AFC North: NFL Any Era

Poll: Who tops your Any Era team?

January, 29, 2012
1/29/12
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The AFC North dominated the top of ESPN's Any Era team, which was unveiled last week. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis topped the list and was followed by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Now, it's your turn. The AFC North blog wants to know which player tops your Any Era team. Here's what the Hall of Fame players are saying about the top three:
Jim Brown on Ray Lewis: “Ray Lewis embodies everything that a player should have and more because not only does he fulfill his role, but he helps everybody else on the team. He has a great heart, and his mental toughness is as good as it gets. You don’t want to have a physical tough guy without him being mentally tough and having heart, which means he can hang in there and give up a certain part of himself that other people are afraid to give up.”

Warren Moon on Troy Polamalu: "Troy Polamalu is a throwback player. Tough, hard-nosed, does whatever is asked, throws his body around. He throws it around so much that he gets hurt and knocks himself out with concussions. But when he gets hurt, they have to hide his helmet to keep him off the field. He will give you everything he's got. He is one of the nicest guys off the field and he turns into the Tasmanian Devil on it."

Dwight Stephenson on Ben Roethlisberger: "Love him or hate him, Big Ben is one of the toughest, gutsiest players in all of the NFL. Last year he breaks his nose and it is sitting under his left eye socket. The trainer bends it back straight, throws some tape on it, he plays a couple of plays with a mask on, doesn't like the mask, rips it off and goes back in and plays."

ESPN.com is also giving you a chance to rank the top 20 players on the Any Era team.

NFL Any Era: Ben Roethlisberger

January, 27, 2012
1/27/12
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John Randle and Ben Roethlisberger ESPN.com IllustrationHall of Famer John Randle would still love to sack Ben Roethlisberger. MATCHUP GALLERY

ESPN.com is unveiling its "Any Era" team this week which features 20 current players with the toughness to play in any period of NFL history. The team was assembled by votes from 20 Hall of Fame players (here's a full explanation of the project).

Coming in at No. 3 on the Any Era Team is Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. No surprise here. When you think toughness, the first current quarterback that comes to mind is Roethlisberger.

He just doesn't play with pain. It seems like he plays better in pain. It even hurts recounting his injuries. In 2005, he fractured his right thumb and tore cartilage in his right knee. In 2008, he separated his right shoulder. In 2010, he broke his nose and fractured a bone in his right foot. This year, he sprained his left foot, fractured his right thumb again and suffered a high ankle sprain.

Trying to knock him out of the game is as tough as knocking him to the ground. Roethlisberger has made a career by shrugging off pass-rushers to extend the play and deliver a strike downfield. "Big Ben reminds me of Roman Gabriel, the old Rams quarterback," ESPN's John Clayton wrote. "Big, strong, fairly mobile."

Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Roethlisberger made the cut:
WARREN MOON: "If Ben Roethlisberger had to play in the era when they went both ways, he could do it. He is a big, classic style of football player. I like his toughness. He is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league. Maybe not the most talented, but the toughest of all of them."

FLOYD LITTLE: "He performs in spite of the hurts and pains and always wants to be in the huddle regardless of his pain. That's the type of players we were -- we lined up whenever the opportunity presented itself, and he really could play in our era. He goes into the locker room, gets taped up, comes back and gets the team a win."

DWIGHT STEPHENSON: "Love him or hate him, Big Ben is one of the toughest, gutsiest players in all of the NFL. Last year he breaks his nose and it is sitting under his left eye socket. The trainer bends it back straight, throws some tape on it, he plays a couple of plays with a mask on, doesn't like the mask, rips it off and goes back in and plays."
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NFL Any Era: Troy Polamalu

January, 27, 2012
1/27/12
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ESPN.com is unveiling its "Any Era" team this week which features 20 current players with the toughness to play in any period of NFL history. The team was assembled by votes from 20 Hall of Fame players (here's a full explanation of the project).

