Picking the greatest of all time in any sport is always going to be subjective, especially when there are factors like era, positional value, competition faced, and differing rules to consider. But the one sports discussion that I’ll never back down from is that Walter Payton is the greatest to ever play the game of football.
Payton retired from the Chicago Bears at the conclusion of the 1987 season after a stellar 13-year career that saw him named first-team All-Pro five times, second-team All-Pro on three occasions, and picked as a nine-time Pro Bowler. When Payton stepped away from the game, he was the league’s all-time leading rusher, he had the most rushing touchdowns, most attempts, and most yards from scrimmage ever.
His style of play is one that could transcend eras. Fans from every generation know about the greatness that Payton had.
“Not many players could ever do what Sweetness did,” said college senior and WCG intern Alex Obringer. “He was one of the most durable running backs of all time and his 1977 season will probably never be replicated.”
In 1977, Payton led the league in several categories including rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns. He led the Bears to their first postseason appearance since winning the NFL title in 1963. He won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, Offensive Player of the Year, and the Man of the Year awards, with that final award renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in his honor since 1999.
“I’m too young to have seen Jim Brown, but I’ve seen Earl Campbell, Bo Jackson, Tony Dorsett, Larry Csonka, Marcus Allen, Terrell Davis, Emmitt Smith, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and Gale Sayers play,” says longtime WCG writer Ken Mitchell. “The only two of those I would put in Payton’s league are Jackson and Sayers ... and Sweetness was a much more complete back across the board than any of them.”
Payton carried the ball with equal parts elusiveness and aggression. He had speed, quickness and power. He was a punishing blocker, a skilled receiver, an occasional passer, and he was going airborne in Chicago long before Michael Jordan was doing it for the Bulls.
Payton ran the ball like every inch on the field mattered, and he took it personally when someone tried to tackle him.
“The best way I can describe watching a defense try to deal with Walter Payton is a bunch of inexperienced farm hands trying to corral a bucking bronco,” says WCG’s Will Robinson II. “He ran wild and violent, arms flailing, legs at extreme angles. It was chaos... but controlled chaos. He always looked out of control, but never was. Walter on a football field was a force of nature. Beautifully destructive.”
But what makes him the G.O.A.T.?
Some have made the argument that Payton isn’t the greatest running back to ever play in the National Football League.
If you want to throw Jim Brown and Barry Sanders up for that title, you’ll get a debate from me, but it won’t be very heated. Payton, Brown and Sanders are the first three up on the Mt. Rushmore of great running backs no matter how you slice it.
I’ve even heard some make an argument that Payton isn’t even the greatest running back to ever play for the Bears, listing Gale Sayers ahead of him. If you truly want to list the Kansas Comet ahead of Sweetness on your running back rankings, I may disagree, but I won’t be very adamant about it.
The things that Sayers did on the football field were spellbinding, and more than one historian has called him the best pure runner to ever play the game. Injury cut his Bears career short, but the impact he made on the NFL will never be forgotten.
But I truly believe there was nothing on a football field that Payton couldn’t do, and that’s why he sits atop my list of greatest football players of all time.
“There will never be another player, or man, like Walter Payton. Never,” writes WCG’s Erik Christopher Duerrwaechter.
He was more than a running back for the Bears during the early part of his career: He was literally the team’s entire offense.
Payton didn’t have another Pro Bowl player on offense with him until he was 31 years old. Every defense he faced had one job, and that was to stop No. 34.
The Bears started to get some more talent on offense in the mid-80s, but there were no Pro Bowl offensive linemen paving the way for Sweetness until 1985.
Chicago has never been known for their quarterbacks, but here’s a list of QBs that Payton lined up behind from 1975 to 1981; Gary Huff, Bob Avellini, Bobby Douglass, Mike Phipps, and Vince Evans. Jim McMahon was drafted in 1982, but injuries limited some of his effectiveness during his Bears run, which led to Steve Fuller and Mike Tomczak filling in.
Things were so bad at quarterback in Chicago that Payton even spent some time playing the position in a game.
Payton, who is the Bears all-time leading receiver with 492 receptions, was either first or second in catches in 10 of the 13 seasons he played.
To say he was the focal point of the offense is an understatement.
The game of football has definitely changed over the years, and while play from the quarterback position has always been important, it’s nowhere near as critical in this day and age. Changes in the rules means that everything revolves around the quarterback, and that boosts their stature up in all “greatest” debates moving forward.
Current analysts will point to the greatness of Tom Brady and his seven rings as the reason why he’s the G.O.A.T., and I’ll agree he’s the greatest quarterback of all time, but there’s more to the game than just passing.
WCG’s resident Bears historian, Jack M Silverstein, made a compelling argument about Sweetness being the greatest ever with this statement, “Walter Payton could dominate in all 10 decades of the NFL.” And while that’s not the only reason he gives for categorizing Payton above all others in this subjective debate, it does help give some perspective to what Payton did during his 13-year run.
Payton would thrive in the iron man era playing alongside Bronko Nagurski and Sid Luckman, and he’d be right at home lining up next to Justin Fields in a modern NFL offense. It’s a testament to his all-around skill-set and passion for the sport that he could play in such a physical manner and only miss one game in his entire career.
I know I’m in the minority when debating Payton’s place as the best football player ever, and I’m certain my Bears fandom is messing with my judgment a tiny bit, but I don’t care.
I’ve never seen anyone play football like Walter Payton did, and there will never be another Sweetness.