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead. Then, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis, with James White joining the fun in the second half of Super Bowl LI.
Some were officially third-down running backs, some slot receivers. All of them were incredibly versatile. Brown and Edelman played defense at times. Welker was the emergency kicker. Patten's versatility in one 2001 game against the Colts—two receiving touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and one trick-play passing touchdown—practically kicked off the Brady era. All of the players above could line up anywhere in the formation, and most were excellent return men.
Call these players products of Brady and the Patriots system if you like. But several of these players (like Welker) have had success elsewhere, and the system itself points the way to the future. The Patriots used to be alone in plucking guys like Welker off other rosters or drafting and grooming Edelman types for slot receiver roles. Copycats are catching on, and players like Christian McCaffrey can now enter the draft marketing themselves as Patriots-style weapons, even as television analysts shrug their shoulders and ask "what position does he play?" like it's still 1977.
No one Patriots playmaker has ever stood out enough to make this countdown. But as a group, they are helping Brady redefine NFL offense.
22. Jackie Smith
You will often hear Rob Gronkowski redefined the tight end position. Or perhaps Tony Gonzalez redefined the tight end position. Or maybe Shannon Sharpe did it. Or Kellen Winslow.
All of those all-time great tight ends certainly left their stamp on the position. But Jackie Smith is the guy who literally turned the tight end from a blocker who lined up next to the right tackle and caught a few underneath passes to a chess piece who can line up anywhere and do practically anything.
Smith ran track and played tailback at Northwestern Louisiana before switching to flanker, where he played well enough to get drafted in the 10th round by the Cardinals in 1963. Cardinals ends coach Fran Polsfoot saw the 210-pound Smith's potential as a tight end and moved him there to cover for some injuries. Smith bulked up a bit and was soon putting up mammoth numbers for the era, including a 56-catch, 1,205-yard, 21.5-yard-per-catch and nine-touchdown receiving line in 1967.
Smith, like Gronk—but unlike some of history's other great receiving tight ends—was a vicious blocker when not beating pokey linebackers up the seam. As zone coverage became more popular, he was one of the first tight ends to effectively settle down in "soft spots" for receptions. He could then turn upfield and escape tackles with both power and cutback ability.
Smith was such a mismatch headache for opponents that the Cardinals dusted off the "tight end around" play for him. Smith rushed 38 times for 327 yards and three touchdowns in his career. He was also the Cardinals' regular punter for three seasons. And if that isn't enough versatility for you, Smith also sings a fine national anthem.
Unfortunately, an internet search for Smith usually brings up dozens of reference to his dropped pass in the end zone in Super Bowl XIII, after the 38-year-old was lured out of retirement by the injury-ravaged Cowboys. The greatest tight end of his era waited 16 years to reach the Hall of Fame because voters of the past were obsessed with "signature moments" instead of a player's body of work.
This countdown was not really designed for tight ends. But it is designed for mold-breakers. Smith didn't just break the mold for tight ends. He completely reshaped it, and successors from Winslow to Gronk have been adding to the design ever since.
21. Devin Hester
Devin Hester wasn't just one of the best return men in history. He may have been the last truly great pure return man in NFL history.
Before you send angry emails about Tyreek Hill or Cordarelle Patterson or someone, a brief history lesson:
In early football, punt and kick returns were among the most important elements of the game. Regular offense was three-yard-and-a-cloud-of-dust trench warfare, while a return was a chance for the most athletic guy on the team to gallop in the open field. Teams often punted on early downs, particularly when pinned deep in their own territory. It wasn't unusual for "quarterbacks" (A-formation tailbacks, really) to be both punters and return men, so early football games were often decided by back-and-forth battles of what we now classify as "special teams."
The next century of evolution gradually minimized the value of return men. These days, when kickoffs go through the back of the end zone and specialist punters can boom 50-yarders with five-second hang time, returners rarely get a chance to generate more than a flash play or two per year.
Yet in the mid-2000s, it was still possible for a return man to be a great team's most valuable offensive player, as Hester proved for the Bears. His six return touchdowns in the 2006 regular season and playoffs helped a team with a blundering offense come within a rainy day run-in with Peyton Manning of winning a Super Bowl. When he wasn't taking a kickoff to the house, he was forcing opponents to squib kick to avoid him, giving the Bears offense the field position it desperately needed to muster a few points.
Hester holds the NFL record with 20 non-offensive touchdowns. That's an astounding number for a modern player, particularly one who played on offense (defenders can mix in some pick-sixes with their kick and punt returns). Hester was also a capable screens-and-bombs receiver stuck in largely bad offenses for much of his career. But he was at his best when he could specialize in the dying art of fielding kicks and punts.