Coming in at No. 2 on the Any Era Team is Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He's fearless, reckless, and as far as playing styles go, he's in a class by himself. Polamalu would excel in any period because he hits with the tenacity of those who played in the 1960s and he has the athleticism to make plays all over the field like those who star in today's game.

The hardest part in going against Polamalu is to locate him. His physical style allows him to be a safety-linebacker hybrid. The best compliment comes from ESPN's John Clayton, who wrote: "He's changed the way people look at safeties."

Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Polamalu made the cut:
LYNN SWANN: "Troy Polamalu is not afraid to take risks. I see him jumping over the offensive line and making a stop at the goal line. That takes timing, that's Troy going with his gut and knowing what he's studied and not being afraid to take risks. A lot of guys know tendencies but are too scared to take the risk or don't know what to do with it. Troy will jump over the line, he'll hit a guy behind the line of scrimmage, he'll force a fumble flying through the air."

FLOYD LITTLE: "He gets hurt all the time, he gets concussions, his shoulder gets bent out of shape, but you can't keep him off the field. He's not that big, not that fast, but he's everywhere and everyone needs to know where he is when they line up."

WARREN MOON: "Troy Polamalu is a throwback player. Tough, hard-nosed, does whatever is asked, throws his body around. He throws it around so much that he gets hurt and knocks himself out with concussions. But when he gets hurt, they have to hide his helmet to keep him off the field. He will give you everything he's got. He is one of the nicest guys off the field and he turns into the Tasmanian Devil on it."

NFL Any Era: Ray Lewis is No. 1

January, 27, 2012
1/27/12
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The clear-cut top player on ESPN.com's Any Era team is Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has defined toughness for this generation of football.

Lewis' career has spanned over three decades and has featured him delivering bone-breaking hits, playing through pain and carrying a team to a Super Bowl. He has become the most feared and most respected player in the NFL.

This is why Lewis was the overwhelming top pick on ESPN's Any Era team in a poll of 20 Pro Football Hall of Famers and John Clayton, ESPN.com's senior writer who has covered the league for nearly four decades. The Any Era team is comprised of current players whose play, attitude and grit stand the test of time. When it comes to this test, Lewis stands alone. (Here's a full explanation of the project).

In my Q&A with Lewis, he was humbled by being named No. 1 on the Any Era team. "Because those are guys that I had a dream one day, to say, 'I want to be in the NFL. I want to be that, and leave a mark on it,'" Lewis said. "When you watch Jim Brown, he left a mark on the game by the way he played. And the difference of Jim Brown and all the others -- the Lynn Swanns and all the other people, it's pure effort -- that's it."

Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Lewis made the cut:

Jim Brown: “Ray Lewis embodies everything that a player should have and more because not only does he fulfill his role, but he helps everybody else on the team. He has a great heart, and his mental toughness is as good as it gets. You don’t want to have a physical tough guy without him being mentally tough and having heart, which means he can hang in there and give up a certain part of himself that other people are afraid to give up.”

Marcus Allen: “The passion Ray Lewis plays with is -- you’d have to search the dictionary for something really adequate. Words like extreme don’t measure how a guy like him loves the game of football and is willing to lay it on the line every day to be great.”

James Lofton: "There is an awareness when you play against Ray Lewis. When you are coming out of the huddle, if you are a QB or a ballcarrier, you try not to make eye contact with him. But you have to look at him, so you can figure out how the defense is aligned and looking at him is like looking into the face of fear -- you just have to look at it."

NFL Any Era: Hines Ward

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
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Lynn Swann and Hines Ward ESPN.com IllustrationImagine Hall of Famer Lynn Swann in a five-wide formation with Hines Ward. MATCHUP GALLERY
ESPN.com is unveiling its "Any Era" team this week which features 20 current players with the toughness to play in any period of NFL history. The team was assembled by votes from 20 Hall of Fame players (here's a full explanation of the project).

Coming in at No. 8 on the Any Era Team is Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. Is there really any other wide receiver that would define "Any Era" more than Ward? You can love him or hate him, but you don't ever want to be a defensive back on a running play with him on the field. ESPN's John Clayton put it best when he called Ward a "ruthless blocker" and "a tough player who just happens to catch the football."

