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Saturday, October 26, 2002
Updated: October 30, 7:51 PM ET
The List: 10 greatest NFL records

Page 2 staff

We figured you've seen enough about baseball's greatest moments, so let's turn our attention to the NFL.

Page 2 lists our choices for the 10 greatest records in NFL history. After checking out our list, check out how our readers ranked their picks. And be sure to vote in the poll to crown the No. 1 NFL record of them all.

Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith will keep updating one of the NFL's most treasured records.
1. Emmitt Smith, 16,743 (and counting) -- most career rushing yards
Walter Payton: 13 seasons. Emmitt Smith: 13th season. Walter Payton: one team. Emmitt Smith: one team. Walter Payton: 4.4 yards per carry. Emmitt Smith: 4.3 yards per carry. Etc. The statistical similarities are remarkable, especially considering that, after Sweetness retired in 1987, it seemed unlikely there'd be, so soon, a running back who'd be so good, for so long.

But for many years in the 1990s, it looked like Barry Sanders would be greater, for longer, and it certainly seemed a good bet that he would break Payton's career rushing record. Sanders and Smith were the running backs of the '90s; in the eight seasons between 1990 and 1997, Sanders led the NFL in rushing four times; the other four times, Smith led the league. But Sanders called it quits after the 1998 season, with a remarkable 15,269 yards in 10 NFL seasons.

Which left Emmitt Smith holding the ball, so to speak. And now, the magic number is no longer Payton's 16,726, it's Smith's 16,743, and counting.

Is this record unbreakable? Probably not. Maybe Curtis Martin will get there. Maybe Marshall Faulk. No matter. If we could hold only one NFL record, this would be the one. Kudos, Emmitt.

2. Johnny Unitas, 47 -- most consecutive games throwing at least one TD pass
How can such a small offensive number be so big? Unitas' consecutive touchdown pass streak speaks volumes about the great QB's consistency. The streak, which began in the last game of his rookie season with the Colts in 1956, would carry through four years that included a rookie pass-completion record (55.6 percent), a 1957 MVP year in which he threw for 24 TDs and 2,550 yards, the 1958 championship year that ended with the greatest game of all time, and another Colts title in 1959. The streak finally ended on Dec. 11, 1960, four years and two days after it started, and in the same place it started. Unitas took a beating from the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum, and didn't complete one in the end zone. After the game, Johnny U. trotted out the old cliché: "Records are made to be broken," he said. Boy, was he wrong about this one. Dan Marino trails him by a huge distance in this category, with the second-longest streak of 30 straight.

3. Dan Marino, 61,361 -- most career passing yards
The top three QBs in this category all played during the same era, one of explosive offense, one that favored the passing game. That's what makes this record so impressive. Marino, who played for the Dolphins from 1983 to 1999, passed for almost 10,000 more yards than No. 2 on the list, John Elway (51,475), and 12,000 more than No. 3, Warren Moon (49,325). Both Elway and Moon had careers that began and ended at almost the same time as Marino's, but didn't even come close to his raw ability to gain air yards. During this time, Marino led the NFL in passing yardage five times, also a record, and threw for 400 yards or more in 13 games.

Dan Marino
Ben Roethlisberger could learn plenty from Dan Marino.
4. Dan Marino, 5,084 -- most passing yards, single season
In 1984, Marino's second in the NFL, he set a record which may be as unbreakable as any single-season record in football. Consider this: in 1981, Dan Fouts set a new season mark, throwing for 4,802 yards. When Marino broke the record three years later, it seemed that it was likely to be broken in the near future, considering the relatively new rules favoring quarterbacks and receivers, and the wide-open offense of the modern NFL game. But it wasn't until 17 years later, in 2001, that any QB even came close, when Kurt Warner threw for 4,830 yards for the Rams. That's a long time for a record to hold up in this league, and lots of great throwing QBs haven't even come close.

How great was the 23-year-old Marino in 1984? He completed 362 passes in 564 attempts, threw for 48 TDs (also an NFL record that still stands), and was only picked off 17 times. Also, consider this, from the late, great Steelers center Mike Webster, who watched the QB as the Dolphins beat Pittsburgh in that season's NFC title game. "The guy is phenomenal," said Webster. "He'd be going down and he'd zip it in there. Almost on his back, and he throws it like a howitzer. He's unbelievable. You just applaud him."

