Tuesday, March 18, 2014
The Greatest NFL Triplets Ever
Almost exactly seven years ago, I wrote about the NFL’s best "Triplets" — quarterback, running back, and receiver on the same team — in history. I'm revisiting the topic now because some of my opinions have changed, but also because I think in my earlier column, I fundamentally addressed the topic the wrong way.
How do you compare the decade-long dominance of the 1990s Cowboys to the briefer brilliance of the Greatest Show on Turf? These years later, I still remember the hardest part of that project was figuring out how to weigh longevity.
This time, we'll look at the best triplets ever in a single season. The best over three seasons, five, seven. Compare like against like.
A quick note on the rules, then we'll get to the lists. All three players need to be great. "Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and anyone" isn't what we're looking for. And we want great players having great seasons, not just big names on the same team. No player appears more than once in a given time period or with the same trio. So for best three-year trios, I won't use Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed from 1990-92 and Kelly, Thomas, and Reed from 1991-93. You won't see Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris show up twice, once with Lynn Swann and once with John Stallworth. One go per team. Let's start with the best Triplets ever in a single season.
This is by far the hardest to narrow down, because so many Triplets have produced outstanding seasons. What's most surprising may be how many of the best single-season performances were by Triplets that were truly great, not just one-year wonders. I originally envisioned naming the best single season of all time, going over it in detail, and adding a few honorable mentions and close calls with less detail. That won't work. I can't with any degree of confidence distinguish one trio and declare it the best of all time. Let's just review the strongest of the Modern Era, by decade.
Chicago Bears, 1947: Sid Luckman, George McAfee, Jim Keane
Cleveland Browns, 1947: Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie
Philadelphia Eagles, 1948: Tommy Thompson, Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos
Two members of each group are in the Hall in Fame. The best of these, if I had to pick one, is probably the Eagles, NFL champs in '48. No one really remembers Tommy Thompson these days, but other than Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh, he was probably the best QB of the late '40s.
Detroit Lions, 1950: Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, Cloyce Box
Los Angeles Rams, 1951: Bob Waterfield, Dan Towler, Crazy Legs Hirsch
San Francisco 49ers, 1954: Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson
Baltimore Colts, 1958: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry
Los Angeles Rams, 1958: Billy Wade, Jon Arnett, Del Shofner
The Lions featured players named Ewell Doak Walker and Cloyce Kennedy Box. Walker was the last "Ewell" to play in the NFL, though a linebacker named Doak Field played seven games for the Cardinals in 1981. Box is the only man named "Cloyce" to play in the NFL.
Three of these are very famous teams. The '51 Rams, with Norm Van Brocklin and Waterfield splitting the QB duties, Deacon Dan Towler leading the Bull Elephant Backfield, and two Hall of Fame receivers, set a record for yards per game (450.8) that stood for 60 years. Hirsch's season is probably the most outstanding by any receiver in the history of professional football.
Tittle and Perry played in the Million Dollar Backfield, with fellow Hall of Famers Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson. The '58 Colts won the most famous and most important game in history, The Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 NFL Championship. That year's Rams were nearly as good. Wade, Arnett, and Shofner all had career years. The best Triplets from this decade were probably the '58 Colts. The '51 Rams and '54 Niners had too many other star players, splitting the glory.
Houston Oilers, 1961: George Blanda, Billy Cannon, Charley Hennigan
Philadelphia Eagles, 1962: Sonny Jurgensen, Timmy Brown, Tommy McDonald
San Diego Chargers, 1965: John Hadl, Paul Lowe, Lance Alworth
Cleveland Browns, 1968: Bill Nelsen, Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield
Vince Lombardi's Packer Dynasty never really featured a star receiver, so it doesn't belong in a Triplets discussion, but do you see what I mean about one-year wonders? Through three decades and 12 combinations, the only real fluke is the '58 Rams. Five of the 12 won championships, and of the 36 players so far, 21 are in the Hall of Fame. I actually passed up the dream combination, the '64 Browns, with Warfield and Jim Brown. But Kelly is a Hall of Famer, too, and this was his best season, maybe even a little better than Brown four years earlier.
