There have been many great players to play in the NFL, but not all of them could be called revolutionary. The most revolutionary players left an indelible mark on the game and helped change the way the modern game of football is played today. Records might have been set and legacies were born along the way, but what made some of these players special was how they made the NFL what it is today.
Even end zone celebrations were never entertaining or unique until a kick returner named Billy Johnson changed how we celebrate scores. William Perry was not to be confused with Merlin Olsen or Reggie White, but he changed the game forever with the way he could play football at well over 300 pounds. Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson are great cornerbacks who are handsomely paid, but Dick Lane elevated the position of cornerback with the way he played. The great field generals, Tom Brady and Joe Montana, owe Johnny Unitas for all the discussions about who is the best quarterback of all time. The road was paved by these revolutionary players who left their mark on the game.
These are just a few examples of the many players who helped change the NFL game, but the following 20 players make a strong argument for being some of the most revolutionary players of all-time. There might be some better players who are not on the list, but their greatness is owed in large part to some of these players who helped paved the way for their accomplishments. The NFL is as popular as ever, thanks in large part to these revolutionary players.
Honorable Mention: Deion Sanders, Reggie White, Warren Sapp, Larry Csonka, Ray Guy, Anthony Munoz
20 Billy "White Shoes" Johnson - WR/KR
Billy Johnson was an electrifying kick returner who played for the Houston Oilers from 1974 to 1988. He was one of the most dangerous kick returners of his time, returning 8 kicks for scores while also amassing 4,211 yards of receiving with 25 receiving touchdowns. Despite his smallish 5'9", 170 pound frame, he used his supreme speed and quickness to make himself a factor in any game. He paved the way for Rick Upchurch, Brian Mitchell, Devin Hester and other return artists who followed in his footsteps. What really made him special is the entertainment he added to the game.
Billy "White Shoes" Johnson was the first player to attempt to bring more fun to the game. With his "funky chicken" end zone celebration dance and trademark white shoes, he delighted the crowd by giving even more meaning to his touchdowns and more pain to the opposing fans and team. His art of celebration brought more emotion into what was previously more of a grind it out kind of game. It brought more of the players' personalities out for display during the course of a game.
19 Lester Hayes, CB
Lester Hayes was a five time Pro Bowl selection who was on two Super Bowl winning teams. Before the rules were changed to give receivers more freedom to run their routes, Hayes would hold up receivers and prevent them from exploding out of their cuts. He was great at making early contact and using arm bars, but what made him revolutionary was his use of stickum.
Hayes was introduced to stickum by his Oakland Raiders teammate, wide receiver Fred Biletnekoff. Biletnekoff used the sticky substance to enable him to hold onto poorly thrown balls or balls thrown in bad weather. Hayes took it one step further. He used to put stickum on his hands, arms and legs, using it to gain an advantage in coverage, tackling and holding onto the ball. He was able to intercept 13 passes in the 1980 season, thanks in large part to his use of stickum, helping him earn NFL Defensive Player of the Year Honors. The NFL banned the use of stickum in 1981.
18 Michael Vick, QB
Michael Vick might be best known for his troubles with dog fighting and his irresponsible past, but he is easily one of the most athletic quarterbacks to ever play the game. Vick leads the NFL in rushing yards by a quarterback with 6,010 yards for his career. He has averaged a ridiculous 7.0 yards per carry with 34 touchdowns on the ground. Vick has been an adequate passer at best with 22,093 yards and 131 touchdowns, while completing just 56.1% of his passes. What make Vick revolutionary was his ability to make big plays outside the pocket and his speed that made it impossible to track him down.
Although his statistics are not that great, Vick was faster than most running backs and could throw 70 yard darts down the field when his feet were set but he never really developed his NFL game. He might not be one of the greatest quarterback of all-time, but was revolutionary for adding more athleticism to the quarterback position.
17 Jack Tatum, S
Jack Tatum was a scary man who had some of the most life-threatening tackles of his time. Tatum was selected to 3 Pro Bowls and had plenty of talent to make an impact on the game, but he was still known more for his big hits throughout his career. His tackle on Darryl Stingley, during a preseason game against New England, remains one of the most brutal images of the violent aspects of the NFL game. Despite his successful career, Tatum will never be able to shake the visual images of Stingley lying paralyzed on the turf following his big hit.
Tatum,"The Assassin", came along when the passing game was really starting to pick up. He was partly responsible for making receivers think twice when running patterns across the middle of the secondary. He was one of the original head hunters who would fly at ball carriers with his helmet or pads with one goal in mind. Tatum wanted to knock opposing players senseless and he trusted his equipment would protect him when he left his feet. Many of the rules that protect receivers today are in response to the style of play that Tatum initiated during this time, making him revolutionary.
