The NFL’s Best Triplets

Five Quick Hits

* I like what the Browns are doing in free agency, bringing in an elite center (LeCharles Bentley) and a steady, veteran receiver (Joe Jurevicius) to help the team's young quarterback and receiving corps.

* I miss Olympic ice hockey.

* Every offseason, I feel like I'm writing about Washington too much, but every year, they're the biggest player in free agency and the trading market.

* Imagine a lineup with Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd, Antwaan Randle El, and Chris Cooley. Those are five serious playmakers surrounding the quarterback. Whoever is throwing the ball for Joe Gibbs in '06 should make the Pro Bowl if he's any kind of decent.

* I haven't found the World Baseball Classic terribly interesting, but it's a great idea, and I'd like to see it develop into something everyone wants to be a part of.


On Sunday, Edgerrin James signed a four-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals. It's bad news for the Colts, though it's insignificant for the Cardinals, who will always be terrible. Unlike many observers around the league, I think losing James is a big deal for Indianapolis, and I think they'll find him difficult to replace. Even if another player steps in for the Edge without missing a beat, though, his move to Arizona signals the end of an era.

Throughout the brief history of the 21st-century NFL, the combination of Peyton Manning, James, and Marvin Harrison has given Indianapolis the most potent trio of "skill" players in the game. Deemed the "triplets" (a tag that originally became famous when applied to the Cowboys' Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin), they ran roughshod over defenders, were endlessly hyped by the league, and set a number of team and league records in the process.

With James moving on, this is an appropriate time to examine the greatest triplets in NFL history, and the Colts' place on the list. I've assembled a register of what I believe to be the 20 best trios ever, but there are some ground rules. To be eligible, a group must:

  • Consist of exactly one quarterback, one running back, and one wide receiver. Flankers and split ends are eligible, but tight ends are not. Fullbacks may qualify as running backs, but they'll be judged primarily on their rushing ability. Blocking is just icing on the cake.
  • Have a minimum of three years together. All three players should be starters in each season. Longer spans are higher on the ist.
  • Be from the modern era, defined here as 1946 to present. It's almost impossible to compare two-way players to today's.
  • No player can appear more than once in the same time period. For instance, Bart Starr can't appear once with Jim Taylor and again with Paul Hornung.
  • No pairing can be used more than once. For instance, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris can't be used with both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
  • Players are judged by both their careers and their level of play during the years listed. Groups are ranked by their collective strength, but ties are broken by the weakest member of the triplets, so that two great players can't carry a chump along with them. We're looking for true "triplets."

20) 1983-1989 Seattle Seahawks: Dave Krieg, Curt Warner, Steve Largent

Largent, one of the five or six best receivers in history, is the only obvious choice here. Krieg, who played 19 seasons with six teams, has some name recognition, and had a good career in the same sort of way as Vinny Testaverde. But he was at his best throwing to Largent, making three Pro Bowls in the seven years listed, despite AFC competition that included Dan Marino, John Elway, and Dan Fouts. Warner missed most of the 1984 season with an injury, but in the other six years, he had four 1,000-yard seasons, plus 985 in the strike-shortened 1987 campaign.

19) 1965-1969 New York Jets: Joe Namath, Matt Snell, Don Maynard

Namath and Maynard also played with John Riggins in the early '70s, but not for long enough to meet the list requirements. Snell is probably a better choice anyway, since Riggins had his best seasons in Washington, and the late '60s were the Jets' glory years. In 1967, Namath became the first player ever to pass for 4,000 yards in a season, and in 1968, he and Snell led New York to the greatest upset in pro football history: a victory in Super Bowl III.

18) 1964-1966 San Diego Chargers: John Hadl, Paul Lowe, Lance Alworth

The AFL had a reputation for being an offense-oriented league, and the Chargers were the primary reason. Hadl, who led San Diego to the AFL title game in 1964 and 1965, played in two Pro Bowls and four AFL all-star games. Lowe's career average of 4.87 yards per carry ranks third among players with more than 1000 attempts, trailing only Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. Alworth was simply the greatest receiver of his era, and arguably ever. He led the AFL in receiving touchdowns all three years this group played together.