In my estimation, all of these Triplets were equally great, or very close to it. Gun to my head, I guess I might go with the Browns.
Miami Dolphins, 1971: Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield
Los Angeles Rams, 1973: John Hadl, Lawrence McCutcheon, Harold Jackson
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1975: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann
Baltimore Colts, 1976: Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell, Roger Carr
Two of these are famous teams, with all three members in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I went with the '71 Dolphins instead of '72 because Csonka and Warfield had better seasons, and to get Bob Griese instead of Earl Morrall. I believe they were the best Triplets from this decade. But everyone knows about the Dolphins and Steelers. The really interesting group here is the '73 Rams.
The 1972 Rams went 6-7-1. The 1973 team overhauled its personnel, especially the Triplets, and it worked: Los Angeles doubled its previous win total, going 12-2, and made the playoffs for the next eight seasons in a row, every year from 1973-80.
The '72 team had Roman Gabriel at quarterback, used running back by committee, and featured a mediocre group of receivers led by Jack Snow, who had 30 catches for 590 yards. The 1973 Rams replaced head coach Tommy Protho with Chuck Knox, traded Gabriel for Harold Jackson, and traded for John Hadl to fill the void at QB.
Knox doubled Jim Bertelsen's carries and took a chance on Lawrence McCutcheon, who rushed for 1,000 yards and led the NFC in rushing average. He and Bertelsen both made the Pro Bowl. Jackson led the league in receiving touchdowns and was a consensus All-Pro. Snow was still with the team, too, but he was reduced to role-player status, catching 16 passes for 252 yards. Hadl was first-team All-Pro and NFC Player of the Year.
San Diego Chargers, 1982: Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Wes Chandler
Los Angeles Rams, 1988: Jim Everett, Greg Bell, Henry Ellard
San Francisco 49ers, 1989: Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice
The Chargers and Niners were the dominant Triplets of the decade, and both teams could easily make the list in other years. We'll revisit these teams when we look at longer time periods. The 1988 Bengals were very good. Boomer Esiason won NFL MVP, Ickey Woods became a household name, and Eddie Brown gained almost 1,300 yards. The Rams were even better. Bell led the NFL in TDs, Ellard led in receiving yards, and their schedule was harder than Cincinnati's.
Buffalo Bills, 1991: Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed
San Francisco 49ers, 1994: Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice
Dallas Cowboys, 1995: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin
Denver Broncos, 1998: John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith
St. Louis Rams, 1999: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce
This was the decade that popularized "Triplets," and these are all famous groupings. All five played in the Super Bowl, and four of them won. Four of the five include a member who was named NFL MVP that season: Thomas, Young, Davis, and Warner. Emmitt Smith easily could have been MVP in '95, the best season of his career, but the award went to Brett Favre.
There's one more set of Triplets from this decade that deserves recognition; I sequestered them to keep the big guns together.
Detroit Lions, 1995: Scott Mitchell, Barry Sanders, Herman Moore
You know about Barry Sanders. He rushed for 1,500 yards, led the league in rushing average, and scored double-digit touchdowns. You may also remember that Herman Moore had a three-year stretch in which he was as good as any receiver besides Jerry Rice. In '95, Moore broke the single-season receptions record (123), with 1,686 yards and 14 TDs.
That leaves Scott Mitchell. He spent years as a punch-line, the epitome of the free-agent bust, but that's not really an accurate picture. Mitchell was mostly average, and he had one great season. In 1995, he ranked 2nd in passing yards and TDs, behind only league MVP Brett Favre, and he threw fewer interceptions than Favre. I'm not claiming that Scott Mitchell was a great player, but in '95 he passed for 32 TDs and only 12 INTs, with over 4,000 yards and a 92.3 rating. That's a terrific year. The Lions went 10-6 and made the playoffs.
