Saturday, January 2, 2010
Sports Central’s NFL All-Decade Team
This has been a (mostly) good decade for the NFL. We've had parity, but we've also had the first 16-0 season and the first 0-16 season in league history. We've had great Super Bowls and a legitimate dynasty in New England. And of course, we've had great players.
Below, I've named a first- and second-team all-decade player at each position, as well as a couple of honorable mentions. Each section also includes a listing for the most overrated and underrated player at that position. A word on the "overrated" listings: overrated doesn't mean bad. In fact, most of the overrated players listed are actually quite good — they've just been overhyped. I named two defensive tackles and two inside linebackers, since both 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes are common.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (IND)
Second Team: Tom Brady (NE)
Honorable Mention: Donovan McNabb (PHI), Drew Brees (SD/NO)
Overrated: Eli Manning (NYG)
Underrated: Jeff Garcia (SF/CLE/DET/PHI/TB)
During the decade, Peyton Manning made nine Pro Bowls and seven all-pro teams. He was first-team all-pro four times, won three NFL MVP Awards, and was named MVP of Super Bowl XLI. He led all QBs in completions, yards, touchdowns, TD/INT differential, and passer rating. He won more games as starting QB than any other player in any decade. He had the best play-action fakes, threw the best deep ball, and was the best at avoiding sacks. He was the ultimate field general, more in control of his offense than any player since John Unitas. He runs probably the greatest two-minute drill in the history of the game and has led more great comebacks than any other QB, in any decade. Easy call.
Brady, Brees, and McNabb have comparable regular-season statistics, but Brady is ahead on post-season performance. Brady is the Bart Starr to Manning's Unitas. As long as I'm making HOF comparisons, how about Brees to Dan Fouts and McNabb as a poor man's Fran Tarkenton? Brett Favre will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but his best years were in the '90s.
Eli Manning is above average, and he really did play well in the 2007 postseason. But he is not, and never has been, a great NFL quarterback. Unless it's mindless Manning worship, I can't understand why announcers constantly make him out to be so much more than he is. Garcia has gotten stuck in a couple of hopeless situations, but he's played well everywhere he's been, and no quarterback has more will to win. Garcia struggled with injuries partially because he consistently put his body on the line to help his team.
Running Back: LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
Second Team: Tiki Barber (NYG)
Honorable Mention: Priest Holmes (BAL/KC), Marshall Faulk (STL)
Overrated: Mike Alstott (TB)
Underrated: Kevin Faulk (NE)
Tomlinson is among the greatest running backs in history, and no one else this decade is close. He rushed for 12,489 yards and 138 touchdowns. He caught over 500 passes and added almost 4,000 receiving yards, plus another 15 touchdowns. He rushed for double-digit TDs every season. One year he caught 100 passes. In 2006 he broke the single-season touchdown record. He ran for over 1,000 yards eight seasons in a row. This is Tomlinson first, daylight second.
Four players this decade rushed for more yards than Barber (Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis, and Clinton Portis). James and Lewis played the whole decade, while Barber retired in 2006, and his per-year contributions were much higher. If he had kept playing, it is plausible that Barber might have rushed for more yards than Tomlinson. We'll never know. What we do know is that Barber contributed much more than just rushing yards. He was one of the great receiving backs in history, and he led all RBs this decade in yards per carry (min. 1000 att.), with an excellent 4.85. Barber was also a valuable punt returner early in the decade.
Close calls after LT. I think Barber has to be in there, but Holmes and Marshall Faulk only played for half the decade. If someone prefers Shaun Alexander, James, or Portis, I wouldn't argue. He's not a good choice after only two seasons, but Chris Johnson is special. In 2002, Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z named Tomlinson one of the 30 best RBs of all time, after just 1½ seasons. That's the kind of confidence I have in Johnson.
Mike Alstott was the kind of player every team wants. But he wasn't a great blocker, and he wasn't a true fullback. Alstott frequently lined up at tailback, and his duties — primarily running and receiving — were those of an RB, not a fullback. Alstott was a good player, but mislabeling his position created an absurd level of undeserved hype. Kevin Faulk is probably as responsible for the Patriot Dynasty as any player this side of Tom Brady and Richard Seymour. He always seemed to make a play when the team needed one.
