Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Top 25 Impact Athletes of the Last 25 Years

The following is a list of athletes who have had a significant impact on how their sport is played. After long deliberation, I determined that I would include the top 25 athletes who have debuted in the past 25 years. So, if you’re looking for Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, Mike Tyson, or even Alberto Tomba, they didn’t make the grade because their professional debut was prior to 1986. This week’s entry features the athletes I ranked 11 through 25. Next week’s will showcase the top ten. Enjoy!

25. Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils (1991-present) – Brodeur has been the steady netminder of the Devils for 20 years. His career may be starting to decline, but he has enjoyed an amazing run. Brodeur has been the perfect complement to the Devils’ gritty defensive style. Rarely have the Devils had an elite scorer during Brodeur’s reign between the pipes. So, they’ve had to rely primarily on a defensive system that starts with a trapping scheme and ends with Marty doing an impersonation of a brick wall. Through the years, his puck handling and rebound control has been outstanding. The NHL actually adopted rules limiting the area where goalies could handle the puck due to Brodeur’s knack for getting pucks out of the corners and starting rushes going the other way. As a goalie, he has obtained just about every record imaginable (including 606 wins, 112 shutouts, 1093 games played) thanks to the sustained success of the team’s system and his ability to avoid injury, at least until the past few years. Imagine entering training camp each summer, knowing that you can count on your goalie for 70+ games and 38+ wins. That’s what the Devils had from 1997-2006. Brodeur has been the mainstay during the Cup titles of 1995, 2000, and 2003. He’s certainly brought a winning attitude to a franchise that didn’t experience much success prior to his arrival.
24. Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings (two stints), Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans – Randy burst onto the scene in 1998 as the deep threat that the Minnesota Vikings didn’t need. After all, they already had a great duo at the wide receiver position in Cris Carter and Jake Reed. Moss’ sketchy past made him a slight risk to team chemistry. But, his natural speed and pass-catching skills immediately shone through as he made Minnesota a title contender and revived Randall Cunningham’s career. Randall only needed to throw the ball deep in Randy’s vicinity and Moss could go up and get it, no matter the coverage. Moss’ career has been tumultuous, but his ability to force defenders to cover the deep pass has revolutionized the NFL passing game. In his stint with the New England Patriots, Moss still provided playmaking skills down the field, while allowing Tom Brady (and Matt Cassel) to throw underneath to receivers such as Wes Welker. This has given defensive coordinators nightmares as to how to defend the deep ball while covering fleet-footed guys catching short and intermediate routes. The trend of the NFL has seen the expansion of the passing game, and some of this can be attributed the physical specimen that is Randy Moss.

Moss getting behind the Jets' secondary

23. Brett Favre (1991-present), Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings – This man has been a legend at the quarterback position for the past two decades. What can be said about him that hasn’t already been said? He has started 295 consecutive regular season games, which is astounding given the pounding that QBs endure on a weekly basis. He doesn’t have the exceptional size or speed that other, more naturally-gifted athletes possess. The reason that Favre makes this list is his arm speed and his health. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a QB throw a ball harder, or attempt to throw it in a tighter window than Favre regularly does. Occasionally, his willingness to throw into coverage results in interceptions. But, his warrior mentality and consistent health throughout his career has made him the ultimate gunslinger. Favre has been able to carry teams on his back with minimal talent at the receiver position. You may question his on again, off again retirement stance and his loyalty, but Favre is second to none in the more voluminous NFL records (TDs, yards, starts, interceptions)…and that’s saying a mouthful considering guys like Montana, Marino, Unitas, and Elway played the game.
22. Kevin Durant (2007-present), Seattle Supersonics, Oklahoma City Thunder – After his first collegiate season with the Texas Longhorns, it was apparent that Durant had all the makings of becoming a future NBA superstar. He and Greg Oden, fellow draftee, were identified as the top two prospects of the draft. Portland ultimately chose Oden #1…and, in retrospect, was that a horrible decision. Oden, a center, has been injured throughout his brief career whereas Durant has put on a show. He is a blend of Larry Bird’s outside shooting with outstanding one-on-one moves in the vein of Kobe Bryant, inside the body of a 6’10” tall, smooth-moving version of George Gervin. Durant has the potential to be one of the two toughest players to defend in the NBA for years to come (along with LeBron James). He is tall enough that he could shoot over top a smaller defender, but he could easily attack the basket against a taller, slower opponent. So, why not play a zone? Well, Durant is quickly becoming a reliable passer to improved perimeter players on the Thunder roster, so you have to pick your poison. Kevin Durant has the best chance to carry on the lineage of NBA superstars from Bird/Magic --> Michael --> Kobe --> LeBron --> Durant. It’s frightening to think that the kid just turned 22 years old. If I were to do this list again in five years, I’d expect to see Durant in the top 10.
21. Kobe Bryant (1996-present), Los Angeles Lakers – Kobe Bryant had the pedigree of being one of the best high school basketball players ever. If ESPN had the foresight to televise high school games in 1995, Bryant would have become a star even sooner. His one-on-one abilities have been unparalleled since entering the NBA directly from Lower Merion High School. His on-court awareness and shot-making took a few years to develop. And, he was initially on teams where he wasn’t the primary option due to some big guy clogging the lane (Shaq). However, Bryant was able to mature as a premier all-around player under the tutelage of Phil Jackson. His man-to-man defense has earned him the distinction of being one of the best defenders in the league. There is no more clutch scorer currently in the NBA. If the game is on the line, Kobe has the ball…and quite often, he responds. Bryant makes this list because of his all-around ability as a player – offensive versatility (3-point shooter, deadly driving ability) and defensive prowess. I wouldn’t call any particular aspect of Bryant’s game as sport-defining, but he has five NBA titles, so he must be doing something right.
Kobe sinking a buzzer beater against the Sacramento Kings