Jerry Rice
Jerry Rice just keeps going, and going, and going ...
5. Jerry Rice, 20,859 and counting -- most career receiving yards
Rice has broken, and continues to add to, so many NFL receiving records that it's hard to pick just one. Coming into this season, in which the quadragenarian is playing at his usual extraordinary level for the Raiders, Rice held no less than eight receiving records, including most career pass receptions, most consecutive games with a reception, most seasons with 1,000 or more yards receiving, and most receiving TDs in a season. But raw yards gained from scrimmage is where he's been most clearly superior to anyone else who's played the game. Rice's 20,859 yards outdistance James Lofton, No. 2 on the career list, by 6,855. Rice is still going. Lofton's retired.

6. Jim Brown, 5.22 -- yards gained per rushing attempt, career
Technically, Randall Cunningham holds this record -- he averaged 6.36 yards every time he ran the ball, but we're disqualifying him because he was a QB and only ran 775 times in his career. Brown set a lot of records during his career with the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965 -- he led the NFL in rushing five years in a row, and eight times in his career. He led the NFL in touchdowns three years in a row, and five times in his career. But this record is probably the most telling -- give the guy the ball, and count on getting 5-plus yards. It's a coach's dream.

7. Jim Marshall, 282 -- most consecutive games played
It's hard to get excited about longevity records. They're all about plugging away, week in, week out. They're also about luck, and will. (In Marshall's case, the will to play after running the wrong way for a touchdown, and after shooting himself by accident while cleaning a gun.) But Jim Marshall's mark is something special. Beginning with Cleveland in 1960, and continuing through 19 seasons with the Vikings from 1961 through 1979, the defensive end was a quiet mainstay of the Purple People Eaters, the line that anchored one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. When he played his last game in December 1979, against the Patriots in Foxboro, he was 41 years old. Marshall, his coach Bud Grant says, was "a physiological impossibility. He just doesn't rip, bust or tear."

Perhaps Marshall was partly inspired by the company he kept. His longtime teammate, Mick Tingelhoff, is No. 2 in the record book, having played 240 straight between 1962 and 1978.

Jim Marshall is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Paul Hornung
Bet you nobody comes close to breaking Paul Hornung's record for many years.
8. Paul Hornung, 176 -- most points, season
There are teams that have had trouble scoring as many points as the great Packer halfback and kicker did in 1960, when he ran for 15 touchdowns, caught two TD passes, kicked 15 figgies and punched home 41 PAT. That's in 12 games, folks, and just one of the reasons Vince Lombardi called him "the most versatile man who ever played the game."

Hornung's record, if it's broken, will almost certainly be done sans touchdowns, by an ace kicker behind a great offense and a wimpy coach. In 42 seasons, only Gary Anderson has come close, scoring 164 points during his perfect season in 1998. That put him two TDs behind Hornung.

Hornung, in an online chat in 2001, said it's the record he cherishes most. "Somebody came up to me two or three years ago and said, 'Paul, do you realize that your record has lasted longer than Babe Ruth's?' And I said, 'No, you got to be crazy.' And, then I started thinking '27 to '61 -- that's 34 years and my record is longer than that."

Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers practically guaranteed the Bears great field position after receiving a kick.
9. Gale Sayers, 30.56 -- highest kick return average, career
There's never been a better, or more exciting, open-field runner than Gale Sayers, and the perfect showcase for these abilities was the kickoff return. During his injury-shortened career with the Bears from 1965-71, he ran back 91 kicks for 2,781 yards. In 1967, he averaged a remarkable 37.69 yards per return, second highest in NFL history. It was also the second highest in 1967 -- Green Bay rookie Travis Williams returned 18 kicks for 739 yards, an average of more than 41 yards per.

10. Gary Anderson, 100 percent -- FG kicking percentage, regular season
Perfection is awfully hard to come by in pro sports, especially over an extended period of time. In 1998, Anderson, kicking for the Vikings, achieved a mark that can only be tied, never broken -- he hit 35 of 35 field goals. No misses. Two other kickers -- the Rams Jeff Wilkins in 2000, and the Rams Tony Zendejas in 1991 -- have also had perfect seasons, but each only attempted 17 3-pointers. In fact, Anderson had a completely perfect season, also hitting 59 of 59 PAT. Ninety-four opportunities to score. Ninety-four conversions. Our verdict: unbreakable record.