Fullback: Tony Richardson (KC/MIN/NYJ)
Second Team: Lorenzo Neal (TEN/CIN/SD/BAL)
Honorable Mention: Dan Kreider (PIT/STL/ARI), Mack Strong (SEA)
In the 2000s, Richardson blocked for Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Adrian Peterson, and Thomas Jones. He is as accomplished a lead blocker as anyone, and proved himself in several different systems. In 2000, before the Chiefs acquired Holmes, Richardson stepped in to lead the team in rushing, averaging 4.7 yards per attempt and adding almost 500 receiving yards. He is the most complete fullback of this generation: a superb blocker, a capable runner, and a good receiver.
Neal didn't rival Richardson as a threat with the ball in his hands, but no back this decade has surpassed him as a blocker. Neal helped make stars of Eddie George, Corey Dillon, and especially LaDainian Tomlinson. No one else is close to Richardson and Neal, but Kreider and Strong played well for years.
Wide Receiver: Torry Holt (STL/JAC), Marvin Harrison (IND)
Second Team: Randy Moss (MIN/OAK/NE), Terrell Owens (SF/PHI/DAL/BUF)
Honorable Mention: Hines Ward (PIT), Reggie Wayne (IND)
Underrated: Derrick Mason (TEN/BAL)
Holt led all receivers this decade in receptions (868) and receiving yards (12,954). He posted eight 1,000-yard seasons and is the only player in history with six straight 1,300-yard campaigns. Harrison was a close call over Moss. Harrison had more catches, while Moss gained more yards and scored more TDs. I chose Harrison because of his steadiness and reliability. He opened the decade with 7 consecutive seasons of at least 1,000 yards and 10 TDs. His three-year stretch from 2000-02 is among the best by any wide receiver in history: each season, he caught over 100 passes, with more than 1,400 yards and more than 10 TDs. The only other player to have more than one season like that was Jerry Rice (1994-95). Harrison was the best I've ever seen at the toe-tap on the sideline, and he was a smart player who read defenses to find the weak point. The play that exemplifies Harrison's intelligence for me was the 2004 playoff game against Denver in which Harrison went to the ground with a catch, then got up and ran 30 yards for a touchdown since no one had touched him.
Moss and Owens scored the most receiving touchdowns in the '00s, 120 and 113, respectively. They joined Holt as the only receivers with over 11,000 yards. They also played for a combined seven teams and were known as much for their perceived character issues and off-field troubles as for their in-game brilliance — Owens in particular. Their play-making abilities demand spots on this team.
No one really questions that Ward was the best blocking receiver of the decade. The strange thing is that he wasn't noticeably great at anything else. He doesn't have great hands, and he's downright slow for the position. He does run good routes, though, and he's smart and tough. Ward consistently excelled in an offense that was usually geared toward the run and didn't facilitate big stats. Wayne has taken over where Harrison left off; he is the most complete receiver in the league, and no one makes more jaw-dropping catches. Andre Johnson, Chad Ochocinco, Steve Smith (CAR), and Mason round out the decade's top 10.
Mason finished the 2000s with the second-most catches (behind Holt) and fourth-most yards (Holt, Moss, and Owens) of any WR. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons, tied for the most in the decade. Mason never played in a pass-oriented offense, but he consistently performed at a high level, and led his team in receiving yards nine times. A good argument could be made that Mason was one of the top four WRs of the decade, and he certainly has never gotten the credit he deserves.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez (KC/ATL)
Second Team: Antonio Gates (SD)
Honorable Mention: Jason Witten (DAL), Alge Crumpler (ATL/TEN)
Overrated: Jeremy Shockey (NYG/NO)
Underrated: Brandon Manumaleuna (STL/SD)
Gonzalez is as easy and obvious a choice as possible. During the decade, he amassed 828 catches for 9,939 yards and 67 TDs. That's comparable to Hines Ward (811 rec., 10,002 yards, 71 TD). Only Torry Holt had more catches than Gonzalez over the last 10 seasons. Gonzalez is such an exceptional receiver that his blocking — which is unspectacular but respectable — has gotten an unfair bad reputation. He can block when called upon to do so, but it doesn't make sense to keep such a dynamic receiver in as a blocker.
Gates and Witten played just over half the decade, six seasons each. They were dominant enough during that time to easily surpass others with more experience. They join Gonzalez to form the top three in both receptions and receiving yards. I chose Crumpler for the last honorable mention because of his consistency and well-rounded game. He's never had the one really outstanding season, but he was a consistent contributor.