Kickoff returns may be extinct in a few years. Punt returns get harder and harder as punters improve and teams grow more daring on fourth downs. Yes, there are still amazing return men in the NFL. But there will never again be a returner who makes as great an impact as Hester made.
20. Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell was a fifth-round rookie return man in 1990 when he took his first—and last—snaps at quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
In Philly, we still call it The Body Bag Game (and act like it counted as much as three Super Bowls). Washington quarterbacks Jeff Rutledge and Stan Humphries were both knocked out of the game, as were at least seven other Redskins players. Mitchell was an option quarterback at Louisiana-Lafayette a year earlier, so he drew the short straw. After all, he was more experienced as a quarterback than as a return man.
Mitchell led a late touchdown drive, completing three passes for 40 yards. Keep in mind, this was against Buddy Ryan's defense in an era before any team had a Wildcat or read-option package for a player like Mitchell to fall back upon. (The Eagles were in prevent mode, but Buddy's prevent mode wasn't like normal prevent mode.) It was a gutsy, dignity-saving performance, but Mitchell would never play quarterback again, though he threw a few more career passes on trick plays and fake punts.
Mitchell would do everything else, both for Washington and the Eagles. He's the NFL's all-time leader in career punt and kick return yardage (19,013). His 13 return touchdowns rank fifth on the all-time list of non-offensive touchdowns. Mitchell was also one of the most dangerous and reliable third-down backs of his era, averaging 5.1 career yards per rush and never missing a game in 14 seasons.
There have been many excellent, elusive all-purpose backs in NFL history, but few of them were as good for as long as Mitchell. And few of them could ever have taken over at quarterback against a Buddy Ryan defense as rookies and lived to tell the tale.
19. Frank Gifford
The 1950s were a golden age for all-purpose players. Offenses were more daring and pass-oriented in those days than you might think. The old T-formation had evolved to the point that one of the two halfbacks often detached from the backfield and lined up as a flanker. But all of the pivot and hide-the-ball fakes of the three-back formation were still in the playbook, so a halfback with an arm might end up throwing one or two option passes per game.
Frank Gifford was the best of the 1950s all-purpose weapons. The USC alum with Hollywood good looks started his career as a two-way player. He made the Pro Bowl as a defensive back early in his career, displaying a knack for long interception returns. As two-way football went extinct, Gifford focused on left halfback, learning the tricks of the position from an innovative coordinator named Vince Lombardi and using his speed and shifty hips to run away from the rugged tacklers of the era.
In 1956, Gifford rushed for 819 yards and 5.2 yards per carry in a 12-game season, caught 51 passes for 603 yards, scored nine touchdowns and completed two option passes for touchdowns. The effort earned him an MVP award and the Giants an NFL championship. Gifford went on to have several similar seasons as the Giants remained contenders for the rest of the 1950s.
Then Gifford met the one rugged tackler of the era he could not run away from. Chuck Bednarik knocked Gifford out over the middle of the field in one of the most vicious, legendary hits in pro football history. Gifford missed the end of the 1960 season and all of 1961. When he returned at age 32, he was officially a full-time flanker. But he was still a big-play threat, averaging 20.4 yards per catch in 1962 and scoring 15 total touchdowns in 1962 and 1963 for a pair of teams that played in the NFL Championship Game.
Gifford moved to the broadcast booth upon retirement and spent decades as one of the smoothest announcers in the business. He moved from color commentary to play-by-play, and later generations forgot he was ever even a player. Gifford's all-purpose stats in the old encyclopedias looked nothing like Jim Brown's perennial dominance. Gifford reached the Hall of Fame in 1977, but younger fans perusing the encyclopedias may think his enshrinement was some sort of lifetime achievement award for a golden boy who popularized the game for New Yorkers or something.
Gifford was, in fact, a popular golden boy. He was also one of history's great playmakers—a guy who could do it all in an era when coaches were just figuring out all the things truly dynamic players could do.
18. Jamaal Charles
A good litmus test for an all-time playmaker is to ask this question: Could a team be competitive if this guy were its only offensive weapon?
That's an easy question to answer for Jamaal Charles. His quarterbacks have been Matt Cassel and Alex Smith. He's lucky if a healthy Dwayne Bowe or Jeremy Maclin is around to lead otherwise lackluster receiving corps. Charles is never truly alone—if not Maclin or Bowe, there's at least a Travis Kelce or Thomas Jones around to share the load—but the modern Chiefs will never be confused with the Greatest Show on Turf when it comes to skill position talent.