16 Roger Craig, RB
Roger Craig's name will not be found near the top of the NFL's all-time leading rushers list and he doesn't even have a bronze bust in Canton either. His name will seldom come up in discussions about the best running backs of all-time. Craig was revolutionary due to the fact that he was the first back to really prove how potent the West Coast Offense could be as well as how much more a running back could do besides running the ball.
He was the first running back to gain over 1,000 yards rushing (1,050) and 1,000 yards receiving (1,016) in the same season (1985). Craig caught 92 passes and averaged 11.0 yards per reception, while also carrying the ball 214 times for an average of 4.9 yards per carry. He was able to turn short passes into long gains and was equally effective at running in between the tackles as well. He was also a good blocker in passing situations and knew when to release if the receivers were all covered down field. Craig paved the way for Marshall Faulk and other backs who were also potent weapons in the passing game.
15 Fran Tarkenton, QB
Few quarterbacks were as shifty and hard to bring down than Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton was not only a prolific passer, with over 47,000 yards passing for his career, but was also one of the best athletes to ever play the quarterback position during his time. Tarkenton rushed for 3,674 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with 32 touchdowns. While Tarkenton did have impressive statistics and a successful career, what really made him revolutionary was his ability to throw outside the pocket and extend plays with his legs.
Tarkenton would never be confused with Michael Vick, but he was one of the first quarterbacks to prove that raw athleticism had a place behind center. Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers have tremendous value in this league thanks in large part to Tarkenton's exploits. Tarkenton was a 9-time Pro Bowl selection and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, but will be remembered by more for his scrambling ability that really set him apart from the quarterbacks of his era.
14 Merlin Olsen
Merlin Olsen was a mountain of a man and one of the most dominant defensive players ever. Olsen was a hulking 270 pound frame, and yet was as athletic as many of today's tight ends. Olsen was selected to play in what was then a record 14 Pro Bowls after coming into the league as the 1962 NFL Rookie of the Year. He was hard to move thanks to his size and great strength, but what made him a revolutionary player was the athleticism that he also possessed.
This combination of physical traits made Olsen a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. Unlike other men who carried the same weight, Olsen could blow up plays by slipping blocks and shooting gaps to penetrate and wreak havoc on the offense before the ball was even handed off. It wasn't much better when the opposition decided to pass. In an era where throwing the ball was less common and defensive tackles were not known for their pass rush, Olsen had 94 quarterback sacks. Olsen was ahead of his time.
13 Gale Sayers, RB
There have been some great running backs that have had plenty of wiggle in their hips. Barry Sanders was one of the greatest and Walter Payton was not half bad, but Gale Sayers was the pioneer. He was a dynamic athlete who stood apart in his era.
Sayers had the dynamic athleticism to make every play a dangerous event. He had breakaway speed and plenty of wiggle in his hips, making it hard to not only catch him, but bring him down as well. There were other players who were fast and also a few that might have had as much shake, but few players had the combination of speed and quickness that Sayers had during this time. His career might have been cut short by injuries but not before he made an impact on the game.
12 William Perry, DT
William, "The Refrigerator", Perry was not necessarily great but his girth certainly was impactful. Perry was easily one of the biggest men to play during his era and his success on the field opened the door for bigger players to dominate the NFL landscape. Before Perry, 300 pound linemen were virtually nonexistent in the NFL. There was no way men his size could ever keep up with the game. Perry was able to convince coaches and fans that guys who weighed over 300 pounds could be assets and not just fat and out of shape. He was a super athlete who could move well for his size, making other GMs and coaches rethink their tendencies to automatically cut players who carried excess weight.
Perry was also one of the first defensive linemen to create a big buzz for being used as a fullback and tight end on goal line situations. He scored 3 offensive touchdowns, including catching one touchdown pass. Following Perry's lead, guys like Jamal Williams and other 300 pound men started to be in demand.
11 Jim Kelly, QB
Jim Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1990 to 1993. His statistics were solid for the era in which he played, but what made Kelly revolutionary was his ability to run the no-huddle "K-Gun" offensive attack that made the Bills offense so potent and helped lay the foundation for Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles attack.
The Bills "K-Gun" offense was implemented to gain an advantage over the defense with quick substitutions that didn't allow time for the defense to counter with substitutions of their own. The rules changed to allow time for the defense to make substitutions in no-huddle situations, but the Bills were the first team to really take advantage of the rules before time was allotted for the defense to adjust. After the rule change, the Bills were still good at changing formations and plays to create mismatches and confuse defenses that had very little time to react.
