A picture is worth a thousand words but it might take a million if we told all the stories of the seven historic great players in the image below. I wanted a quick and clean way to show some of the best players to touch the ball in team history. Since many players had overlapping duties, I used a pictorial Venn Diagram to pick the best player in seven categories: running back, wide receiver, and returner, the overlaps at running back / returner, receiver / returner, and receiving back, and then finally an all-around. I decided that I could only pick a player once - no duplication. Below is what I came up with:
The first, and easiest, bubble for me to fill in was wide receiver. For those of you that have read my work over the years, you know that I love Harlon Hill. (I tried to coin a nickname for him - Harlon Hill, the “Harbinger of Thrill” - hoping it catches on) His first three years in the league were essentially Randy Moss in the 1950s. If he hadn’t blown his Achilles, he’d be in the Hall of Fame. As a pure wide receiver, that was easy.
Obviously, I was going to get Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, and Devin Hester into this graphic somewhere. I decided on Hester as the best pure returner because he is - he’s the GOAT. He was a better receiver than people want to give him credit for but at the end of the day, he’ll go into the Hall of Fame for his return abilities.
I followed a similar line of thinking for Payton. He certainly got a lot of work in the passing game but at the end of the day, he’s known as the best runner of all-time. Sayers could do it all, including returning punts and kicks. He had six kick return TDs in his first three seasons to go along with two punt return scores. His 30.6 yard per kick return average is the best in league history.
That left me with the “overlapping” circles. For receiving back, Matt Forte was the obvious choice. Forte was a completely balanced back that could run actual routes (not just dump offs) and was steady in the run game. He accumulated five 1,000 yard rushing seasons and set the league record for catches by a RB with 102.
George McAfee was my pick for running back / returner. “One Play” McAfee could change the game anytime he got his hands on the ball. He is one of the best corner backs in team history and was a matchup nightmare (as much as they thought about it in those terms back then). The Hall of Famer had two kick return and two punt return TDs to go along with a career 4.9 yard per carry average. His 12.8 yards per punt return is an all-time league record.
Finally, I chose Johnny Knox to my receiver / returner spot. For me, this was between Knox and Dennis “Silky D” McKinnon. Like many Bears fans, I have a soft spot in my heart for the dynamic Knox. He primarily returned kicks, not punts, where Silky D was the opposite. Obviously, Knox’s career was shorter, but in the end, I believe Knox to be the better receiver and I gave him the nod.
What would your circles look like? Sound off in the comments below or find me on Twitter @gridironborn.