Paul Zimmerman and I Exchanged Notes on the Best NFL Players Ever (Part 1)
The late Paul Zimmerman, known as ‘Dr. Z’ was best known for his NFL coverage. And that was the focus of our conversation.
Paul Zimmerman was a renaissance man of sports, so to speak–eloquent, prolific, and with a range of interests. He’s probably best known for his writing in Sports Illustrated.
No longer with us, Zimmerman passed away two years ago. He began working on a book in 2006 but a series of strokes in 2008 left him unable to finish it. Thankfully his friend and fellow sportswriter, Peter King, completed the task.
For me, Paul Zimmerman wasn’t just somebody I read. About twenty years ago, I reached out to him. I told him how much I enjoyed reading his work, and I also mentioned that I was an old-school football fan. I didn’t stop there. Audaciously, I shared the names of players on my all-time NFL team.
I didn’t expect a response, but I got one … and more.
Zimmerman wrote back to me in a two-page typewritten letter. Included was a list of his favorite local restaurants. I didn’t know until then that Zimmerman and his wife lived but 15 minutes away from me.
What I also didn’t know at the time was that my letter would lead to a back-and-forth that I’ll always appreciate and I’ll never forget.
While Zimmerman and I agreed on many of our all-time selections, know that Zimmerman had other strong opinions. For example, he believed that you should only choose players you saw play the game. He also didn’t put much stock in how many times a player made the Pro Bowl, which he saw as a popularity contest.
I learned that Zimmerman began charting games and evaluating players in 1947. His approach was very much like an avid baseball fan who keeps a scorecard of every game he or she watches. But Zimmerman was more than a fan; he was a student of the game, having played the game at Stanford and Columbia universities, and later in a semi-pro league.
Zimmerman put making an all-time list this way: “Picking an all-time team is fun — for some. I take it very seriously.” So, where did Zimmerman and I settle?
At quarterback, he chose Johnny Unitas as the best player under the old rules, and Joe Montana as the best under the new rules. I agreed there. Zimmerman then chose Otto Graham as #3, while I chose Sammy Baugh as my #3. I have Graham as #6. In truth, both players were before my time, so I made my choices based on what I’ve read, researched, and seen in films.
At running back, Zimmerman picked Jim Brown as #1. I did not argue there, but I also gave him a list of the greats I’d seen in action, including Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and Tony Dorsett. “They were all top-notch backs,” he said, as he also chided me. “But anyone can make a list of great backs. You need to break it down and be more specific.”
He had Marion Motley as his #1 fullback, a player who was not only a punishing runner but a great blocker, too, perhaps the best of all-time at picking up the blitz. Hall of Fame coach Weeb Ewbank put it this way: “Motley took the romance out of the blitz.”
Earl Campbell was his choice as the best short-yardage back, while Hugh McElhenny ranked #1 as his best third-down back.
At wide receiver, we both agreed that Jerry Rice is the best receiver in the last fifty years. But what made him the best? Well, there’s his work ethic in training and during practice, and Rice excelled at YAC (yards after catch). Zimmerman added more based on an interview he had conducted with Rice.
Rice gave credit to quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. He told Zimmerman: “I gained so many yards after the catch because I never had to break stride when catching the ball. Steve wasn’t far behind Joe, but I can’t ever remember a time when Joe didn’t put the ball exactly where it was supposed to be. I never had to reach for the ball, which allowed me to catch the ball on the run. I knew the ball was going to be there. I had so much confidence in both Joe and Steve.”
Zimmerman concluded that Jerry Rice was the best receiver ever at running a shallow crossing route.
From my perspective–even though I never saw him play in his prime–I believe Lance Alworth is one of the greatest receivers to play the game. What did Zimmerman think? “Alworth was the best deep threat I have ever seen play.” Alworth’s coach, Sid Gilliam, said: “Alworth was so confident in his ability to get open that he wanted the ball thrown to him on every play.”
Raymond Berry retired before I started watching football, but I always ranked him very high on my best wide receivers list. Zimmerman agreed: “Berry was the best possession receiver I ever saw play. He seldom dropped a pass, and that’s before receivers started wearing gloves.”
Although he was well before my time, another guy I had high on my list was Don Hutson. And Hutson is the only player on Paul Zimmerman’s best-ever list that he didn’t see play the game.
“I’d seen plenty of highlight films of him (Hutson),” said Zimmerman, “but that wasn’t good enough for me. So I flew out to the Green Bay Packers facility to see actual game footage of Hutson. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The guy was making circus catches and putting up numbers that no one else at that time was even close to matching. Like most players of that era, he also played defense. He was an excellent defensive back, and he sometimes lined up at defensive end.”
One position where we disagreed was at tight end. My top four were John Mackey, Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow, and Jackie Smith. Zimmerman wouldn’t have it, though. “Dave Casper was better than all of them,” he said. “He never dropped the ball and was an outstanding blocker. His career average was 13.8 yards per catch, higher than almost any TE playing today.” He ranked John Mackey a close second, though.
(In Part Two, we’ll go over the best-ever offensive and defensive linemen).