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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.

Tommy Davis, the 49ers' punter from 1959 through 1969, earns his spot with a 44.8 yards-per-boot average, while San Diego punter Darren Bennett has averaged 44.5.

A couple of active players man the other kicking spots. For the AFC, Gary Anderson (who played his first 13 years with Pittsburgh before moving to the NFC) earned a roster spot due to 2,133 points and a combined 90.36 percent effectiveness on his field goals and extra points. Morten Andersen, who played his first 13 seasons with New Orleans, is just behind him with 2,036 points and 89.14
percent accuracy.

On defense, there are no defining statistics as such. Rather, there are combinations of distinctions, like All-Pro appearances -- an award voted on by the press -- and Pro Bowl appearances, as well as interceptions and sacks, though sacks are misleading since they were not recorded for individuals before 1982. Imagine fielding an NFC team with linebackers Dick Butkus, Lawrence Taylor and Chuck Howley. Try Bruce Smith and L. C. Greenwood at defensive end for the AFC or its linebacker corps of Bobby Bell, Junior Seau and Jack Lambert.

The list reminds us that some deserving players came along too early for this fantasy contest. Otto Graham, Don Hutson and Sammy Baugh, to name a few Hall of Famers, played before 1960 and are therefore ineligible. If we used the yards-per-attempt measure alone (with a minimum of 2,500 pass attempts) to determine dominance, Graham, who gained 8.98 yards per attempt with the Cleveland Browns, would be pro football's greatest quarterback. (Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams is averaging 9.0 yards but has played just four years and lacks a sufficient number of attempts.) Hutson, Green Bay's indomitable end and safety from 1935 through 1945, led the league in receiving yards seven times. Washington's Baugh was the game's preeminent passer (who also played tailback and defensive back) from 1937 through 1952. He is also the top punter in NFL history (among those with more than 300 punts) with 45.1 yards per kick. In 1943, "Slingin' Sam" led the NFL in passing, interceptions caught and punts.

Aside from the players who couldn't play because they were born too early, there are other notables who just missed making the rosters. They include: center Dermontti Dawson; guard Billy Shaw; defensive ends Willie Davis and Gino Marchetti; defensive tackles Alan Page and Henry Jordan; linebackers Larry Grantham, Ray Nitschke and Nick Buoniconti; corners Aeneas Williams, Lem Barney and Roger Wehrli; safety LeRoy Butler; quarterbacks Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Y. A. Tittle, Len Dawson and Kurt Warner; running backs Larry Csonka and Leroy Kelly; receivers Cris Carter, Art Monk, Irving Fryar and Henry Ellard; and tight end Mike Ditka.

How does the computer deal with the rosters provided?

With offensive play calling, the computer first analyzes each team's strengths and considers the situation -- down, distance, field position, score, time on the clock, and so on. Finally, it considers the matchups of players. The computer tries to balance the play calling over the course of the game, so that a single play doesn't get called four times in a row. In this game, play calling was in a sense predetermined, since it was decided that, in All-Star Game fashion, most everyone should play. Defensive plays are called in the same way, but with more emphasis on reacting to the offense.

Substitutions in a game are typically based on players' skills and their actual playing time. In this case, since we chose starters, the playing time was to a degree predetermined by us. There is a fatigue factor; if a back runs for 60 yards or carries the ball five times in a row, he's probably going to sit out a play or two before returning. Since fatigue affects performance, the computer monitors this element carefully. Injuries are a somewhat random occurrence, but are based on real tendencies. Bruce Matthews played years without injuries, as did Gene Upshaw; others are more injury prone.

In a larger sense, the computer weighs the skills of specific players and the team as a whole. If the AFC runs Earl Campbell off left tackle, the first consideration is Campbell, but the computer also considers the blockers. The blocking ability of players on the left side will be more heavily weighed than the guys on the right side. If the tight end is on the right side, his blocking is hardly a factor. How good are the linemen on the side where the run's headed, and how good are the linebackers? The play called by the defense makes a big difference, too. If Dick Butkus is blitzing, he doesn't impact the play.

There is equal weight given to the offense and the defense, so a great offensive line will run roughshod over a weak defense. If we pitted the 1973 Dolphins against the 2002 Panthers, the Dolphins -- with Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris in the backfield -- should be able to run the ball at will. Sometimes Csonka would get stopped for no gain, or the Panthers might make a sack or an interception. But over the course of 50 or 75 plays, the superior talent would prevail. In our simulation, both teams, stocked with all-time greats, are fairly evenly matched. At times there will be devastating blocks or great runs; at other times, smothering defense will win out.

The Game

From the opening drive, this was about power offense, not defensive stops.

