With Tom Brady’s unprecedented seventh Super Bowl victory at age 43 this year, it seems safe to say that he has cemented his status as the greatest quarterback of all time. A strong argument can be made, using his combination of individual statistical accolades and team success, that he is the single greatest player in professional football history.
This argument is relatively straightforward if you put an emphasis on ring counting.
What is less straightforward, is collectively ranking players of different positions with completely different roles and responsibilities on the field. Comparing stats of quarterbacks to skill position players to defensive players is the equivalent of comparing apples to oranges.
But today we are going to give it our best shot and determine the top four overall players in NFL history, to build the NFL’s ultimate Mount Rushmore. To do so, and to make sure we cover both sides of the ball evenly, we will pick the top quarterback, the top skill position player, and the top two players from the defensive side of the ball.
Sorry special teams, you will not be addressed here. Let’s just say Adam Vinatieri gets a special plaque on the site of this imaginary monument as the greatest special-teamer of all time. However, he does not get his face on the mountain.
So without further ado, let’s get started:
Face #1: Tom Brady, QB
As mentioned, seven Super Bowl victories with two different teams in ten appearances (essentially every-other Super Bowl since he entered the league), and still arguably the greatest quarterback in the game at age 43, Tom Brady is a no-brainer to represent his position on this Mt. Rushmore. His Patriots squad won 11 consecutive division titles which is also a record.
In terms of his individual statistics, they are damn-near as impressive as his team success and championships. He holds the record for career touchdown passes with 581. He has the most career wins as a quarterback with 230. He has a record four Super Bowl MVP awards. He has a record 33 playoff wins. He has thrown a record 80 playoff passing touchdowns. He is tied with Peyton Manning with 14 Pro Bowl appearances.
Along with the numbers, Tom Brady’s leadership and ability to build a winning culture can not be understated. He, along with head coach Bill Belichick, created the “Patriot Way,” the winningest culture in the history of the sport. In one year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL’s losing-est franchise, he reset the culture and led them to Super Bowl victory. Brady is not only the greatest player, but the greatest leader in the history of the sport, and deserves his head shot front and center on Mount Rushmore.
Face #2, Jerry Rice, WR
Jerry Rice is the greatest skill position player in NFL history. In terms of team success, Rice is a three-time Super Bowl champion, making the big game four times with two different teams (three wins with the 49ers and once with the Oakland Raiders, a loss to Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers). He also played in eight conference championships in his career.
Despite playing in an era when passing games were far less explosive than they are now (contact with quarterbacks and receivers was not only allowed, but encouraged), he still holds a ton of individual receiving records that are seemingly untouchable. He is the all-time leader in receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), and receiving touchdowns (197). He previously held the record for total yards and touchdowns in a season. He holds the record for points scored by a non-kicker with 1,256.
These records are just the tip of the iceberg, as all told, he holds over 100 NFL records, which is a record in and of itself. He was a 13-time Pro Bowler and was inducting into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
It would be almost impossible to argue any other skill position player deserves their face on the NFL Mount Rushmore over Jerry Rice.
With that, let’s flip to the defensive side of the ball…
Face #3: Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis led the Baltimore Ravens to two Superbowl Championships in his 17-year career. These teams won Super Bowls thanks purely to Lewis-led, utterly dominant defenses.
The first ring he earned was in 2001, in which he was joined by Tony Siragusa and company for one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. They dominated the Giants that game 34-7 despite having a pedestrian offense quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer. Lewis was named Super Bowl MVP for the game.
The second was in 2013, his final season, in which his defense led the Ravens to a 34-31 victory in the “HarBowl” over the Colin Kaepernick led 49ers. The Ravens were once again dominant despite being quarterbacked by far-from-elite Joe Flacco.
In terms of his individual statistics, he is the only player in NFL history to record at least 40 sacks (with 41.5) and 30 interceptions (with 31). He is the only player to ever win Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP in the same season (in 2001). He holds the record for total takeaways by a linebacker. He is (unofficially) third all-time in tackles with 2,061 total. He is a 13-time Pro Bowler, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, seven-time First-team All Pro, and a three-time Second-team All Pro. He was elected to join the NFL Hall of Fame in 2018.
You could go on an on with his list of accomplishments, but the numbers do not truly define the type of leader he was. There are legends of his pre-game and halftime speeches, many of which can be found on Youtube, and his ability to galvanize and inspire the troops may be second to none.
With that, let us take a look at the last face on the mountain…
Face #4: Lawrence Taylor
Last but far from least, we have Lawrence Taylor. Interestingly, he joins Ray Lewis as one of the most controversial players in league history. While Ray Lewis found himself caught up in a murder-trial early in his career, Taylor brings with him more stories of cocaine and hookers than (arguably) any pro athlete, across any league.
Despite these distractions, Taylor led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories.
Taylor is one of just two defensive players in league history to win the NFL MVP Award (in 1986, he also led the league in sacks with 20.5 that season). He kicked off his career winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award three times. He made 10 Pro Bowl appearances in his 13 years. He was named First Team All Pro eight times, and Second Team All Pro twice.
He finished his career with an incredible 142 (unofficial) sacks and 1,089 tackles in his 13-year career. He was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1999.
Like Ray Lewis, these impressive individual statistics don’t tell the story of just how valuable Taylor was to his team. He was a fiery locker room leader who could rally the troops as well as any wartime general.
All four of these guys were winners, leaders, and incredible individual performers. While Joe Montana, Bruce Smith, and others certainly have a valid argument to make the mountain, there is not a better fantasy line up in the multi-verse than a Tom Brady/Jerry Rice offense with a Ray Lewis/Lawrence Taylor defense.