How great is a book that lists Tom Brady ahead of Peyton Manning, John Elway and Dan Marino? How great is an all-time keeper of a publication that ranks Bill Belichick among the top 15 head coaches in NFL history, the only active coach to be so honored? But, then again, the same publication ranks the 2007 Patriots as only the seventh best single-season team in NFL history, much to the credit of one – David Tyree who is actually on the cover of “FOOTBALL’S GREATEST.”
Not long ago, Sports Illustrated editor Bill Syken sat down at his desk with the journalistic assignment of a lifetime. He was asked to create "Sports Illustrated's Football's Greatest," a coffee table sized book that is now on sale. It just might be the best thing that's happened to the NFL since the birth of NFL Films.
Syken had a daunting task. He was asked to "quarterback" an effort to poll Sports Illustrated's highly qualified team of experts to create one voice, the ultimate NFL book to chronicle the "Top 10" in more than 20 categories of NFL history. Syken has a team that includes NFL beat writer Peter King, the Monday morning QB himself, along with Tim Layden, Don Banks, Steve Rushin, Jim Trotter, Michael Silver, Damon Hack, Roy Blount Jr. and the entire army of SI photographers, historians, editors, writers and researchers. Not only did they highlight the top players by position, they also tackled the more obscure questions and "bar room" debates, such as "Best Stadium, Rivalry, Coaches, Games, Plays, Franchises, Uniforms. You get the drift?
Well, Mr. Syken, congratulations on a job well done and, please, take the rest of the week off!
There are three things to keep in mind when (not if) you decide to buy this book and that is the fact the book has three lives.
It has a life for the curious.
For most, the very first thing you do when you hold the book and adore its perfectly thought-out and designed cover, is you turn to the lists to see where the SI experts ranked your favorite players. Where did they rank Joe Namath? After Lombardi, who was the next Coach? Who were their choices for best offensive lineman, defensive back and so on. Thankfully, they did not attempt to rank the Place Kickers but I would’ve been interested in the all-time great Punters.
Best Plays? Rivalries? Trades? Movies? Franchises? It's all there. They even ranked the best NFL-related Sports Illustrated covers of all-time.
The next impression after reading the “top 10” lists, is to immediately flip through the book to adore – get that – ADORE – the photography. While SI's depth in writing is beyond comparison in American sports writing lore, the photography is unquestionably the best sports photography in the history of the art. The second life of this book is to take hours upon hours and examine every single photograph.
Can it have a third life? Yes sir and that's the writing, of course.
After flipping through the book and acting like a little kid on Christmas morning, the most enjoyable aspect of Sports Illustrated's Football's Greatest is the script. From the thought-provoking or memorable quotations to the introductory paragraphs of each section to the features on the top players, the book is a dream come true for those who treasure the written word.
"The beginning of the process was that we polled our longtime football writers and editors, asking them the best quarterbacks, defensive backs, the best games, plays – all the categories you see in the book," said Syken when he was asked how he dealt with the enormity of his assignment. "They sent their top 10 choices, along with commentary explaining their selections. From there, it was compiling them, just like you would do with a poll.
"After that, the next job was to do the photo research and find the best photos, whether for a two-page spread or single page, plus a passage from a classic SI story related to the topic. So, we selected the photos, along with our photo staff and I went through the SI Vault and did a lot of reading, looking for the really great stories to find a couple paragraphs to go on each page. We wanted to give people something enjoyable to read that captures the essence of each selection," said Syken.
While you might believe the challenge of researching, editing and, ultimately, whittling down the massive amount of photography and stories might be a painstaking assignment, Syken and his colleagues enjoyed the process
"It can sound like a lot, but it was actually a lot of fun," he said. "It was fun going through the archives and finding these nuggets. One that stands out, as an example; The Redskins were among the Top 10 franchises and while I was looking for a paragraph on the Redskins franchise, as opposed to a specific player or game, it was fun to find a Frank Deford story from 1979 when he was talking about sports in Washington and in general, we came across this quote from (former President) Richard Nixon explaining the unique role the Redskins play in Washington DC. It was fun to discover stuff like that."
Aside from his insight gleaned from hours of researching the written words and reviewing and selecting the photography depicted throughout the book, Syken had a keen observation that should be shared with everyone who loves football and appreciates the art and dedication of a photographer who stood out in the freezing cold, driving rain or even unbearable heat and sunshine to capture an image.
"This was something we talked about a lot," noted Syken as he explained the nuances of the book he helped create. "You generally think of technology as this march forward and it's always getting better and better and better. It's really amazing how beautiful the old pictures are. A couple of my favorite pictures in this book are in our section on the best single-season teams, and we have two of the (Green Bay) Packers teams from the '60s, the 1962 Packers and the 1966 Packers. Those are some amazing pictures, the color, how beautiful these photos truly are.
"I was showing the book to a nine year old who grew up in the new era of single-use stadiums, so it was fun for this child to see the baseball stadium that they were playing football in – and there's the home plate and the baselines. It was an interesting piece of history."
Right he is. The stunning quality of the photography, shot on film and developed just right or the striking beauty of a black & white image taken at the old, old Yankee Stadium. My words cannot do it justice.
Meanwhile, the choices and rankings are pleasantly and surprisingly "agreeable," for lack of a better word for a positive analysis.
"There were some close calls,' said Layden. There tended to be much more consensus at the top, but there was no unanimous choice in any one category. The closest we came was Jim Brown had six of seven, but one writer was in favor of Walter Payton. Jerry Rice had six out of seven, but someone argued for Don Hudson and right on down the line. That said, there was often a cluster among the top players. When it came to linebackers, Lawrence Taylor was "No. 1" but the top four was as close to a full consensus that we had at that level. Generally, after No. 1, it spread out.
"The most unusual choice and maybe the most interesting and thought-provoking was Tim Layden's choice of Yankee Stadium as the best football stadium. There were classic games, like the great Giants vs. Colts and the 1962 NFL championship against the Packers."
So, what were Syken's and the SI editor's emotions after they hit the "print" button and the first edition rolled off the printing presses?
"When you first get the book, you look at the rankings," he described. "You are just curious as to who falls where. Then, I think it's a product with some of the best writers and photography. Is a celebration of the very best football players but is also the best photography and the best sports writing the magazine has ever published. I think it works on a lot of levels."
Sports Illustrated's Football Greatest is a book that has three separate and incredible lives to it. It is a book that should sit right in front of you on every football Sunday as it is something that you can pick up a hundred times and always find something new, different, informative or just plain enjoyable to read, peruse and admire, especially with the terrific photography and layout. It's a must for every football fan and a gift that would be treasured by all who receive it.
Terry Lyons pens a twice-a-week column on the NFL for Foxboro Blog, including his weekly look at “What keeps us up at Night” as NFL fans. Lyons is publisher and editor-in-chief at Boston-based DigitalSportsDesk http://www.digitalsportsdesk.com where he writes on football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.