Surrounded by an ordinary-at-best complementary cast, Charles has averaged 5.5 yards per rush for his career, rushed for over 1,000 yards five times and caught 285 passes, including 20 touchdowns. He was often the Chiefs' best rusher and receiver, which is why the team used everything from wide receiver screens to options to get the ball in his hands. Despite the lack of supporting talent, the Chiefs were a playoff team for much of Charles' career.
The Chiefs found an even faster, more explosive version of Charles last year in Tyreek Hill, who will try to do as much with as little as Charles accomplished over nearly a decade. Charles, meanwhile, will try to prove he still has a little all-purpose big-play magic left for the Broncos.
Charles probably cannot do it all by himself anymore. But if everything goes as planned in Denver, he won't have to.
17. Tie: Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny
Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny comprised one half of the "Million Dollar Backfield," which also consisted of quarterback Y.A. Tittle and halfback John Henry Johnson. The quartet drove the great San Francisco 49ers T-formation offense of the mid-1950s. They never won an NFL championship, nor did they ever earn close to a million dollars in a season, even combined. But they were great nevertheless.
Tittle was a pocket passer and "pivot man," the guy who executed all of the ball fakes that made the T-formation hard to defend. Johnson was a bruising power back. Perry, the fullback, was nicknamed The Jet, so he was not a plodding, Mike Tolbert sort of fullback.
"He was the fastest player off the ball in the history of the world," Tittle told SFGate's Dwight Chapin and Tom FitzGerald in 2011. "You'd take the ball from center and turn, and he was already gone through the hole."
McElhenny, by contrast, was all jukes, weaves and squirrel-on-the-freeway chaos. "The King" averaged 7.0 yards per carry on 98 carries as a rookie in 1952 and 8.0 yards per carry on 64 carries when the Million Dollar Backfield officially came together in 1954. While Perry took Tittle handoffs and sprinted off left end behind Johnson, McElhenny took handoffs and pitches and did...whatever he felt like doing. Both Perry and McElhenny were also effective receivers, and both took turns returning kicks and punts.
Based on pure "playmaking" ability, McElhenny ranks ahead of Perry on this list. But Perry led the NFL in rushing three times and averaged over five yards per carry over a 16-year career. Both are Hall of Famers, and they belong on this list together, where their combination of speed, power, quickness and unpredictability can work in tandem to give defenders fits, just as they did over 60 years ago.
16. Fran Tarkenton
Fran Tarkenton was Russell Wilson with a better offensive line and worse luck.
Tarkenton was an undersized mid-round quarterback with amazing scrambling ability and tremendous touch on his deep passes. He joined the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961 and immediately butted heads with their coach, the notoriously irascible Norm Van Brocklin. The Dutchman didn't like Tarkenton's scrambling— the older Van Brocklin got, the less he liked just about anything—but the Vikings didn't have much else going for them. Tarkenton improvised the team to respectability, but by the end of the 1966 season, the Vikings were ready to start over at both coach and quarterback.
The Vikings traded Tarkenton to the Giants, where his arm and legs made him a perennial Pro Bowler. But the Giants organization was headed in the wrong direction in the late 1960s. The Vikings, meanwhile, were building a powerhouse under new head coach Bud Grant. A blockbuster trade brought Tarkenton back to Minnesota in 1972. He was in his early 30s and a step slower than in his heyday, but he could still run. Thanks to an offensive line anchored by Ron Yary and Mick Tingelhoff, he no longer had to just to survive.
Tarkenton led the Vikings to three Super Bowls in the 1970s. His supporting cast was excellent: the Purple People Eaters on defense, the aforementioned line, Ahmad Rashad, John Gilliam and Chuck Foreman among his weapons. But Tarkenton's timing was poor. The NFL was dominated by the Steelers, Raiders, Cowboys and Vikings through most of the mid-to-late '70s. With Tarkenton and many of the Vikings stars already well past their prime when everything came together, they had a habit of finishing one or two games shy of a championship.
Tarkenton retired as the all-time leader in just about every quarterbacking category, although his records were later smashed by Dan Marino and Brett Favre and now by Manning-Brady-Brees types. As a quarterback, he ranks a notch below the best of the best. As a pure playmaker who could turn would-be sacks into video game-caliber touchdowns, he was the best of his era.
15. Tiki Barber
History's best playmakers often start their careers as ordinary all-purpose backs. They return kicks, catch some third-down screen passes, produce a few highlights and then appear poised to give way to someone younger, faster and cheaper as soon as they lose a fraction of a step.
So it was with Tiki Barber. He spent three years catching short passes, returning punts and kicks and disappointing the Giants whenever they gave him a chance to be an every-down rusher. The quickness, start-stop capability and receiving chops were all there. But Barber couldn't stay healthy or hold on to the football.
