NFL Nation: NFL Any Era

NFL Any Era: Ben Roethlisberger

January, 27, 2012
John Randle and Ben Roethlisberger IllustrationHall of Famer John Randle would still love to sack Ben Roethlisberger. MATCHUP GALLERY 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."

NFL Any Era: AFC South candidates

January, 27, 2012
Ray Lewis finished atop’s NFL Any Era poll, and he’s certainly a guy whose game would have worked in any point in time of professional football.

The AFC South finished with just two players in the list of 20, with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning at No. 20 and Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney at No. 18.

I have no major beef with the exclusion of anyone else.

But if we wanted to pick three more guys and present a top five of NFL Any Era players from the AFC South, who would they be?

Here are my candidates, one from each of the other three teams. I welcome your input in the comments section.

Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew -- A very powerful runner who can find space between the tackles and willing to take on contact. He runs effectively against stacked boxes in the modern day, he’d have been able to do the same in more rough and tumble times.

Texans linebacker Brian Cushing -- Sure, it’s not smart that he gashed the bridge of his nose head-butting someone with his helmet off. But the picture from this season with blood streaming down his face is the sort you’d see in black and white from back in the day.

Titans right tackle David Stewart -- He’s not concerned with any of the trappings of modern professional football outside of blocking the guys coming at him and providing a mean streak. He doesn’t need fluffy towels.

NFL Any Era: Troy Polamalu

January, 27, 2012
video 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
The clear-cut top player on'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,'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: Charles Woodson

January, 27, 2012
Jerry Rice and Charles Woodson IllustrationCould Charles Woodson in his prime stop Hall of Famer Jerry Rice in his? MATCHUP GALLERY
Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson is the sixth and final member of the NFC North to be added to's Any Era team, determined by a panel of 20 Hall of Fame players. A sampling of their thoughts:

"Charles Woodson isn't a hardass, but he's tough. He would have had an even better nose back when we played. It wasn't a game of inches back then as much as it is today. He would've been in the middle, picking off passes. I just like to watch him play."


"Let’s give Charles Woodson some love. I like the way he plays. Not only is he great at larceny, but he can tackle too. He tackles and he'll come up and hit you. He's not defined by the corners today, who think their only responsibility is to cover wide receivers. He can hit somebody, too."

Video: Adrian Wilson's physical edge

January, 27, 2012
It's a little easier to see how Adrian Wilson played through a torn biceps tendon this season after watching the Arizona Cardinals' strong safety in the video below.

He's put together.

Wilson was among the players I thought deserved consideration for the The Magazine's NFL Any Era team.

If there's an Any Era Physique team, he should be on that one, too.

Let's just say Wilson would not be embarrassed to go "skins" in a pickup basketball game.

Also: Patrick Willis is in shape, too.


NFL Any Era: Tebow over Steven Jackson?

January, 27, 2012
Seth from Newport News, Va., says the The Magazine's NFL Any Era team "is a joke" if the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson does not appear on the list.

Mike Sando: Jackson did not appear on the list. Tim Tebow did. That seems wrong. We do not even know for sure whether Tebow will be good in this era, do we?

The overall list is strong. Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ed Reed, Darrelle Revis, Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney are among those listed.

I thought the San Francisco 49ers' Justin Smith was an obvious omission among those watching him play regularly. But how many people, Hall of Famers or otherwise, have watched the 49ers' defensive line in recent seasons?

People should know plenty about Steven Jackson, because he carries the ball and, quite frequently, defenders trying to tackle him. Seth is surely right about the Rams' poor record hurting Jackson in these types of polls.

In retrospect, I should have broken out an item about Jackson's omission without any prompting. He has demonstrated all the necessary qualities -- toughness, grit, consistency, leadership, versatility, production -- to make him a timeless player. Very few running backs have run with more ferocity than Jackson.

The way Jackson has played through injuries becomes more impressive when we consider the stakes for his team were relatively low. I'll never forget watching him slam himself into the 49ers' defense while trailing 35-0 a few years ago. He made a statement to his teammates and anyone watching. Circumstances would not diminish what he represented. I'll also never forget how he fought through a 2009 back injury that would require surgery. He started 15 games even though his team was 1-15 that season.

A lesser man -- even a normal one -- would have shut it down late in that season. What was the point? Jackson refused to do that. He kept coming back for more and finished with 324 carries, the second-highest total of his career.

Jackson was clearly qualified for the Any Era team. So were Larry Fitzgerald and others. But as with voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are usually more worthy candidates than spots available for enshrinement. That means very good candidates do not always get their due, at least right away. That should not diminish them in any way.
Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Steven Jackson, Adrian Wilson and Larry Fitzgerald were among the current NFC West players I considered best qualified the The Magazine's NFL Any Era team.

There were other less-accomplished players I felt fit the mold, including Chris Clemons, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, etc.

