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The 10 Greatest Seasons by a Wide Receiver in NFL History

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The 10 Greatest Seasons by a Wide Receiver in NFL History

Throughout history, the position of quarterback has always been the most glorified position in football—possibly in any sport. When a team wins, the quarterback is the hero—and when a team loses, the quarterback is to blame. 

But virtually no quarterback is great without a supporting cast—particularly a solid group of wide receivers. Look at Steve Young in Tampa Bay. He threw to Gerald Carter and Phil Freeman—two men who didn't exactly strike fear into the opposition—and that's a major reason why Young posted a 63.1 passer rating. 

But give a quarterback a dangerous group of wide receivers, and you can count on a great aerial attack. Jeff Garcia is a very good quarterback who played like an All-Pro when he threw to Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, and there are hundreds of other examples in the NFL.

The following list glorifies the 10 greatest seasons in NFL history, with one honorable mention, by the men who aren't in the spotlight as much as they should be: the wide receivers. 

 

Honorable Mention: Lance Alworth, San Diego Chargers, 1965

Lance Alworth earned his third consecutive All-Pro selection while helping the high-powered San Diego Chargers lead the AFL in points scored, total yards, and passing yards. The Chargers finished 9-2-3 and captured the AFL West title before falling to the Buffalo Bills, 23-0, in the AFL championship.

Alworth led the AFL in receiving yards (1,602), yards per reception (23.2), and touchdowns (14), while finishing second in receptions (69). Alworth's 114.4 yards per game are still the sixth-highest total in history. His 1,602 receiving yards? The second- highest total in AFL history. His 14 touchdowns? The third-highest total in AFL history. 

Alworth was so dominant that he accounted for 1,117 more yards than the next leading receiver on his team, and he scored well more than half (14 of 23) of his team's receiving touchdowns. 

 

10. Charley Hennigan, Houston Oilers, 1961

Charley Hennigan was arguably the greatest offensive weapon on the highest-scoring team in AFL history. The Oilers scored 513 points, won their final nine games, and captured the AFL championship.

Hennigan set the AFL record with 1,746 receiving yards, almost 600 yards more than the next-highest receiver. His 124.7 yards per game is the second-highest total in history and the best in a nonstrike season. His receiving yards have since been surpassed by just two players.

Hennigan caught 82 passes (second in the AFL) and scored 12 touchdowns (fourth). He reached at least 78 receiving yards in all 14 games during the season, topping 100 yards 11 times. Three times he reached the 200 mark, including a 13-catch, 272-yard output against the powerful Boston Patriots.

 

9. Jerry Rice, San Francisco 49ers, 1995

In an offensive explosion never seen before or since in the NFL, wide receivers posted truly incredible numbers in 1995. As he has done for most of his career, Jerry Rice emerged as the statistical leader of the pack.

Rice's 122 receptions are still the fourth-highest single-season total in NFL history. His 1,848 yards is a record that has not been seriously challenged since. His 15 touchdowns ranked third in the NFL and were the 11th-highest total in history.

Rice topped 150 yards on five occasions and turned in the single-greatest regular- season game of his Hall of Fame career against the Minnesota Vikings, catching 14 passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-30 win. 

 

8. Jerry Rice, San Francisco 49ers, 1987

In just his third season in the NFL, Jerry Rice shattered the single-season record for receiving touchdowns with 22. Incredibly, Rice's performance came in just 12 games, and his 1.83 receiving touchdowns per game was an NFL record. He even added a rushing touchdown, giving him 23 for the season.

Rice finished second in the league with 1,078 yards and fourth with 65 catches. He earned the Bert Bell Award as the Player of the Year, as well as Offensive Player of the Year and the Pro Football Writers' Association MVP.

The 49ers scored an NFL-best 459 points and easily won the NFC West title with a 13-2 mark.

 

7. Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis Colts, 2002

Marvin Harrison's fourth-consecutive Pro Bowl season was made more impressive by the fact that Peyton Manning (27 touchdowns, 19 interceptions) had not yet developed into an MVP quarterback. The Colts offense scored 349 points and ranked just 17th in the NFL.

Harrison absolutely destroyed the single-season record for receptions with 143, a full 15 percent higher than the next best mark in history. Harrison's mark would be the equivalent of a quarterback throwing for 5,910 passing yards in a season or a running back rushing for 2,447 yards.

He also topped the NFL with 1,722 receiving yards, the fourth-highest mark in history, and finished third with 11 touchdowns. 

 

6. Don Hutson, Green Bay Packers, 1943

Don Hutson completed arguably the greatest three-year stretch by a player in NFL history, easily winning the receiving Triple Crown with 47 catches, 776 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Hutson's Triple Crown was his fourth straight, and he helped the Packers finish second in the NFL West with a 7-2-1 record.