Shockey is good, but he's not in the same league as Gates and Witten, and his best days are behind him. Manumaleuna has been the premier blocking tight end of the decade, the closest thing we have to a modern-day Don Warren. He's not the impact player the receivers are, but he doesn't get enough credit. You could say the same thing about most blocking specialists, but Jim Kleinsasser deserves particular recognition, as well.
Center: Kevin Mawae (NYJ/TEN)
Second Team: Olin Kreutz (CHI)
Honorable Mention: Jeff Saturday (IND), Tom Nalen (DEN)
Overrated: Matt Birk (MIN/BAL)
Underrated: Casey Wiegmann (CHI/KC/DEN)
Mawae and Kreutz were the best at the beginning of the decade, and they're still effective today. Kreutz has perhaps been a bit steadier, but Mawae was better at the top of his game. Saturday was the constant on the Colts' line, a key to their success in the '00s. Nalen didn't play the whole decade, but was a difference-maker when he was in. Shaun O'Hara and Wiegmann deserve recognition, too. Birk is a good center. Specifically, the seventh-best center of the decade. His reputation puts him in the running for number one, and that's just not an accurate reflection of his play.
Guard: Steve Hutchinson (SEA/MIN), Alan Faneca (PIT/NYJ)
Second Team: Will Shields (KC), Brian Waters (KC)
Honorable Mention: Kris Dielman (SD), Logan Mankins (NE)
Overrated: Larry Allen (DAL/SF)
Hutchinson and Faneca are an easy 1-2. Hutchinson helped Shaun Alexander and Adrian Peterson become stars, helping Chester Taylor to a 1,216-yard season in between. The Seahawks allowed 27 sacks in Hutchinson's last season with the team, compared to 49 in their first year without him. Faneca made his 9th straight Pro Bowl this year, and was a particularly ferocious run-blocker.
Shields retired after the 2006 season, but he and Faneca were the clear standouts in the first half of the decade. Shields' linemate Waters somehow remains anonymous to most NFL fans despite four Pro Bowls and two first-team all-pro selections. Faced with the choice, I'm going quality over quantity for this team, so a quartet of young players — Dielman, Mankins, Jake Scott, and Chris Snee — join Marco Rivera (who retired in 2006) and Mike Goff to complete my top 10. Allen is one of the greatest guards in NFL history, but his best seasons came in the 1990s.
Offensive Tackle: Walter Jones (SEA), Jon Runyan (PHI/SD)
Second Team: Jonathan Ogden (BAL), Orlando Pace (STL/CHI)
Honorable Mention: Willie Roaf (KC), Willie Anderson (CIN/BAL)
Overrated: Chris Samuels (WAS)
Underrated: Ryan Diem (IND)
This is a dark period for offensive tackles. There's no Art Shell or Anthony Muñoz in this generation. Ogden was the best, but he was never the same after his 2004 injury and retired following the '07 season. Roaf, a close second, only played for half the decade. That leaves Jones, a capable pass protector and bruising run blocker, to take the top spot. Runyan was a steadying force on an offense that consistently ranked among the league's best. He started every game from 2000-08. Anderson was a particularly skilled run blocker.
Pace was a very good player whose reputation always exceeded his performance. Samuels was an above-average player whose reputation (6 Pro Bowls!) is wildly out of line with his actual play. Offensive linemen who are drafted in the top five and are not obvious failures are almost invariably overrated. Diem has been the Colts' starting right tackle for the last nine seasons. They haven't succeeded in spite of him.
Defensive Tackle: Richard Seymour (NE), La'Roi Glover (NO/DAL/STL)
Second Team: Aaron Smith (PIT), Pat Williams (BUF/MIN)
Honorable Mention: Trevor Pryce (DEN/BAL), Kevin Williams (MIN)
Overrated: Albert Haynesworth (TEN/WAS)
Underrated: Kelly Gregg (BAL)
Defensive line selections were the hardest part of this project, because there are really four or five distinct positions: nose tackle (3-4), defensive tackle (4-3), defensive end (3-4), pass rushing defensive end (4-3), and arguably rush linebacker (3-4), as well. The first three all have effectively the same duties, so I've grouped them together under this heading. Thus, Seymour, who is actually a 3-4 defensive end, is listed at tackle. Am I happy with this arrangement? Not really, but I think it's the best solution possible.
Let's run through a quick top four at each. NT: Kris Jenkins, Jamal Williams, Casey Hampton, Vince Wilfork. DT: Glover, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, John Henderson. DE: Seymour, Smith, Pryce, Shaun Ellis.
