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More on Jerry Rice

Posted by Doug on August 29, 2006

Last week I did this bit on Jerry Rice. That reminded me of something I wrote about Jerry several years ago. I know I'm flogging a straw man here, but just in case you ever run across one of those people who thinks Montana and/or Young made Rice, here is something you can point to.

Where WRs are concerned, there usually isn't too much debate, but there still is a small segment of the football world that does not believe that Jerry Rice is the greatest WR of all time. That group separates into two subgroups:

  • The people who think Don Hutson is the greatest WR of all time.

  • The people who think Rice's otherworldly numbers need to be discounted because he benefitted so much from playing with Montana and Young for the majority of his career.

The Hutson group has a legitimate argument. I'd vote for Rice over Hutson, but it's close, and that's for another article. What I'd like to do right now is take a look at the Montana argument.

Clearly, Rice benefitted from playing with Montana and Young. No one disputes that. The question is: by how much? That's an impossible question to answer, but what we can do is look at the seasons during which Rice was working with a non-Montana/Young QB for a substantial amount of time:

  • In 1986, Rice's second year, Montana only played 8 games. The other 8 featured Jeff Kemp and Mike Moroski at the QB position for the 49ers. Kemp and Moroski threw 47 percent of the team's passes that year. Rice had 1570 yards and 15 TDs on the season, leading the league in both categories.

  • In 1991, Steve Young spent some time on the shelf. Steve Bono and Bill Musgrave threw 242 passes that year, 46 percent of the team's total. Rice's numbers were 1206 and 14.

  • In 1995, Young was injured again, and Elvis Grbac threw 30 percent of the 49ers passes. Rice had 1848 receiving yards and 15 TDs.

  • In 1996, Grbac and Jeff Brohm threw 42 percent of the 49ers passes. Rice went for 1254 and 8.

So during those four seasons, during which Kemp, Moroski, Bono, Grbac, and Brohm were QBing the 49ers 41 percent of the time, Rice averaged 1470 and 13. And really only one of those seasons was during what would tyically be considered a wide receiver's prime years.

Further, while I don't have game-by-game breakdowns for 1986 or 1991, I do have them for 1995 and 1996. During the 9 games where Young did not play during 95 and 96 (plus a game where he threw only one pass), Rice had 908 yards and 9 TDs. That comes out to 1453/14 over a 16-game season. So Jerry Rice, at age 33 and 34, with Elvis Grbac and Jeff Brohm at QB and Derrick Loville and Terry Kirby at RB, was putting up numbers that could arguably pass for the best season of Cris Carter's or Steve Largent's career.

And then there are the Jeff Garcia and the Rich Gannon years.

Rice's two worst seasons to date were the two seasons when Garcia was the 49ers primary QB. In 1999, he went for 830/5, and he posted 805/7 in 2000. But he had a good excuse: he was 37 (and 38) years old. Only two receivers in NFL history, Rice and Charlie Joiner, have caught 800 yards worth of passes at age 37 or older. Only a hanful of receivers in NFL history have caught any passes at age 37 or older. It's easy to be blinded by the standard Rice had set for himself, but apart from one Charlie Joiner season, these two disappointing seasons were the best in NFL history for a man of his age. And then he moved to Oakland and blew those seasons away.

What more could he have done?

Just to stave off the flood of pro-Hutson comments, I'll confess that I wrote that piece four years ago and, although I'm pretty sure I had good reasons for it at the time, I no longer remember why I'd prefer Rice to Hutson.