10 Kellen Winslow, TE
The tight end position used to be a little different than it is today. Tight ends were asked to seal outside linebackers on running plays and catch an occasional pass over the middle a couple of times each game. Catching 40 passes a season used to be quite an accomplishment for any NFL tight end. When Kellen Winslow became a member of the high powered San Diego Chargers offense, the position changed and will never be the same. In his second season in the league (1,980), Winslow caught 89 passes for 1,290 yards to absolutely redefine the tight end position.
Winslow was revolutionary because he was one of the first tight ends to carry 250 pounds and yet run and catch just like the best wide receivers of his era. He was a tremendous athlete for his size who ultimately forced defenses to pay more attention to the tight end. Ozzie Newsome and Todd Christensen and even Tony Gonzalez would follow Winslow's lead making the tight end one of the most important offensive weapons, especially in third down situations. Winslow would line up in the slot, be set in motion and even split out wide, making it easy to create mismatches. His success changed the position, making the tight end more of a threat.
9 Don Hutson, WR
Don Hutson was a special player who was not content to be just a split end. Recognized as one of the first modern day wide receivers, Hutson became one of the first stars to play the position. In the process he helped make the passing game more prominent and receivers more than just blockers on the outside. Hutson has been given credit for helping to create many of the modern patterns that receivers still run today. He was such a dominant receiver during his time that he led the league in receptions in eight different seasons. He finished his career with 488 pass receptions for 7,991 yards in an era where most teams had half as many passing attempts as they do today.
Hutson was the league's MVP in 1941 and 1942. In an era where running the football reigned supreme, Hutson had a remarkable 74 catch, 1,211 yard season (12 games) in 1942. His ability to make the wide receiver more of an offensive threat was revolutionary. The prolific passing games of today owes a lot to Don Hutson for proving that a good wide receiver could be the difference maker.
8 Roger Staubach, QB
Roger Staubach was a special quarterback with his ability to scramble and lead his team back from the brink of defeat. The former collegiate Heisman Trophy winner was selected to six Pro Bowls, while also leading the Dallas Cowboys to fve Super Bowl appearances. While Staubach was quite a revolutionary player on his statistics alone, he was also famous for helping to bring back the shotgun formation.
Staubach and the Dallas Cowboys brought back the shotgun formation that was used during Joe Namath's reign with the New York Jets. Staubach was good at handling less than perfect snaps and the formation helped him buy more time to settle in the pocket while providing greater visibility to read defenses at the same time. This formation alone helped lead to an explosion in the popularity of the passing game in the NFL. This formation is still in use today, thanks to the successful use of it by Roger Staubach.
7 Curley Culp, DT
Curley Culp had a quite lengthy 16-year NFL career, establishing himself as one of the best nose tackles to play the game. He was big, but far from enormous, and used his strength, endurance, quickness and flexibility to make his presence known. Culp was an NCAA Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, which provided him with fabulous leverage enabling him to occupy blockers so his teammates could make plays. To his credit, Culp was able to notch 11.5 quarterback sacks in 1975 which was and is a quite remarkable feat for an interior defensive lineman, let alone a nose tackle. Culp's success at playing the position played a large role in the proliferation of the 3-4 defense in the NFL that is still in use today.
Thanks to the success of Culp, the 3-4 defense worked well at stopping the run which in turn helped spawn a new era of passing the ball in the NFL. Offenses started to use the tight ends and running backs more in the passing game and countered with more 3 and 4 receiver sets. These changes made Culp a revolutionary player.
6 Dick "Night Train" Lane, CB
Dick "Night Train" Lane was one of the most intimidating cornerbacks to ever play the game. Lane was so revolutionary that he set the NFL record for interceptions in a season with 14 in his rookie year. He was selected to seven Pro Bowls during his career and has found his way onto several lists of the top players of all-time in the NFL. Lane's interception record has stood the test of time despite being set in a 12 game season when the passing game was less commonplace as it is today. There are two primary reasons Lane was so revolutionary.
Lane was one of the first cornerbacks who used his outstanding speed to bait quarterbacks into throwing his way by purposely giving the impression that he was beat on plays only to break on the ball once the pattern was diagnosed and the ball was in the air. He played with great instincts and had superb quickness and acceleration. Lane was also famous for collaring receivers and ball carriers with high tackles and hits to the head. Before rules changed, Lane was one of the original head hunters in the secondary. His ability to tackle and break on the ball made him one of the NFL's all-time greatest cornerbacks and an inspiration for many of today's physically imposing cornerbacks.
