NFL Legends - Rise and Fall

When I think of NFL Legends, I think of names like


When I think of BIG PLAYS I think of

The Catch
The Drive
Lynn Swann
Immaculate Reception

Most of this stuff is from the 1980s or so, when I was a teenager, or highlights popular in the 1980s that occurred in the 1970s. Some stuff from the 1990s.

Going back a way, I think of Namath, Lombardi, Butkus, Unitas and a few others, but less in quantity than the 1980s. The further back in time, the fewer names or big plays stand out as legendary.

Looking forward form the 1980s, I also have a harder time thinking of potential legends in the salary cap era. Tyree? Manning? Brady? Brees?

It seems most fo the stuff I consider legendary comes from the 1970s or 1980s. This may be becasue it’s my childhood and teen years and had a more lasting impression on me.

I am hard pressed to name many legends from pre-1960s. Halas, Brown. I can’t think of any big plays.

There were plenty of big plays and big name players before The Catch, but they have faded in the collective memory. Maybe it’s because of the rise of mass media around the 70s and 80s, and not so memorable just because it’s when I was a kid.

Into the 2000s, I also have a hard time thinking of players or plays as legendary. However, there is more media now than there was in the 1980s. I think this is because when I see a good team, a great player, or a great play today, it doesn’t sink in as legendary because “it’s already been done.” The Tyree catch was probably just as remarkable as The Catch, but no catch will ever again be The Catch. Maybe players are less notable today because they move around in free agency.

So, in my mind, the pre-1970s and pre-1980s legends are fewer and seem to have faded from the collective memory. The post-1980s and post-1990s legends seem to be fewer because it’s hard to accomplish something new that doesn’t just seem like a repeat of The Catch, The Drive, etc.

Thus, in my mind, the 1970s and 1980s seem to have a pretty good lock on legendary things in the NFL.

Will the legends of the 1970s and 1980s fade in the collective memory like the legends of the 1950s have? 30 years from now, when asking a stranger on the street to name an NFL legend, will that person likely easily name many players from the 2010s and be hard pressed to come up with legendary names from the 1980s, or will the 1970s and 1980s forever be locked into the public mind as NFL Glory Days? Do people today, older than I, who watched the NFL as a kid in the 1950s and early 1960s, think of a lot of players of the time as legendary or do they also think of the legends of the 1970s and 1980s as more prominent? Perhaps they see Montana as just a rehash of Unitas? Would the older crowd say something like, “Singletary is nice, but he’s no Bob Lilly.”

I don’t know why the hell I am thinking of this stuff.

Dude, it’s Payton, not Peyton.

Part of the reason I’m thinking of this is because I saw the name of some “legendary” player from the 1930s or something like that. Apparently he was some kind of hot shot QB. However, if he’s so legendary, why have I never heard of him and nobody ever speaks of him? It made me wonder if 40 years from now, people will see the names Elway, Marino, or Montana and be totally clueless.


If you think of the names of NFL legends and/or legandary plays, do you notice a trend as far as the era in which those players played and/or plays occurred?

Certainly, it’s harder to “remember” great players who played before you were born, and things that happened when you were a kid / teenager are always going to be enshrined in your memory as the “glory years”.

NFL Films has done an extraordinary job of documenting the league, and preserving a lot of those great players and plays…but they only came into being in the early 1960s (their first project for the league was the 1962 NFL Championship Game), so films of the prior eras are scarcer. And, the ubiquity of TV coverage of the NFL now makes it far easier to see great plays (again and again and again…)

It does seem like many fans discount the things that happened in the NFL before the mid-60s (the “Super Bowl era”) as having happened in some distant, dusty past, and not at all comparable with the modern era. That said, there are certainly many legends from all of those prior decades which a fan of pro football (or, at least, of its history) should recognize. Here’s whom I can think of off of the top of my head, though there are undoubtedly many more:

Lombardi’s Packers (Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderly, among others)
Lance Alworth
Jim Brown
Gale Sayers
Dick Butkus
Alex Karras
Sam Huff
George Blanda
Lamar Hunt (Chiefs owner, key driving force behind the founding of the AFL)

Paul Brown
Otto Graham
Y.A. Tittle
“The Greatest Game Ever Played” (1958 championship game between the Giants and Colts)
Johnny Unitas
Ollie Matson
Chuck Bednarik
Bobby Layne

Sammy Baugh
Don Hutson
Sid Luckman
Steve Van Buren
Bob Waterfield

Bronko Nagurski
Clarke Hinkle
“Sneaker Game” (1934 championship game)

Curly Lambeau
George Halas
Johnny “Blood” McNally
Red Grange
Ernie Nevers

One thing that is certain is that nicknames (especially for groups) aren’t what they were.

Purple People Eaters
Fearsome Foursome
Steel Curtain
Doomsday Defense
Electric Company
Monsters of the Midway (still used a bit, but not as well as the 80s Bears defense)
Orange Crush

My guess is that, due to so many media outlets, a great play/player doesn’t have time to really digest for the public to recognize how great they are. I thought the SF-NO game was one of the greatest playoff games I’ve seen, but ESPN and the rest can’t spend hour after hour talking about 1 game, so we’ll hear about Tebow, Brady, the Giants, and the Ravens D in almost equal measure, and all of a sudden the SF-NO doesn’t stand out like it should. If it had been played in the early 90s, it’d probably be right next to the Broncos-Browns games or Oilers-Bills.

SF-NO had everything: huge hits, a team rushing out to a big lead and then losing it; great plays by RBs, TEs, and WRs; the gunslinger doing his thing (60+ passes!) and the qb who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn turning into Joe Montana v 2.0; 3 touchdowns in the last 2 minutes; and a loud and rowdy crowd. Frankly, the only thing I was left to wonder was, “When will an earthquake strike to make this the most incredible game ever?”

Monsters of the Midway was the 40s, not the 80s. Any good Bears defense gets tabbed with that moniker by the Chris Bermans of the world, but in the 40s it referred to the whole team, not the defense.

The loss of great nicknames has a lot to do with free agency and the salary cap. Teams just don’t stay together the way they used to. Plus fans are far more savvy, they know that 4 great DLs or 3 great LBs don’t make for a great team or a great defense. making nicknames like “Fearsome Foursome” sound pretty clueless.

Also, The Dome Patrol.

Good point re: the Bears. Monsters? More like Chipmunks! (A Christmas Story)

Constant highlight reels every week have diminished the legend of spectacular playoff performances and plays.

Still, recent stuff is just as good as the classics. Tyreems catch (and Eli’s scramble) was as spectacular and important as anything. The Titans coming up a yard shy against the Rams. The Ravens 2000 defense. This Saints/49ers epic. Even Santonio Holmes toe-touch TD, which I hated, was a legendary play.

“The Catch” was more than just a play, it symbolized the 49ers appearance on the national stage, beating the juggernaut Cowboys and foreshadowed the 49ers 1980s dominance. If the 49ers hadn’t won the Super Bowl following The Catch, it would have been demoted to just a great play.

Exactly. It came to symbolize the ascension of the 49ers (and the end of the Cowboys’ dominance).

Re: Group nicknames

Greatest Show on Turf

Nice example from the late 90s/early 00s for something memorable.

Killer Bs