Instead of fading into history, Barber got stronger. He learned to harness his jump-cut capability. His ball security slowly improved. Barber became the perfect one-cut runner, reading his blocks and making decisive moves to reach the second level. Once in the open field, he still had the jitterbug skills to escape defenders. He also became more versatile and reliable as a receiver.
The longer Barber played, the better he got. The inconsistent third-down back of 1997-99 became the 1,000-yard rusher of the early 2000s and then the league leader in scrimmage yards in 2004 and 2005. He was at the top of his game, averaging over five yards per carry and well over 50 catches per year, when he retired in 2006.
Barber left a complicated legacy in the locker room and off the field. He was as quick to criticize teammates and coaches as he was to fake out a linebacker, and the Giants' becoming a tightly knit Super Bowl team as soon as he retired was not lost on anyone. But this isn't a countdown of the NFL's most lovable teammates. Barber made himself the NFL's most dangerous playmaker in the mid-2000s, proving there is much more to the job than being quick and having good hands.
14. LeSean McCoy
A "playmaker" should be the opposite of a "product of a system." Playmakers may excel in particular systems, of course, and some schemes are built to help players who can make things happen in space (see No. 23 on this countdown). But an all-time great playmaker should prove he can transcend one particular scheme and use his diverse talents in a variety of ways.
LeSean McCoy has delivered Pro Bowl-caliber seasons in three completely different (and rather extreme, by NFL standards) offensive systems:
- Andy Reid's West Coast offense, which at the time was pass-oriented with a rudimentary rushing attack. McCoy had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons and a 20-touchdown campaign in this scheme.
- Chip Kelly's no-huddle experiment. Shady led the NFL in rushing and scrimmage yards in 2013 before the rest of the league figured out Kelly was running the same handful of plays over and over again.
- Greg Roman/Anthony Lynn's Cro-Magnon power-running jamboree. McCoy averaged 5.4 yards per carry, caught 50 passes and scored 14 touchdowns for a power-and-options offense that had zero receiving threats for much of last season.
Whether he's cutting back for positive yardage on a sweep that the entire defense sniffed out, exploding through a tiny crease in the line for a big gain or turning a screen pass into a touchdown, Shady has multiple ways of turning nothing into something or a little something into a whole lot.
The Bills may field something close to a typical NFL offense this year, with multiple wide receivers and everything. For the first time in four years, McCoy won't face stacked fronts of defenders who know what's coming. It could be too little, too late for a back who has already had an excellent career. But it could also result in a season for the ages.
13. Floyd Little
The Broncos were barely a professional sports franchise when Floyd Little arrived. They wore ugly brown uniforms and played in a minor league baseball stadium. They changed quarterbacks every year and coaches every other year, and a revolving door of shareholders was always threatening to move the team to San Antonio or Atlanta. It was a shoestring operation that finished 4-10 or 2-11-1 every season.
Along came head coach Lou Saban, who formerly coached the Bills to a pair of AFL championships. Then the NFL-AFL common draft arrived, giving the Broncos a puncher's chance of acquiring real talent. With their first pick of the new era, the Broncos selected Little, a 5'10" all-purpose back from Syracuse.
Little was short for a running back in that bruising era. He was also bowlegged. But the legs he sometimes described as "parentheses" brought several unexpected advantages. Little's center of gravity was low, his balance was exceptional and his ankles were permanently braced to make a cut on a defender. He quickly became one of the most dangerous rusher-receiver-returner combinations in the AFL. Saban's Broncos, meanwhile, slowly climbed to respectability.
Just one year after the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, Little led the NFL in rushing. At the time, he was the shortest player to win the rushing crown since before World War II. He led the league with 12 rushing touchdowns in 1973, but the brutal football of the 1970s took its toll on Little. By the time the Broncos reached the Super Bowl in 1977, Little had retired.
The modern Broncos have a well-earned reputation as one of the best-run sports franchises in America. It all started when a bowlegged spark plug of a runner finally gave the fans of football's ugliest franchise something worth watching.
12. Warrick Dunn
When we think of great playmakers, we think of speed, quickness, shiftiness and creativity. But as this countdown demonstrates time and again, we should also be thinking about consistency, durability, toughness and reliability.
Dunn was as shifty and speedy as they come, but lots of pint-sized jitterbugs enter the NFL with every draft class. Few of them rush for over 10,000 yards, catch 510 passes in a 12-year career or propel a pair of teams into the playoffs.
