Analysts and fans put tons of effort into evaluating the careers of professional football players, making lists and writing thinkpieces and comparing achievements -- but no outside observer can ever hope to match the intimate knowledge shared by those who actually spent time on an NFL field together.
In this series, former players who work for NFL Network will name the five best players they each individually played with in their careers. Note that these lists are completely subjective, based on factors that only contemporary colleagues could fairly evaluate, like locker-room influence and impact as a teammate, in addition to skill-sets and in-game production. Which means they will be packed with surprises -- and they'll be more interesting than a simple recitation of the most obviously accomplished past teammates. (Note also that the personal nature of this exercise means the absence of a high-profile ex-teammate or two SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN AS A SNUB.)
Below, former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger (Dallas Cowboys, 1982-87; Indianapolis Colts, 1988-1991; Philadelphia Eagles, 1992-93) provides his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Ray Donaldson, center, retired
Donaldson was Baldinger's teammate from 1988-1991 with the Indianapolis Colts.
Donaldson, or "Bulldog" as we called him due to his days at Georgia, was a dominant center who was rarely beaten by anyone. His only "problem" was that he was a second-round draft pick in 1980, not a first-rounder. That honor went to a guy named Dwight Stephenson, whose bust resides in Canton, Ohio. These two were the best centers in the NFL during their era and over the last 40 years. That's not a knock on any greats who have since come and gone, but I firmly believe Donaldson and Stephenson were as good as they come.
Donaldson's demeanor in the huddle was that of a jokester and prankster who always kept things loose and fun. He used to tell me all the time that he had a bad game if he was ever on the ground -- he rarely was on the ground. A great athlete with exceptional hands, undeniable strength and a build perfect for the position, Donaldson made every guard who played next to him (players like me) that much better -- often doing two jobs on one play. The six-time Pro Bowler also never backed down from a fight or scuffle, or anyone who had "All-Pro" next to their name. He played 17 seasons, and I was so thrilled that he ended his career in Dallas in the mid-1990s. He was the starting center on the Cowboys' last Super Bowl-winning team and earned two Pro Bowl nods to finish out his career. Donaldson made football fun every day and never took any part of it too seriously. I learned so much about the game and how to be a consistent pro from him.
4) Tony Dorsett, running back, Hall of Famer
Dorsett was Baldinger's teammate from 1982 to '87 with the Dallas Cowboys.
Dorsett was called the "Hawk" because of how big his eyes got when he was ready to make another defensive player miss. Hawk was my teammate for six years, and I never saw him miss a practice or get tired. Not once! When blocking for Dorsett, I learned how elite running backs make everyone else look good. Dorsett was as tough as they come and had a high pain tolerance. He told me once that it would hurt more not to play and watch than to gut it out. And he had the ability to parry a punch like a good boxer does to avoid the big hits. That was Dorsett: tough, loved the game and had great endurance on top of great talent.
3) Eric Dickerson, running back, Hall of Famer
Dickerson was Baldinger's teammate from 1988 to '91 with the Indianapolis Colts.
I first saw Dickerson on the opening day of training camp at Anderson College. We took part in team testing, which included a timed 40-yard dash, and the entire team gathered around when Dickerson lined up to run. I had never seen so many people with stopwatches. He shouted, "I'm only running one of these, so you better get it right the first time." Dickerson didn't really stretch or warm up. He didn't have special shoes. He just strutted to the starting line, flashed a big Texas smile and took off. He clocked somewhere between 4.32 and 4.35 seconds at 220 pounds. Ridiculous!
In my first season with the Colts, Dickerson won the NFL rushing title with more than 400 touches and 2,000 scrimmage yards in 16 games -- routinely making it look easy. During a game against Miami (a division rival at the time) in the Hoosier Dome, Dickerson carried the ball 30 times -- which included about 10 consecutive run plays in our final scoring drive -- in a narrow 15-13 victory. He didn't even break a sweat.
The Hall of Fame running back was the most talented offensive player I ever lined up with. He feared no one, was plenty tough, loved to talk smack and was very good to us hogs up front. I still have the gift he gave us -- pair of cowboy boots with a big horseshoe on them -- when he won the '88 rushing title. He's a good friend to this day.
2) Randy White, defensive tackle, Hall of Famer
White was Baldinger's teammate from 1982 to '87 with the Dallas Cowboys.
White might have been the most feared player in the league in the mid-1980s. He practiced every day like it was game day. When I showed up as an undrafted free agent, I prayed that I could line up at left guard so I could face White every day. I wanted to feel his punch and learn his wide array of moves. I knew that even if I got my butt whipped daily, I would learn and get better. That's exactly what happened. I wouldn't have earned a spot on the Cowboys' offensive line in my first season in Dallas (1982) without playing against the "Manster." He was half man, half monster. He was a great teammate who routinely set the tone with how hard the team practiced.
During our third game of the '82 regular season, our starting center, Tom Rafferty, got dinged up on the second play of the contest. On third down, after an injury timeout, I sprinted onto the field for my first game action. I was so nervous until our All-Pro left tackle, Pat Donovan, leaned over in the huddle and said to me, "Baldy, you fight the Manster every day in practice. This is going to be easy."
Pat was right. White prepared me for a 12-year career, and looking back, no opponent I faced was more difficult to block than White.
1) Reggie White, defensive end, Hall of Famer
White was Baldinger's teammate in 1992 with the Philadelphia Eagles.
I showed up in Philadelphia in the second week of the 1992 regular season. The Eagles had the league's best defense heading into that year after setting all kinds of records in 1991. The unit was coordinated by the highly respected Bud Carson and bolstered with Pro Bowl talent at nearly every position. But it was the big dog, Reggie White, who was the anchor and spiritual leader. The Minister of Defense.
Prior to playing with him, I played across from him in Dallas and in one game with the Colts. I always knew where No. 92 was, and he was always priority No. 1 because he could ruin the game on any given play. In Philly, I initially went up against him as a scout team player, forcing me to constantly practice like it was game day. It often led to a lot of fights over the years. But about three days in, White pulled me aside.
He said, in his deep, raspy voice: "Baldy, I respect you, but this is how practice is going to go from now on. If my chin strap is unbuckled, you will not block me full speed. Now, if my chin strap is buckled, good luck trying to block me. You got that?"
Yes, sir. Watching White play on Sundays and Monday nights was like watching a super hero at the theater. His legendary hump move, where he would throw 350-pound men off the screen, was incredible. There was very little anyone could do to stop him when White decided to take over the game. He was hands down the most talented player I played with. He was a great teammate, humble player, fun like a little kid but also mature with all of his priorities congruently in order.