Hutson finished 10 catches, 239 yards, and four touchdowns above the second-place finisher in each statistical category. He led the NFL in total points scored for the fourth- straight season and even topped the league in yards per touch (13.6). 

 

5. Isaac Bruce, St. Louis Rams, 1995

In the Year of the Wide Receiver, 23-year-old Isaac Bruce was the league's best receiving threat. He caught 119 passes for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns. His receptions are still the seventh-highest total in NFL history, and his receiving yards are the second-best total in NFL history. 

Bruce's season is made even more remarkable by the quality of his teammates. The Rams finished just 22nd in the NFL in scoring, and the quarterback combination of Chris Miller and Mark Rypien was hardly enough to keep defensive coordinators up at night. The Rams also ranked just 21st in the league in rushing (3.7 YPC), meaning Bruce was literally the only weapon on the Rams. In fact, the other four wide receivers on the Rams combined to catch 94 passes for 1,228 yards and nine touchdowns. 

Bruce caught 15 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown in a 41-22 defeat against Miami. He caught eight passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-18 loss to Indianapolis. He caught nine passes for 173 yards in an embarrassing 44-10 destruction versus San Francisco. Incredibly, the Rams won just three of the nine games in which Bruce topped 100 yards. 

Thankfully, Bruce would later be joined by fantastic teammates, and he has a ring (1999 Rams) to show for it.

 

4. Don Hutson, Green Bay Packers, 1941

Don Hutson turned in the first truly memorable season by a wide receiver in NFL history. He won the receiving Triple Crown with 58 catches for 738 yards and 11 touchdowns. The next best receiver in the league? Philadelphia's Dick Humbert, who caught 29 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Double Humbert's statistics (58 catches, 664 yards, six touchdowns) and they still don't measure up to Don Hutson.

Hutson by himself caught more touchdown passes than the highest quarterback in the league threw (besides his own). He even led the league in total touchdowns (12), points scored (95), and yards from scrimmage (760). 

 

3. Randy Moss, New England Patriots, 2007

It's no coincidence that the most explosive wide receiver in NFL history played for the two highest-scoring teams in NFL history (1998 Vikings, 2007 Patriots). Randy Moss helped coax one final great season out of Randall Cunningham, and in 2007, he played the lead role in Tom Brady's record-breaking season. 

Moss broke Jerry Rice's 20-year-old NFL record by catching 23 touchdown passes, the final touchdown clinching an undefeated regular season for the Patriots. He finished eighth in the league in receptions and second in receiving yards.

Moss topped 100 yards in nine different games and scored double-digit touchdowns eight times, including four in the first half of a 56-10 win versus Buffalo. 

He made the single biggest play of his career in the Super Bowl against the Giants, catching a six-yard touchdown to give the Patriots a 14-10 lead with 2:42 remaining in the game. 

 

2. Elroy Hirsch, Los Angeles Rams, 1951

Elroy Hirsch's ridiculous 1951 season helped the Los Angeles Rams score an incredible 392 points, finishing first in the NFL National Division with an 8-4 mark. He caught four passes for 66 yards as the Rams defeated the Cleveland Browns to win the NFL championship.

Hirsch easily won the receiving Triple Crown, shattering the old single-season record of 1,211 yards by almost 25 percent. His 17 touchdowns tied the single-season mark and would not be surpassed for 33 years. His 124.6 receiving yards per game set another NFL record. He even led the league in points scored and total yards from scrimmage.

Hirsch was blessed with two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, as Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield each topped 1,500 passing yards and threw double-digit touchdown passes.

 

1. Don Hutson, Green Bay Packers, 1942

Hutson easily earned the receiving Triple Crown by catching 74 passes for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns. Each of these totals shattered the old single-season records (which were all already held by Hutson). 

In 1942, the second-, third-, and fourth-leading receivers combined for 74 receptions for 1,336 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those are the total statistics of the next best three wide receivers combined. The NFL's second-best receiver was Chicago's Ray McLean, who finished with 19 catches for 571 yards and eight touchdowns.

Hutson caught more passes and totaled more receiving yards than four NFL teams. His 17 touchdowns were more than every single NFL team but one. Even more incredibly, Hutson's masterpiece came in a 12-game season. During 16 games, his statistics would look like this: 108 catches for 1,761 yards and 25 touchdowns.

For a player to dominate the way Hutson did, by more than doubling the totals of the next best wide receiver, he would need about 300 catches for 4,200 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 Moss caught 23 touchdown passes in his record-breaking 2007 season. 

Hutson's season was so improbable, so incredible, so Ruthian, that it will never be surpassed in a million years. It is only fitting that the greatest individual season by a wide receiver came by the greatest wide receiver in NFL history. 

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