There are some things in sports that one just accepts without hesitation. The New York Yankees are the greatest franchise in professional sports history. Michael Jordan is the greatest clutch player in basketball history. And Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver in NFL history.
However, what if a closer examination revealed...that the general public might be wrong?
What if Jerry Rice really isn't the greatest wide receiver in NFL history?
What if somebody 50, 60, even 70 years ago was better?
Accept it. It's true.
Meet Don Hutson, wide receiver of the Green Bay Packers from 1935-1945.
Don Hutson, the greatest wide receiver in the 89-year history of the National Football League.
To compare Hutson and Rice, I have chosen five different topics to focus on: supporting cast, longevity, postseason, impact on the game, and most importantly, a statistical analysis.
1. Supporting Cast
Let's be honest. Jerry Rice was truly blessed throughout his entire career.
Rice had the luxury of playing for two of the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history: Joe Montana and Steve Young. He also played for Jeff Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowler. And as a member of the Oakland Raiders, he caught passes from Rich Gannon, who captured the 2002 MVP award.
Overall, Rice played 20 seasons in the NFL, during which his quarterbacks went to the Pro Bowl 13 times and earned five—count 'em, FIVE—Most Valuable Player awards.
Rice never played for a quarterback who was anything short of spectacular.
What about Hutson?
Hutson played for three very, very good quarterbacks: Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, and Irv Comp. Herber is currently a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Isbell was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
Comp was a good quarterback who played like a great quarterback during the three seasons he played with Hutson. The year after Hutson retired, Comp threw for one touchdown pass and eight interceptions, while posting a single-digit passer rating (yes, single digits).
However, as great as Herber, Isbell, and Comp were, they were never better than Sammy Baugh or Sid Luckman.
Whoever quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers, as in, whoever had the luxury of throwing to Don Hutson, was generally considered to be the third best quarterback in the 10-team National Football League.
Advantage: Hutson, easily
Jerry Rice played 20 seasons in the National Football League. He played every single game of every single season, except for 1997, when he missed 14 games due to a torn ACL suffered in the season opener, after a facemask tackle by Warren Sapp.
Rice returned in the season finale, catching his lone touchdown pass, but cracking the patella in his left kneecap upon landing.
In all, Rice played 303 regular season games in his NFL career, and another 29 in the postseason. He played in more games than any non-kicker in NFL history and holds numerous longevity records, including oldest player to score a touchdown (40) and the oldest wide receiver to play in the NFL (42).
His training regime was legendary, as he was particularly noted for his fondness of running up hills in the offseason, a method also utilized by the great Walter Payton.
Hutson played 11 seasons in the National Football League. He played wide receiver and defensive end. He also kicked field goals and extra points.
He played in 116 of 120 games during his 11 seasons, missing three games in his rookie season and one in 1938. Playing both ways--all three ways--Hutson played in 96.7 percent of games during his NFL career, slightly higher than Rice's 95.6 percentage.
In essence, Hutson literally played all 60 minutes of every single football game.
Advantage: Rice, but only by a little bit.
Yup, we're addressing the postseason before the regular season. Why? Because the regular season is much more important.
Jerry Rice has been just as successful--and consistent--in the postseason as he has been in the regular season.
In 28 postseason games, Rice caught 151 passes for 2245 yards and 22 touchdowns. Projected over a single season, Rice's stats would look like this: 86 receptions, 1283 yards, 13 touchdowns.
Rice caught three touchdown passes in two different Super Bowls. His 215 receiving yards in Super Bowl XXIII are a single-game record.
Rice played in four Super Bowls. Three times he walked away on the winning team.
What about Hutson?
Well, Hutson played for two championship winning teams. He played in four total NFL championship games.
Unfortunately, game statistics cannot be found from these championship games, so we have no idea how Hutson performed.
All that is provided from these games is the boxscore, meaning we know that Don Hutson scored on a game-winning 48-yard touchdown reception in the 1936 NFL championship game. He didn't score in any of the other three NFL championship games. One touchdown in four championship games is not at all impressive, but chances are pretty good, though, that the greatest player in the NFL had a major role in his team's two championships.
He may not have dominated quite like Rice, but then again why couldn't he have? Great players step up their game when it counts.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to know how Hutson played, besides his lone touchdown.
