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Larry Fitzgerald: Can he break Jerry Rice’s receptions record?

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 23, 2011

In my opinion, Jerry Rice is the greatest football player ever. His records are so incredibly, absurdly, ridiculously unbelievable that you can't throw enough adjectives and adverbs his way. But with Larry Fitzgerald signing his enormous-but-justifiable megadeal with the Arizona Cardinals this past weekend, I wondered if he could one day challenge Rice's records. After all, Fitzgerald entered the league at a very young age and has been almost dominant since then. He turns 28-years-old a week from today.

Rice was the most dominant receiver through age 34 in league history. He ranks 1st in touchdowns, receiving yards and receiving yards per game through that age. Last year, Tony Gonzalez passed him in receptions through age 34, 1069 to 1050, dropping Rice into second place in that category. Of course, that's because Gonzalez entered the league at 21 while Rice didn't start playing until age 23. Rice was in his 12th season at age 34, and he laps the field in even more embarrassing fashion in receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and yards per game through twelve seasons.

At age 35, Rice tore his ACL in week one, causing him to miss nearly the entire season. In dramatic fashion, Rice came back for MNF in week 16 and scored a touchdown, helping him become the only player to catch a touchdown in 20 seasons.

But as good as Rice was through age 34, his dominance starting at age 36 is perhaps the most impressive part of his career:

                                                              

Rk Player From To Tm Lg G Rec Yds Y/R TD
1 Jerry Rice* 1998 2004 TOT NFL 113 492 6440 13.09 42
2 Charlie Joiner* 1983 1986 SDG NFL 63 219 3125 14.27 18
3 Terrell Owens 2009 2010 TOT NFL 30 127 1812 14.27 14
4 Tim Brown 2002 2004 TOT NFL 47 157 1697 10.81 5
5 Joey Galloway 2007 2010 TOT NFL 37 89 1392 15.64 6
6 Irving Fryar 1998 2000 TOT NFL 46 115 1358 11.81 9
7 Isaac Bruce 2008 2009 SFO NFL 26 82 1099 13.40 7
8 Art Monk* 1993 1995 TOT NFL 35 93 1093 11.75 5
9 Jimmy Smith 2005 2005 JAX NFL 16 70 1023 14.61 6
10 Drew Hill 1992 1993 ATL NFL 32 94 1007 10.71 3

Rice has more than twice as many catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns starting at age 36 than any other receiver in NFL history. Can Larry Fitzgerald even compete?

Let's take a favorable look at Fitzgerald's career. Through age 27, he has more receptions than any player in football history and trails only Randy Moss in receiving yards by that age:


Game Rece
Rk Player From To Draft Tm Lg G Rec Yds Y/R TD
1 Randy Moss 1998 2004 1-21 MIN NFL 109 574 9142 15.93 90
2 Larry Fitzgerald 2004 2010 1-3 CRD NFL 108 613 8204 13.38 65
3 Torry Holt 1999 2003 1-6 RAM NFL 80 423 6784 16.04 35
4 Lance Alworth* 1962 1967 1-82-9AFL SDG AFL 68 326 6661 20.43 63
5 Andre Reed 1985 1991 4-86 BUF NFL 106 469 6466 13.79 49
6 Andre Rison 1989 1994 1-22 TOT NFL 94 475 6453 13.59 60
7 Andre Johnson 2003 2008 1-3 HTX NFL 86 486 6379 13.13 33
8 Jerry Rice* 1985 1989 1-16 SFO NFL 76 346 6364 18.39 66
9 James Lofton* 1978 1983 1-6 GNB NFL 89 335 6302 18.81 34
10 Herman Moore 1991 1996 1-10 DET NFL 88 424 6191 14.60 44
11 Steve Largent* 1976 1981 4-117 SEA NFL 91 365 6041 16.55 46
12 Cris Collinsworth 1981 1986 2-37 CIN NFL 86 373 5977 16.02 35
13 Jason Witten 2003 2009 3-69 DAL NFL 111 523 5965 11.41 27
14 Art Powell 1959 1964 11-123 TOT TOT 82 353 5843 16.55 54
15 Isaac Bruce 1994 1999 2-33 RAM NFL 77 389 5828 14.98 41

Of note, Fitzgerald edges Rice through the same age by 267 catches and 1,840 yards. Unfortunately, he's already trailing by 1 in receiving touchdowns. At this point, it should go without saying that Rice is the all-time leader in receiving touchdowns from ages 28 and on, but that's not all based on his longevity. From ages 28 to 34, Rice had 88 receiving touchdowns, just one behind Marvin Harrison for the receiving touchdown record over those seven years. (With 95 total touchdowns from ages 28 to 34, Rice is also the career record holder in total touchdowns over those ages.)

