At this time of year for the NFL, the draft information being thrown at you can get a little overwhelming. And for that reason, I like to escape to other football related topics -- almost mindless, but interesting nonetheless. After some thought, a question came to my head that I wanted to share with the rest of you, to see how you felt.
Who would you rather build a team around in today's NFL, Patrick Willis or Jerry Rice?
And I know, and I'm like the most of you by thinking "c'mon, it's Jerry Rice." But I felt I'd kick it up a bit by making the environment "today's NFL." This does change things a bit. After the jump, I'll present you with my perception of the two players and how they're skills and abilities translate to the NFL of now.
Patrick Willis has established himself as the greatest linebacker in the league, hands down. Since Willis' arrival in 2007, the defense has grown from one of the league's worst, to the league's best. Watching Willis on gameday is watching an NFL legend in the making, and when you know it, it's truly remarkable. The culmination of the 2011 regular season, to me, had a lot to do with what Willis had been building with the defense for 4 seasons.
In today's NFL, it is a passing league where the best teams put up tons of points and win Super Bowls. In all of that, Willis has led a record-setting defense to the top of the league that is capable of shutting down virtually every team. When San Francisco had the most incapable offenses ever, Willis' defensive performances were unbelievable and kept the 49ers in games.
Willis' has a toughness and will that is infectious to all three phases of the game. Every player on offense, defense and special teams is physical and I believe Willis is at the nucleus of it all. He powers the team around him, and Harbaugh has the reins. And let's be honest, San Francisco was 26th in total offense last year, and their defense was 4th -- so you tell me how they got to the NFC Championship.
Let's take a look at last year's Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots. The Patriots have arguably the best quarterback in football, a very high-scoring offense and we once again found out, defense wins championships. The Giants defense reigned supreme and sent Tom Brady home empty-handed for the second time.
How about the Arizona Cardinals-Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl? Defense again. The Cardinals had Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin at the time, but the Steelers defense was too much. A great defense goes a long way, and Patrick Willis leads none better.
First of all, Jerry Rice is the undisputed greatest football player of all-time; I believe that. But that doesn't immediately make this argument in favor of Rice.
Take a look at the great receivers in the NFL today: Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson. The Houston Texans won mostly without Andre Johnson when they finally reached the playoffs. Houston's formula for success was mostly predicated on a strong running game and a smash-mouth defense. Fitzgerald's Cards can't seem to get things right, and it looks like one of the great receivers of our generation may never win a championship. And pardon me, but the Lions were nothing before Jim Schwartz and Ndamukong Suh shaped up that defense.
And like I mentioned, this is a passing league where bigger, faster, more athletic wide receivers are being produced every year. For instance, in this year's upcoming draft, there are at least 6 wide receivers with first round status. They're almost being churned out on an assembly line. And it's usually the teams with a lot of good wide receivers that tend to do better than the teams with one great wide receiver (Giants, Chargers, Steelers, etc.).
But then again, it's Jerry Rice; so in today's league where scoring points is key, wouldn't you want the all-time leader in touchdowns scored? Probably. But maybe I'm biased in that I prefer a potential Hall of Fame defense. I remember when week 5 came along, Calvin Johnson had scored 9 touchdowns in the 4 weeks prior. He started for the Lions that day in Detroit against San Francisco and didn't get in the end zone, and the Lions didn't win.
The game has truly evolved since it's inception. There's been rule changes to favor receivers, running backs are more expendable and less valuable than ever, and sleeper superstars are born every year. I think a defense as capable as the one the 49ers have because of Patrick Willis is more valuable in today's league than the most elite receiver; even if he was the greatest of all-time.
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