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Justin Smith
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezJustin Smith reaches around an offensive lineman to get a hand on Drew Brees and break up the play.
But when ESPN shared with me an advance copy of the list, Smith's exclusion bothered me the most. Willis made it at No. 7, and rightly so. The top four positions have not yet been revealed, but No. 94 for the 49ers is not among them.

"If I could exchange myself today and give it to somebody else, I would give it to Justin and I would be off of it," Willis said of his Any Era selection. "Because honestly, he is who makes me who I am. This guy, he really makes my world a lot easier."

Anyone watching the 49ers closely during their recent postseason run got to see how Smith plays every week. Smith had 10 tackles, two sacks and nine quarterback hits in those games. He drove both opponents' left tackles straight backward into their quarterbacks, dragging down Drew Brees and mauling Eli Manning.

"He is no prima donna d-tackle," Willis said. "This guy is the real deal. He is not 400-and-some pounds and just sitting there like a big glob. He is not 270 pounds where he is just trying to swim a gap. This man is 300 pounds on the money and he is going to go right through you."

Smith has started 171 consecutive regular-season games. The way Smith's neck and head fill his helmet creates an old-school look.

"Those are the types of guys I want to play with," Willis said. "Hard-nosed guys. You get guys that just want to be pass rushers or you get guys who don't want to move. I don’t think you are a complete guy. Justin is a very complete d-tackle to me. Man, I’ll tell you what, he has been the heart and soul of this defense."

NFL Any Era: Hines Ward

January, 26, 2012
Lynn Swann and Hines Ward IllustrationImagine Hall of Famer Lynn Swann in a five-wide formation with Hines Ward. MATCHUP GALLERY 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: Brian Urlacher

January, 26, 2012
Larry Csonka and Brian IllustrationHall of Famer Larry Csonka going against Brian Urlacher? A classic battle. MATCHUP GALLERY
When you're the middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears, the longtime Monsters of the Midway, you've got to be included on the Any Era team, compiled by a panel of 20 Hall of Famers. A sampling of their thoughts:
JIM BROWN: "Brian Urlacher plays an intelligent game, but is also very physical and very tough. He can apply his physicality with a mentality that fits into the game plan. His mental toughness is as good as it gets."

MIKE DITKA: "Brian Urlacher has stood the test of time. He'll go down as one of the best middle linebackers in history. He follows in the great tradition of Bears linebackers."

NFL Any Era: Patrick Willis

January, 26, 2012
Marcus Allen and Patrick Willis IllustrationHall of Famer Marcus Allen shouldn't look back; Patrick Willis is gaining on him.
Patrick Willis checks in at No. 7 on the The Magazine's NFL Any Era team.

Twenty Pro Football Hall of Famers determined Willis has the toughness and overall game to match up with anyone, at any time, in any era of NFL history.

No argument here.

"First off, it is truly an honor and a blessing to be picked by those guys," Willis said. "Those are guys that I will forever look up to, whether I got a chance to watch them play or just hear something about them. My ultimate goal is to get to be in the Hall of Fame, to be one of those players when people talk about the game forever, to be one of those guys that is recognized for playing the game the right way and giving it everything you got."

Willis is well on his way. He has five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro selections (four of them first team) in his first five NFL seasons. He has no real weaknesses.

And, as Any Era panelist Mike Ditka put it, "Patrick Willis knocks the crap out of guys."

That, too.

Toughness was a key component for Any Era consideration. Willis and others expanded on that theme in relation to him for a piece running in conjunction with the project.

Willis' teammate, Parys Haralson, captured it pretty well.

"You can talk about being tough, but once you turn on the film and see the way a person plays, the things that a person does, the amount of snaps they play, the way they play, the way they take on blocks, the way they get off blocks, the way they tackle -- everything -- to me that is the toughness," Haralson said. "Being able to play tough and going out and showing that you are tough with your play, not saying you are tough."

NFL Any Era: Adrian Peterson

January, 26, 2012
Mike Singletary and Adrian Peterson IllustrationHall of Famer Mike Singletary and Adrian Peterson would have classic matchups. MATCHUP GALLERY
The tenacity and between-the-tackles toughness of Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson appears to have made him a natural selection for's Any Era team, compiled by a panel of 20 Hall of Fame players. A sampling of their thoughts:

"Adrian Peterson is a tough guy. His initials are A.P. yet his nickname is still AD. That’s because he’s going to come at you all day. Adrian is kind of like Jim Brown, but I think he's faster. He's got a tough mentality, and he doesn’t shy away from anything. Guys will block for him, and if they don't he'll run through the defense anyway."