On a perfect 73-degree day at the Orange Bowl, Dan Marino drove the AFC for the game's first score, marching his All-Stars 80 yards in 11 plays before connecting with Lance Alworth on a textbook crossing pattern from eight yards out. Not to be outdone, Montana mixed it up to tie the score. The key play was a 33-yard toss down the left sideline to 49ers teammate Jerry Rice. Also notable were two plays -- a sweep and then a trap -- on which Jim Brown was thrown for one-yard losses. But Brown finished the drive with a two-yard run off left tackle for a 7-7 tie. The AFC wasted no time in taking the lead right back. Marino drove his mates, this time 51 yards, before Gary Anderson nailed a 46-yard field goal.

The game turned completely in the next 12 minutes.

With 13:19 left in the second quarter, Gale Sayers handed the NFC excellent field position with a 39-yard kickoff return to its own 42. Three passes from Montana to James Lofton -- the last a 13-yarder over the middle -- put the NFC back on top, 14-10. Montana was shaken up on the throw by Kansas City tackle Buck Buchanan. Roughing the passer was called, with the penalty being assessed on the ensuing kickoff. Marino got right to work, hitting Don Maynard on a 14-yard hitch, but a nasty hit by corner Herb Adderley crumbled Maynard and caused the lithe wideout to fumble. Bob Lilly recovered. After a pitchout to Barry Sanders for six yards, Montana pinpointed Raymond Berry on a sideline pattern for a 28-yard score and a 21-10 NFC lead.

The AFC was quickly stymied and forced to punt, with the NFC beginning on its 20-yard line. Favre took over for Montana, who was still feeling the effects of the late hit. Mixing runs by Brown and Sanders and a timely third-down out pattern to Jackie Smith, Favre moved his team. He finished the drive with a 16-yard strike to Lofton, who again found a seam over the middle for a 28-10 lead.

An exchange of interceptions -- the first by San Francisco's Ronnie Lott followed by the Steelers' Jack Ham -- gave Marino the ball on his own 11 with 54 seconds left in the first half. Marino then showed the measure of his brilliance. The AFC had three time-outs remaining, but by running Thurman Thomas twice off-tackle and again on a trap, Marino made it appear that he was playing it cautiously. With 10 seconds left in the half, he led Maynard perfectly on a 66-yard crossing pattern for a touchdown to close the gap to 28-17.

Steve Young and Dan Fouts were the starting quarterbacks in the second half. Young hit the Redskins' Charley Taylor for 54 yards. The drive stalled, but a Morten Andersen kick gave the NFC a two-touchdown lead, 31-17. After the AFC failed to gain a first down, Young mixed runs from Walter Payton with short passes to teammate Jerry Rice, finally connecting with Rice on a seven-yard hitch pattern for a 38-17 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter.

Dan Fouts quickly erased any thoughts that this game was history. He engineered a punishing 80-yard drive in less than three minutes. Earl Campbell plowed over left tackle for 24 yards. When a hitch to Marshall Faulk fell incomplete, Fouts hit Charlie Joiner on a third-down slant to the NFC's 35. Again Faulk was stopped for no gain, leaving it third-and-10, but Campbell plowed for 10. After Faulk's 10-yard gallop, the score was 38-24 and the AFC was very much alive with 20 minutes remaining in the game.

Drives by both teams failed, and now the clock loomed as the AFC's enemy. Needing two touchdowns, John Elway, who had taken over for Fouts on the previous drive, began at his own 20-yard line with 10:54 remaining. Sharing the wealth on passes to Joiner, Casper, Faulk and Lionel Taylor, Elway had a first down on the NFC's 33-yard line with 8:06 still to play. Would this be another Elway-engineered comeback? On the next play Faulk was shadowed closely and Adderley read and intercepted Elway's quick out pass.

The air went out of the crowd, composed mostly of AFC partisans. Following a punt, the AFC All-Stars, now with Warren Moon at the helm, began a drive on their own 13. After key passes to Alworth and Shannon Sharpe, and a 22-yard scamper by Franco Harris, Moon was at his opponent's 12-yard line. With his receivers blanketed on second-and-10, Moon took off for the end zone for a touchdown. The extra point closed the gap to seven points with 3:28 left. If only its weary defense could hold, the AFC could get the ball back in time for a score.

Sayers bravely took the kickoff four yards deep in the end zone and slithered 31 yards to his 27. Now Roger Staubach was in no hurry. Eric Dickerson slid off right tackle for eight and the Dallas signal caller shocked everyone with a two-yard toss to Michael Irvin on second-and-2, coming up inches short of a first down. After the two-minute warning, Emmitt Smith threw cold water on the AFC's hopes by gaining seven on a trap. Just 1:46 remained. Dickerson ran for only two and Smith was stopped for no gain, but Staubach scrambled for 17 and a first down at the AFC's 37. After the AFC spent its final time-out with 37 seconds left, Brown rushed for two yards and the NFC ran out the clock for a 38-31 victory.

Though the AFC lost, its offensive output was in ways even greater than the NFC's. The AFC All-Stars amassed 528 yards to their opponent's 468. Marino threw for 184 yards in half a game, while Montana was the NFC's top yard producer at 136. If not for three AFC turnovers compared to the NFC's one, the outcome most likely would have been different.

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