Seymour isn't the player he used to be, but early in the decade, he constantly disrupted offensive gameplans. He could rush the passer inside or outside, he was very hard to move on running plays, and he had great instincts and vision. Kevin Williams and Glover made their mark as pass rushers without being soft against the run. Pryce, who has played DT and both DE positions, was first and foremost a pass rusher, but he became a sound run defender, as well. Smith, Hampton, and Brett Keisel formed the foundation for Pittsburgh's defense, which has ranked among the top 10 every season this decade. Pat Williams was a reliable run-stuffer in Buffalo, but he's really come into his own in Minnesota, blowing up plays in the backfield and drawing double-teams to create opportunities for his teammates.
Haynesworth had a couple of big seasons, but he wore down late in games and always seemed to fade at the end of the season. He's not reliable enough. All the NTs are underrated — including by me, I guess, since I didn't select any — but Gregg has been a rock for the Ravens all decade, with hardly any recognition. Jenkins spent most of the decade as a 4-3 DT with Carolina, but has really excelled as a nose tackle with the Jets, proving to be a huge disruptive force inside. He's had problems staying healthy, but no one busts more plays in the backfield.
Defensive End: Jason Taylor (MIA/WAS), Michael Strahan (NYG)
Second Team: Jared Allen (MIN/KC), John Abraham (NYJ/ATL)
Honorable Mention: Julius Peppers (CAR), Dwight Freeney (IND)
Overrated: Jevon Kearse (TEN/PHI)
Underrated: Andre Carter (SF/WAS)
Maybe this is unfair, but only 4-3 DEs are listed here. Taylor and Strahan are obvious choices, the most consistent players at their position. Each won Defensive Player of the Year, Strahan in 2001 and Taylor in '06. Taylor recorded by far the most sacks this decade. Strahan only played 70% of the decade, but he and Ray Lewis had more impact than any other defensive player in the first half of the '00s, with Strahan averaging more than 15 sacks from 2000-03. He missed some time with injuries and retired while he was still a good player, but Strahan continued to make plays and create opportunities for his teammates throughout his career.
Allen is without question the greatest DE of the last five years, the best pass rusher off the line. Only Taylor recorded more sacks this decade than Abraham. Peppers and Freeney were both rookies in 2002. They missed the first two seasons of the decade but have more than made up for it since. Peppers' size and athleticism were simply too much for most opponents to deal with. The guy's wingspan is about half a mile. Freeney was famously vulnerable against screens and the run, but he dictated strategy to opposing offenses, forcing them to change their gameplans, and helped the Colts hold leads by making dropbacks a hazard to all enemy passers.
Rounding out the top 10: Carter, Leonard Little, Simeon Rice, Aaron Schobel. Carter has three double-digit sack years but has never made a Pro Bowl. Schobel would be famous if he didn't play in Buffalo. Kearse blew everyone away with his rookie season in 1999. He was less spectacular this decade, ranking 22nd in sacks.
Outside Linebacker: Derrick Brooks (TB), DeMarcus Ware (DAL)
Second Team: Keith Bulluck (TEN), Julian Peterson (SEA/DET)
Honorable Mention: Lance Briggs (CHI), Takeo Spikes (CIN/BUF/PHI/SF)
Overrated: LaVar Arrington (WAS/NYG)
Brooks is number one by a mile. He made eight Pro Bowls, garnered four first-team all-pro selections, and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2002. Junior Seau and Brooks are easily the best non-rush OLBs of the last 25 years. The Ware selection needs explanation, since he only played half the decade. I feel that Ware is hands-down the standout OLB of the last five years. He leads the NFL in sacks during that time (64.5), beating Jared Allen (62.0) for the top spot and leaving other linebackers in the dust (Joey Porter is next with 48.5). I've picked Ware for the Pro Bowl every year of his career, plus two all-pro selections and my DPOY award in 2008. That's a decade's worth of impact squeezed into five seasons, and it's remarkable.
Bulluck led all OLBs for the decade in games played, tackles, interceptions, and passes defended. Peterson and Briggs, with five selections each, join Brooks as the only OLBs to make half the Pro Bowls this decade. Peterson probably had the most balanced skills and responsibilities of any elite OLB in the '00s. He and Mike Vrabel were the only players among the top 10 at the position in games played, tackles, sacks, interceptions, and passes defended. Joey Porter and Willie McGinest also deserve recognition.