When I asked Ward recently about his toughest moment, he immediately talked about his third season when he knocked helmets with Chargers safety Rodney Harrison. "I put the best and hardest hit on this guy. I thought I crushed him," Ward said. "He looks back, shakes his head and says, 'Yeah, 86, that's what I'm talking about. I like that.' I looked from the huddle, and thought, 'Oh, no.' That will always stick with me for the rest of my life."

Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Ward made the cut:
LYNN SWANN: "Is there another receiver in the past 12 years who has a tougher reputation than Hines? If we are talking about being tough, then I don't know how you can't choose him. I'd like to go out of the box, but Hines fits this category too well. There are some very talented receivers in this league, and they'll catch the ball and then get out of bounds. It might not always be the best decision, but whenever he catches the ball he turns and fights for every yard. He takes guys on, he'll block and I mean really block."

LARRY CSONKA: "I like Hines Ward for his size and toughness and flat-ass orneriness. He has the temperament to play anywhere, any time. He makes big catches, big blocks and has the disposition that would allow him to play in any era. He doesn't bother with the trivial stuff. He plays to win and he knows, most of the time, he will."

JOHN RANDLE: "The thing about Hines is he would crack you in a second. You had to have your head on a swivel. You'd watch a game just to see who Hines would crack on. He'd try to line up at tight end, and you knew if there was going to be a crack, it was Hines crackin' somebody. And then afterward, he'd have that grin on his face. Because it was on you; he'd say, 'Hey, stop me.' That was his reputation for me. As a football player, I look at it like the Western days, being an outlaw and you'd go from town to town to defend your reputation. And they knew you were coming. For Hines, there was that smile on his face, and you'd see it on tape, 'Hey, I got ya.'"

Ward is the fourth AFC North player to make the list, but there are more division players in the top 4. The AFC North blog will post every time a division player makes the Any Era Team.

NFL Any Era: James Harrison

January, 25, 2012
1/25/12
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Joe Namath and James Harrison ESPN.com IllustrationWe guarantee James Harrison would focus on getting Hall of Famer Joe Namath. MATCHUP GALLERY
ESPN.com is unveiling its "Any Era" team this week which features 20 current players with the toughness to play in any period of NFL history. The team was assembled by votes from 20 Hall of Fame players (here's a full explanation of the project).

Coming in at No. 10 on the Any Era Team is Steelers linebacker James Harrison. It's surprising that Harrison isn't rated higher on this list because his nasty approach to playing would allow him to thrive in the old-school football days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

As ESPN's John Clayton noted, his ferocious tackling style would fit perfectly in the classic Steelers-Raiders clashes. And, if he was playing back then, he wouldn't get fined. He would be applauded.

Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Harrison made the cut:
MIKE SINGLETARY: “I picked him because of his mentality, he’s been cut so many times and yet he kept coming back. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but when he lines up, he plays, and he plays every down and that’s what you’ve gotta have on defense so that’s why he’s there. Simply, it’s because of his mindset—greatness to me is all about what you overcome, and he’s been tremendous.”

LYNN SWANN: "James will take on two blockers at a time, he’ll stop them and then stop a guy for a loss and that fires up a team. With these guys every game you are looking for a hit or a major stop or a picked off pass. With Harrison you don’t know if the contribution will be a sack, a hit for a loss, a big stop for a loss on 4th down, or dropping back in coverage to pick off a pass."

MARCUS ALLEN: “A guy I think could play in the years past, old school, is James Harrison. He gets reprimanded playing the game I grew up wanting to play like and admired and so forth. They are called dirty players and unfortunately, the game has changed a bit. The league has made quite a bit of money off the hits we see in highlights and there is generation of kids who grew up watching and were taught that’s the way you play.”

Harrison is the third AFC North player to make the list, but there are more division players in the top 10. The AFC North blog will post every time a division player makes the Any Era Team.