So if Fitzgerald -- who has been a great but not an absurdly dominant touchdown scorer to date -- can match the greatest touchdown stretch in receiving history over the next seven years (89 TDs), and then equal the greatest touchdown stretch in history over the next seven years (ages 35-41) (40 TDs), he'll have to then break Rice's record for most touchdowns at age 42 (three) to beat Rice's career touchdown mark by one. In other words, Rice's record of 197 receiving touchdowns is safe.

Fitzgerald entered the league, like Randy Moss, at age 21. That's why his through-age-27 numbers dwarf Rice's production. But since Rice was so absurdly dominant later in his career, it's wiser to compare the players by seasons-in-the-league instead of age. Think of it this way: if Fitzgerald could match the 1,211 receiving yards or 92 receptions Rice recorded at age 40 during 18th season in the league, well, it would be by far the greatest season ever recorded by a 38-year-old. So let's compare players by experience, not by age. The table below lists the leaders in receiving yards through seven years:


Rk Player From To Draft Tm Lg G Rec Yds Y/R TD
1 Torry Holt 1999 2005 1-6 RAM NFL 110 619 9487 15.33 54
2 Randy Moss 1998 2004 1-21 MIN NFL 109 574 9142 15.93 90
3 Jerry Rice* 1985 1991 1-16 SFO NFL 108 526 9072 17.25 93
4 Marvin Harrison 1996 2002 1-19 CLT NFL 108 665 8800 13.23 73
5 Chad Ochocinco 2001 2007 2-36 CIN NFL 108 559 8365 14.96 49
6 Larry Fitzgerald 2004 2010 1-3 CRD NFL 108 613 8204 13.38 65
7 Sterling Sharpe 1988 1994 1-7 GNB NFL 112 595 8134 13.67 65
8 Lance Alworth* 1962 1968 1-82-9AFL SDG AFL 82 394 7973 20.24 73
9 Andre Johnson 2003 2009 1-3 HTX NFL 102 587 7948 13.54 42
10 Gary Clark 1985 1991 2-55 WAS NFL 106 485 7830 16.14 53
11 James Lofton* 1978 1984 1-6 GNB NFL 105 397 7663 19.30 41
12 Anquan Boldin 2003 2009 2-54 CRD NFL 95 586 7520 12.83 44
13 Herman Moore 1991 1997 1-10 DET NFL 104 528 7484 14.17 52
14 Terrell Owens 1996 2002 3-89 SFO NFL 106 512 7470 14.59 72
15 Keyshawn Johnson 1996 2002 1-1 TOT NFL 109 558 7336 13.15 45

Due to changes in the passing game league-wide, Rice is only 12th in receptions at this point (Wes Welker just leapfrogged him and into a tie with Herman Moore for 10th). Not surprisingly, all the players ahead of Rice started their careers after Rice entered the league. In receiving yards, only Holt and Moss are ahead of him at this stage, but both hung it up after their age 33 seasons. If there's a cutionary tale for Fitzgerald, it's Holt, who after seven seasons in the league had just finished his sixth-straight year with 1300+ receiving yards and had twice topped the 1600-yard mark. Of course, Holt was 29 at that point (he entered the NFL at age 23, like Rice), and began to decline soon thereafter.

Harrison and Ochocinco are also ahead of Fitzgerald through seven seasons, and neither (projecting here, forgive me 85) made a serious run at Rice's receiving yards mark. It's not the super slam dunk case that the touchdown record is, but we can pretty safely cross this one off the list, too. With 22,895 career receiving yards, Rice can relax. He was so absurdly prolific later in his career that, in percentage terms, Rice has a larger lead over the #2 receiver in receiving yards (43.7% more receiving yards than Terrell Owens) than in receiving touchdowns (28.8% more receiving touchdowns than Owens or Randy Moss). Fitzgerald could get 1,200 receiving yards every year from ages 28 through 39, and still need to play at age 40 to catch Rice. It's safe to say that it's not going to happen.

