Sports Illustrated’s Bill Syken Discusses Football’s Greatest
Sports Illustrated recently released the hardcover coffee-table book Football’s Greatest, which has a Top 10 list for all-time greatest players by position, coaches, games, teams and much more. Not surprisingly, the Green Bay Packers make quite a few appearances.
We sat down with the book’s editor, Bill Syken, and asked him about the project, as well as some of the more controversial/debatable rankings. Here’s what he had to say.
First, a little background from Bill:
BS: At the beginning of the process, we polled our longtime football writers and editors, asking them to name the top 10 quarterbacks, running backs, all the positions; as well as greatest games, single-season teams, franchises, stadiums, best plays. We compiled the results, and then for the book, we went looking for classic SI photos and story passages to illustrate each choice. For each choice you get a big picture, you get a little summary of their statistics, and a passage from a classic SI story from a writer like Peter King, Dr. Z, Frank Deford and many others.
MM: Quarterbacks, obviously, is right up there at the front. You’ve got Brett Favre on the list, of course, and he comes in at No. 9. My first reaction to seeing that was, Wow. You didn’t even put the best Green Bay Packers quarterback ever on the list. To me that’s Bart Starr. Looking at these rankings, championships certainly played a role. I mean, you’ve got Joe Montana up at the top and Johnny Unitas in second. My first question is, how did Bart Starr get left off this list?
BS: I think that’s a fair question. I [figured] you were going to ask me when you were setting this up who is someone who belongs on the list that was left off, and my answer would have been Bart Starr. Just the number of championships he’s won and the leadership that people attribute to him. I’ve seen many Green Bay Packers of that era just talk about what it meant having him on the field. So, I think that’s a completely fair question.
I’m guessing what happened is it is somewhat a matter of statistics. I mean, Brett Favre is on the list just because of the number — far beyond the one championship — just all the passing records he owns. But I think there is a very good argument that Bart Starr should have been higher. He could have been lost just because this happens with a lot of these Packers when you’re talking about the Hall of Fame consideration. They all get kind of lost in each other.
He was there with such a great offensive line (with Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor) and he had this great coach in Vince Lombardi. So, it’s possible that, to some, his star is dimmed just a little bit because of what was around him. But I think there is a convincing argument to be made. He finished just outside our Top 10 and he should have been inside the Top 10. I mean, if you had a big game to win and it was Bart Starr on one side and Dan Marino on the other; I’m not sure I wouldn’t take Bart Starr.
MM: That fits real nicely into my next question. Marino is on the list and he comes in at No. 7. As I said before, Favre was No. 9. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me because number one, Favre has broken all of Marino’s career records and Favre has actually won a Super Bowl, where Marino never did. How do you think that ranking came to be?
BS: Well, I think it’s just that when Marino came along, he just ripped up so many passing records. Since that time, the NFL has become more and more of a passing league. It’s just sort of the nature of the beast that the modern numbers — if you have a player who is at the top and plays for a longer time, he will eclipse the previous person’s numbers in most cases. I think Marino’s setting so many new standards, at least in his time, is the reason that he is so well regarded. But again, these are debatable points. There is certainly an argument to go the other way that I would appreciate. When you’re talking about No. 7, this meant he was high on some people’s lists and maybe not so high on others, so there was debate and disagreement within our group itself.
MM: Moving on. The offensive linemen were Anthony Munoz first, John Hannah second. You know what? I don’t take a lot of issue with that. I do know Packers fans will wonder why Forrest Gregg is not No. 1. Gregg came in No. 3. Do you think there’s an argument to be made there? I know that the consensus out there is Anthony Munoz, hands down, is the top offensive lineman of all time.
BS: You know, this is just an area or category where it’s just open to argument — offensive linemen, because you don’t have the same kind of statistics that you do in other categories. They’re not catching passes. A lot of what you’re going on is both the expert testimony of people in the game that are reporters I’ve interviewed and what they’ve seen with their own eyes.
Dr. Z wasn’t part of this panel, but in the 1980s he made a very methodical attempt to determine the best offensive lineman of all time, interviewing lots of people in the game. He came out with John Hannah, which led to our cover story calling John Hannah the greatest offensive lineman of all time. That was before Munoz’s day.
You can argue whatever you want, but I think there was some good foundation for having Hannah and Munoz as the top two. I mean, there’s absolutely no shame in being the third greatest offensive lineman of all time among all the thousands of men who’ve played the offensive line. I think being No. 3 is actually pretty great.
MM: Moving on to the defensive linemen, the book seemed to suggest that this was maybe a close vote between Reggie White and Joe Greene, and Reggie White came out on top. Was that the case, or wasn’t it that close?
BS: It wasn’t a photo finish. Reggie White was a pretty clear No. 1. I mean, he did well. Joe Greene got a lot of votes, too. He was a strong No. 2; but Reggie White was a solid No. 1.
MM: Speaking of that, what was the closest vote in all of this for a top spot? Do you recall?
BS: The closest vote, I believe (and this is a section I have a feeling we’ll be touching on more later) but it was best single-season team between the ’85 Bears and the ’72 Dolphins.
MM: Definitely will be touching on that. So, this is the one I think is going to raise some eyebrows among Packers fans. I can see an argument for all of these guys, but Ray Nitschke is eighth in the linebacker listing, and he’s a very beloved figure in Green Bay Packers history and around Wisconsin. Here are the guys that he followed: Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert, Willie Lanier, Mike Singletary, and Chuck Bednarik. To me, it almost suggests that Nitschke, although obviously this says he’s great; but maybe he wasn’t as great as Packers fans seem to make him out to be. Do you think there’s more of maybe a myth of Ray Nitschke than the actual player?