The Bills and Cowboys were more famous, but for a single season, the best Triplets of the '90s were probably the Niners or Rams.
Minnesota Vikings, 2000: Daunte Culpepper, Robert Smith, Randy Moss
Indianapolis Colts, 2004: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison
Cincinnati Bengals, 2005: Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson
One of the few decades in which it's pretty easy to identify the best Triplets. Colts.
Houston Texans, 2010: Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson
Denver Broncos, 2013: Peyton Manning, Knowshon Moreno, Demaryius Thomas
I know everyone hates Matt Schaub right now, but he played very well in 2010. He passed for over 4,000 yards (470 ahead of MVP Tom Brady), with twice as many TDs as INTs, and he was Pro Bowl MVP. Foster and Johnson, of course, were terrific. The 2011 New Orleans Saints could rank here, too, if you count Darren Sproles (87 rush attempts) as a true running back. Drew Brees broke the record for passing yards, and Jimmy Graham had his first big year.
That's 30 sets of Triplets. Some are a little stronger than others, but for a single season, you wouldn't go wrong with any of them.
There are some great Triplets that didn't make the one-year list, and there are great trios that won't make the two-year list. But we're past the one-year wonders now, and it starts getting easier to separate the truly great players.
Baltimore Colts, 1958-59: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry
It's debatable whether these players should really count as Triplets. Lenny Moore was as much receiver as running back, and in these two seasons he averaged only seven rushes per game. That's a lot more than a true wide receiver — who averages one carry at the most — and someone who gains 1,000 rushing yards in two 12-game seasons is obviously a ball-carrier, but Moore gained 700 more yards as a receiver than he did as a rusher. Over these two seasons, Berry ranked 1st in the NFL in receptions, 3rd in receiving yards, and 1st in receiving TDs. Moore ranked 3rd in receptions, 2nd in yards, and 5th in TDs. Of course, Moore also ranked 12th in rushing.
And John Unitas stood alone. This was a legendary quarterback at the height of his powers, the seasons that made him famous. The comeback he led in the 1958 Championship Game is well-known, and the Colts repeated as champs in '59, but he was equally dominant in the regular season. Over these two seasons, Unitas passed for 59 TDs and 21 INTs. The next-best TD total belonged to Norm Van Brocklin, who threw 31 TDs and 34 INTs, followed by Billy Wade (30 TD, 39 INT) and Milt Plum (25 TD, 19 INT). Unitas was on another planet.
Even if you disallow Moore, the Colts would still rank among the top two-year Triplet teams, with Alan Ameche as the running back.
San Francisco 49ers, 1953-54: Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson
San Diego Chargers, 1981-82: Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Kellen Winslow
Dallas Cowboys, 1992-93: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin
San Francisco 49ers, 1993-94: Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice
St. Louis Rams, 1999-2000: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce
In each of these trios, there's one player who stands out, as clearly and undisputedly the best at his position. Joe Perry and Emmitt Smith led the NFL in rushing in both listed seasons. Dan Fouts led the NFL in passing yards, TDs, and net yards per attempt in both 1981 and '82. Steve Young was first-team All-Pro both seasons, with the most combined yards and TDs and by far the best passer rating. Marshall Faulk took over the league from 1999-2001, a strong MVP candidate all three years and the official winner in 2000.
Of course, none of these players was a weak link. If you don't want tight ends counted for Triplets, Wes Chandler or Charlie Joiner fills in for Winslow with minimal drop in production.
Cleveland Browns, 1968-69: Bill Nelsen, Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield
San Francisco 49ers, 1988-89: Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice
Buffalo Bills, 1990-91: Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed
Denver Broncos, 1997-98: John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith
Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2000: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison
This is where the really dominant teams begin to separate themselves. A team like the '58 Rams, '95 Lions, or 2010 Texans can fluke into elite territory if the stars align and everyone has a career year at the right time. One star, like Barry Sanders or Andre Johnson, can carry his teammates to greatness when that best year hits. But to have three great seasons in a row requires genuinely special players, healthy and on the same team for a significant period of time.
