The NFL's 100th season also puts a bow on the league's 10th decade, advancing an evolution of the sport commonly traced to the iconic 1958 Championship Game, which captured the nation's attention at the dawn of the television age. By the beginnings of the Super Bowl era and the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, pro football had unseated baseball as America's most popular pastime. The NFL's smashmouth clashes of the 1970s gave way to the more visually appealing West Coast offenses of the 1980s and 1990s, setting the stage for the 21st century's passing revolutions that spawned the proliferation of spread attacks and the rise of the swashbuckling dual-threat quarterback.
When I look back on the past 10 years, I think foremost of Super Bowl XLIX with New England's timeless quarterback dissecting the definitive pass defense of the modern era in an incomparably riveting fourth quarter, which stands as the most unforgettable display of competitive football these eyes have witnessed. That instant classic boasts an astonishing seven players -- Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Darrelle Revis, Marshawn Lynch, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas -- featured on the All-Decade Team listed below.
As the decade winds to a close, it's fitting that Lynch is coming out of his second retirement to team with Wagner for Sunday's NFC West coronation versus Sherman's 49ers, hoping for one last legendary playoff run to culminate in a Super Bowl showdown with Brady's relentless Patriots or Thomas' juggernaut Ravens.
The position may never have been played at a higher level than during Aaron Rodgers' 2011 season, with an athletic passer flashing arm talent and playmaking ability that quarterbacks of yesteryear could only dream about. For extended excellence, though, Brady is the choice. Since I've been following football, there is no more impressive feat than Brady's eight consecutive conference-title game appearances. No other organization has done so more than five straight years. The most decorated QB in history will finish the decade with nine Pro Bowls, two regular-season MVPs, two Super Bowl MVPs and at least three Super Bowl rings. It's fitting that Brady previously captured all-2000s honors, as his unparalleled career could be split in half with both sections meriting Hall of Fame jackets. Forget the numbers. High-level quarterbacking in today's version of the NFL is about situational football, spreading the ball around, controlling tempo and attacking the right matchup on the right down-and-distance. Brady has been the master: fully in control as he slowed the sands of the hourglass in close games.
No running back has nabbed more than two first-team All-Pros in the decade. Peterson and LeSean McCoy are the backs with the highest peak as well as the most production. While McCoy is the decade's leader in yards from scrimmage (13,923), Peterson ranks in the top six with 11,135. More importantly, Peterson was twice the NFL rushing champion while nearly toppling Eric Dickerson's long-standing single-season record in a magical 2012 MVP season that stands as the most impressive display of power and speed in the past decade. Peterson was not only the first rushing leader to average at least 6 yards per carry since Barry Sanders in 1997, but he also led esteemed NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell to declare that 2012 campaign the greatest individual offensive season in NFL history. "I've been doing this a long time," Cosell explained. "I'm usually not wowed when I watch stuff. I'm wowed when I watch [Peterson]."
Nicknamed "Beast Mode" for the relentless, punishing style in which he powered through tackles, Lynch's career was a mild disappointment before he landed in Seattle as the offensive centerpiece of Pete Carroll's NFC West dynasty. He spent the next half-decade chasing Hall of Famers John Riggins and Terrell Davis as the most productive postseason backs in NFL history.
Nearly seven years ago, recently enshrined Hall of Fame super scout Gil Brandt insisted Jones was a superior player to the more celebrated Calvin Johnson. Just 10 days ago, Jones was directly or indirectly responsible for 20 of Atlanta's 23 offensive points in an upset victory at San Francisco, proving that he remains an All-Pro talent in the late stages of his prime. He reminds me of 1996-97 Hakeem Olajuwon: perhaps no longer dominant enough for the gravitational pull necessary to carry the 1995 Houston Rockets or the 2016 Atlanta Falcons to the title round, but good luck finding a handful better at what he does. Brown, before he quit on a pair of organizations and floundered on the rocks in the last calendar year, was the league's most productive receiver and premier route runner. From a statistical perspective, his five-year stretch from 2013 through 2017 ranks with any similar half-decade span from Johnson or Randy Moss, two of the most unstoppable wideouts of the Super Bowl era. No player in the past decade has racked up more all-purpose yards than Brown's 14,319.