Arrington showed flashes of brilliance, and ended Troy Aikman's career. The consistency wasn't there, nor was discipline. Spikes was a great player in space, third among OLBs in the decade in both tackles and INTs, trailing only Brooks and Bulluck. He played mostly for bad teams and moved around a lot, so he never got the notoriety his play merited.
Inside Linebacker: Ray Lewis (BAL), Zach Thomas (MIA/DAL)
Second Team: Brian Urlacher (CHI), London Fletcher (STL/BUF/WAS)
Honorable Mention: Keith Brooking (ATL/DAL), James Farrior (PIT)
Even though I think Lewis is the most overrated ILB of the decade (just edging Urlacher), he's a clear number one. After that, it's close. How do you separate these guys? Thomas doesn't have great stats, so maybe I'm giving him undue credit for his high level of play in the late '90s. I think the real reason is that Thomas was basically finished after seven seasons this decade: injured in 2007, part-time player in '08, inactive in '09. Thomas actually was better, when he played, than anyone except Lewis. Quality over quantity.
Urlacher had the most obvious weakness among these six, trouble shedding blockers. With a couple of good DTs in front of him, though, the man was a terror. A converted safety, he was formidable against the pass and very quick for the position. Tackle statistics continue to be a little sketchy, but Fletcher led all players this decade, by almost 200. Fletcher famously has never made a Pro Bowl, an unfortunate slight for a player who will turn 35 next year and has probably played his best football already. Fletcher played on the awful Ram defenses of the early 2000s before moving to the AFC, where he was trapped behind Lewis and Thomas. In both Buffalo and Washington, he had limited opportunities to impress a national audience. In 2006, Fletcher was 3rd in the NFL in tackles, with 2 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 2 touchdowns. Forget the Pro Bowl, that's an all-pro quality season.
Brooking and Farrior probably should be on the second team somehow, but then I'd feel bad about leaving off Urlacher and Fletcher. Brooking is a great team player who will do whatever the club needs. He has played inside linebacker in a 3-4 and middle linebacker in a 4-3, even moving to outside linebacker in 2004 and making the Pro Bowl there. He has all the qualities you like to see at this position: intelligence, quickness, toughness, and leadership. To an average fan, Farrior's name is probably the least recognizable among these six, but if you've watched the Steelers in the last 10 years, you've seen Farrior blitzing through the line to break up a play in the backfield and stuffing inside runs at the line of scrimmage. He probably made more tackles behind the line of scrimmage than anyone else this decade.
A word on Lewis: it's tempting to fight the never-ending hype and off-putting self-promotion by insisting that Lewis wasn't really all that great. It's tempting, but it's not true. Lewis got credit for a lot of things he didn't really do, and his leadership qualities were blown out of proportion, but he was the greatest playmaker at his position since Jack Lambert, maybe since Dick Butkus. He was exceptional in pass coverage, actually underrated in this aspect of his game. Lewis had a gift for being where the ball was. He rarely missed the routine plays, and he made more big plays than anyone. This guy is an all-time great.
Cornerback: Ronde Barber (TB), Charles Woodson (OAK/GB)
Second Team: Champ Bailey (WAS/DEN), Patrick Surtain (MIA/KC)
Honorable Mention: Asante Samuel (NE/PHI), Dre' Bly (STL/DET/DEN/SF)
Underrated: Shawn Springs (SEA/WAS/NE)
Barber and Rodney Harrison are the only DBs in NFL history with at least 25 interceptions and at least 25 sacks. Or, they're at least the only ones since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. Barber led all CBs this decade in games, tackles, sacks, interception return TDs, and fumble return TDs. Relatively speaking, he didn't get a lot of interceptions (33, t-6th), both because opponents tended to stay away from him and because he wasn't a reckless gambler: he'd rather concede the catch and make the stop than give up an easy touchdown diving for a ball he probably couldn't reach. With the ball in his hands, Barber was an underrated and dangerous scoring threat. He was the best cornerback of the decade, and no one else was close.
When it came to high-impact plays and terrifying offenses, no one topped Woodson. He ranked third in interceptions, second in INT return touchdowns, and first in INT return yards. He also tied Bly for most fumbles forced, 20. Woodson is a smarter gambler and better tackler than Bailey, who led all CBs in both interceptions and getting burned deep. Bailey was awful on returns, averaging just 9.5 yards per INT return (compared to 16.0 for Woodson and 15.9 for Barber), fumbling four times, and getting run down by Ben Watson in a playoff game. Bailey is probably the single most overrated player of the decade at any position.