Dunn was the primary offensive weapon for Tony Dungy's Buccaneers in the late 1990s. Paired with bruiser Mike Alstott in the backfield, he was both the big-play threat of the running game and the team's most reliable receiver. Dunn missed his chance to win a Super Bowl when Jon Gruden arrived in Tampa Bay, however, as he had signed on to become part of a radically different system in Atlanta.
Dunn and Michael Vick were magic together in the backfield. With Vick providing most of the chaos, Dunn became more of a one-cut runner and outlet receiver. Those were the days before the read-option or Wildcat, so we never saw what Vick and Dunn might have done to defenses using modern tactics. Still, the pair combined to rush for over 2,000 yards in 2004 and 2005 before each gained 1,000 rushing yards in 2006. It was a quarterback-running back combo unlike anything the NFL had seen since the days of the A-formation.
Dunn's Falcons, like his Buccaneers, were too flawed to reach the Super Bowl. Both teams needed Dunn to be an offensive focal point and a locker room leader, not just Mr. Shake 'n' Bake in the open field. Dunn responded by becoming one of the most respected players in the NFL, not just one of the most exciting. That one-two punch is what earned him a spot on this countdown.
11. Thurman Thomas
The hurry-up offense works best when it creates natural mismatches that the defense cannot adjust for. Grinding I-formation running backs need not apply—a running back in an uptempo offense needs to be able to beat linebackers in coverage, run between the tackles when the opponent is caught in a nickel or dime package and create in space once defenders are worn out and out of position.
Thurman Thomas was the first truly great hurry-up running back. He led the NFL in scrimmage yards for four consecutive seasons, from 1989 through 1992. Working within the K-Gun offense, which would suddenly shift into an uptempo mode few opponents were prepared for, Thomas averaged over 4.8 yards per rush and 10.0 yards per reception for three straight years, propelling the Bills to the Super Bowl each year.
Keep in mind that Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith were both in the NFL for most of Thomas' tenure as the scrimmage-yardage king. Smith was the best pure rusher of the bunch, and he was helped by the best offensive line. (Spoiler alert: Sanders is coming soon on this countdown.) While Sanders was a better pure playmaker than Thomas, he lacked his former Oklahoma State teammate's consistency and versatility in the passing game. In his prime, Thomas combined the best elements of a shake-'n'-bake third-down back and a no-nonsense workhorse, the perfect combination for creating mismatches on the fly.
Thomas stuck around for a half-decade after his glory years, aging into a Mister Reliable-type rusher-receiver who rarely flashed the explosiveness he possessed in his prime. The young Thomas, the back who showed the NFL the kinds of matchup nightmares and big plays a hurry-up offense can generate, is the player who earned this spot on our countdown.
10. Steve Young
Steve Young was too talented for his own good.
When a quarterback as incandescently talented as Young leaves college, teams do crazy things to acquire him. The USFL's Los Angeles Express offered him $40 million they didn't really have so he could single-handedly fill the Coliseum for them. Young ended up taking snaps at running back and paying team bus drivers out of his own pocket just to get the Express to games on time.
The Buccaneers made Young the No. 1 pick in the USFL supplemental draft and then gave up on him after one-and-a-half seasons during one of their 1980s mood swings because Young didn't learn much about real quarterbacking with the Express and could only generate so much offense by himself. The 49ers snookered the Bucs into trading Young for second- and fourth-round picks and planted him on the bench behind Joe Montana.
For five years, that appeared to be the end of the story. Once scrambling former first-round picks hit the bench, they rarely climb off again, except for occasional feisty relief appearances. Young was 30 when he finally replaced Montana. He was older and wiser, of course, and well-schooled in Bill Walsh tactics. He was also still as elusive in the open field as any running back, making him the hardest player in the NFL to defend—a precision pocket passer with a live arm who could also burn any defense that lost containment.
Because this segment is about Young the playmaker, not Young the champion or Hall of Famer, we have to wonder what Michael Vick-like magic we missed when Young was in exile or on the bench. Just imagine what the younger, faster, more reckless Young could have contributed to the world of highlight montages.
We must also wonder how many would-be Steve Youngs were lost to history because of bad coaches, organizations, situations or decisions. The best playmakers are often at risk of becoming their own worst enemies. Young escaped that fate the way he escaped defenders, and once he caught up to his own talent, nothing could stop him.
9. Charley Trippi
Legend has it that Charley Trippi wore sneakers during the 1947 NFL Championship Game on the slushy mud at Comiskey Park, while his Cardinals teammates and Eagles opponents wore regular cleats.