With apologies to Justin Tucker and J.J. Watt, Gronkowski is the easiest choice on this list. He leads all tight ends in yards (7,861), touchdowns (79), Pro Bowl appearances (5) and first-team All-Pro selections (4) in the decade. That's not even counting the more important postseason statistics and accolades, accomplished on a bigger stage nearly every January and early February. The first NFL tight ends were offensive linemen sneaking outside for the rare reception in the pre-television days before Bears legend George Halas split Mike Ditka out wide as a new breed in 1961. By the time Gronkowski came along in 2010, the position had evolved into a dichotomy of overgrown wide receivers struggling with blocking chores at the point of the attack or inline blocking specialists lacking the skill set to threaten defenses as effective pass catchers. Gronk proved to be the most glaring exception, custom-built by the gridiron gods as the evolutionary Mark Bavaro. George Kittle may be as physically tough, Travis Kelce may be as dangerous after the catch, but nobody has combined behemoth size, tenacious blocking ability, uncanny hand-and-eye coordination and unstoppable red-zone prowess in one package like Gronkowski.
Thomas is the best blind-side tackle of his era, earning seven Pro Bowl bids and five first-team All-Pros during the decade as the every-snap Gibraltar surrounded on all sides by a sea of ineptitude. (Actually though, in compiling this list, it struck me that Cleveland once boasted not only Thomas but three more all-decade candidates in center Alex Mack, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and guard Joel Bitonio.) Smith edges out NFC East counterpart Jason Peters, 49ers six-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley and the perennially underrated Andrew Whitworth. With prototypical size, athleticism and perhaps the smoothest footwork since Bengals legend Anthony Munoz had in his prime, Smith has anchored the decade's dominant offensive line.
A technique master, Martin has been the NFL's premier guard since the day he entered the league out of Notre Dame, earning six trips to the Pro Bowl and three first-team All-Pros in six seasons. The presence of Martin, Smith and star center Travis Frederick has paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott, who has been the game's most productive rusher since 2016. Yanda started his storied career blocking for Steve McNair and Willis McGahee. A dozen years later, he's still playing at an All-Pro level, opening holes for Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram and the most dynamic offense in franchise history.
A perennial problem early in Ben Roethlisberger's career, Pittsburgh's offensive line has been among the most reliable since Pouncey arrived on the scene as the shot-caller in 2010. While he may be living off reputation more than performance at this point, it's hard to argue with eight Pro Bowl berths and a pair of first-team All-Pros -- honors that no other center of the decade comes close to matching.
It's a shame the last half-decade of Watt's career has been ravaged by major injuries because he was on track to join Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White in the pantheon of defensive difference-makers. Even with injuries robbing him of 32 games in the past four years, Watt's one of only two players in history to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Over the past decade, he ranks an easy first in QB hits (264) and tackles for loss (158) while placing second in sacks (96). Until Aaron Donald set a new standard for defensive tackle play over the past few years, Watt stood out as the game-wrecking force of his generation. He's still the most relentless, unstoppable, down-to-down dynamo I've had the pleasure of watching at defensive end. Why is Watt only second in sacks over the past 10 years? Because edge-rushing terror Von Miller amassed 105 to go with a league-best 26 forced fumbles over the same span. He was the linchpin and Super Bowl MVP on a swarming defense that a biased John Elway considers the best he's ever seen.
Thanks to analytics sites such as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, we've made tremendous advancements in the understanding of defensive value over the past decade. That said, we've yet to find the numbers capable of shedding proper light on Donald's dominance as an interior force facing and shedding double teams to make plays for himself and elevate his surrounding talent. As ESPN's Bill Barnwell pointed out at midseason, the Rams had allowed an 82.5 passer rating and a 42.2 QBR with Donald on the field, compared with a 130.5 passer rating and an 81.2 QBR when he's on the sideline. That helps inform Donald's impact. But what about his effect on teammates? Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews had averaged less than one combined sack and QB hit per game in their final two years with Jacksonville and Green Bay, respectively. Since they joined Donald's defense, they are hitting the QB nearly two times per game. Asked what surprised him most upon joining the Rams, venerable defensive coordinator Wade Phillips exclaimed, "Aaron Donald, because he's better than everybody, and I didn't know he was better than everybody. I thought he was good, but I didn't know he was better than everybody. But he is." That simple description should accompany his bust in Canton some day: "Better than everybody."
While researching this list, I was surprised just how close the battle is between Atkins and Ndamukong Suh. There's no right or wrong choice between the two. Whereas Suh has probably been one of the most hyped defensive players of the era, Atkins has not received nearly enough credit plying his trade in the Queen City. With a playing style once compared to the Tasmanian Devil, Atkins terrorizes guards and centers with a unique combination of leverage, strength and quickness. Among pure defensive tackles, he has accrued the most sacks (75.5) and Pro Bowl selections (8) over the past decade. Toggling between end and tackle, Calais Campbell also deserves mention for a decade of brilliance and versatility.
