Julius Peppers might be the greatest athlete to play in the NFL. Then again, Bobby Bell might be the greatest athlete to play in the NFL. It probably depends on how you define “athlete.”
Some would measure athleticism with, um, measurables … and by those measurables, it’s mind-boggling how great an athlete Julius Peppers was — 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, strong enough to overpower offensive linemen, fast enough to stay with running backs and tight ends in coverage, versatile enough to score 21 points and grab 10 rebounds in an NCAA tournament basketball game for North Carolina.
It’s strange — as I put this list together, there were several people who were dead set against including Peppers. Their general feeling was that while Peppers was certainly a great player, he was also an underachiever. He certainly was saddled with that reputation even as a nine-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and surefire Hall of Famer.
And I think that only emphasizes what an absurd athlete he was, because if Peppers’ unprecedented career was in any way disappointing to anybody, it can only be because he seemed utterly unlimited athletically. I mean look at his career:
— He had an incredible 159 1/2 sacks. That ranks fifth on the unofficial all-time list (which included players pre-1982, such as Deacon Jones). But here’s the thing: The four players ahead of him (Bruce Smith, Reggie Smith, Deacon Jones and Kevin Greene) all played in a different era, the era of seven-step drops and downfield passing, a much easier era to get to the quarterback.
Since 2000, here are your sack leaders:
Terrell Suggs, 139
DeMarcus Ware, 138.5
Jared Allen, 136
John Abraham, 133.5
Nobody’s even close. But here’s where it gets really crazy.
— He had 11 interceptions and returned four of them for touchdowns.
OK, so that’s not possible — it’s not possible to be one of the greatest sackers in NFL history AND also be able to intercept passes and score touchdowns. Those 11 interceptions are the most for any player in NFL history with 100 sacks. Those four interceptions for touchdowns are the most for any player in NFL history with 100 sacks.
He was also credited for 82 passes defended, and he forced 52 fumbles, and honestly how in the world could you call that guy an underachiever in any way?
— He blocked 12 field goals.
Yeah, 12 field goals blocked, far and away the most of his era … and again, you have to consider the era, because while there are others from the past who blocked more field goals, none of them did it in the 2000s, when field goal kicking essentially became automatic. He basically took 36 points off the board — well, 37, because he also blocked an extra point.
As Brad Oremland writes in his football countdown, “There’s an argument to be made, based on longevity and era adjustments, that Peppers was as good a pass rusher as anyone who’s ever played the game. Accounting for his other skills, I believe a plausible argument could be made for him as the greatest defensive end of all time.”
And a plausible argument could also be made for him as the greatest athlete in NFL history.
But … I would probably use a different definition of “athlete.” I always liked the line that an old Kansas State basketball coach, Jack Hartman, had about talent. “What is talent?” he asked. “Talent is just being where you are supposed to be and doing what you are supposed to do.”
I think that’s athleticism, too … the ability to be wherever you need to be to make the play. And that was Bobby Bell. Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram used to say that 11 Bobby Bells could beat 11 copies of any other player in the history of the NFL. “The most important question was not where Bobby could play,” Stram said. “He could play anywhere. The question was where we needed him.”
This was no exaggeration. Bell was an all-state quarterback in high school and there were those around the Chiefs who thought he was every bit as good a passer as Len Dawson, the most accurate passer in pro football at the time.
He moved to defensive line at the University of Minnesota (he also played offensive line) and was a two-time All-America and won the Outland Trophy in 1962 — heck, he finished third in the Heisman voting. He was 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and he ran a 4.5 40-yard-dash, which in those days was wide-receiver fast.
Oh, and Bobby will always insist — he was better at baseball than he was at football.
When Bell got to the Chiefs, Stram moved him to linebacker … because he could. And he was an absurdity. The Chiefs rarely blitzed him, and yet he finished his career with 40 sacks. Teams rarely challenged his pass coverage, and yet he returned six interceptions for touchdowns, which is still the record for linebackers (tied with Derrick Brooks and Karlos Dansby).
The man once returned an onside kick for a touchdown.
The man would sometimes play defensive tackle on short-yardage plays.
The man was the Chiefs’ long snapper.
Now that’s an athlete.
“I saw him do things that even now I cannot believe,” his teammate Willie Lanier once told me. “He was Superman.”