In fact, both teams wore basketball shoes for much of the game. And both teams did their share of slipping and sliding. (You can watch film of the whole game here.) So Trippi's 44-yard run and 75-yard punt return in that 28-21 win (the last NFL championship in Cardinals history) weren't about the shoes. Trippi even slipped and fell during the punt return, only to get up before any Eagles could touch him. Trippi was simply the best all-around player in the game in the late 1940s, no matter who the opponent was or what the conditions were.
Trippi was sometimes called the One Man Gang at the University of Georgia, where he excelled as a rusher, passer and defensive back, with a stateside tour of duty with the Air Force during World War II mixed in. After the Cardinals won a bidding war with the AAFC's New York Yanks, Trippi brought his do-it-all talents to Chicago. Trippi played running back and defensive back and returned both kicks and punts as a rookie in 1947. He added punting to his duties in 1948, when he earned All-Pro status by averaging 5.4 yards per rush and returning two punts for touchdowns.
Trippi moved to quarterback in 1951 and 1952, where he had a pair of amazing all-purpose seasons. Even at quarterback, Trippi had a knack for heroics on icy fields, throwing for 106 yards and rushing for 145 in a win at Wrigley Field against the crosstown-rival Bears.
He then returned to T-formation left halfback, punter and return man, leading the league in punt return average in 1953 (11.4 yards per return) while also averaging 42.9 yards per punt. He ended his career as a safety/punter, because why not? Trippi intercepted three passes in his final year as a position player. A vicious hit in a preseason game from John Henry Johnson (see No. 17 on this countdown) of the 49ers relegated Trippi to punting duties in his final season.
In modern football, Trippi would be a cross between Christian McCaffrey, Terrelle Pryor and Jabrill Peppers, with a dash of Marquette King sprinkled in. Great prospects like these still leave college for an NFL befuddled about how best to make use of their gifts. For Trippi, the Chicago Cardinals tried a little of everything, and it worked. Today's NFL teams can still learn something from their post-WWII forebears. Give great playmakers the ball. Worry about the labels later.
8. Michael Vick
Few were more dazzling. Few were more disappointing.
Few inspired more praise or earned more outrage. Few were more lovable and more loathable.
Few made more headlines, good and bad. Few dug themselves a hole as deep or worked as hard to climb out.
With video game controllers in our hands, we wanted to be Michael Vick the way we wanted to be Master Chief, capable of defying the laws of physics. But Vick was a real person, supremely talented and deeply flawed, not some computerized creation. We tuned in every Sunday to see what he would do next. Then we had to turn away in disgust. Somehow, he returned, wiser and humbler and, for a short time, even more breathtaking on the field than he was before.
Michael Vick was brilliant and problematic. He was unforgettable in every way. He remains a singular individual, one of the few athletes on earth you would gladly watch play flag football in his late 30s.
On this list of all-time playmakers, it must be noted that Vick spent what should have been his prime either in jail or rebuilding the NFL's trust on the Eagles bench. He robbed himself of those great years, and it cost him a chance to be the best playmaker ever. He doesn't even rank first among our quarterbacks. But Vick is in a category all his own, as both an athlete and cultural figure. Few inspire more complex emotions. The off-field ugliness was undeniable. But so was the on-field beauty.
7. Bobby Mitchell
Bobby Mitchell was one of the greatest athletes in pro football history: a two-way player for Illinois who had Olympic aspirations as a hurdler and was offered a baseball contract by the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, Mitchell would have fit in perfectly as part of the All-Time Greatest Athletes edition of NFL Nostalgia. But he fits even better here.
The Browns lined Mitchell up in the same backfield as Jim Brown in the 1950s and early 1960s. Serving as a motion man and Brown's "Mr. Outside," Mitchell averaged 5.4 yards per rush for four seasons and returned three punts and three kickoffs for touchdowns.
Mitchell was also a fine receiver for Cleveland. The Redskins, finally getting around to racial integration in 1962, traded for Mitchell and moved him to flanker. Mitchell led the league in receiving yards two straight seasons, averaging 19.2 and 20.8 yards per reception in 1962 and 1963, and then led the NFL with 10 receiving touchdowns in 1964.
Mitchell may also have the greatest passing statistics in history if you ignore sample size: He was 3-of-3 on option throws for 61 yards and one touchdown for a max-possible passer rating of 158.3.
Mitchell's pure speed allowed him to both burn cornerbacks deep and beat defenders to the edge on sweeps. He was also nifty in the open field with a devastating mix of dart-like quickness and vision. His career marks the changing of eras, not just from segregation's last holdouts to more enlightened times, but the opening up of offenses near the dawn of the Super Bowl. Mitchell was too good of a playmaker to be a "left halfback." Football was changing, because men like Mitchell were changing it.
