WHAT IS #NFLAnyEra?
Or, to put a finer point on it -- when Mike Ditka looks at today's player, whom does he want lining up next to him or across from him?
Which of today's players did our group of Hall of Famers deem really old school?
The playing days for our 20-member Hall of Fame panel spanned the '60s (Jim Brown) to the turn of the century (John Randle).
We'll present four players a day, culminating with our top four on Friday, Jan. 27.
#NFLANYERA TOP 20
WHAT THE HALL OF FAMERS SAY ABOUT STEELERS WR HINES WARD
LYNN SWANN: Is there another receiver in the past 12 years who has a tougher reputation than Hines? If we are talking about being tough, then I don't know how you can't choose him. I'd like to go out of the box, but Hines fits this category too well. There are some very talented receivers in this league, and they'll catch the ball and then get out of bounds. It might not always be the best decision, but whenever he catches the ball he turns and fights for every yard. He takes guys on, he'll block and I mean really block.
When another receiver catches the ball, Hines is running down the field looking to make a play, and his block can be the difference between a 5-yard run and a 50-yard touchdown run. At wide receiver, you just don't see guys looking for contact very often. The mindset of any skill player is to avoid contact, get the ball and not get hit. You know you are going to get hit, but the object is not to get hit. Anyone who gets the ball should be looking to escape, but you don't see Hines going to the ground in most cases. You just see him lowering his shoulder.
LARRY CSONKA: I like Hines Ward for his size and toughness and flat-ass orneriness. He has the temperament to play anywhere, any time. He makes big catches, big blocks and has the disposition that would allow him to play in any era. He doesn't bother with the trivial stuff. He plays to win and he knows, most of the time, he will.
JAMES LOFTON: I think there are a lot of guys who stick their noses in there and block, but the fact is Hines has been doing it for so long. To do it year after year after year is where you earn your stripes. He has played so long that he's lost a couple of steps, but he's still a tough, physical player. When he was in his heyday, he would do anything out there that they asked him to do. He did some unique things that other receivers wouldn't do.
JOHN RANDLE: The thing about Hines is he would crack you in a second. You had to have your head on a swivel. You'd watch a game just to see who Hines would crack on. He'd try to line up at tight end, and you knew if there was going to be a crack, it was Hines crackin' somebody. And then afterward, he'd have that grin on his face. Because it was on you; he'd say, "Hey, stop me." That was his reputation for me. As a football player, I look at it like the Western days, being an outlaw and you'd go from town to town to defend your reputation. And they knew you were coming. For Hines, there was that smile on his face, and you'd see it on tape, "Hey, I got ya."
WARD ON HIS TOUGHEST NFL MOMENT
Hines Ward has built a reputation as the best blocking wide receiver in football. He came into the NFL thinking he was tough, but he soon realized what it meant to be tough in the league. In his third season, Ward knocked helmets with Chargers safety Rodney Harrison on Dec. 24, 2000, which has left a lasting impression to this day.
I put the best and hardest hit on this guy. I thought I crushed him. He looks back, shakes his head and says, "Yeah, 86, that's what I'm talking about. I like that."
I looked from the huddle, and thought, "Oh no." That will always stick with me for the rest of my life. Just the type of player he was. I brought it. I hit him harder than anybody ever and all he did was move his head side to side. At the time, he didn't even know who I was. That's when I knew the NFL was real. I've always took the mode that, yes, I'm a wide receiver. I like to look at myself as a football player. I remember the one-on-one battles and blocking the strong safeties throughout the league.
ESPN.COM'S JOHN CLAYTON ON WARD
As a route-runner and pass-catcher, Ward knows how to get open for his quarterback. But what puts him on this list is his tough mentality. As a blocker, he's ruthless. Old-school football was a street fight, and any great team from the old days would love to have his knockout punch. In the old days, receivers going across the middle of the field expected to be decked or given a forearm shiver. Ward never fears going across the middle. Receivers might be divas. Ward isn't. He's a tough player who just happens to catch the football.
CLAYTON ON HALL OF FAME CHANCES: Receivers have a tough time making it. Just ask Cris Carter, Andre Reed and Tim Brown. Might be tough.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN
ON TWITTER #NFLNYERA
Wow! - That's all I can say! Shaking my head! What an honor it is to be selected for the NFL's Any ERA list.... fb.me/1ldxMfCWZ
— Hines Ward (@mvp86hinesward) January 27, 2012
— Megan Eaton (@mleaton) January 26
The one current player that should be in #NFLAnyEra is Hines Ward. He is old school, the best blocking WR and a great possession guy.
— Adam Steinfield (@ASteinfield) January 25
#NFLAnyEra hines ward, a rough receiver who could have made catches even before all the rules changes to make passing easier
— James Elam (@thecondor251) January 24
#NFLANYERA TOP 20
Additional reporting by ESPN The Magazine's Morty Ain, Louise Cornetta, Amy Parlapiano and Alyssa Roenigk.