17) 1999-2002 St. Louis Rams: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce

The 2003 season isn't included because Warner was benched after one disastrous start. But for three years, this trio was NFL royalty. Warner or Faulk won every MVP from 1999 to 2001, and Bruce was a Pro Bowler in each of those seasons. Faulk — the only likely Hall of Famer in this group — carries the show, but Warner and Bruce were effective in the years listed.

16) 1981-1985 Washington Redskins: Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Art Monk

Washington went to two Super Bowls during this stretch, and no players were more important to that achievement than this group of triplets. Theismann, the 1983 regular-season MVP, had his best seasons during these years, but a devastating hit from Lawrence Taylor ended his career midway through the '85 season. Riggins, the MVP of Super Bowl XVII, set the NFL's single-season TD record in 1983, and averaged 121 rushing yards per game in the postseason. Monk broke the NFL record for receptions in a season in 1984, and set the career mark in 1992.

15) 1996-1998 Denver Broncos: John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith

The Mile High Salute Broncos, led by Elway and Davis, were the closest thing the NFL had to a dynasty in the late 1990s, winning back-to-back Super Bowls, with Davis the game's MVP in 1997-98 and Elway in 1998-99. It's debatable whether Smith was better than Ed McCaffrey, but his career achievements put him ahead.

14) 1977-1979 Dallas Cowboys: Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson

Although they only meet the three-year minimum, the Cowboys were dangerously explosive on offense. Staubach was the NFL's best quarterback at the time, and Dorsett, also a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was among its best runners, gaining over 1,000 yards each season and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1977. Pearson was slightly past his prime, but he beats out Tony Hill on the strength of his career as a whole.

13) 1964-1966 Washington Redskins: Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor, Bobby Mitchell

This one is a little strange. Mitchell and Taylor both started their careers as running backs, and each finished as a wide receiver. This three-year period — really two and a half — represents the overlap between the beginning of Taylor's career and the end of Mitchell's. This is the first group on the list with all three members in the Hall of Fame.

12) 1988-1996 Buffalo Bills: Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed

Along with Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, the inspiration for the widespread use of the term "triplets" to refer to a quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. This group went to four consecutive Super Bowls and made a collective 15 Pro Bowls in their nine seasons together.

11) 1951-1959 San Francisco 49ers: Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson

Wilson was a good receiver — he made six straight Pro Bowls in the late 1950s — but he was overshadowed by the other members of this combination. Tittle and Perry, along with fellow Hall of Famers Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson, comprised the Million Dollar Backfield. Perry, who finished the 1950s as the NFL's all-time leading rusher, was a close call over McElhenny for the running back spot.

10) 1950-1955 Los Angeles Rams: Norm Van Brocklin, Dan Towler, Tom Fears

The NFL was once a league of dynasties, and in the early '50s, it was dominated by the Browns, Lions, and Rams. In the six years listed for this group, no other team even played in the NFL title game. The 1950 Rams set a record for points per game (38.8) that may never be broken. This group was also the hardest to narrow down, with other options available at quarterback (Hall of Famer Bob Waterfield), running back (several candidates, most notably Tank Younger), and receiver (Hall of Famer Crazylegs Hirsch).

9) 1974-1981 Pittsburgh Steelers: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann

Only the second group featuring three Hall of Famers, this group also boasts the best championship résumé. None of the three was an extraordinary regular-season player, but they were at their best when the stakes were highest. Bradshaw was probably the best Super Bowl quarterback in history, Swann was probably the best Super Bowl receiver ever, and Harris — along with Davis, Riggins, Marcus Allen, and Emmitt Smith — is one of the greatest postseason runners of the Super Bowl era.

