Chasing the Greatest of All Time

Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson are inching closer to breaking two of the oldest single season records in the NFL.  Johnson has 1,667 yards and needs 181 yards in the final two games to break Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 yards, sent 17 years ago.

Rice, now a commentator for ESPN, has said that records were made to be broken, and he is ok with Johnson breaking his single season yardage record.  He can afford to be magnanimous.  When he retired, Jerry Rice held virtually all of the NFL’s receiving records, and although some have fallen over the years, his place as the Greatest of All Time is secure and unlikely to be challenged any time soon.

At every other position in the NFL, there’s a discussion to be had over who is the best at their position.  Running back?  Strong cases can be made for Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson.  Quarterback?  You can have a great argument between Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Montana, John Elway and Johnny Unitas.  But wide receiver?  There isn’t even a discussion.  The answer is Jerry Rice.

The only question open for discussion about Rice is whether he is also the greatest football player, period, at any position.  And there isn’t even a lot of competition there.  The Sporting News ranked him second all time to Jim Brown.  The NFL Network, based on a vote of current and former NFL players, coaches and members of the media, ranked Rice first, edging out Brown who came in second.  The NFL Network also did a fan vote, and Rice came in first in that contest as well.


Rice went to the San Francisco 49ers out of Mississippi Valley State with the 16th pick in the 1985 NFL draft, and proceeded to redefine the wide receiver position.  And while he was tremendously talented and known for the precision of his route running, his dedication and hard work, year after year, define his greatness more than anything else.

I went to my first game in Candlestick Park to see the 49ers play in the early 1990s, and I went into the stadium an hour and a half before kickoff.  The stories that people like to tell are completely true.  Besides a few groundskeepers, there were only two people out on the field that early – a trainer, throwing one football after another, and Jerry Rice, running routes at full speed and catching balls as if the game had already starter.  (Incidentally, in a testament to Rice’s precision, it was a left-handed trainer, because Rice wanted to make sure that the ball would spiral the same way it would in the game when thrown by left-handed quarterback Steve Young.)  He was already acknowledged as the best receiver in the game, but no one was going to outwork him.  Ever.

Jerry Rice 350x350To appreciate his greatness, you have to look at the numbers over his entire career.  When he retired, he held numerous single game and single season records, including the single season record for yardage (which Johnson is chasing this season) and touchdowns (22, broken by Randy Moss with 23 in 2007).  But his career numbers are off-the-charts great.  Rice has 22,895 career receiving yards.  Terrell Owens is second at 15,934 yards.  Randy Moss is the highest active receiver, with 15,220 yards.  If Moss continued to average 1,000 yards per season, it would take him another 8 years to catch Rice, when Moss would be 42.

The touchdown record is perhaps even more amazing.  Rice has 197 career receiving TDs, 208 TDs total, both NFL records.  Moss is second in receiving TDs with 156.  The cushion of 41 TDs is likely to last for a while, particularly with Moss having 3 TDs so far this year.


Another metric of greatness is performing in big games, and nobody holds a candle to Rice there, either.  Rice played in three Super Bowls for San Francisco and AVERAGED 170 yards and over 2 touchdowns per game.  He holds the Super Bowl record for most career TD receptions with 8 (second place is 3, by multiple players, some of whom played in the same number of games) and in yardage with 589 (second place is 364 by Lynn Swann, in the same number of games).

After leaving San Francisco, he did play in one more Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders in 2003.  His numbers were a little more modest.  He caught 5 balls for 77 yards and 1 TD… at the age of 40.


Johnson is currently well ahead of the single season pace that Rice set in his record breaking year of 1995.  Rice came on strong late that year, putting up his career high of 289 yards in the second last game of that season (6th best game of all time) en route to setting the record and closing out the season with 442 yards in his final two games.

Calvin Johnson is arguably the best receiver in the NFL today, and is currently at the top of his game.  He deserves the record this season, and with the advantage of knowing the number that he’s chasing, he seems likely to break it.

But even giving Johnson his due, Rice’s position as greatest of all time, and his career numbers, will be safe for years to come.  Johnson has had one of the best starts to a career in recent memory, but consider what it would take for him to catch Rice.  With the torrid pace Johnson has set the last two years, over his first six seasons he has 7,539 receiving yards and 54 TDs.  At this pace, it would take him over 18 years to reach Rice’s yardage total, and almost 22 years to reach Rice’s TD total.

And that’s if he doesn’t slow down after age 30, as we all do… except for Jerry Rice.

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