Baltimore Colts, 1958-60: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry
The outstanding greatness of this trio makes this project less interesting than I had anticipated, but it's sort of awe-inspiring to consider the way these Triplets dominated professional football. If you had Peyton Manning, Shaun Alexander, and Randy Moss on the same team in the mid-2000s, or Dan Marino, Walter Payton, and Steve Largent in the mid-80s, that would be roughly the equivalent.
Unitas and Berry were clearly and without any controversy the best players at their positions. That makes Lenny Moore the weakest link in this group. Moore is a Hall of Famer, and these years represented his prime. From 1958-60, Jim Brown was the best running back in pro football, but Moore was a clear second. Top threes, 1958-60:
Yards From Scrimmage
1. Jim Brown, 4645
2. Lenny Moore, 4114
3. John David Crow, 3110
Yards Per Carry
1. Bobby Mitchell, 5.43
2. Jim Brown, 5.40
3. Lenny Moore, 5.26
1. Jim Brown, 43
2. Lenny Moore, 35
3. Raymond Berry, 33
If you limit the list to RBs, Bobby Mitchell would rank third (28).
San Francisco 49ers, 1953-55
Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson
Tittle and Perry are Hall of Famers, but Wilson is less known. For the decade of the 1950s, Wilson ranked 3rd in receiving yards, 2nd in receiving TDs, and 1st in receptions. He made six consecutive Pro Bowls, from 1954-59. That doesn't include the 1953 season, when Wilson ranked 4th in receiving yardage and led the NFL in receiving touchdowns. He led the NFL in receptions three times and is tied for the most Pro Bowl selections of any wide receiver prior to the 1970 AFL merger, with Hall of Famers Ray Berry, Tommy McDonald, and Pete Pihos.
San Diego Chargers, 1980-82
Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Kellen Winslow
Chuck Muncie was traded from New Orleans four games into the 1980 season, so he didn't miss much time with his new team. In case you don't believe tight ends count for Triplets, Charlie Joiner ranked 5th in the NFL in receiving yardage over these seasons — and 4th among WRs, since Winslow ranked ahead of him.
Dallas Cowboys, 1991-93
Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin
Fans have been arguing for 20 years now whether Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith was the best RB of the 1990s. Barry was always the more breath-taking of the two, and his best seasons came after this, but when this three-year block was wrapping up, Emmitt sure looked like the better player. From 1991-93, Smith had more rushing yards (+747), a better rushing average (+.18), more rushing TDs (+11), more receptions (+59), more receiving yards (+270), more receiving TDs (+1), more total yards (+1,017) and TDs (+12) ... Emmitt had better blockers, sure, but it looked like Sanders was slowing down and Smith was just getting started. We were right about the second part, at least.
San Francisco 49ers, 1992-94
Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice
If Watters hadn't left in free agency after the 1994 season, this group would be legendary — and the Niners might have another Super Bowl victory. Young was by far the NFL'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 each season and twice led the league in receiving yards. Watters, a rushing and receiving threat, scored more than 10 TDs every season he played in San Francisco. In fact, the Niners had two of the top five TD scorers in the NFL over these years, Rice (3rd) and Watters (5th).
St. Louis Rams, 1999-2001
Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce
The Greatest Show on Turf. In all three seasons, St. Louis topped the NFL in both yards and points. Each year, the Rams led the NFL in both passing yards and passer rating, and they ranked either first or second in yards per carry. Faulk's 5.45 three-year rushing average is the best since Jim Brown (min. 600 att.). Warner and Faulk combined to win NFL MVP all three seasons.