4. Impact on the Game
Rice showed that a wide receiver can excel--even dominate--without being the biggest, the strongest, or the fastest.
Longtime Cardinals' coach Dennis Green calls Jerry Rice "the greatest route runner I've ever seen." Rice is also universally regarded as one of the best, if not the best, blocking receiver in NFL history.
Well, Don Hutson completely revolutionized the position of wide receiver in the National Football League. He was the first great receiver in league history. On Hutson's first play from scrimmage in his first NFL start, he caught an 83-yard touchdown pass. The Packers won the game 7-0 and a legend had been born.
Hutson is said to have literally created the art of "route-running" among wide receivers. He is credited with creating the buttonhook, the hook-and-go, and Z-outs. It was said that there wasn't a single defender in Hutson's era who could cover him one-on-one. Not one.
Hutson literally created the position of wide receiver in the National Football League. He didn't just revolutionize it for future generations. He created the position.
I wish Dennis Green (or any of us) could have seen Don Hutson play.
...where Rice blows Hutson away. Right?
I have one small issue with the success of Jerry Rice.
Rice had fantastic stats, stats that look much better on paper than Don Hutson. But nobody in the NFL dominated the rest of the league like Don Hutson.
Take Rice's 1995 season: 122 catches, 1848 yards, 15 touchdowns.
Rice's season is easily one of the greatest in history, right?
Nope. A case could be made that Rice was just the fourth best receiver in the NFC that season.
Herman Moore caught 123 (a new single-season record) passes for 1686 yards and 14 touchdowns, despite having Scott Mitchell as his quarterback (career Pro Bowl selections: zero).
Isaac Bruce caught 119 passes for 1781 yards and 13 touchdowns. His quarterback(s)? Chris Miller and Mark Rypien. The next leading receiver on the St. Louis Rams was the ever-dangerous Troy Drayton, a 260-pound tight end who hauled in 47 passes for 458 yards and four touchdowns during the season.
Cris Carter caught 122 passes for 1371 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns, while helping to coax one final great season out of the 39-year-old Warren Moon.
Michael Irvin caught 111 balls for 1603 yards and 10 touchdowns. Nine different players caught 100 passes that season. The list goes on and on.
Now, not to take anything away from Rice, but he wasn't quite as dominant as some people may realize.
In his 20 seasons in the National Football League, Rice led the league in receptions twice, yards six times, and touchdowns six times. In all, he led the league in 14 different categories during his career, all between 1986-1996.
His 22 touchdown catches in 1987 set an NFL single-season record. Even more incredibly, they came in just 12 games, due to a strike-shortened season.
He caught 122 passes in 1995, the second highest single-season total in NFL history. His 1848 receiving yards did set a single-season record.
Rice hauled in 100 passes four times, 90 passes six times, and 80 passes 12 times. He topped 1000 yards receiving in 14 different seasons. He caught double-digit touchdowns nine times, including five seasons of over 15. All of these are NFL records.
What about Hutson?
Hutson was literally the greatest wide receiver in the National Football League every year for 11 consecutive seasons. He might have been the best PLAYER in the National Football League in half of those seasons.
Hutson led the NFL in receptions eight times. He topped the league in receiving yards seven times. He finished first in touchdown catches nine times. In all, Hutson finished first in 24 different receiving categories in his 11 seasons. He finished second seven times, third once, and sixth once. He finished in the top three in all three receiving categories in 32 of 33 possible chances. The only exception? A sixth place finish in receptions in his rookie season.
You want to give Rice an advantage because he played in a league with 30 teams, compared to Hutson, who played with 10 teams?
Realistically, that's fair.
Let's count all of Rice's top three finishes in receiving statistics, while only counting Hutson's number one finishes.
Rice finished in the top three in receptions six times, receiving yards ten times, and touchdowns nine times. That's equal to 25 first place finishes, which would give him a minuscule advantage (25-24) over Hutson.
Hutson's 1942 season is the greatest season by a wide receiver in the history of the National Football League. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. Hutson caught 74 passes for 1211 yards and 17 touchdowns. In today's game, this season would look fantastic. In 1942, Hutson's season was simply out of this world.