6. Randall Cunningham
Randall Cunningham rushed for 4,928 yards without the aid of read-options, well-designed quarterback keepers or, for much of his prime, any real offensive support whatsoever.
In Cunningham's "Ultimate Weapon" days with the Eagles, like his 30-passing-touchdown, 942-rushing-yard effort in 1990, his running backs were 1970s-style plodders Anthony Toney and Keith Byars. His receivers were pretty good, but the Eagles offensive lines of the era were built out of steroid violators, converted defensive linemen and other assorted castoffs and Buddy Ryan experiments.
Speaking of Ryan experiments: Buddy held the very concept of coordinating a modern offense in near contempt. Cunningham's job was to drop back and make stuff happen, whether it was a bomb to Fred Barnett or Calvin Williams, a pirouetting ballet recital of a scramble or some combination of both. Sometimes, the results were highlights that will be remembered forever, like the 95-yard touchdown to Barnett or the apparent Carl Banks sack that Cunningham turned into a touchdown pass to Jimmie Giles. Sometimes, Cunningham spent whole afternoons running for his life on 3rd-and-25.
Cunningham also averaged 44.7 yards per punt on 12 NFL attempts, the most famous a 91-yarder against the Giants that led directly to a turnover and an Eagles game-winning touchdown in 1989. Cunningham also nailed an 80-yarder in 1994 and some early-career kicks when Ryan (who, again, thought offense just got in the way of defense) ordered up some "quick kicks" on third down. Cunningham could have been the Eagles punter, but quarterback and leading rusher were enough responsibility.
Judged as "playmakers," there's no contest between Cunningham, Steve Young and Michael Vick. Young was a brilliant soloist and conductor for a world-class orchestra. Vick played in offenses that complemented his rushing ability, and his 2000s passing totals don't come close to Cunningham's 1980s totals. When it came to contortionist tactics to avoid sacks, windmill leaps at the end of scrambles and making up new moves just to survive, Cunningham was in a class by himself. He often looked like he was on the field by himself. And win or lose, he always put on a show.
5. Lenny Moore
From his rookie season in 1956 through 1958, Lenny Moore rushed 266 times for 1,735 yards (6.5 yards per rush) and 18 touchdowns while catching 101 passes for 1,727 yards (17.1 yards per catch) and 15 touchdowns.
Those touchdown totals and per-touch yardage rates would turn heads today. Moore amassed them in the late 1950s, an era of 12-game seasons, grinding rushing attacks and rudimentary passing offense.
It helped that Moore played with Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Alan Ameche and the best team of the era. Moore was the left halfback for the Colts of the "Greatest Game Ever Played" era. Like Frank Gifford (see No. 19), he often split out to flanker and threw the occasional option pass. When Moore was split wide, he was a frequent target of Unitas' quick slants. Moore, decades before Jerry Rice and Joe Montana made the slant route a cornerstone of NFL offense, often took Unitas' slants to the house.
Moore remained a great playmaker well into the 1960s, though the gaudy per-carry rushing rates settled into less otherworldly numbers. He finished his career averaging 4.8 yards per rush and 16.6 yards per catch. Moore also went 18 straight appearances with at least one touchdown from 1963 through 1965.
If you have a half-hour to spare and want to see what Moore, Gifford, Unitas and football of the late 1950s were all about, this extensive highlight montage of the 1959 NFL Championship Game is better than anything you will find on Netflix. A lot about the football of that era looks a little primitive to modern eyes. But the big-play capability of Moore is instantly recognizable and just as thrilling now as it was then.
4. Red Grange
Red Grange, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth invented a new type of fame: sports superstardom.
There had been famous athletes before them, from Jim Thorpe to Grover Alexander to boxers and cyclists whose names are now lost to history. But the advent of live radio and the birth of the automobile connected fans of the 1920s to national-caliber athletes in ways that were impossible at the turn of the century.
The exploits of the Bambino, the Manassa Mauler and the Galloping Ghost could be heard in living rooms and seen on movie reels. Fans hundreds of miles away had a chance to hop in their automobiles to catch a glimpse of them live. And Grange, the college football superstar, was every bit as famous as the Yankees home run sensation and the heavyweight champion.
When Grange joined the NFL in 1925, it changed perceptions about professional football. His presence at a Bears road game could put a struggling host team in the black for the season. Fans came to see the most dynamic, elusive all-purpose weapon of that primitive era. Grange ran, passed and returned punts in an era when punt returns were much more integral to the game than they are now. Football before Grange was college lads clobbering each other in the mud. Grange introduced quickness and grace to the sport. He was, quite literally, the NFL's first playmaker.