"It’s almost like Adrian Peterson plays like he had a dream the night before that he was going to break a big play. That desire is there every time he touches the ball, that it's going to be a big play. When he gets tackled, he doesn't go down. He's trying his hardest to stay up, telling himself, 'If I can just get my legs free I’m going to score.' That's what makes it fun looking at him and watching him play -- you are expecting the same thing that he is expecting on every play. His desire is visible to everyone out there."


"Adrian Peterson could play in any era. He has the speed and breakaway ability, but he looks for guys to run over. He has classic highlights of pushing defensive backs out of his way and throwing guys out of his way while running the football. He will play hurt and banged up, and I like the way he plays the game. He delivers the blow as opposed to taking the blows as an offensive player."


"Adrian Peterson is tough. Some guys get a fingernail trimmed back and they're done for the day. Others have toes hanging off and they're still out there playing. And he’s in that category."

NFL Any Era: Tom Brady

January, 25, 2012
Willie Lanier and Tom Brady IllustrationTom Brady against Hall of Famer Willie "Contact" Lanier? We'd like to see it. MATCHUP GALLERY's Any Era series continues this week, and has another AFC East player in Wednesday's group.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady comes in at No. 11. He is playing in his fifth Super Bowl on Feb. 5, and is tied with Joe Montana for the most playoff wins (16) in NFL history.

Here are comments on Brady from current Hall of Famers:
FLOYD LITTLE: He's the ultimate quarterback. You can say his name with Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino. When you talk about great quarterbacks, Tom Brady is right there, if not above that. He has become an icon, and his name personifies greatness. He could have played yesterday, today, tomorrow. When you talk about quarterbacks, he's the first one that comes to mind. When you want to list the top 10 quarterbacks of all time, he's in that group. What he's done with the Patriots, I don't think can be duplicated in my lifetime. I think I'll see him at a Hall of Fame luncheon one of these days, and I'll be the first one in line to shake his hand.
MIKE DITKA: I don't think anybody understands his toughness. He's very smart. They create mismatches, and he knows how to use them. He uses those receivers so well. And if you're a receiver, you love to play for a guy like him. He makes you good. And he makes good players great. Wes Welker is a good player, but Tom Brady makes Wes Welker a great player.
JIM BROWN: Tom Brady is mentally tough. He has all kinds of talent and is able to work closely mentally with his coach, Bill Belichick. Brady has had the ability to work with him and to deliver their combined intelligence on the field, and I am sure he has a lot to do with potential players they would want to sign as a free agent or even draft. He makes everybody work well together. Players who succeed with him might not succeed on other teams.

Brady will be remembered as one of the top five quarterbacks in NFL history. He also is a classic story of a low-round draft pick who worked hard and developed into a future Hall of Famer.

Brady's characteristics, such as tenacity, leadership, smarts, talent and worth ethic, work in any era. This vote also proves winning is timeless.

NFL Any Era: James Harrison

January, 25, 2012
Joe Namath and James Harrison IllustrationWe guarantee James Harrison would focus on getting Hall of Famer Joe Namath. MATCHUP GALLERY 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: DeMarcus Ware

January, 25, 2012
PM ET IllustrationEven a QB as elusive as Hall of Famer Steve Young may have a hard time avoiding DeMarcus Ware.
Day 3 of the NFL Any Era Team project brings us to our first NFC East player, Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. In case you haven't been paying attention, the NFL Any Era Team is a list of the top current 20 players, as determined by a panel of 20 Hall of Fame players and Hall of Fame writer John Clayton, who could have played in any NFL era. We are revealing four per day, and Nos. 9-12 were revealed today. Ware, often regarded as the league's best pass-rusher, came in at No. 12. That's why you see here a cool, old-looking photo illustration of him sacking Steve Young, which never actually happened but, according to our panel, certainly could have.

"When you say tough guy I'm thinking DeMarcus Ware," Hall of Fame former Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green said. "I'm talking about a guy who has to go against double-teams all game long, with the line trying to kill him on every play and with backs chipping on him -- that stuff hurts. There's toughness there in terms of your mind being able to overcome and take on a double team all day long, or you fight through everything and almost getting the sack or you would have had it had the back not chipped you.

"I give the D ends a lot of credit for being tough, for being able to take on double and triple teams all day long, and for the frustration of being a big guy and then having a little bit guy try and chip you. That's why I like Ware. He exemplifies how I feel about the great defensive ends and all they have to face."

Ware is playing in an era in which getting to the quarterback has become the most important aspect of playing defense, and he's as good at doing it as any player in the league. Our panel ranked him ahead of fellow pass-rushers Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney, who came in 16th and 17th, but behind Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who came in 10th. We'll see over the next two days how many current pass-rushers are in the top eight. But Ware got his share of respect from the panel.

"I love DeMarcus Ware's style of play," Hall of Fame former Cowboys tackle Rayfield Wright said. "He is very active and aggressive. He seems to understand his role as far as the team is concerned and he plays it very well."


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