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HOF 2010: Jerry Rice

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 15, 2010

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams; Art Modell; Terrell Davis; Dermontti Dawson; Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Andre Reed; Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; Cortez Kennedy; Don Coryell; Ray Guy; Cliff Branch; Shannon Sharpe

What can I write about Jerry Rice that hasn't been written before? The short answer: not much. Doug covered some of the more original things that one could write about Rice in a couple of blog posts at the end of 2006. I'm going to reproduce updated versions of Doug's those posts in Parts II and III below, but let's first take a look at the records he holds and the leaderboards he tops.

Part I: Jerry Rice, record-breaker extraordinaire

  • Rice is the all-time leader in receptions (by 447), receiving yards (by 8315) and receiving touchdowns (by 49). He's also the all-time leader in receiving yards per game among non-active players. Unsurprisingly, he topped my list last off-season of the greatest wide receivers of all-time.
  • Rice was named to the Associated Press' first-team All-Pro squad in ten different seasons; the only other player to match that feat is Jim Otto, who earned nine of his ten All-Pro selections in the AFL. Rice was a Pro Bowler in thirteen different seasons, third most in league history and the only non-linemen to be selected so many times.
  • Rice has a SB MVP (1988-89), two OPOY awards from the AP (1987, 1993) and was named MVP by three of the four major sources in 1987 (NEA, BBA, PFWA). He also appeared in four Super Bowls (with three different coaches and three different quarterbacks), winning three of them. Despite playing for only five seasons in the '80s, he was one of only three unanimous selections by the voters of the All-Decade Team of the 1980s. If there was a stronger way to make vote for someone than unanimously, that's how Rice would have been chosen for the All-Decade team of the '90s. Lastly, he was the youngest offensive player chosen on the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team when that team was selected in 1994.

So, yes, Rice is a Hall of Famer, and perhaps the single greatest player in the history of the game of football. As alluded to above, over three years ago Doug wrote two posts chronicling the greatness of Jerry Rice:

Jerry Rice: the best two receivers of his era?
More on Jerry Rice

(Note: Doug also wrote two other related posts -- All Jerry all the time and Last Rice-related post for awhile -- that are less Rice-centric and will not be reproduced here.)

Since some of those numbers came before P-F-R added mountains of data, I'm going to combine, reproduce, update and edit those two posts and make this the Magna Carta of blog posts on Jerry Rice.

Part II: Two Jerry Rices in the HOF?

Michael David Smith noted in the 2004 Pro Football Prospectus that if you break up Jerry Rice's career into two distinct careers, they'd both be Hall of Famers. Smith further concluded that Rice is the only player who can make such a claim. I think Smith is right, and will illustrate by breaking his career into even and odd years.

Both Even-year Jerry and Odd-year Jerry debuted in the mid-80s, so let's compare them to the other star receivers who debuted in the 1980s. All of these guys have retired, so we can look at their full careers. Here are the basic stats, sorted by total yards from scrimmage:

Rk Receiver rec recyd rectd rshyd rshtd yfs
1 Tim Brown 1094 14934 100 190 1 15124
2 Cris Carter 1101 13899 130 41 0 13940
3 Henry Ellard 814 13777 65 50 0 13827
4 Andre Reed 951 13198 87 500 1 13698
5 Art Monk 940 12721 68 332 0 13053
6 Irving Fryar 851 12785 84 242 1 13027
7 Even-year Jerry 833 11934 94 425 6 12359
8 Michael Irvin 750 11904 65 6 0 11910
9 Odd-year Jerry 716 10961 103 220 4 11181
10 Gary Clark 699 10856 65 54 0 10910

Just based on this, both Jerrys are very solid, but probably not Canton-bound. But both Jerrys really made their name by doing more than just compiling yards and touchdowns. Below you'll see the number of 1000-yard seasons each receiver had, as well as his career playoff numbers, the number of times he was selected as a first-team All-Pro by the AP or named to a Pro Bowl, and the number of times he led the league in receiving yards:

Rk Receiver 1000 pg pyd ptd SBs 1AP PB Ledlg
1 Even-year Jerry 8 18 1381 16 2 6 8 3
2 Odd-year Jerry 6 10 864 6 1 4 5 3
3 Cris Carter 8 14 860 8 0 2 8 0
4 Henry Ellard 7 10 419 1 0 2 3 1
6 Michael Irvin 7 16 1314 8 3 1 5 1
5 Art Monk 5 15 1062 7 3 1 3 0
7 Gary Clark 5 13 826 6 2 1 4 0
8 Tim Brown 9 12 581 3 0 0 9 0
10 Irving Fryar 5 10 361 2 0 0 5 0
9 Andre Reed 4 19 1230 9 0 0 7 0

I don't see any way Even-year Jerry isn't a first-ballot lock. He a) has overall numbers similar to Monk and Irvin, b) was by far the most dominant of the group (three times as many 1APs and three times as many "league-leading" seasons as the next best receiver) and c) was the most prolific postseason receiver in history. He would be considered the best receiver to come out of the '80s, and may have been a first-ballot selection.