NFL Any Era: Ed Reed

January, 24, 2012
1/24/12
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Lynn Swann and Ed Reed ESPN.com IllustrationA classic matchup of rivals: the Steelers' Lynn Swann vs. the Ravens' Ed Reed. MATCHUP GALLERY

ESPN.com is unveiling its "Any Era" team this week which features 20 current players with the toughness to play in any period of NFL history. The team was assembled by votes from 20 Hall of Fame players (here's a full explanation of the project).

Coming in at No. 13 on the Any Era Team is Ravens safety Ed Reed. He isn't a ferocious hitter like Ronnie Lott or Jack Tatum. He just strikes the same amount of fear into opponents. Reed's mental toughness is what will stand the test of time.

He gets into the heads of quarterbacks, baiting them into mistakes. He understands the minds of offensive coordinators, frustrating them by being precisely where they never expect him. ESPN's John Clayton says he thinks of those old ball-hawking defensive backs Dick LeBeau and Paul Krause when he watches Reed.

Here's a full story on why Reed's brain and athleticism would put him among the best safeties in any era. Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Reed made the cut:
KELLEN WINSLOW: “Ed Reed studies the game and knows what to do in the fourth quarter. That’s mental toughness. Some guys get tired and stop focusing and just think about getting their breath back for the next play. It takes a great deal of mental toughness to perform in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line.”

JERRY RICE: “I picked Ed Reed because of his awareness on the football field and is a ball hawk, but he can also deliver the blow in the secondary.”

JAMES LOFTON: "I think he could play in any era and play at any skill position, too. He could be a great running back. He could play wide receiver. He could play corner. He could play safety. He is phenomenal. The fact that he plays the game a little differently, where most safeties line up at 12 yards and back up, here's a guy who lines up at 25 and comes forward. He's a puzzle. And I say that about his physical ability, but I think his greatest ability is that he's smarter than a lot of other players. A lot smarter. And smarter than a lot of other coaches, too. You watch him and ask, "What the heck is he doing?" His ability to anticipate where the ball is going and where the quarterback wanted to go with the ball ... and then keep the quarterback away from there. Then, he has that ability to burst and make a play."

Reed is the second AFC North player to make the list, but there are more division players to come. The AFC North blog will post every time a division player makes the Any Era Team.

NFL Any Era: Ray Rice

January, 24, 2012
1/24/12
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Mike Singletary and Ray Rice ESPN.com IllustrationWho would win the matchup between Mike Singletary and the Ravens' Ray Rice?
ESPN.com is unveiling its "Any Era" team this week which features 20 current players with the toughness to play in any period of NFL history. The team was assembled by votes from 20 Hall of Fame players (here's a full explanation of the project).

Coming in at No. 14 on the Any Era Team is Ravens running back Ray Rice. He fits in the modern era with his do-it-all style, but his ability to run low to the ground and break tackles would allow him to excel in any era.

Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Reed made the cut:
DARRELL GREEN: “Ray Rice is tough, hard-nosed and durable. I think he does an exceptional job not only in running the ball but in blocking. He’s not the biggest guy out there but he’s willing to block anyone. He reminds you of Brian Westbrook. He’s one of these pint-sized guys who is really an absolute ball of dynamite, kind of like Brian Mitchell was when I played with the Redskins.”

RAYFIELD WRIGHT: “I could see Ray Rice playing in the 1970s when I was in the league. You look at Rice run and he is the combination of Tony Dorsett and guys like him from that era. His vision is unbelievable. He is super tough. He can get tough when he has to. He shows speed and quickness and is able to adjust. Plus, he picks up blitzes good when he has to block.”

JOE NAMATH: “The vigor it takes to play running back is remarkable, especially when you think about how the average career for an NFL running back is 2.5 years. Larry Csonka is kind of the perfect example of toughness at the running back position, and when I think about guys like that today, it’s Ray Rice that comes to mind immediately. I marvel at him.”

Rice is the first AFC North player to make the list, but there are more division players to come. The AFC North blog will post every time a division player makes the Any Era Team.

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