Don't look up Grange's NFL stats seeking enlightenment; what little is there is almost incomprehensible to modern eyes anyway. Just know that he was a Ruthian figure who achieved LeBron James-like fame the moment such fame became possible in American society, and his exploits introduced the fledgling NFL to future fanatics all across the country.
3. Marshall Faulk
There have been a handful of better open-field runners in history than Marshall Faulk. But no runner reached the open field as often or as consistently as Faulk.
Running room was hard for Faulk to find early in his career. He was fast, quick, decisive and steady as a rusher and receiver for the Colts. But the Jim Harbaugh-led offense was conservative, and toe injuries slowed Faulk as he carried the load in a plodding system. A year of good health with rookie Peyton Manning at quarterback in 1998 resulted in 2,227 yards from scrimmage and a hint of what Faulk could do if things opened up a little bit.
After a trade to St. Louis and a contract holdout, Faulk found the perfect offense for his talents. He became the engine for the Greatest Show on Turf. With opponents on their heels on play after play, forays into a stacked defense were rare. Faulk could work the perimeter on sweeps and the middle of the field on underneath routes.
Faulk gained over 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in 1999. He led the league in touchdowns in 2000 and 2001. He averaged no less than 5.3 yards per rush for three consecutive years, leading the league each year and supplementing the rushing production with over 80 receptions per season. Faulk wasn't just the NFL's best playmaker from 1999 through 2001. He was the best player, period.
Faulk would probably have been a Hall of Famer even if he remained stuck in grinding offenses for his whole career. But some performers are just too big for any ordinary stage. Only the Greatest Show was truly big enough to showcase the talents of Marshall Faulk.
2. Gale Sayers
"Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That's all I need." — Gale Sayers
Given 18 inches of daylight, Gale Sayers performed feats that are still dazzling over half a century later. He jump-cut, head-faked, hurdled and juked early '60s defenders who had never seen the likes of the Kansas Comet before. It might be cheating to point to a highlight reel and say "watch this," but here's a highlight reel, complete with quotes from George Halas and others (plus some AC/DC music). Words don't really do Sayers justice.
Sayers sparked a bidding war between Halas and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt in the AFL. Halas won, and Sayers took the stodgy NFL by storm as a rusher, receiver, returner and crafty southpaw passer on the occasional option play.
Sayers' six-touchdown effort (four rushes, one reception, one punt return) against the 49ers as a rookie is still considered one of the greatest individual games in NFL history, but it wasn't that much more impressive than many of his other games from 1965 through 1967. Sayers had a game versus the Vikings with one rushing touchdown, two receiving touchdowns, a kick return touchdown and a 27-yard completion earlier in his rookie year. He returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns and ran for a third score against the 49ers in 1967. If fantasy football existed in the mid-1960s, Sayers would not only have dominated but would have made the Bears defense (and special teams) worth an early selection.
In addition to elusiveness that remains jaw-dropping to this day, Sayers possessed outstanding vision and surprising power. Watch the highlights, and you are initially struck by the cheat-code jukes. Then you notice the quick cuts, economical moves and Sayers' ability to glide through traffic. Sayers led the NFL in rushing in 1969 after a knee injury robbed him of much of his shake 'n' bake. Sayers had more than one method of avoiding tacklers. All he needed was a crease, and he found a way to do the rest.
1. Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders was the perfect player for the most imperfect system in a complicated era in pro football history.
The run 'n' shoot offense was unlike anything which came before it. Running backs who played in the system were suddenly left without lead-blocking fullbacks or edge-setting tight ends. In their place were itty-bitty slot receivers and (fortunately) the backup cornerbacks drafted to defend them. Every handoff or screen pass was an open-field adventure.
Sanders was history's most elusive running back, making him an ideal fit for the run 'n' shoot's barely controlled chaos. Nickel and dime defenders of the day were no match for Sanders' ankle-twisting cutbacks. Linebackers didn't stand a chance of even keeping up with him. Lions quarterbacks were generally average-to-terrible, but Sanders kept the team and the hinky system in the playoff picture with his ability to consistently rack up big plays.
The Lions switched to a much more traditional offense in 1997, abandoning all vestiges of the run 'n' shoot. Sanders promptly gave us a taste of what might have been, rushing for 2,053 yards and 6.1 yards per carry with 14 total touchdowns. Given a fullback and a decent quarterback for the bulk of his career, Sanders might have set rushing records which still stand. But then, we may never have enjoyed the image of Sanders shucking, juking, reversing field and defying physics just to gain a few yards, an image that he burned into our minds and hearts for nearly a decade.