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Apples vs. oranges? Sure. But fullbacks vs. guards?

Finally, the calendar permits itself to be turned to September. It's the happiest time of the year because with aspen preparing to turn yellow and maples contemplating red, we now know it is the appropriate time to focus on football.

That sound you hear is not the roar of the crowd. It's our hearts singing.

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And so on cue - before we get overwrought later on in the season - along comes a new book, "Football's Greatest Players." It's a slick and beautifully designed coffee-table candidate, done under the aegis of the innovative boss at The Sporting News, John Rawlings.

No problem with the book. The problem is this ranking of the Top 100 football players - or any ranking - is tragically flawed for four reasons:

There is no way to compare a quarterback to a defensive tackle, a receiver to a guard, a kicker to a linebacker.

The positions, and therefore the skills, are widely disparate. The marvelous Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown was named No. 1. Fine. But better than all the rest? Brown played just nine years and retired when he was 29 with all kinds of records. He now says, "Records are irrelevant." That's nonsense. Jim Brown without records is salt without pepper, just another player without portfolio.

But beyond this, there is no way to know if Brown was, in fact, better than quarterback Otto Graham, linebacker Dick Butkus, tackle Deacon Jones, on and on. Nobody can contend that Brown was better at what he did than extraordinary kicker Lou Groza was at what he did.

Clich lovers say you can't compare apples and oranges. Phooey. They're both fruits, they coexist nicely in any fruit bowl, and therefore are easily comparable. What you can't compare is a fullback and a cornerback.

Comparing players from different eras is impossible.

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Joe Montana is the highest-ranked quarterback (No. 3) while Johnny Unitas is next (No. 5). Montana and Unitas were hauntingly similar. Neither had a celebrated arm, but both passed with touch, timing, and brains. Both were clever. Neither was a superior athlete. Both made their teams win. Both had long careers, capped by hanging on at least one year too many.

How come Unitas wasn't No. 3 and Montana, who has a state named after him, No. 5? No reason. The far bigger point is the pro game Unitas started playing in 1956 was only vaguely related to the one Montana started playing in 1979.

Similarly, comparing Red Grange, a running back in the '20s, to Barry Sanders, a running back in the '90s, is impossible and makes everyone look foolish, like doing the limbo.

Rankings invariably include silliness of thought.

In The Sporting News list, San Francisco wide receiver Jerry Rice is figured to be the No. 2 football player of all time. This is not a typo. Soon as you can stop giggling, read on. To buy this, you have to feel Rice is better than quarterback Slingin' Sammy Baugh, who was passing when passing wasn't cool and who also played on defense. You have to feel Rice is better than Walter Payton, John Elway, Roger Staubach, and Don Hutson.

The problem is while Rice clearly is a top-quality receiver, he might have been chopped liver had he not been running for balls thrown with splendid precision by Montana and Steve Young. Young is 63rd.

Ronnie Lott, a 49ers safety, is ranked 23rd best player ever. Stop smirking.

Eighty-seven players are ranked better than Jim Thorpe, the first great running back. Stop smirking.

It's impossible to separate activity on the field and off the field.

The Giants' Lawrence Taylor is No. 4. Taylor could play linebacker, but he couldn't play life's game. His troubles with drugs are ongoing. It's always nagging with someone like Taylor to contemplate how much better he could have been without the chemical distractions.

This brings us to O.J. Simpson (No. 26). We often compartmentalize, and on a football field, nobody who ever saw Simpson will ever forget the view. Conversely, we won't forget Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, either. A worthy 26th?

And consider this. Without Jim Parker, probably the best tackle or guard ever, in front, Unitas might not be in the Top 100. Parker is 24th. That doesn't seem fair.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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