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?
|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 linebackers mentioned.
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.