Cleveland Browns, 1947-49: Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie
Dallas Cowboys, 1977-79: Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson
San Francisco 49ers, 1987-89: Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice
Buffalo Bills, 1989-91: Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed
Indianapolis Colts, 2003-05: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison
The four-year list is pretty similar to the three- and five-year lists. The John Unitas Colts are at the top (1957-60). But many of the best three-year Triplets fell apart after that. The Air Coryell Chargers don't have a trio without Muncie. Ricky Watters left the 49ers in free agency. Kurt Warner fell apart after 2001, and Marshall Faulk couldn't stay healthy. Staubach and Dorsett only played together for three seasons. Thus, it's at five years that dynasties begin to re-emerge. One bad season — an injury to a single player — can keep a team off the three-year list, because the standard stays so high. But very few teams maintain that excellence for five seasons, so some great players and legendary groupings show up over this time frame. The best, though, is unchanged.
Baltimore Colts, 1957-61: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry
Over these seasons, Unitas was the best QB, Berry was the best WR, and Moore was a clear second to Jim Brown at RB. Let's do top threes again:
1. John Unitas, 13,545
2. Norm Van Brocklin, 9602
3. Milt Plum, 8914
1. John Unitas, 116
2. Norm Van Brocklin, 75
3. Milt Plum, 66
Unitas isn't just number one, he's light years ahead of anyone else.
Yards From Scrimmage
1. Jim Brown, 10,039
2. Lenny Moore, 8229
3. Bobby Mitchell, 5363
Moore is behind Brown, but he's nearly 3,000 yards — 53% — ahead of third place. He ranks 7th in rushing yardage.
Yards Per Carry
1. Lenny Moore, 5.56
2. Bobby Mitchell, 5.43
3. Jim Brown, 5.09
Moore averaged over seven yards per attempt in '58 and '61.
1. Raymond Berry, 318
2. Lenny Moore, 231
3. Red Phillips, 202
Berry has 57% more catches than anyone but his teammate Moore.
1. Raymond Berry, 4724
2. Lenny Moore, 4135
3. Tommy McDonald, 3622
Moore is the only player within 1,000 yards of Berry.
1. Jim Brown, 63
2. Lenny Moore, 61
3. Tommy McDonald, 48
Berry is fourth, with 39 TDs.
The 1956-60 Colts, with Alan Ameche in place of Moore, would still rank among the top five, but probably not number one.
Cleveland Browns, 1946-50
Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie
Over these five seasons, the Browns won their league championship every year. They won all four titles in the All-America Football Conference (1946-49) before a partial merger brought the Browns, Colts, and 49ers to the NFL. The 1950 season began with a matchup between the AAFC's Browns and the two-time defending NFL champion Eagles. The media billed the contest as "The World Series of Pro Football," and the game was moved to a Saturday night and a larger stadium, where it drew a bigger crowd than the first Super Bowl. The Eagles were heavily favored, but Cleveland won the game 35-10. The Browns went on to win the NFL Championship, and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell called them "the greatest team to ever play football."
San Francisco 49ers, 1953-57
Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson
Hugh McElhenny was a brilliant runner, but 1952 was by far his best season. Tittle and Wilson were better during these years, and without '52, Perry has to rank ahead of the King. For those who don't know, Perry was called Joe the Jet, and McElhenny was nicknamed The King — three years before Elvis Presley. Y.A. stood for Yelberton Abraham, and teammates often called him Yat (the phonetic pronunciation of his initials).
San Francisco 49ers, 1985-89
Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice
We weren't using the term "Triplets" yet in the late '80s, but this was as famous a trio as the sport has seen in the Super Bowl Era. Montana and Rice are often cited as the best players ever at their respective positions. Craig is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, though he could be. In 1985, Craig became the first player in history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same season. In '88, he rushed for over 1,500 yards, with 500 receiving, and was named Offensive Player of the Year.
Buffalo Bills, 1989-93
Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed
Along with Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, the inspiration for the widespread use of the name "Triplets" to refer to a quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. This group went to four consecutive Super Bowls and made a collective 13 Pro Bowls in these five seasons: Thomas and Reed every year, Kelly from 1990-92.
