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How to Compare All-time Greats in any sport

With OTAs winding down and the football offseason approaching the most grueling grind for fans, it’s time to take some inspiration from the NBA. The Golden State Warriors were up 3-0 this week on the Cleveland Cavaliers and the buzz on sports talk segments and the web was all about which historically great teams could or couldn’t beat the Warriors. Hall of Famers weighed in sharing how they felt their teams would beat the Warriors and the head coach of Golden State, Steve Kerr, sarcastically responded. His response is a strong argument in regards to comparing all-time greats from eras and applies as much to the NFL as it does the NBA or any other sport.

He told reporters “They’re all right… They would all kill us. The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in the 50s would’ve destroyed everybody. It’s weird how human evolution goes in reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

His tongue and cheek response makes a good point. Athletes from today are bigger, faster and stronger than athletes in the past. Jesse Owens posted a 10.3 sec 100m time in the Berlin Olympics. That time today wouldn’t even automatically qualify in USA Olympic Track and Field today. These trends are easier to track in timed sports such as track and field and swimming but to at least some extent, the principle is true in ball sports as well.

Weight training has improved, analytics have improved, knowledge of the games have improved, and it shows on sport’s respective playing fields. But does all this mean that every new generation is better than the last? Not exactly. While their 100m times may be better, it’s not fair to compare eras of players head to head. You have to compare them against the competition they faced.

To bring this back to the Redskins, the Hogs were incredible. They planted defensive linemen into the ground and implanted memories into a fanbase. They were dominant in their era and it resulted in three Super Bowl victories despite the Redskins using three different starting quarterback and multiple starting running backs, remember Timmy Smith? But their average weight was 273 lbs in 1982. For comparison, the 2016 Redskins line averaged 326 lbs. Size isn’t everything of course but why does it even matter? The hogs aren’t measured by if they could block JJ Watt. They had Hall of Famers within their own era to fight and, more often than not, defeat.

Even if games have trended one way and the emphasis changed from speed to power or vice versa, it’s still not a fair comparison. Football used to be about bruisers and smashmouth football. Now it involves a lot more spacing and athleticism. While it’s fun to discuss which style of football we like better, it’s unfair to say a player from the smashmouth era wouldn’t do well today because he was slow or vice versa. You have to judge them based on how well they achieved the goals they were trying to accomplish against their peers at the time.

Sports should be measured in eras. Games speed up and slow down. Sizes increase and decrease. Training and conditioning generally improve over time. But it isn’t fair to ask if Sammy Baugh could take on the modern NFL defenses unless someone invents a time machine and a reverse aging device, and raises him in this generation.

Do you agree? Should teams be compared only within their own era’s or is it fair to compare players and teams head to head across time?

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