BS: He had such a great persona; but then, so did a lot of these guys. I mean, if you look at Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert; they were a very solid top four. Almost everybody had those guys for their top five, and they all had these personas of being more than just football players. They were the embodiment of the toughness and the ferocity and the come my way and you’ll pay the price kind of guy that you want in the linebacking corps. I mean Ray Nitschke certainly had the mythology, but so does just about everyone else on this list — I mean, among the guys who come ahead of him.
MM: Defensive backs was next, and I kind of chuckled when I looked at this list. Ronnie Lott, No. 1, which is hard to argue with. But Deion Sanders was No. 2. My reaction to that was obviously nobody takes tackling into account anymore.
BS: [Laughing] Well, he redefined his position a little bit, so I think he gets some credit for that. He pretty much could just shut down a section of the field, so, I think he also gets some credit for that, as well.
MM: Sure. Looking at the list, Charles Woodson came in at No. 5, and that caused me to ask, looking at the rest of it, if some of the older guys like Willie Wood or Herb Adderley got any consideration. And looking at the voting, they came in at No. 13 and No. 14, overall. Do you think that some of these guys that played back in the ’60s get overlooked a little bit and it’s weighed more towards guys that play now or have played more recently?
BS: I don’t know if it’s the era that they played in. It may be just that they played on a team that had so many great players. Not just Nitschke, but you had Willie Davis and Henry Jordan. You have five Hall of Famers. Correct me if I’m missing someone on that defense. That may help them get a little muddier. And obviously they were not completely forgotten, as they did receive votes, but it may just be the case of them not being the star of their defense that may set them back a little.
MM: Vince Lombardi, No. 1 coach on your list.
BS: Not high enough? Should it be higher? [Laughing]
MM: If you asked a Packers fan, probably. It seems like that’s a no-brainer. Was that as clear-cut as we’d like to think it was?
BS: It was clear-cut. I mean Paul Brown and Bill Walsh were basically the other two guys to finish No. 2 and No. 3 and they were up there, as well. But as one of our writers, Tim Layden, said, “If the NFL had a person in its logo, it would be Vince Lombardi.” I think that pretty much summarizes the case. In addition to coming up with an innovative offense, he just personified the ideal football coach.
MM: This brings me to my biggest point of contention with the book — the greatest team. I’m going to say the ’62 Packers, but obviously there’s a case for the ’72 Dolphins, who went undefeated. The ’85 Bears is who you have as No. 1 on the list which is like a knife to my back; but…
MM: …then the ’84 49ers are third. Here’s always my argument. You look at what the ’62 Packers did. I mean, they were first in points scored; the first in points allowed; plus-22 in takeaways which also led the league. They scored 29 a game. They only gave up 10. And then 10 Hall of Famers. How can you argue with any of that? I’ll let you tell your side of the story with looking at these other teams.
BS: Well, there’s a couple of things going on. One is that we’re talking about a vote here. It wasn’t an NCAA-style bracket. It was a vote. And so with the ’85 Bears and with the ’72 Dolphins — it wasn’t like the Bears won four championships in the eighties and we couldn’t depict which was the really great team. It was like you’re going to vote for that one team. This happened a little bit with the Packers and even more so with the Steelers, that you had a division of votes. I mean, one of our voters didn’t vote for the ’62 Packers but he did vote for the ’66 Packers; so you have some votes being split that way. This is something that affects the tally.
The real meaning to me looking at the list is there’s only one Steelers team on the list. If I was going to pick an all-time dream game, it would be one of these Lombardi-era Packers teams versus the Chuck Noll’s Steel Curtain teams. The Lombardi sweep going into the Steel Curtain — I think that’s like the all-time dream game I would want to see. But the Steelers suffered from this splitting of votes even more than the Packers did.
MM: Then the grand finale here with best stadium and best franchise. I’m very glad to say that the Packers and Lambeau Field were No. 1 on those lists, and then the Packers-Bears rivalry was the best rivalry. Again, it’s like you would talk to any Packers fan and ask them who should be on top of those lists, and you would obviously get those answers. But do a lot of other people who aren’t necessarily Packers fans — do you think that they feel this strongly when you talk about the model franchise or stadium or stuff like that?
BS: The Packers are unique in the NFL as you well know — the relationship between the team and its community is different. The team’s history is different. Its ownership is different. No matter where you are in the country — and our writers have obviously been to all these places, they’ve been all around, and they’re not necessarily harnessed by their geography — but just what the Packers have going stands out.
Then when you talk about the greatest franchise, it was them No. 1 and Steelers No. 2 — the thing they have going there is not just this unique history, but also the fact that the Steelers have been great or good pretty much my whole lifetime; but from the thirties to the sixties they were not. They were the doormats of the NFL for several decades before everything changed in the seventies.
Whereas you compare that to the Packers — they have multiple eras of greatness. They were great in the thirties. They were great in the sixties. They won a championship in the nineties. They won a championship two seasons ago. They have just a greater depth of history, even if you were just going by “on the field” stuff, than any other franchise. You take that and then you add it to its unique history of being community owned, being in the smallest market in the NFL, and thriving — these are all things in the Packers favor.
MM: One last thing. From your perspective, you had to put this whole thing together and wade through all of these votes and these lists. What was the toughest part of this whole project for you?
BS: The toughest part? I have to say that I enjoyed the whole thing. Something that I thought would be difficult and which I turned out to really enjoy was my job wading through all these old SI stories, looking for these classic passages to put on the pages. At first when I was going in, I was thinking about how much work it would be. It was just a joy to read all of these great, old stories; find this great writing; find these surprises in the SI vault. One of our top franchises is the Redskins. It was great to find a passage in a story from the seventies in which Richard Nixon is talking about the value of the Redskins to Washington, D.C. It was a lot of work, but there was a lot of reward to it. That was something I ended up really enjoying.