20. Barry Sanders (1989-1998), Detroit Lions – Sanders was the most electrifying running back of all-time. He was “Must See” TV. Barry made runs of -3 where he was trapped in the backfield interesting. By no means was Sanders the best pass-catcher, nor was he an excellent blocker. He was simply the most elusive runner the NFL has ever seen. Defenses would game plan for Barry. Sanders never had a stellar offensive line to run behind in Detroit, but he made them look much better when the season statistics were tabulated. I distinctly recall a run he made on Thanksgiving Day against the Bears. It was vintage Barry. He had made it to the sideline, heading downfield. He appeared to be dead to rights, but Sanders stopped on a dime, jump-stepped to his left to avoid one defender, then quickly jump-stepped right back towards the sideline to avoid another, and proceed down the sideline for an amazing touchdown. There are other runners now with more speed (Chris Johnson), but no one can equal Barry’s moves, not even Adrian Peterson. Is it any surprise that the Detroit Lions haven’t been the same since Sanders left?
19. Albert Pujols (2001-present), St. Louis Cardinals – In my estimation, Pujols is the deadliest hitter in the Major Leagues today. He presents opposing pitchers with limited options as to how to battle him. If you pitch him away, he’ll drive the ball to right-center. Go inside? That’s dicey because if you leave it anywhere near the plate, the ball is gone. And, Pujols has an extremely good eye, as he often draws walks. If I were the hurler, I’d roll the ball across home plate and live to face another batter. Pujols is the model of consistency in his career – more than 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, .310 batting average or better, less than 80 strikeouts EACH YEAR FOR HIS FIRST TEN YEARS!! It is astonishing to think what we’ve seen in the steroid era of baseball. And, now we are treated to this man who performs at this amazing level, year in and year out without requiring any off-field “assistance.” His fielding prowess is solid, as well. Throughout his tenure in the big leagues, he has played third base, outfield, and is now primarily a first baseman…and one of the better ones in the National League.
18. Tim Lincecum (2007-present), San Francisco Giants – Nicknamed “The Freak,” Tim Lincecum offers opposing batters a nightmarish array of pitches to try and hit. He is a small guy that possesses a power pitcher’s repertoire – two different fastball grips that reach the mid-90s, a changeup that looks like a split-fingered fastball, a slider, and an insane curveball that breaks sharply just before reaching home plate. What complicates matters for hitters is his unusual delivery. He takes a long step towards home with a jerked motion that disguises the incoming pitch. Oh, and he actually has command over all of his pitches. It’s no wonder that he was named the National League Cy Young in 2008 and 2009. Lincecum has that long hair that looks just goofy as he throws. He has led the NL in strikeouts for each of his three full seasons. While 2010 wasn’t as dominating a season as the previous two, he was the stalwart arm in the Giants’ rotation as they won their first World Series in 54 years. He recorded 14 strikeouts against Atlanta in his first postseason performance, outdueled Phillies’ ace Roy Halladay in the NLCS, and hurled two solid outings in the World Series to defeat the Texas Rangers. The sky is the ceiling for this kid, as it is evident that hitters still haven’t deciphered how to attack “The Freak.”

