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NFL Players Who Changed the Game: Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas Headline Top 8

Which NFL players changed the game forever? We offer our top eight, which include football legends such as Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown.

The NFL is constantly evolving. Football now looks much different than it did even 10 years ago, and the same likely will be true a decade from now. Many are responsible for the changes, from players to coaches to executives.

With that in mind, we came up with eight NFL players who changed the game, along with seven honorable mentions.

8 NFL Players Who Changed the Game

Honorable mentions: Don Hutson, Kellen Winslow, Deion Sanders, Marcus Allen, Dick Lane, Dan Fouts, Curley Culp

8) Pete Gogolak

We had to show some love for kickers.

Before Pete Gogolak joined the Buffalo Bills in 1964, kickers typically kicked straight-on and played other positions. But Gogolak introduced soccer-style placekicking and was also the first player to hold a specialized “kicker” spot on a roster. He was the first true placekicker in NFL history and blazed a trail for those who followed.

7) Joe Namath

Joe Namath is on this list for two reasons.

First, after finishing his collegiate career at Alabama, Namath signed with the AFL’s New York Jets on a $427,000 contract, then a record in pro football. A few years later, he led the Jets to a Super Bowl III victory over the Baltimore Colts, legitimizing the AFL-NFL merger for many.

6) Deacon Jones

The original sack artist, Deacon Jones is also responsible for coining the term “sack.”

The NFL didn’t begin tracking them until 1982 — eight years after he retired — but Jones unofficially filled the stat sheet during his Hall of Fame career. He racked up a jaw-dropping 127.5 sacks for the Los Angeles Rams from 1964 through 1970, including three campaigns of at least 20 sacks.

5) Fritz Pollard/Kenny Washington

A handful of players are responsible for breaking the NFL’s color barrier, which has a complicated history, but we’re focusing on Fritz Pollard and Kenny Washington.

Pollard technically is the first Black player to play in the NFL, doing so during the league’s formative years, starting with the Akron Pros in 1920. However, following Pollard’s departure, league owners reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” preventing the signing of more Black players. But everything changed in 1946 when Washington began reintegration by signing with the Rams.

4) Randall Cunningham/Steve Young

There were mobile quarterbacks before Randall Cunningham and Steve Young, especially during the league’s early years when football was a vastly different sport.

However, Cunningham and Young were the first true dual-threat QBs, game-changing stars who proved quarterbacks could win with their arms and legs. These days, NFL teams prioritize mobility when searching for franchise quarterbacks.

3) Johnny Unitas

Johnny Unitas didn’t necessarily change the game in ways done by someone like Benny Friedman, who revolutionized the forward pass in the 1920s. But Unitas was the first to show that a quarterback could take over a game and be the most important player on a roster.

When we think of football today, quarterbacks are the first players who come to mind. For that, we have Unitas to thank.

2) Lawrence Taylor

Lawrence Taylor’s dominance as an outside linebacker cannot be overstated. He changed how the position was played and what fans expected to see from star edge rushers.

In fact, Taylor was so good that Joe Gibbs invented the two-tight end set in a desperate attempt to stop him. Taylor is the greatest defensive player of all time and one of the most revolutionary, too.

1) Jim Brown

As big as linemen during his era and as fast as receivers, Jim Brown was the most athletically gifted running back the NFL had ever seen. He dominated the game to a ridiculous degree, leading the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns.

Brown changed the way football is played. He is why so many running backs in today’s NFL are some of the biggest and most athletic players on the field.