Surtain, in his prime, was an offensive coordinator's nightmare, combining the best elements of a shut-down corner and a ballhawk. He was sound against the run, didn't give up anything deep, and made the offense pay for throwing at him. Samuel is a debatable selection, with only 83 career starts. He's also a gambler who can be beaten deep. But he and Woodson are the premier play-making CBs in the game today. In the last four seasons, Samuel has 29 INTs and Woodson 27. No other CB is over 18. Samuel's playmaking ability earns him a spot on this list.
Bly has been up and down, and he's gotten picked on sometimes. But he made opponents pay, and that's what we look for at this position. Bly ranked among the decade's leaders at this position in INTs (2nd), INT return yards (2nd), INT return TDs (t-5th), passes defended (t-2nd), fumbles forced (t-1st), fumble recoveries (1st), fumble return yards (2nd), and fumble return TDs (t-2nd). Springs wasn't that kind of playmaker, but how did he not make any Pro Bowls this decade?
Free Safety: Brian Dawkins (PHI/DEN)
Second Team: Darren Sharper (GB/MIN/NO)
Overrated: Sean Taylor (WAS)
This is the only position without any honorable mentions. Dawkins and Sharper stand alone, and it would be misleading to imply that anyone else is close. It may sound strange to call a well-known player like Dawkins underrated, but some people act like there's a question about whether he should be a Hall of Famer. There is not. Dawkins is among the best ever at the safety blitz, and one of the hardest hitters at any position (26 forced fumbles, by far the most of any DB this decade). He was a good pass defender who knocked down more balls (108) than any other safety in the decade, and a true team leader. Sharper intercepted by far the most passes of any player this decade (58), also leading the league in INT return yards (1,330) and TDs (9).
It feels wrong to say anything unkind about the dead, so let's just say that Taylor was a very talented player who never had a chance to fully develop his skills and whose reputation, through no fault of his own, sometimes outstripped his performance.
Strong Safety: Ed Reed (BAL)
Second Team: Rodney Harrison (SD/NE)
Honorable Mention: Troy Polamalu (PIT), John Lynch (TB/DEN)
Overrated: Roy Williams (DAL/CIN)
Underrated: Adrian Wilson (ARI)
Reed is a natural free safety, but he spent several seasons at strong, and I needed to get him into the lineup, which would have been tough with Dawkins and Sharper at the other safety position. Reed is already among the greatest ballhawks in history, and some of his best performances have come in the postseason. It's probably fair to say that Sharper and Reed were the premier defensive playmakers of the decade.
Harrison was the prototypical strong safety. Not a great pass defender, he made his mark with ruthless run-stops, quarterback blitzes, and bone-jarring hits. Lynch was a poor man's Harrison. Both were big hitters, but Lynch didn't have Harrison's quickness and was never a threat with the ball in his hands. Polamalu was a phenomenal playmaker, but after only 72 games, I can't justify putting him ahead of Harrison.
Williams had a great college career and quickly solidified his reputation in the NFL with big hits and a pair of INT touchdown returns as a rookie. He made too many mistakes, though, and was a liability on passing plays. Wilson is finally starting to get a rep in line with his performance, this season earning his third Pro Bowl berth. He's a very smart player, better in coverage than most strong safeties, uncannily accurate at diagnosing run plays, and positively terrifying on blitzes.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri (NE/IND)
Second Team: David Akers (PHI)
Honorable Mention: Matt Stover (BAL/IND), Jason Hanson (DET)
Overrated: Jason Elam (DEN/ATL)
Underrated: Ryan Longwell (GB/MIN)
I feel like a little bit of a sell-out for going with Vinatieri, but the significance of his postseason accomplishments just can't be overstated. I don't believe that any kicker in history has had more impact deciding championships. Vinatieri was an above-average regular season kicker, and his battles against the New England weather are rightly legendary.
What do you want from a kicker? You want a guy who will make everything under 40 yards, who can handle pressure, and who has a big leg for 50-yarders and kickoffs. But how do you prioritize those things? How you answer this question determines your choices at this position.
Akers has put up good numbers despite the poor kicking conditions in Philadelphia and has no real weaknesses to speak of. He led the NFL in scoring from 2000-09. There's a good argument for Stover as the best kicker of the decade. He led the NFL in field goals made (269) and field goal percentage (87.1%) despite working out of the tough AFC North. He dropped on my list because of leg strength. Stover only made six 50-yard FGs, with a long of 52, and was no good on kickoffs. Hanson was stuck in Detroit all decade, which limited his opportunities, but he led the league in 50-yard field goals (27) and did a nice job on kickoffs.
