One is the loneliest number ... unless it means being named the best. In
that case, there are plenty of friends and admirers to go around.
Is there an NFL player who can be singled out as the best in the game?
Is there one who stands out from the rest? Can there actually be one
gladiator defined as the league's heavyweight champ?
Last week, SportsLine.com polled head coaches in search of who they
thought was the NFL's most underrated player. Well, we ran up a massive
phone bill yet again (as if these guys have anything better to do than
schmooze with me) but this time asked a more defined question.
|Ray Lewis missed 11 games in 2002, but did plenty to leave an impression on opposing coaches. (Getty Images)|| |
This week, SportsLine.com polled 22 of today's NFL head coaches and
asked them to resolve an endless debate: Who is currently the NFL's most
dominating player regardless of position?
Talk about the question to end all questions. It's the kind of
discussion that has sparked many a bar fight.
Once again we chose a panel that reads like a Who's Who of those in the
know: the Bucs' Jon Gruden, Rams' Mike Martz, Broncos' Mike Shanahan,
Patriots' Bill Belichick, Falcons' Dan Reeves, Browns' Butch Davis,
Giants' Jim Fassel, Cardinals' Dave McGinnis, Panthers' John Fox,
Saints' Jim Haslett, Chiefs' Dick Vermeil, Bears' Dick Jauron, Dolphins'
Dave Wannstedt, Jets' Herm Edwards, Vikings' Mike Tice, Eagles' Andy
Reid, Texans' Dom Capers, Bills' Gregg Williams, Titans' Jeff Fisher,
Ravens' Brian Billick, Jaguars' Jack Del Rio and Bengals' Marvin Lewis.
(Most have allowed their names to be attached to their votes, but a
couple requested that their choices remain anonymous.)
Who better to answer the question than the men responsible for putting
together a plan to stop the league's top stars?
Surprisingly, these coaches were able to agree. In fact, they actually
came up with a clear-cut winner. He must generate enormous fear and
havoc on the field, because the voting was shockingly lopsided.
So who is this face-masked man? The top of the heap, king of the hill,
crème de la crème, el grande numero uno ... have we stalled long enough?
The most dominating player in the NFL regardless of position according
to 22 head coaches is ...
... Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
Despite missing all but five games a year ago, the carnage he has
inflicted in years past made enough of an impression to carry him to
what may be the finest honor a player could ask for -- recognition from
his coach's peers.
Of the 22 who voted, a whopping 10 named Lewis. How much of a landslide
winner does that make him? No other player received more than two votes.
"I've been associated with a great middle backer in Mike Singletary and
I know what that type of presence brings," said McGinnis. "Not just on
game day but during the week leading up to the game. He doesn't just
lift the defense. He's a presence. He's an attitude. When things begin
to go downhill and start going against you in a game, he'll stop it dead
in its tracks."
Among the others who joined Coach Mac are Tice, Billick, Vermeil (who
split his vote between Lewis and Priest Holmes), Lewis, Fisher and Del
Rio. The others requested anonymity.
Fisher said he voted for Lewis because he has the uncanny ability to
show that he's going to play one side of a guard or center only to make
the play on the other side on an annoyingly regular basis. Fisher
admires his football smarts, which make it nearly impossible to get him
out of position.
In Lewis' four starts before injuring his shoulder last year, the former
NFL defensive player of the year and Super Bowl MVP put forth what some
say was the finest string of games by a defensive player in recent
memory. He had eight tackles in Week 1, 13 the following week and 11 the
next. Against the Broncos, he also added one of the season's best blocks
during a runback. Lewis was everywhere, forcing fumbles, grabbing
interceptions and making big tackle after big tackle.
"If he didn't get hurt, he was on his way to the best season he's ever
had," said Del Rio. "He is the most dominating player not only at his
position but in the league."
Added one coach who requested his name not be attached to his vote: "He
has the athleticism and intensity to take over a game. He can stuff the
run, although he's also athletic enough to control the passing lanes."
Lewis, Chicago's Brian Urlacher (1½ votes), Atlanta's Keith Brooking
(one half of a vote; Reeves split his between Urlacher and Brooking) and
Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks (one and one-third vote) were the only
While Urlacher will likely garner more votes as the years go by, the
lack of voting for Brooks, the reigning NFL defensive player of the
year, was a bit curious. Gruden split his one vote between Brooks, DE
Simeon Rice and DT Warren Sapp.