Thurman Thomas has been treated unfairly by history. Because Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith had such great careers, few people remember that in the early '90s, Thomas was in that same group, and it was not obvious which player was the best. Smith didn't turn pro until 1990, so the chart below treats him a little unfairly. 1989-93:
Thomas was named NFL MVP in 1991.
Dallas Cowboys, 1991-95
Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin
All elite triplets since have been compared to these Cowboys.
Los Angeles Rams, 1950-54: Norm Van Brocklin, Dan Towler, Crazy Legs Hirsch
Miami Dolphins, 1970-1974: Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1975-79: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann
St. Louis Rams, 1999-2003: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt
Indianapolis Colts, 2001-05: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison
This is the last time period we'll examine, since very few teammates stay together longer than this — and even when they do, it's usually not as productive players any longer. We respect longevity and consistency, though, and these are some of the most celebrated groups of teammates in the history of professional football.
Baltimore Colts, 1956-62: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry
I don't want to spend a lot more space on these guys, and I swear I won't post any more Top Three lists. Instead, let's expand on their finest season, 1958, which I effectively skipped over in the one-year section. The '58 Colts led the league in both yardage and scoring. Their running game, led by Alan Ameche (791 yards, 4.6 average) and Moore (598 yards, 7.3 average), ranked second in the NFL. The passing game was equally strong, ranking sixth in yardage and first in efficiency. Unitas had more TD passes and fewer interceptions than any other starting quarterback in the league. Berry led the league in both receptions and receiving touchdowns. Moore had more touchdowns and yards from scrimmage than anyone but Brown. Unitas, Moore, and Berry were all first-team All-Pros, and the Colts won the championship. No Triplets have had a better season than that.
1946-52: Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie
Every time this team shows up, I've listed Mac Speedie as the receiver. Speedie is not in the Hall of Fame, but his teammate Dante Lavelli is. So why Speedie?
Speedie didn't get along with head coach Paul Brown, and he quit the team after '52 to play in the CFL. Lavelli was a questionable choice for Canton, and he had two of his best seasons after Motley retired. During the listed years, Speedie was the more productive receiver. He was first team All-AAFC each of his first four years, and All-Pro in '50 and '52.
San Francisco 49ers, 1952-58
Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Billy Wilson
With '52 included, should McElhenny replace Perry as the running back in this trio? Statistically, it's a close call.
Jet: 5,225 yds, 5.14 avg, 6,207 net yds, 43 TDs
King: 3,874 yds, 5.07 avg, 6,097 net yds, 46 TDs
You might lean toward Perry based on the numbers, but by reputation, it's definitely McElhenny, the Barry Sanders of his era. He is commonly described as the greatest broken-field runner in history. In a 1957 playoff game, McElhenny scored a 47-yard TD on a short pass, but film breakdown showed that he ran over 100 yards on the play. In 1999, Paul Zimmerman named McElhenny to his All-Century Team. "Hugh McElhenny, the King, could turn a short pass into a crazy-legged, broken-field adventure."
Buffalo Bills, 1989-95
Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed
Reed was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, putting all three members of this trio in the PFHOF. How many Triplets played together for at least seven seasons and all got the call to Canton? So far, five: the 1946-53 Browns (Graham, Motley, Lavelli), 1956-66 Colts (Unitas, Moore, Berry), 1974-1982 Pittsburgh Steelers (Bradshaw, Harris, Swann/John Stallworth), 1990-99 Cowboys (Aikman, Smith, Irvin), and the 1988-96 Bills.