Elam has been coasting on reputation for most of the decade. Not that he isn't good, but his name recognition is out of line with a level of play that was merely average. And don't forget that those long kicks are easier in the thin air at Mile High. Longwell and Kris Brown are the only kickers to play every game this decade. Longwell was the only kicker to make over 400 extra points this decade, and he was an impressive 20/32 from 50 yards and beyond.
Punter: Mike Scifres (SD)
Second Team: Brad Maynard (NYG/CHI)
Honorable Mention: Jeff Feagles (SEA/NYG), Brian Moorman (BUF)
Overrated: Shane Lechler (OAK)
I know everyone else is picking Lechler. It's a lazy pick, by people who aren't paying attention. Lechler has been an above-average punter all decade, but he's not the best, and it's not close. Lechler does one thing very well: he bombs the ball downfield. He's got as big a leg as anyone. What he doesn't do well is everything else. He doesn't have a lot of hang time, he's no good at directional kicking, and he can't keep the ball out of the end zone.
Lechler's stats, including net average, are inflated because he plays for the Raiders. Oakland seldom gets bad weather. Compare that to Chicago, New York, and Buffalo, where the kickers fight frozen footballs and gusting winds. Just as importantly, the Raiders have been terrible for most of the decade (.382). If your team goes three-and-out from the 20, you've got the whole field to work with. Someone like Scifres, whose Chargers have gone .688 during his time there, frequently punted from the opponents' territory and had to shorten his kicks to keep them out of the end zone.
Lechler has an awful 2:1 ratio of touchbacks to punts down inside the 20. Compare that to Scifres (5:1), Maynard (4.5:1), Feagles (6:1), and Moorman (3.5:1), and it's apparent that Lechler doesn't even try to keep his kicks out of the end zone. Two-thirds of his punts come back on returns or touchbacks, compared to less than half for Scifres and Feagles. Lechler's punts were returned an average of 11.2 yards, compared to 8.7 for Scifres, who was worst among the punters of I did select. That's a huge difference, 2.5 yards per punt return.
Scifres led all punters in net average and lowest percentage of punts returned. He didn't play the whole decade (2004-present), and I did hold that against him, but Scifres may be the highest-impact punter in the history of the league. His performance in last year's playoff game against the Colts almost single-handedly turned the game in San Diego's favor. He punted six times, and all six ended inside the Colts' 20-yard line. Five of his punts went at least 50 yards, and the other was fair-caught inside the 10. How many punters can lay claim to being the MVP of a playoff win?
Underappreciated Maynard led all punters this decade in net yards. He was great at avoiding touchbacks and really limited opponents' return opportunities (52.7% returned or touched back, 7.8 yard PR avg allowed). He, Feagles, and Moorman consistently excelled in difficult conditions. Moorman didn't give up a punt return TD in 700 kicks.
Kick Returner: Dante Hall (KC/STL)
Second Team: Joshua Cribbs (CLE)
Honorable Mention: Devin Hester (CHI), Allen Rossum (GB/ATL/PIT/SF/DAL)
Overrated: Michael Lewis (NO/SF)
Underrated: Derrick Mason (TEN/BAL)
Hall led the league in kickoff return yards (10,136) and combined return TDs (12). The player who once earned the nickname "The Human Joystick" was the best overall returner of the decade, averaging 23.8 yards returning kickoffs and 10.5 on punts. Cribbs recently broke the record for career KR TDs (8) and also scored 2 PR TDs, leaving him behind only Hall and Hester (11) in combined return TDs. Cribbs averaged 26.7 yards on KRs and 11.2 on PRs. He was incredibly savvy in all phases of special teams and an absolute terror in the open field. He only played half the decade, or he would probably rank ahead of Hall.
Hester made his mark primarily as a punt returner, with an 11.4 average and 7 TDs. He averaged a respectable 22.8 on KRs, with 4 more TDs. In the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Hester was more feared than any returner since Gale Sayers and Travis Williams. Rossum never inspired the same kind of fear in opponents as Hall, Cribbs, and Hester, but he was consistently a top-level return man, and his 7 combined return TDs rank fourth in the decade.