Odd-year Jerry still compares well to Irvin and Monk, the two players on this list currently in the HOF; he has the same number of 1,000 yard seasons as they do (on average), similar post-season numbers, three more first-team All-Pro nods, three more seasons where he led the league in receiving yards, and two more Pro Bowls than Monk (and the same as Irvin). It's remarkable, but you can divide Jerry's career into two pieces and the worse half is still probably Hall of Fame caliber.

Part III: Who made Whom?

No one questions Rice's legitimacy as a Hall of Famer. But when it comes to Rice's ultimate legacy, the question is whether he was one of the greatest players ever, or the greatest player ever. And there will be some who think Rice's otherworldly numbers (aka Parts I and II) need to be discounted because he benefited so much from playing with Joe Montana and Steve Young for the majority of his career. Clearly, Rice was fortunate to play 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 Rice's rookie year, Montana missed one game. Matt Cavanaugh started against the Eagles, who had one of the best pass defenses in the league. Rice caught 3 passes for 71 yards and a score.
  • In 1986, Rice's second season, Montana suffered a severe back injury in week one that nearly ended his career. Jeff Kemp (6) and Mike Moroski (2) started half of the season before Montana came back. In those eight games, Rice caught 40 passes for 820 yards and 9 TDs. Over sixteen games, 80 receptions, 1640 yards and 18 TDs would have been the most impressive season by any receiver in the league. Excluding Rice (who had 86-1570-15), Stanley Morgan had the second most receiving yards (1491) and Wesley Walker was second in receiving touchdowns (12). And yes, to those observant readers, Rice's numbers that season were better without a gimpy Montana than with one.
  • Montana and Young would start every non-strike game over the next four seasons, so let's skip ahead to 1991. Montana had a season-ending elbow injury in the pre-season and Young injured his knee in mid-season. Steve Bono started six games for the 49ers, and Rice caught 33 passes for 415 yards and four scores playing with Bono. After losing their first start under Bono, the 49ers would win their next five games. Pro-rated over 16 games, Rice (88 receptions, 1107 yards, 10.7 TDs) would have ranked 4th, 8th and 5th in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs with Bono.
  • In 1995, Young went down again, and this time Elvis Grbac took over. In five starts, Rice put up an absurd 31-550-4, for a pro-rated 99-1760-12.8 (actual 122-1848-15). Those 1760 receiving yards would be good enough for #2 all-time on the single-season list.
  • Young missed four more starts in 1996, with Grbac again picking up the slack. Rice scored in every game, and caught 27 passes for 322 yards and 5 scores. The pro-rated Rice would have led the league with his 108 catches and ranked 4th with his 1288 yards; his 20 TDs would outpace the #2 man by six scores. The actual Rice had 108-1254-8.

So for 5 seasons, Grbac (9), Kemp (6), Bono (6), Moroski (2) and Cavanugh (1) starting 24 games for the 49ers. In exactly a year and a half's worth of games, Rice caught 134 passes for 2,177 yards and 23 TDs, and ran for one score as well. That's an average season of 89 catches, 1451 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, or roughly the career best season for nearly every WR who has ever played the game. And, of course, only 25% of those games came during what we would typically call a wide receiver's prime. Eighteen of those 24 games that he played without Montana or Young came during Rice's first or second season, or when he was 33- or 34-years old. In '95 and '96, playing at an age when most receivers start slowing down, catching passes from Elvis Grbac, and playing with Derek Loville and Terry Kirby at RB, Rice put 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 in San Francisco (ignoring 1997, when he missed most of the season with a torn ACL) were the two seasons when Garcia was the 49ers primary QB. In 1999, he had 830 receiving yards and 5 scores, and the next season he had 805 yards and seven touchdowns. Far from great numbers, but he had a good excuse: Rice was 37 and 38 years old. Only two players in NFL history, Rice and Charlie Joiner, have caught even 600 yards worth of passes at age 37 or older. Only a handful of receivers in NFL history have caught any passes at age 37 or older. It's easy to be blinded by the standard Rice set for himself, but apart from one Charlie Joiner season, those 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.

Of all the unbreakable records set by Rice, what he did in Oakland may be the most impressive. At age 40, he caught 92 passes for over 1200 yards. No other player in NFL history has gained a single yard receiving while in his 40s.

Conclusion

Three years ago, Doug came up with six measures of receiving dominance, and Rice was #1 by a mile in all six categories. A few months later, Richie commented that (putting aside Don Hutson) he was "still waiting to see if anybody can create a somewhat legitimate WR ranking list where Jerry Rice does not come out on top." I doubt Richie has seen such a list in the interim, and I don't believe he'll see one for a very long time.

Congratulations to Jerry Rice, future member of the Hall of Fame class of 2010.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 15th, 2010 at 7:55 am and is filed under HOF, Player articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.