Naming the "best of anything" is an imponderable task that under the most favorable conditions leads to rather vague conclusions. So it is with an attempt by Rick Korch, an ambitious journalist, to select "The 200 Best Pro Football Players Of All-Time" and publish his findings in a new book carrying that same title.
Korch is not some come-lately humpty-dumpty lacking in credentials. He knows the subject. His late father was the first personnel scout the Chicago Bears employed and the son is managing editor of Pro Football Weekly. Before that, he worked for the NFL Alumni Association and the Miami Dolphins.
Rather than make the task a one-man effort he enlisted the help of a select group of former players, coaches, historians and sportswriters. In all, he conducted more than 300 interviews. Most of the players you would expect to find listed are there, with several notable exceptions -- Lenny Moore of the Baltimore Colts, George Connor of the Chicago Bears and Frank Gifford of the New York Giants.
Korch says the reason for their exclusion is they played different positions during their careers and it was difficult to grade them because of their dual roles. But Moore, Connor and Gifford are in the Hall of Fame so their omission should in no way be perceived as detracting from their professional abilities.
For a football team no longer in business, the Baltimore Colts fared exceedingly well in the Korch assessment of NFL elite. Ten former Colts made the "200" player roster. In fact, four of them -- John Unitas, Jim Parker, Gino Marchetti and John Mackey -- were picked as the best of all time at their positions.
Raymond Berry was named the third-best pass receiver, behind Don Hutson and Jerry Rice; Ted Hendricks the fourth-best linebacker; Claude "Buddy" Young sixth-best kickoff returner; Art Donovan eighth-best defensive tackle; and Tim Brown eighth-best at running back kickoffs.
Unitas was the No. 1 quarterback, followed in order by Joe Montana, Otto Graham, Roger Staubach, Sammy Baugh, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Bobby Layne, Sonny Jurgensen, Norm Van Brocklin, Terry Bradshaw and Len Dawson.
Incidentally, the NFL currently has a "grand jury" in session to decide on the 47 all-time players for inclusion on its 75th anniversary lineup celebration that will be held next year. As a personal aside, we voted, in order, Unitas and Baugh 1-2. The official selections will be announced at a later date.
Meanwhile, Korch's book offers an interesting perspective and, no doubt, will provoke controversy. After a position evaluation, he attempts to select the single greatest football player in history and asked the opinions of 13 selectors. There was no clear winner.
Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated and this reporter agreed on the same name, Marion Motley, the awesome fullback of the Cleveland Browns who was the complete player. But three others also received two votes in this exclusive category -- Jim Brown, a gifted offensive threat whose only deficiency was he couldn't block or didn't want to; Hutson, the able pass receiver and defensive back; and Baugh, a brilliant passer, punter and defensive back.
Hutson and Baugh were two-way players, which adds to their stature. And Motley, early in his career, was a linebacker on goal-line defense.
Two Hall of Fame receivers, Berry and Paul Warfield, are in accord on Hutson. And Zimmerman, talking about Hutson, says, "In the 1940s, I saw Hutson through a child's eyes. I wasn't sure about him until I did a film study a few years ago. Yes, he would be terrific today."
It's almost unfair to compare talents of different eras, especially in a game that has evolved so dramatically. Korch, eminently fair, says when he revises the book, maybe five years from now, he's going to find a category for players who played more than one position.
"Like with Lenny Moore," he explained, "he split his career as a running back and flanker. It was hard to get a fix on him. Gifford was a runner, a defensive back and even, briefly, a quarterback. Do you put Connor at tackle or linebacker? He was great both places. All I can do now is look to an updated version of the book and find a way to include Moore, Gifford and Connor. There may even be others."
Korch's effort, by merely taking on such an enormous project, deserves praise, not censure. There are, of course, subjective reasons for disagreeing but the mere reading makes for an informative off-the-field experience.