Lincecum doesn't exactly look imposing, but his pitches are no joke.

17. Ray Lewis (1996-present), Baltimore Ravens – Lewis came into the league, and immediately established himself as a tackling machine. That isn’t how he defined his sport, though. Lewis plays with an unmatched passion for the game. In any interview, you can see the enthusiasm for football oozing out of him. If only we could all love our jobs as much as this man does. It is a sports cliché that an individual is the heart and soul of his team. But, Lewis is certainly that for his Baltimore squad. He infuses all of his defensive compatriots with his spirit, providing them with the “want to” to achieve more. He also carries the hopes of the home Baltimore crowd in the palm of his hands. Lewis has an explosion and tenacity when he recognizes the ball carrier or identifies a man in coverage that is his responsibility. For a big man, he moves extremely well at his inside linebacker position with his forte being stopping the run. As a Steelers fan, it is frustrating to see Lewis’ play not diminish significantly as he ages. He continues to make key plays at key moments. It doesn’t look like Father Time has caught up with Lewis yet at age 35. He still has a number of good years left in the tank. Uggghh.
16. Alex Rodriguez (1994-present), Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, New York Yankees – A-Rod has changed the game of baseball forever. His on-field legacy will forever be overshadowed by steroids, money, and ego. Rodriguez’s career will always be clouded in controversy with his admittance to taking performance-enhancing drugs during his time in Texas. Rodriguez signed the two richest contracts in sports history (10 years, $252 million and 10 years, $275 million). So, he is already viewed as a lightning rod, never mind the arrogance with which he plays. But, let’s look at his career between the white lines. As a highly touted high school player in the Miami area, Rodriguez broke into the majors as a shortstop in 1994. Prior to A-Rod, the shortstop position was never one where a dominant power hitter played. It was viewed as one where a fleet-footed, defensive minded player was preferred. But, Rodriguez played capably at the position while putting up astronomical numbers when he was with the Mariners and Rangers. When he was traded to the Yankees, he had to learn how to play third base because of some guy who’s a fixture at shortstop in pinstripes. Rodriguez has performed relatively well at the hot corner and now has a World Series title under his belt. He has 613 home runs at age 35. Bonds’ home run record is in severe jeopardy if Rodriguez doesn’t get injured, or feel the early effects of prolonged steroid use.
15. Mariano Rivera (1995-present), New York Yankees – Has an opposing pitcher ever been more automatic in shutting down a team? Everyone knows what Rivera is throwing and still can’t hit it. His split fingered fastball has just enough movement to fool the hitter into thinking balls are strikes and vice versa. There have been dominant closers, but ‘Mo’ is second to none because of his longevity and postseason mastery (Red Sox fans may scream about 2004, which is the only true flaw in Rivera’s stellar career). At age 41, the velocity hasn’t diminished all that much and he could probably continue for a couple more years. His ERA has been under 2.00 in seven of the past eight seasons. But, Rivera’s legacy is more than that. He effected a change in managerial strategy back in 1996. The Yankees had an established closer in John Wetteland. Rivera was just breaking in, but had electric stuff. Instead of casting aside the veteran save man, Joe Torre used Mo as a setup guy. With essentially two closers on the roster, Yankee pitchers could focus on getting past the sixth inning with a lead and turning over the game to Rivera and Wetteland. It worked quite effectively, as they hoisted the World Series trophy in 1996. Most skippers nowadays employ a similar approach with their bullpens.

