Records aren't just made to be broken; they're an expression of why we watch sports.
Questing for a just-out-of-reach round number, chasing a ghost of yesteryear, reaching a level of performance nobody's ever reached before: These are some of the greatest moments players—or their fans—experience.
The NFL has been around for 93 years and stands atop a mountain of history. Though the game has changed significantly throughout the years, its core is the same. No other sport is laid out on a gridiron; the rigid division of time into downs and distance into yards makes football easy to quantify, and its players easy to compare.
Jim Brown and Marshall Faulk were very different backs who played in very different eras, but look at the all-time career rushing leaders list, and there they are, just 33 yards apart.
Records introduce us to both analysis and history. As children, we don't see sports as a weighted random number generator, we see it as people playing a game. When our heroes approach a milestone or an all-time record, though, it gives us a longer perspective and a deeper understanding of how our hero compares to the greats of yesterday.
When a record-breaking player wears our team's colors, we bask in that incredible glory; we become part of that history.
Some records, though, will stand for years, or even lifetimes. Some records are so great even the greatest players of today already have no chance of breaking them. Some records will never be broken.
Which is the most unbreakable NFL record that will stand tall over everyone for the rest of our lives?
Literally Unbreakable, and Other Disqualifiers
There are some records that are literally unbreakable, by the rules of the game and the shape of the field. Once Tony Dorsett took a handoff 99 yards for a touchdown, he set an unbreakable record for the longest play from scrimmage:
Some records are technically breakable but rendered unreachable by the way the game has changed.
On November 28, 1929, Chicago Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers scored every single one of his team's 40 points—which was possible, because Nevers was also the team's place-kicker. A modern player would have to cross the goal line seven times in one game to break his record. Per Pro Football Reference, only once has a player even scored six touchdowns in one game: Gale Sayers ran for four scores, received one and took a punt return to the house back in 1965.
Legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham reached a record 10 consecutive championship games. Obviously, no single player will ever reach 11 consecutive Super Bowls.
Graham's record, though, combines the Browns' time in the old AAFL with their time in the NFL. That doesn't invalidate the greatness of what Graham did, but "reaching the championship game" of the nine-team, two-division AAFL in 1946 wasn't anywhere near as difficult as a team of today making it through a 16-game regular season and 12-team playoff to play in the Super Bowl.
Similarly, legendary Green Bay Packers receiver Don Hutson's incredible receiving and scoring records will likely stand forever. Hutson deserves every ounce of praise for his amazing accomplishments, but again, leading the NFL in touchdowns scored eight seasons in a row drops from mind-bogglingly impossible to merely amazing when the NFL has only nine teams.
Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula's 347 career wins will also stand the test of time. Though Shula coached well into the modern era, no coach in today's multimillion-dollar game is going to be given that kind of deference.
Mike Shanahan, who at 19 years has the most coaching experience of any active coach, was fired by the Denver Broncos after going 24-24 over three consecutive seasons—despite bringing Denver its first and second Super Bowl championships less than a decade prior.
Bill Belichick, the active leader in coaching wins with 187, would have to match his career average of 10 wins a season for the next 16 years to beat Shula. Considering Belichick is 61 years old and has only coached 18 years so far, it's just not going to happen.
Advanced statistics and analysis give us all sorts of amazing ways to analyze and compare performances, but in my eyes, the mystique of a "record" is a high-water mark, a number everyone knows when it's been broken.
Peyton Manning's record for passing touchdown percentage index, set in 2004 when he threw for a touchdown on 9.9 percent of his passes, is probably going to stand for a very long time. There won't be a standing ovation, confetti or a postgame speech if some future quarterback breaks it, though.
There are other "records" that are strange coincidences, like University of Miami's record for most consecutive NFL games with an alumnus scoring a touchdown.
This isn't a level of performance any player or team can achieve, just a quirk born of the former recruiting dominance of "The U."
Brett Favre's incredible "ironman" streak of 297 games played will be difficult to break, but Peyton Manning had a very good look at it before his freak nerve injury cost him a season—and his younger brother, Eli, is almost halfway there at 135.
It will likely be a long time before anyone does it, but when keeping star quarterbacks healthy seems to be the NFL's top priority, it's hard to call Favre's mark unbreakable.
When it comes to on-the-field records—technically breakable records relevant to the modern era that nobody will ever reach—the nod goes to Jerry Rice's career receiving yardage.
Jerry Rice: Sustained Excellence
Rice, a Hall of Fame receiver best remembered for his 16 years with the San Francisco 49ers, wasn't just the best receiver in the game, he was the best receiver in the game for an almost-inconceivable length of time. A once-in-a-lifetime combination of will, talent, effort and luck, Rice was the best player on the best team in the NFL for well over a decade.
At the age when most receivers' bodies start breaking down, Rice was having the best seasons of his career. In 1995, at age 33, Rice had 122 receptions for 15 touchdowns and a league-leading 1,848 yards.
At the age when most receivers have been retired for five years, Rice was still a very productive target. After he turned 40 years old, Rice caught 185 passes for 2,509 yards and 12 touchdowns. The only other player to catch a pass in his 40s is Brett Favre, who threw one to himself*. Rice also caught at least one pass in 274 consecutive games, smashing the 183-game mark held by Art Monk.
His career marks for receptions (1,549), touchdowns (197) and most especially yardage (22,895) will likely never be reached. Today's high-powered offenses and incredibly pass-heavy systems may make the reception or touchdown marks slightly less "unbreakable," but it's hard to imagine anyone approaching Rice's incredible yardage production.
Compare Rice's career totals to the rest of the most productive receivers in NFL history:
In this chart, the position of each bubble reflects the touchdown and reception totals, and the size of the bubble indicates the career yardage.
The distance between Rice and everybody else compares favorably to the career numbers of receivers like Cris Collinsworth (417 REC, 36 TD, 6,698 YDS), Derrick Alexander (417 REC, 40 TD, 6,971 YDS) and Greg Jennings (425 REC, 53 TD, 6,537 YDS).
There are a lot of amazing facts, incredible streaks and monstrous NFL accomplishments that won't, or can't ever be topped. For sheer performance, though, nobody has been able to do what Jerry Rice has done—and though it's still there for the doing, nobody ever will again.
All statistics via Pro Football Reference, unless indicated otherwise.
*Since Favre's first completion was also to himself, he holds a likely unbreakable record of 275 games between receptions. This is not really a record so much as a statistical anomaly, but it's fun to note.