Dallas Cowboys, 1991-97
Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin
They played together for a decade, but declined quickly after their last Super Bowl in 1995. Per-season averages:
Troy Aikman, 1991-95: 3,056 passing yards, 16 TDs, 10 INTs, 90.9 passer rating
Troy Aikman, 1996-97: 3,205 passing yards, 16 TDs, 13 INTs, 79.0 passer rating
Emmitt Smith, 1991-95: 1,604 rushing yards, 4.54 per carry, 18 TDs
Emmitt Smith, 1996-97: 1,139 rushing yards, 3.87 per carry, 9.5 TDs
Michael Irvin, 1991-95: 90 receptions, 1,419 receiving yards, 7.5 TDs
Michael Irvin, 1996-97: 70 receptions, 1,071 receiving yards, 5.5 TDs
It's not that they were bad players after '95, but they weren't special any more. Troy Aikman was the only one to make a Pro Bowl in the '96 and '97 seasons, and that was largely because the NFC was low on QBs. Gus Frerotte made the Pro Bowl that year, too.
Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2005
Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison
These three would rate much more highly if we allowed non-consecutive seasons. James was injured in 2001, ineffective in '02, and not all the way back in '03. But from 1999-2000 and 2004-05, these Triplets ruled the NFL. In 1999 and 2000, Manning was second-team All-Pro both seasons. James led the NFL in rushing, adding over 500 receiving yards each year. Harrison had over 100 receptions both years, with a combined 3,076 yards and 26 TDs, tied with Randy Moss for the most receiving touchdowns in the NFL.
From 2004-05, Manning was by far the best QB in the NFL. He was first-team All-Pro both years, including unanimous selection in '04, when he was also named NFL MVP. James rushed for over 1,500 yards both seasons, while Harrison's 27 receiving TDs led the league.
That doesn't even include Harrison's record-breaking '02 (143 receptions, a record that has never been approached) or Manning's MVP-winning '03.
Los Angeles Rams, 1951-57: Norm Van Brocklin, Tank Younger, Crazy Legs Hirsch
Green Bay Packers, 1959-65: Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Max McGee
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1975-81: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann
Seattle Seahawks, 1983-89: Dave Krieg, Curt Warner, Steve Largent
Cincinnati Bengals, 1985-91: Boomer Esiason, James Brooks, Eddie Brown
Best Triplets By Year
1946 — Cleveland Browns [Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli]
1947 — Cleveland Browns [Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie]
1948 — Philadelphia Eagles [Tommy Thompson, Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos]
1949 — Cleveland Browns [Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie]
1950 — Detroit Lions [Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, Cloyce Box]
1951 — Los Angeles Rams [Bob Waterfield, Dan Towler, Elroy Hirsch]
1952 — Cleveland Browns [Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie]
1953 — San Francisco 49ers [Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson]
1954 — San Francisco 49ers [Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Billy Wilson]
1955 — Cleveland Browns [Otto Graham, Curly Morrison, Ray Renfro]
1956 — Chicago Bears [Ed Brown, Rick Casares, Harlon Hill]
1957 — Baltimore Colts [John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry]
1958 — Baltimore Colts [John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry]
1959 — Baltimore Colts [John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry]
1960 — Baltimore Colts [John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry]
1961 — Houston Oilers [George Blanda, Billy Cannon, Charley Hennigan]
1962 — Philadelphia Eagles [Sonny Jurgensen, Timmy Brown, Tommy McDonald]
1963 — San Diego Chargers [Tobin Rote, Keith Lincoln, Lance Alworth]
1964 — Cleveland Browns [Frank Ryan, Jim Brown, Paul Warfield]
1965 — San Diego Chargers [John Hadl, Paul Lowe, Lance Alworth]
1966 — Cleveland Browns [Bill Nelsen, Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield]
1967 — Kansas City Chiefs [Len Dawson, Mike Garrett, Otis Taylor]
1968 — Cleveland Browns [Bill Nelsen, Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield]
1969 — Washington [Sonny Jurgensen, Larry Brown, Charley Taylor]
1970 — Washington [Sonny Jurgensen, Larry Brown, Charley Taylor]
1971 — Miami Dolphins [Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield]
1972 — Miami Dolphins [Earl Morrall, Mercury Morris, Paul Warfield]
1973 — Los Angeles Rams [John Hadl, Lawrence McCutcheon, Harold Jackson]
1974 — St. Louis Cardinals [Jim Hart, Terry Metcalf, Mel Gray]
1975 — Pittsburgh Steelers [Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann]
1976 — Baltimore Colts [Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell, Roger Carr]
1977 — Dallas Cowboys [Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson]