Rivera delivering to another befuddled batter

14. Ichiro Suzuki (2001-present), Seattle Mariners – I know what you’re saying. Ichiro ahead of Pujols, A-Rod, how is that possible? He hasn’t won anything. But, he has revolutionized the leadoff position, and has also invigorated a fanbase outside of this country to Major League Baseball. With very little in the way of a supporting cast, Ichiro sets the table like no other player in my memory. He can make contact to any field, which allows him to poke the ball through whatever hole the infield has shown him. Ichiro is especially adept at lining the ball down the right field line. He takes extra bases if the outfield is slow to relay the ball to an infielder. It is no coincidence that Ichiro has topped the 200-hit plateau each of his ten seasons with his methodical approach to hitting. He racks up the stolen bases, taking some of the opposing pitchers’ attention away from the man at the plate. Also thanks to Ichiro’s quickness, he plays a Gold Glove-caliber right field (ten Gold Gloves in ten seasons). You would think that a guy of his rather diminutive stature would not possess any kind of throwing arm. Now, I’m not going to put him in the same category as Roberto Clemente or Paul O’Neill, but he can use his surprisingly powerful cannon of an arm to throw out runners anywhere on the diamond. Ichiro’s popularity among his native Japan is Beatle-esque, so there is a country full of Mariner fans. He has also widened the gateway for fellow Japanese players like Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka to traverse the Pacific to try their hand in the Major Leagues.
13. Sidney Crosby (2005-present), Pittsburgh Penguins – Crosby was the apple of every NHL general manager’s eye when the 2004 NHL lockout occurred because the #1 overall pick was done by a lottery system. And, Crosby was “the Next One.” Many analysts viewed him as the next big thing in hockey after Gretzky and Lemieux, and for once, the analysts were correct. He ended up going to the previously woeful Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby is certainly not the most physically imposing figure on the ice, nor does he have the biggest shot in the league. The one thing that he brings to the rink like no other is his hand-eye coordination. His unique skills along with his full rink vision allow him to instinctively make passes and shots that no other individual would attempt. I have heard Crosby described by Pittsburgh commentators as the “ultimate grinder.” He is willing to roll up his sleeves and dig in the corners for pucks with great proficiency. Crosby has endured significant pressure in his young career as the face of his sport. But, look at the results – a Stanley Cup title and a gold medal at this year’s Olympics courtesy of his game-winning overtime goal. He may not have been the best player in that tournament, but when the hopes of his native Canada fell on his shoulders, Crosby delivered.

Crosby hoisting the Stanley Cup as team captain at age 21

12. Mark McGwire (1986-2001), Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals – McGwire was an athlete that provided a much-needed resurgence of popularity to the sport of baseball. How he accomplished that feat can certainly be questioned now. But, in the summer of 1998, Big Mac and Sammy Sosa gave us fireworks on a semi-daily basis to bring us all back to baseball after the lingering effects of the 1994 strike left a sour taste in our mouths. This was a home run battle that will never be duplicated. Most power hitters that had attempted to break Roger Maris’ record had faded by August, but along went McGwire and Sosa, staying ahead of the pace. It helped that both competitors seemed to relish the spotlight, had interesting personalities, and enjoyed one-upping each other at every turn in the road. The respect that McGwire showed the Maris family when he finally broke the home run record was effervescent. McGwire used the national audience he drew in 1998 as a forum to plead for Maris to enter the Hall of Fame (without success). The big lumberjack of a man did more with his career than set the single-season home run record, but that’s what he will be remembered for. Off the field, his noncommittal congressional testimony regarding his steroid use has drawn harsh criticism. Hall of Fame voters have kept McGwire out of the hallowed halls, to date. Baseball simply doesn’t like its records tarnished.

11. Deion Sanders (1989-2005), Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens – “Prime Time” was one of the flashiest players in NFL history, but the flash didn’t outweigh the skill he displayed on the football field. As a cornerback, Sanders often took on an opponent’s best receiver and shadowed him everywhere he went, limiting offenses to rely on secondary options. The aspect of Deion’s game that may never be matched is his cover ability, thanks in large part to his speed. He ran a 4.1 second 40-yard dash prior to being drafted in 1989, the fastest time ever recorded at a pro workout day. The best solution to combating Sanders was utilizing a more physical receiver to try and work his way open, but Sanders’ had such great closing speed that receivers weren’t open for long, if at all. He was a poor tackler, so offenses tried to use that against him, especially in the running game. Sanders was such a game-changer in the passing game that his run support shortcomings were never a major issue. How can you forget Sanders’ returning capability? He scored 22 touchdowns in his career: nine on INT returns, six on punt returns, three on kickoff returns, one fumble recovery, and three receiving TDs. Sanders’ 19 defensive and special teams TDs remain an NFL record. Deion also played professional baseball adequately for parts of nine seasons. His speed was his primary asset at legging out hits, running down fly balls in the outfield, and stealing bases. Sanders will obviously be more well-known for his game-changing ability as a return specialist and cover guy in the NFL.

So, who did I miss? Feel free to comment on who you think belongs in the Top Ten.

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