Looking back at the defining linebackers of the era, it's natural to wonder whether Vic Fangio's ferocious 49ers defenses would be represented if not for Patrick Willis' early retirement due to chronic foot injuries and NaVorro Bowman's shredded knee in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. As the decade played out, Kuechly and Wagner separated from the pack, making occasional runs at Defensive Player of the Year honors (Kuechly actually took home the hardware in 2013) while vying for the mythical title of best middle linebacker in a long line that stretches from Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher. A savvy sideline-to-sideline menace with no apparent weakness, Kuechly ranks first in Pro Bowls (7), All-Pros (5), interceptions (18) and passes defensed (65) and second in solo tackles (691) and tackles for loss (74) at his position this decade. The surest tackler of his era, Wagner has been a stud versus the run as well as the pass, ranking first in combined tackles (1,120). David may be the most underrated player on this entire list, earning only one Pro Bowl selection and one first-team All-Pro despite topping all off-the-ball linebackers in forced fumbles (20), tackles for loss (116) and solo tackles (709). Aside from David, the leader list in those first two categories is populated by the league's dominant edge rushers, such as Miller and Watt.
The prototypical press cornerback of his era, Peterson has earned as many Pro Bowl selections (8) as any defensive player on this list. Such a gifted athlete that he still ranks eighth in punt-return yards this decade despite surrendering those primary duties four years ago, Peterson is better known for erasing No. 1 receivers and forcing quarterbacks to attack the other side of the field. A converted wide receiver, Sherman hasn't traveled with top wideouts as often as Peterson, but he has showcased better ball skills than any other cornerback, leading the NFL in interceptions (35) since entering the league in 2011. Although celebrated primarily for his playmaking prowess with Seattle's famed "Legion of Boom" secondary, he's still playing at a high level in San Francisco, earning a spot on our midseason All-Pro team opposite New England's Stephon Gilmore.
Among the triumvirate of Sherman, Thomas and tone-setting strong safety Kam Chancellor, it wasn't always easy to ascertain exactly which one was the engine making the Legion of Boom go. As valuable as the other two may have been, I always thought it was Thomas' sideline-to-sideline range and exceptional closing speed as the center fielder that made Pete Carroll's Cover 3 defense sing. Thomas is first among safeties in Pro Bowls (7) this decade and second in picks (30, just behind Reggie Nelson's 31). He's tied for first in All-Pro selections with Berry, which may come as a surprise to casual observers. While Berry had just five relatively injury-free seasons, he made the Pro Bowl in each of those campaigns and is second only to Malcolm Jenkins among safeties this era with five interceptions returned for touchdowns. Healthier, more productive safeties such as Jenkins, Eric Weddle, Harrison Smith, Glover Quin and Devin McCourty have strong claims to the second spot behind Thomas. You'll have to forgive me if I give the nod to Berry as the only one to capture Comeback Player of the Year recognition after beating cancer and returning to play at a high level.
With apologies to Denver's "No Fly Zone" tandem of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Revis is the defining defensive back of the past 15 years. Even if a portion of his prime came at the tail end of the 2000s, he still collected five Pro Bowls and three All-Pros for the Jets, Buccaneers and Patriots this decade. It's easy to forget he was the lone superstar defender on the Patriots' 2014 squad that dethroned Seattle's nascent dynasty in Super Bowl XLIX. At his "Revis Island" peak, no NFL player was more competitive, more intense or more prepared than Revis.
Essentially the Justin Tucker of punters, Hekker has ushered in a golden era for foot specialists. The rare punting Goliath at 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, Hekker has mastered the nuances of the position, confounding opponents with an arsenal of trick kicks that enable him to limit touchbacks, pin returners inside the 10-yard line and leave precious little space to run. A few years back, a New York Times article even explored the hypothesis that Hekker might be better at doing his job than anyone else in the league. It should come as no surprise then that Bill Belichick once acknowledged that Hekker is as good as any punter in history.
Among active head coaches, Baltimore's John Harbaugh and New England's Bill Belichick have the strongest claims as special teams experts. Over the past year, both men have acknowledged that Tucker is the "best kicker in the history of the league." The position's master craftsman, Tucker has set a new standard for accuracy, distance and expectation. Before Lamar Jackson arrived on the scene to electrify the fan base and ransack the franchise's record books, the Ravens were the only NFL team to score more often via field goals than touchdowns during the Tucker era.
Patterson ranks first in kick-return yards (6,101), kick-return touchdowns (7) and kick-return average (29.9) this decade. While legendary return ace Devin Hester remained explosive enough in his decline phase to top the punt-return charts, Patterson is the definitive returner of the decade -- bigger, stronger and faster than the competition. In fact, he might just be the greatest era-adjusted kickoff returner in NFL history.