1978 — Dallas Cowboys [Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Tony Hill]
1979 — Pittsburgh Steelers [Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth]
1980 — San Diego Chargers [Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, John Jefferson]
1981 — San Diego Chargers [Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Kellen Winslow]
1982 — San Diego Chargers [Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Wes Chandler]
1983 — Washington [Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Charlie Brown]
1984 — Miami Dolphins [Dan Marino, Tony Nathan, Mark Clayton]
1985 — San Francisco 49ers [Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark]
1986 — Miami Dolphins [Dan Marino, Lorenzo Hampton, Mark Duper]
1987 — San Francisco 49ers [Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice]
1988 — Los Angeles Rams [Jim Everett, Greg Bell, Henry Ellard]
1989 — San Francisco 49ers [Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice]
1990 — Buffalo Bills [Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed]
1991 — Buffalo Bills [Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed]
1992 — Dallas Cowboys [Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin]
1993 — San Francisco 49ers [Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice]
1994 — San Francisco 49ers [Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice]
1995 — Dallas Cowboys [Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin]
1996 — Denver Broncos [John Elway, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe]
1997 — Denver Broncos [John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith]
1998 — Denver Broncos [John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith]
1999 — St. Louis Rams [Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce]
2000 — Minnesota Vikings [Daunte Culpepper, Robert Smith, Randy Moss]
2001 — St. Louis Rams [Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt]
2002 — Oakland Raiders [Rich Gannon, Charlie Garner, Jerry Rice]
2003 — Indianapolis Colts [Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison]
2004 — Indianapolis Colts [Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison]
2005 — Indianapolis Colts [Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison]
2006 — Indianapolis Colts [Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne]
2007 — Indianapolis Colts [Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne]
2008 — Atlanta Falcons [Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White]
2009 — Minnesota Vikings [Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice]
2010 — Houston Texans [Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson]
2011 — New Orleans Saints [Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham]
2012 — New England Patriots [Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley, Wes Welker]
2013 — Denver Broncos [Peyton Manning, Knowshon Moreno, Demaryius Thomas]
Best Triplets By Team
49ers: Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice
Bears: Sid Luckman, George McAfee, Ken Kavanaugh
Bengals: Boomer Esiason, James Brooks, Eddie Brown
Bills: Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed
Broncos: John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith
Browns: Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Mac Speedie
Buccaneers: Brad Johnson, Mike Alstott, Keyshawn Johnson
Cardinals: Jim Hart, Terry Metcalf, Mel Gray
Chargers: Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Kellen Winslow
Chiefs: Len Dawson, Mike Garrett, Otis Taylor
Colts: Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry
Cowboys: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin
Dolphins: Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield
Eagles: Tommy Thompson, Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos
Falcons: Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White
Giants: Y.A. Tittle, Alex Webster, Del Shofner
Jaguars: Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, Jimmy Smith
Jets: Joe Namath, Matt Snell, Don Maynard
Lions: Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, Cloyce Box
Packers: Arnie Herber, Clarke Hinkle, Don Hutson
Panthers: Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith
Patriots: Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk, Wes Welker
Raiders: Tom Flores, Clem Daniels, Art Powell
Rams: Norm Van Brocklin, Dan Towler, Crazy Legs Hirsch
Ravens: Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin
Saints: Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston
Seahawks: Dave Krieg, Curt Warner, Steve Largent
Steelers: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann
Texans: Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson
Titans: Warren Moon, Lorenzo White, Ernest Givins
Vikings: Fran Tarkenton, Chuck Foreman, John Gilliam
Washington: Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Art Monk