8) 1947-1950 Philadelphia Eagles: Tommy Thompson, Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos

Van Buren and Pihos are enshrined in Canton, and Thompson, one of the NFL's best quarterbacks in the late '40s, still gets brought up as a possible Seniors Candidate from time to time. During these years, Pihos hadn't yet totally come into his own as a receiver, but Thompson, and especially Van Buren, were at the top of their respective games. From 1947-49, Van Buren led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing TDs every year. He scored the only touchdown in the 1948 NFL Championship Game, and in the '49 contest, he set a league record with 196 rushing yards.

7) 1992-1994 San Francisco 49ers: Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice

If Watters hadn't left for Philadelphia after the 1994 season, this group would be top-five. Young was by far the league's best QB during this period, winning league MVP in 1992 and '94. In '93, he passed for over 4,000 yards, led the NFL in TDs and passer rating, and was named first-team all-pro. Rice had double-digit TDs and over 1,200 yards each season. Watters, a rushing and receiving threat, scored more than 10 TDs every season he played in San Francisco.

6) 1970-1974 Miami Dolphins: Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield

This group helped Miami put together the NFL's only undefeated season, and its second back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Griese missed most of 1972 with an injury, but he was a unanimous choice for all-pro QB in 1971. Csonka rushed for over 100 yards in both of Miami's Super Bowl victories, including a then-record 145 yards and MVP honors in Super Bowl VIII. Warfield didn't put up big numbers in the Dolphins' ball-control offense, but he was almost universally regarded as the league's best wide receiver during this period. All three players made the Pro Bowl every season, except Griese in his injured season.

5) 1990-1999 Dallas Cowboys: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin

They're the first group of triplets on the list to spend a decade together, but their prime came from 1991-95, when Aikman was at the top of his game, and Smith and Irvin were the best players at their respective positions. All elite triplets since have been compared to these Cowboys.

4) 1999-2005 Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison

I know what you're thinking, but this isn't too high. Manning and Harrison are already cinch Hall of Famers — either one could retire today and get in on the first ballot — and James has had four 1,500-yard seasons. These guys had a reasonably long seven-year run together, including all their best seasons. Manning led the NFL in interceptions as a rookie in 1998, James didn't enter the league until 1999, and Harrison's first 1,000-yard season came in '99.

3) 1985-1990 San Francisco 49ers: Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice

There's a big gap between the top three and the rest of the list. Montana is the best quarterback on the list to this point, and Rice is almost universally regarded as the greatest wide receiver in the history of professional football. Craig, from 1985-88, was the best running back this side of Eric Dickerson.

2) 1946-1953 Cleveland Browns: Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli

As rare as it is for Hall of Fame triplets to play together during their primes — this is only the fourth group on the list — it's even more rare for teammates to make eight consecutive championships together. Graham may be the greatest QB in history, Motley is almost certainly the best fullback ever to play, and Lavelli was also a Hall of Famer. It's worth noting that Graham also could have made this list with Dub Jones and Mac Speedie.

1) 1956-1966 Baltimore Colts: John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry

By far the greatest triplets in NFL history. This is the best combination of talent and the longest reign (11 years). The only question here is whether or not Moore qualifies as a running back. Obviously, I believe he does — he was an exceptional receiver and sometimes lined up as a flanker, but he also had over 1,000 carries — but Unitas and Berry would still be top-three if I replaced Moore with Alan Ameche.

In the late '50s and early '60s, Johnny U. was the undisputed master of the art of quarterbacking. His name remains a byword for great quarterback play. Moore was the most versatile offensive weapon in football. He led the NFL in touchdowns twice and in rushing average four times. Three times Moore averaged over 7.0 yards per carry, twice he had over 900 receiving yards, and he was the third player in NFL history to score 100 touchdowns in a career. Berry led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards three times each, and in receiving touchdowns twice. He retired as the league's all-time receiving leader, and many believe he had the best hands in history.

Comments and Conversation

April 19, 2006


Youre list is a joke. Dallas’ triplets won more than anyone on that list. That offense was unstoppable and just plain wore teams out. The fact the Colts and Niners are listed above them is a complete joke, the Colts havent won jack.

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