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Charting 'Football's Greatest'

The debate in any sport over who is the best ever is the subject of bar and water cooler talk probably every day. How does one come up with a “best ever” list that is both credible and stirs debate? Ask the experts. That’s what Sports Illustrated did for the NFL, and the result is a new coffee table offering “Football’s Greatest,” which looks at the best-ever in the NFL by position, team, even uniforms, stadia and trades. Was it easy to pull together, ever with contributors like Peter King, Don Banks and Jim Trotter? No.

We asked editor Bill Syken about the project, how it came together and what were the biggest surprises. 
 
Was it easy to come up with the lists?

I wouldn’t say easy, but what we had was the benefit of a group of writers who have lived the NFL for decades. We had two writers who vote for the Hall of Fame and another (Tim Layden) who is one of the most respected writers in any sport. Everyone had their own lists and we got to compile them and provide what we think is a great assessment of the best of the best in NFL history.

What were some of the surprises?

Personally I think at the wide receiver spot to see who was passed over and who made the list. The top few are no-brainers bit to see that Cris Carter and Hines Ward made the list, and Carter was a number six, that speaks a lot to his talent level and how good the writers think he was not just during his career but all time.

The lists are pretty diverse, are there things that were left out?

I think if we would have had more space the two next lists which we didn’t do were kickers/punters and return specialists. There was some argument for those lists but we needed to make sure we had compelling copy and photos and when you do a book of this magnitude you can’t cover every aspect of the game as much as you would like. Those are probably the next in if we ever expanded the work.

The list is pretty balanced across the decades, was that intentional?

Not really, it is more a product of the game and the style of each era. For example the running backs list, there are no current players and only two who are fairly recent, while most of the receivers are from the last few decades. That’s a reflection of the diversity of the game, it was a running based offensive game for decades and now it has evolved into a passing oriented game, so you get more recent receivers and less runners.

The only current coach on the list is the Patriots Bill Belicheck, was that a surprise?

Not really when you think of the life cycle of coaches today. That’s not to say there aren’t elite head coaches today who could be on the list, and I think if we did the list again in a few years there would be some adjustment, but I think for today it is pretty reflective of what the writers think are the best coaches ever.

When you look at the composite of the lists, the franchises in the book the most are the Steelers, the Packers and the Cowboys, any surprises there?

Not really surprises as they are the franchises who have maintained a high level of excellence over the years. Now the Packers are interesting because they have had the most ups and downs of the elite teams but when they have been great they have been the best. The 49ers rise obviously took place when the DeBartolo Family took over the franchise so they probably made the fastest rise, but I think the best franchises got the best places and that’s correct for where they stand in the history of the game.

Every team found its way into the book, was that intentional?

Not really, it really speaks to the parity and diversity of the NFL. Most teams if not all have had that shot at greatness or that elite player or players come along, and that’s reflected in the book. Now maybe the folks in Tampa or some other cities may feel they deserved a few more notches but that’s what’s great about the book, it spurs debate, it’s not really rocket science. There is something for everyone.

One of the more fun lists is the top ten movies, with Brian’s Song and The original “Longest Yard” making it on top. Anything there that fell out?

Well I thought “Ace Ventura Pet Detective” should have made the list but I got voted down.  It has some great NFL scenes.  There was some talk about two Adam Sandler movies, the second “Longest Yard” and “The Waterboy,” but I don’t think you could call them great and I don’t think that The Waterboy was even NFL related.  The criteria was that they had to be close to NFL-related so a movie like “Everybody’s All American” made it but a movie like “Any Given Sunday” didn’t. Still there are some great actors and great stories on the list; it was fun to put together.

What was the biggest challenge with the book?

It was really taking the time to match the text and the amazing artwork with the lists to make sure that each list was featured properly. There are thousands of images and large amounts of text written by some of the world’s greatest journalists, so putting all that together took a long time and was a bit painstaking, but in the end we wanted to make sure that the book was as compelling as possible and we are pretty pleased with the results.

What’s the next project like this?

It is something that can be replicated in several sports, so I think we will look at what signature ideas haven’t been done and what we can cull from all the amazing work that has been done by Sports Illustrated over the years and see. These projects take a long time to do right so it’s not like you can churn them out overnight, but this was a great project to be associated with.

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