The only other man to give Brooks the nod was Edwards.
"He plays the run, he plays the pass and makes the big play when it's
needed in the football game," Edwards said. "He's a complete player. He
makes plays when other linebackers do not and he makes plays where other
linebackers cannot. He is a very instinctive player."
Why would a man such as Brooks possibly not be given more consideration?
Have these pundits looked at the film from a year ago?
"Derrick Brooks is a great 'player' but he's not as dominating as other
guys," explained one head coach why he shied away from Brooks. "Brooks
is a very smart player. He makes very big plays. But he's not like an
Urlacher or Ray Lewis or even a Simeon Rice, where you are going to
change your scheme because of him. He doesn't force you to change your
blocking scheme or your game plan."
Perhaps even more surprising than the lack of votes for Brooks was the
dearth of defensive ends given the nod. In fact, the only defensive end
in the league to receive a full vote was Tennessee's Jevon Kearse. No
Rice, no Michael Strahan, no Jason Taylor.
The Bills' Williams gave Kearse the nod and explained, "When he wants to
he can take over a game at any point, and there isn't much you can do
about it. When he puts it all together, he's close to unstoppable."
Sapp also received just one full vote (and the one-third from Gruden).
"The first thing you have to do when you play Tampa Bay is discuss how
you are going to stop Warren Sapp," said Haslett of why Sapp edged Green
Bay quarterback Brett Favre for his vote. "When you consider how many
guys on that defense you have to be concerned with, that's saying a lot."
The offensive side of the ball received little attention. In fact, of
the 22 votes, 7½ went to offensive players.
Favre and the Rams' Marshall Faulk led the voting for their side of the
ball with two votes apiece. Had a similar question been posed a mere two
or three years ago, they likely would have gotten the majority.
Favre received votes from Reid and Capers. Martz and Fassel tabbed Faulk.
"I know he was hurt last year but when he's healthy, Marshall Faulk can
change the game running the ball, he can change it catching the ball, he
can hurt you in so many different ways," Fassel said in explaining why
Faulk edged out Lewis and the 49ers' Terrell Owens in his voting. "You
have to build a plan around him because if you don't, he'll beat you."
Perhaps the biggest shock was the fact that not one offensive lineman
garnered a mention. Despite an injury-marred season a year ago, Cowboys
lineman Larry Allen had been revered by his playing peers as the
league's most dominating player regardless of position. A guy like
Baltimore's Jon Ogden or the Rams' Orlando Pace could also have been
solid choices, but neither received a hint of consideration.
While no linemen received votes, one vote went to an offensive player
who several coaches named as the man to win this honor in two or three
years from now. Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick garnered one vote, from
Fox, but others such as Fassel and Reeves insisted he should pull away
in the future.
"The most dominating players are the guys who you need to plan a
different scheme for. Vick is like that," said Fox. "He's like Barry
Sanders at quarterback, and when you play them, you can't just come in
with your normal plan. He's the type of guy who forces you to spend days
getting ready just for him. I chose him over a guy like Ray Lewis or
Simeon Rice (his second choice) because there are other guys close to
them like Brian Urlacher, but there's nobody who is close to Vick and
what he can bring to that field."
The total final voting:
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis: 9½.
Rams running back Marshall Faulk: 2.
Packers quarterback Brett Favre: 2.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher: 1½
"Both he and Keith Brooking can dominate a game, but Urlacher gets
more recognition for it," said Reeves. "He is dominating. The Bears
wouldn't be near who they are if they don't have him."
Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp: 1 1/3.
Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks: 1 1/3.
Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss: 1.
"It's a no-brainer," said Wannstedt on his vote. "How many people did
they put on him last year? How many coverages did they use for him?
What were his stats? Just watch the film. It didn't matter what teams
did differently to stop him they couldn't. He is dominating."
49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens: 1.
Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse: 1.
Falcons quarterback Michael Vick: 1.
Chiefs running back Priest Holmes: ½.
Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking: ½.
Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice: 1/3.
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