On the other hand, today's pass-happy NFL doesn't impact receiving touchdowns or receiving yards nearly as much as it does receptions. For example, through age 33, Rice averaged 16.1 yards per reception; that average dropped to 12.8 from ages 34 to 42. But Fitzgerald's career YPR average is only 13.4 and he's far from the downside of his career. As a result, Rice's receptions mark is the real target for Fitz.

It's at least plausible to consider Fitzgerald taking that one down. Footballguys.com, a fantasy football website that Doug and I both work for, have Fitzgerald projected for 90 receptions this season. Again, it's just a waste of time to compare players to Rice by age -- recall that in 2010, Tony Gonzalez just passed Rice for most receptions through age 34; he would need another 481 catches to break the record.

But if Fitz gets 90 catches this season, he would become just the 3rd player (Marvin Harrison, Holt) to hit the 700-catch mark by his 8th season. He would also have about a 90-catch edge on Rice. That would mean he would need roughyl 850 receptions in years 9+ to break the record. How have most receivers fared starting in the 9th years of their careers? You know who laps the field:


Rk Player From To Draft Tm Lg G GS Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G
1 Jerry Rice* 1993 2004 1-16 TOT NFL 179 173 939 12622 13.44 94 70.5
2 Tim Brown 1996 2004 1-6 TOT NFL 143 131 689 8858 12.86 54 61.9
3 Cris Carter 1995 2002 4-3 TOT NFL 117 113 652 8066 12.37 81 68.9
4 Irving Fryar 1992 2000 1-1 TOT NFL 141 116 543 7850 14.46 50 55.7
5 Charlie Joiner* 1977 1986 4-93 SDG NFL 150 141 536 8147 15.20 40 54.3
6 Tony Gonzalez 2005 2010 1-13 TOT NFL 95 95 499 5558 11.14 34 58.5
7 Keenan McCardell 2000 2007 12-326 TOT NFL 109 96 491 6164 12.55 36 56.6
8 Terrell Owens 2004 2010 3-89 TOT NFL 98 94 486 7362 15.15 72 75.1
9 Isaac Bruce 2002 2009 2-33 TOT NFL 114 105 484 6803 14.06 35 59.7
10 Derrick Mason 2005 2010 4-98 RAV NFL 96 94 471 5777 12.27 29 60.2

Okay, so Fitzgerald probably isn't the next Jerry Rice. But what about the next best-case scenario? What if Fitzgerald, in his 9th season, has as many catches as any player not named Jerry Rice did in their 9th season? And in his 10th season, Fitz ties the guy with the most catches in that guy's 10th season, excluding Rice? And then in his 11th season, equals the record for most catches in a player's (beside Jerry Rice's) 11th season? And so on.

In his 9th year, he would catch 122 passes ala Cris Carter. Along with his projected 90 receptions from 2011, and that would give Fitzgerald 825 career catches.

In his 10th season, he would record 111 receptions just like Reggie Wayne did. That gives Fitzgerald 936 career receptions.

In year 11, Fitzgerald could match Derrick Mason and his 103 grabs. This puts him over the thousand-catch mark for his career, with 1,039.

As a 12th-year-veteran, Tony Gonzalez had 96 catches. So will Fitzgerald (1,135).

In years 13 and 14, he would match the 90 and 96 catches recorded by the ageless Cris Carter. (1,225; 1,321)

By year 15, he would slow down to just mythic Tim Brown numbers: 81 receptions. (1,402)

In his 16th season, Charlie Joiner used his veteran guile to pull in 61 receptions. So too, it is written, will Fitzgerald. (1,463)

In year 17, Joiner's veteran savvy stuck with him: he had 59 catches. That gives Fitzgerald 1,522 career catches.

Only two players in NFL history have ever recorded a reception in their 18th seasons: Jerry Rice and Charlie Joiner. Joiner had 34 catches that year. Rice is the only receiver to ever have a catch in his 19th year (Brett Favre caught his own pass during his 19th season). No one but Rice has even a single reception in year 20.

If Fitzgerald can pull in 90 receptions this season, and then match the record for most receptions at a given level of experience (non-Jerry Rice division) for the remainder of his career, he will end up with 1,556 catches. If this happens, Rice, at age 60, would only need to come back and grab 8 more passes to regain the NFL reception crown. At this point, I'm not sure which event is less likely.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 at 7:40 am and is filed under History, Player articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.