The league's second, third, and fourth leading receivers combined for 74 receptions for 1336 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those are the TOTAL statistics of the next best three wide receivers COMBINED. Projected over a 16 game season, Hutson's statistics would look like this:
108 catches for 1761 yards and 25 touchdowns
That's WITHOUT any way to compare the difference in eras. You think that passing was considered to be legit in the 1940s? Passing the football was considered risky! The forward pass was considered dangerous so most teams utilized two or three running backs (and often two or three quarterbacks).
Hutson's season was Ruthian. He caught more touchdown passes than eight of the nine TEAMS in the National Football League. He had more receiving yards than four NFL teams and more receptions than three teams.
In any given year, for Jerry Rice to dominate the rest of the league the way Hutson did, Rice would need approximately:
300 catches for 4200 yards and 45 touchdowns.
That's never going to happen. Ever. Only one player has ever gotten half of any of those statistics in a single season, and that was when Randy Moss caught 23 touchdown passes in his record-breaking 2007 season.
Let's look at how each player performed in their typical season. We'll give Rice an advantage and pick his best 11 seasons, meaning we exclude his rookie season (1985) and every season after 1997. For Hutson, we can simply use his entire career, which was 11 seasons.
In Rice's 11 best seasons, he caught 1001 passes for 15450 yards and 151 touchdowns.
In Hutson's 11 seasons, he caught 488 passes for 7991 yards and 99 touchdowns.
It's not even close. Rice blows Hutson away. Now let's look at their average season.
Rice averaged 91 catches for 1405 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Hutson averaged 44 catches for 726 yards and 9 touchdowns.
When adjusting to a 16 game schedule, Hutson's average season looks like this:
67 catches for 1102 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Rice still wins by a decent amount.
But there's still one more adjustment to be made—accounting for the difference in eras played. When Hutson played, the average team passed the ball approximately 20 times per game. In Rice's era, teams passed approximately 30 times per game. The final adjustment shows Hutson's average season looking like this:
101 catches for 1653 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Those are Don Hutson's statistics on an average season, projected to today's game.
You want to see his 1942 season again, with all of the adjustments?
162 catches for 2641 yards and 38 touchdowns.
And for the final comparison?
Let's see Hutson's 11-year career compared to Jerry Rice's 20 seasons, when adjusted for relative to eras.
Hutson: 1110 catches, 18389 yards, 225 touchdowns, 16.4 yards per catch
Rice: 1549 catches, 22895 yards, 197 touchdowns, 14.8 yards per catch
Despite a nine-year disadvantage in career length, Hutson managed to outscore Rice by 28 touchdowns, despite playing in the football equivalent of the Dead Ball Era.
Rice caught about 400 more passes for 4000 more yards, which, if distributed among those extra nine seasons, is equal to 49 catches for 501 yards per season. Those are the numbers of a solid number three receiver.
Ignoring the difference in eras is the biggest mistake one can make when comparing two players. On paper, Rice appears to blow Hutson away, but in reality, it's Don Hutson who leaves Jerry Rice in the dust.
Advantage: Hutson, by a solid margin.
Calling Jerry Rice the greatest wide receiver in NFL history is probably the safest argument for a football fan to make.
However, I highly doubt that most football fans have even considered the other side of the fence—that there is in fact somebody better than Rice.
Hutson led the NFL in the three major receiving statistics 24 out of 33 times. He finished in the top three 32 times. He led the league in either receptions, yards, or touchdowns every single season of his career.
He won the receiving Triple Crown five times, including four consecutive seasons (1941-1944). He caught a touchdown on 20 percent of his receptions, compared to 13 percent for Jerry Rice.
Don Hutson is the only wide receiver in NFL history to win the Most Valuable Player award, which he did twice (1941 and 1942).
Hutson was a winner, as shown by his four championship game appearances and two victories.
He didn't have the career length that Jerry Rice did, but he also never lost a step, retiring at the top of his game. Rice, however, never again produced an elite season after his ACL injury at the age of 35.
When his career statistics are adjusted due to the time periods, Hutson matches up quite well with Rice.
When their average seasonal statistics are compared, Hutson blows Rice away.
There's no other way to look at it. The greatest wide receiver in NFL history is not a 6'2", 200-pound first-round draft pick from Mississippi Valley State—it's a 6'1, 183-pound walk-on at the University of Alabama.