5 Lawrence Taylor, LB
Lawrence Taylor was one of the scariest to play the position. Dick Butkus was downright hostile and there have been plenty of great players who could bring ball carriers to the ground, but few could equal LT's ability to crush opposing quarterbacks and blow up plays in both the running and passing game. Taylor was All-Pro 10 times, a Super Bowl Champion twice and was even the AP NFL MVP in 1986, the last defensive player to win the award.
Taylor was impossible to block and managed to spend most of his time in the opponents backfield regardless of what kind of play was called. His speed and quickness were unparalleled and when combined with his super human strength he was simply unstoppable. It was these physical attributes along with his tremendous ability and football instincts that lands LT at no.5.
4 Jerry Rice, WR
The 3-time Super Bowl Champion was selected to 13 Pro Bowls throughout his career and finished as the NFL's all-time leader in receptions (1,549), receiving yardage (22,894) and touchdowns (197) with the most seasons with over 1,000 yards receiving (14) as well. Rice was not the fastest or strongest receiver in the NFL, but was always willing to work hard to make himself better or improve the way he played the game. He could run flawless patterns and pluck the ball out of the air, but what really made Rice special was his ability to gain yardage after the catch.
Rice was revolutionary for taking short patterns and turning them into long gains. He was instrumental in taking the West Coast Offense to a whole new level with his perfect cuts behind linebackers and in front of the secondary on crossing patterns. Once he had the ball in his hands he always seemed to be faster and have a second gear with his long stride and shifty cuts. His greatness was unique but his ability to turn short gains into scores was revolutionary.
3 Barry Sanders, RB
Barry Sanders was one of a kind. Sanders was fast and quick with enough explosiveness to fight through a crowded line. Playing 10 seasons for the lowly Detroit Lions, Sanders finished his career with 15,269 yards rushing with 99 rushing touchdowns and trips to the Pro Bowl in each season that he played. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry for his career and despite his shifty running style and side to side movements he only lost 13 fumbles in over 3,000 carries in his career.
Sanders could have easily played longer and might have been able to eclipse 20,000 yards of rushing if he felt the need to play on. He was not big or incredibly fast, but his ability to change direction and stop on a dime was truly unique. Sanders was one of the shiftiest running backs to ever play the game with the explosiveness to run away from defenders who dared to get too close. In an era where defenders were getting faster and passing was starting to become a bigger part of the game, Sanders was always the best athlete on the field.
2 Johnny Unitas, QB
Johnny Unitas was a special player. Unitas finished his career with over 40,000 yards through the air and 290 touchdown passes, while also being selected to 10 Pro Bowls. He was the NFL's MVP in 1959, 1964 and 1967 and was an NFL Champion three times and Super Bowl Champion once. Unitas was known for being able to perform in big games and led the Baltimore Colts to a 23-17 victory over the New York Giants for the NFL Championship in what was considered to be one of the greatest games ever played. Unitas meant a ton for the NFL game.
When Unitas led the Colts over the Giants in sudden death overtime, the NBC nationally televised broadcast helped pave the way for the popularity that the game enjoys today. With his great consistency (47 consecutive games with at least 1 touchdown pass), grit and golden boy good looks, Unitas elevated not only the NFL game, but the quarterback position as well. Before Unitas, quarterbacks were mostly used to get the ball into the hands of the running back with only an occasional pass. Unitas helped showcase the quarterback's ability to take over games and be the most important player on the field. Thanks to Unitas, the quarterback is now arguably the most important figure in the NFL game, making Unitas a revolutionary player.
1 Jim Brown, RB
Jim Brown was more than just a big dominant running back. At over 230 pounds, Brown was as big as most of the linemen of his time and yet was faster than most of the receivers of his time as well. He was easily one of the most athletic big men to ever play the game during his era, before the raw power of Earl Campbell, speed of Bo Jackson and shiftiness of Adrian Peterson. Brown had all the athleticism and size to be a terror on the field. He finished with 12,312 yards of rushing in only nine seasons of play. Brown scored 106 rushing touchdowns and averaged over 5.2 yards per carry throughout his career. He was the NFL's Rookie of The Year in 1957, was selected to the Pro Bowl each of his 9 years and was the NFL's MVP three times.
In college, Brown played basketball, ran track and was an All-American in lacrosse. He was a special athlete who would have been a star in any era. Before Brown, most big running backs ran like bulls and broke tackles while dragging defenders for extra yards. Brown was able to make quick cuts and accelerate for extra yards in addition to being a beast in a defender's grasp. He paved the way for all the big backs who would follow, giving them an example of how big back could make an impact in the game. Brown changed the position for good and was likely the most revolutionary football player of all time.