My Exchange with Paul Zimmerman About NFL All-Time Best Players (Part 2)

Me with Hall of Famer Bob Lilly

In Part 1, I shared our thoughts about NFL skill players. In Part 2, we focus on offensive and defensive linemen.

I’ll start with the offensive lineman. At center, I had Jim Otto, Mike Webster, Mel Hein, and Jim Langer. Zimmerman demured. “Dwight Stephenson was the best center ever to play the game,” he said. “Some will argue that he only played eight seasons, but it’s not his fault that Marty Lyons took him out at the ankle and ended his career.”

Howie Long shares Zimmerman’s enthusiasm for Stephenson’s abilities. He recalled, “We once designed a game plan built around stopping Dwight Stephenson. In all my years of playing football, that’s the only time I ever heard of a game plan designed to stop a center.”

Dr. Z had Dermonti Dawson as his #2 center. “He was the only one who came close to Dwight’s quickness, but Dwight was stronger,” he concluded.

At offensive tackle, we had slightly different opinions but agreed for the most part. Dr. Z had Forrest Gregg, Art Shell, and Ron Mix as his top three, and I had Anthony Munoz right up there with Forrest Gregg. But Zimmerman disagreed with my pick. “Munoz was nearly perfect technically, but he lacked inner fire.” But we concurred on Gregg. Vince Lombardi once said, “Forrest Gregg was the best player I ever coached.”

The great John Hannah (photo, AL.com)

Dr. Z felt it was pretty much a tie between John Hannah and Jim Parker at the guard position. “Parker was the best pass blocking guard I’ve ever seen, while Hannah was the best-run blocking guard I’ve ever seen,” said Zimmerman.

While I didn’t get to see Parker play, I’ve done enough research on him to agree with Dr. Z. I saw Hannah play, and I do not argue about calling him the best run-blocking guard ever to play.

But Mr. Zimmerman did not mention Larry Little, which kind of surprised me. He may have been the best pulling guard I’d ever seen play. I also had Gene Upshaw ranked high, but Paul felt he was somewhat overrated and called him “a long-armed holder supreme.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Dr.Z had a lot to say. I had my top three defensive ends as Deacon Jones, Reggie White, and Gino Marchetti. Zimmerman agreed with me on Reggie White, saying he was the most powerful DE he had ever seen play. Deacon Jones was the best pass-rushing DE he had seen. Dr. Z had Marchetti as his #4 DE. “Gino brought in the technique of grabbing and throwing blockers. He was the first to do that,” said Zimmerman.

But his #3 pick was a surprise–Rich “Tombstone” Jackson. “Offenses changed their game plans to try and stop Jackson,” he said. Zimmerman went on to say that he was on the Hall of Fame voting committee and lobbied for Jackson to get enshrined. Year after year, the counter-argument was always the same: Jackson’s career was cut short (after seven seasons) with a knee injury.

Although he didn’t say where he would rank them, Dr.Z spoke highly of Howie Long and Mark Gastineau. “Long didn’t have many sacks, but he was great at flushing QBs into others’ arms. He could also jam up the run. Gastineau had incredible athletic talent. He ran a 4.5 forty weighing 290 lbs. He was a relentless pass rusher, too, but unfortunately, he had no interest in stopping the run.”

At defensive tackle, we were in full agreement on our top three. Dr.Z had Bob Lilly as his #1. Said Zimmerman, “Lilly had a near-perfect technique. Much like Marchetti, he was proficient in the art of grabbing and throwing blockers out of the way. Some say he didn’t have a mean streak, but he did when provoked.” Said former Miami Dolphins guard Bob Kuechenberg about Lilly: “He was so fast off the ball, you could never beat him to the punch.”

The unstoppable Joe Greene (photo, USAToday)

Dr. Z had Joe Greene and Merlin Olsen in a tie for second. “Olsen could bull rush better than anyone I ever saw,” said Zimmerman. “Merlin would break down the inside of the line play after play.” He played clean, too, not one to take cheap shots.

“Joe Greene may have been the quickest of the three,” said Zimmerman. “The Steelers would have him line up at an angle to attack the center-guard gap. The three of them were skilled in all phases of the game, and they never came off the field to take a breather.”

I had Alan Page as my #4 DT, and Dr. Z said he was “the best pass-rushing DT I’d ever seen, but that he was a liability against the run.” He had a similar opinion about John Randle. “A great pass rusher, but you could run the trap play on him all day long.”

In case you think Zimmerman hated the Vikings, here’s what he had to say about another former Vikings DT, Pat Williams. “In 2005, Pat Williams had one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen a DT have. He didn’t make the Pro Bowl team and he didn’t get much overall recognition. Why? Because he had only one sack the entire season. Sackers get all the glory, but it’s players like Pat Williams that cause all those sacks.”

In Part 3, we’ll go over the linebackers and defensive backs.

I grew up in Northern NJ. I grew up in the 1970s. I was always a big sports fan. I enjoy writing about old school sports and weightlifting.

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