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The Ultimate NFL Game

If there were to be an all-time dream AFC/NFC matchup, the rosters would include (clockwise from top left) Dan Marino, Marshall Faulk, Joe Montana and Jim Brown.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

What would happen if we let the greatest football players ever compete against each other in a single game? What if Joe Montana was handing off to Jim Brown, or Dan Marino was beating a hellacious rush to find Lance Alworth on a post pattern? Using a computer simulation, the outcome of such an All-Star game can be determined. Such a matchup is a gridiron-lovers dream, the inspiration for a flight of fancy that takes on a life of its own.

The easiest way to split the squads is to have the American Football League, which began play in 1960, go up against the National Football League, formed in 1920. But that method obviously gives the NFL an unfair advantage in sheer volume of players. Fairness dictates that we take only NFL players since 1960 and play them off against the AFL. After the two leagues merged following the 1969 season, you simply take the new American Football Conference teams and add them to the old AFL and add the National Football Conference teams to the NFL squad. That levels the field.

Since 1960 some 13,500 players have played in the NFL and AFL. A team is allowed only 53 players each game, so we have allocated 106 slots on our two teams (see tables of rosters starting on page 104). How good do you have to be to be picked? Extremely good.

One of every 127 players who has played since 1960 -- less than 1 percent -- gets to suit up for this game. More than half of the 216 players in the NFL Hall of Fame didn't get selected. Is it even possible to agree on who should play and who shouldn't, on who should start and who comes off the bench? A statistical system can help select the squads.

The systems for selecting quarterbacks, running backs and ends are roughly equivalent. At all three positions, a player's yards per attempt -- either per throw, run or carry -- and total yards are the key indexes. Total yards are essential, since the total separates players who were effective over long periods from those whose brilliance was brief. Jim Brown is probably the greatest running back of all time (among rushers who gained at least 10,000 yards), not only because he led the league in running in eight of nine seasons -- an unequalled feat in itself -- but chiefly because he averaged 5.2 yards per carry. He starts in the NFC backfield with Barry Sanders, who averaged 5.0 per attempt before his sudden retirement in 1999. The AFC runners are O. J. Simpson and Earl Campbell.

Dan Marino is the dominant quarterback in AFC history. Not only did the Dolphins signal caller amass all-time bests of 61,361 passing yards and 420 touchdowns -- and more than 4,000 yards in a season six times -- but he averaged 7.34 yards per attempt and connected on 59.4 percent of his passes. While Marino is far and away the AFC's king, several candidates clamor for the throne in the NFC. First is Joe Montana and second is Steve Young, with Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre and Roger Staubach next in the queue. But Montana, given his combination of yards per attempt (7.52), completion percentage (63.2) and yards (40,551), starts the game.

At wide receiver, the AFC starts Fred Biletnikoff (whose signature was catching the ball with his palms facing out away from his mid-section, with the fingertips of both hands nearly touching. From there, the Stick-Em on his hands took over). San Diego Chargers deep threat Lance Alworth is the other wide receiver. The NFC counters with all-time receptions (1,364), touchdowns (185) and yards (20,386) leader Jerry Rice and Unitas's old passing mate Raymond Berry, who led the league three times in receiving yards.

At tight end, the NFC starts Jackie Smith, remembered by highlight reel aficionados for slipping in the end zone and dropping a Staubach toss in Super Bowl XIII. Among the fraternity of tight ends, Smith is doubtless better known for being among the all-time leaders in yards (7,918) and yards per reception (16.5) at his position. Denver's 34-year-old Shannon Sharpe, with his 8,604 yards and 12.4 yards per catch, got the nod at tight end for the AFC. The backups are Baltimore's John Mackey -- who always seemed to plow over or bounce off half the defense before being brought to the turf -- and Oakland's Dave Casper.

The punt returners are Houston's Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who twice led the league in returns and ran back six for touchdowns, and Detroit's Desmond Howard, whose career average is 12.1 yards per return.

Two of the game's high-profile names return kickoffs. Chicago's Gale Sayers is the only player with at least 75 returns to average 30-plus yards. The AFC matches Sayers's flair with the fleet "Mercury" Morris, who gained 26.5 yards a pop on his returns for Miami.

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