I don't like saying unkind things about return men. Special teamers are the guys who are happy just to be in the league, hard workers and people we should be happy for. But Lewis really made his reputation on one great year and never did much else. Fans forget that Mason was used as a returner early in his career, returning both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns. His single-season record for net yardage still stands.
Offensive Player of the Decade: Peyton Manning
Runner-Up: LaDainian Tomlinson
Manning may well go down as the greatest quarterback in the history of the game. I know some people don't like him or choose to blame him for things outside of his control, but if you don't enjoy watching Manning play, you're cheating yourself of an opportunity to fully appreciate something incredible. At the top of his game, Manning was literally amazing to watch. Tomlinson probably deserves to rank as the 5th-best RB in history at this point. He doesn't excel at one particular thing like Barry Sanders did, and he doesn't have Emmitt Smith's numbers or rings. But he was a complete back, skilled in every area an RB should be, and he wildly outdistanced his peers.
Defensive Player of the Decade: Ray Lewis
Runner-Up: Derrick Brooks
Tougher calls here, with Ronde Barber, Jason Taylor and Brian Dawkins very much in the running. Give Ed Reed one more healthy season, and I might have taken him. I've already indicated that I feel Lewis is overrated and overexposed. I don't particularly like him, to be honest. He was a dynamic, rare player who won DPOY in 2000 and still stood out at the end of the decade. Brooks was incredibly consistent and a clear standout at his position.
Coach of the Decade: Bill Belichick (NE)
Runner-Up: Tony Dungy (TB/IND)
Honorable Mention: Andy Reid (PHI), Jeff Fisher (TEN)
Belichick led the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories and a 16-0 season, sometimes with groups that didn't have much talent on paper. He consistently got the most out of players, and he surrounded himself with talented assistants. I have a tough time right now evaluating Dungy fairly, because I'm still mad about the Colts giving up on their season, and Dungy is the guy who set the precedent for that. His teams repeatedly lost playoff games they should have won, and that falls on the coaching staff. Dungy also has not impressed me on NBC. His ideas are extremely conservative, never deviating from conventional wisdom, and I believe they demonstrate a real lack of critical thinking. That's why Belichick has won three rings with Tom Brady and a prayer, while Dungy has done less with more.
All that said, Dungy did a lot of things right. He hired great assistants, and his coaching tree will be a major part of his ultimate legacy. Dungy won more games this decade than any other coach, including Belichick, and no one has ever accused him of cheating.
Team of the Decade: 2007 Patriots
Runner-Up: 2004 Patriots
Yeah, I know my Team of the Decade lost the Super Bowl. Over the course of a whole season, no team in the decade was as good. If they played the Super Bowl in Week 1, or Week 9, or Week 17, the Pats would have won. That was a remarkable team, more talented than the groups that did win the big one. The 14-2 Pats of 2004 played easily the hardest postseason schedule of the decade, knocking out 12-4 Indianapolis, 15-1 Pittsburgh, and 14-2 Philadelphia to capture their third Super Bowl of the decade. Best non-Patriot team: the 2001 Rams, another Super Bowl loser.
Sports Central NFL All-2000s Team
QB Peyton Manning
RB LaDainian Tomlinson
FB Tony Richardson
WR Torry Holt
WR Marvin Harrison
TE Tony Gonzalez
C Kevin Mawae
G Steve Hutchinson
G Alan Faneca
OT Walter Jones
OT Jon Runyan
DT Richard Seymour
DT La'Roi Glover
DE Jason Taylor
DE Michael Strahan
OLB Derrick Brooks
OLB DeMarcus Ware
ILB Ray Lewis
ILB Zach Thomas
CB Ronde Barber
CB Charles Woodson
FS Brian Dawkins
SS Ed Reed
K Adam Vinatieri
P Mike Scifres
KR Dante Hall
QB Tom Brady, RB Tiki Barber, FB Lorenzo Neal, WR Randy Moss, WR Terrell Owens, TE Antonio Gates, C Olin Kreutz, G Will Shields, G Brian Waters, OT Jonathan Ogden, OT Orlando Pace, DL Aaron Smith, DT Pat Williams, DE Jared Allen, DE John Abraham, OLB Keith Bulluck, OLB Julian Peterson, ILB Brian Urlacher, ILB London Fletcher, CB Champ Bailey, CB Patrick Surtain, FS Darren Sharper, SS Rodney Harrison, K David Akers, P Brad Maynard, KR Josh Cribbs