I know Rice being the greatest wide receiver of all time ranks among one of the more obvious opinions in sports. No matter what angle you approach it, the answer is always Rice. He was as good as anyone in every aspect of the position (routes, hands, running, blocking). In fact, he is one of 3 athletes in my opinion that I have seen who had no weakness in their respective sports. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods being the others.
Like Jordan, Woods, and other greats, Rice performed his best in the biggest games. In four Super Bowls: 33 Catches, 589 Yards, and 8 TDs. The numbers themselves do not fully tell the story of his amazing Super Bowls.
Watch both Super Bowl XXIV and XXIX. Despite being blowouts, Rice scored on the opening drives in both games, and then delivered the dagger in both games. His MVP performance in Super Bowl XXIII, is perhaps the greatest Super Bowl performance by a wide receiver. All this on an ankle less than 100 percent.
This article is designed to defuse any possible arguments to the contrary. I have seen countless articles and comments of message boards attempting to diminish what Rice had accomplished, in favor of an active player, or perhaps a historic player. As we live in a society always looking at "the now", sometimes we are too quick to declare the title "greatest of all time" to someone or something current when it has yet to surpass it's predecessor.
Theory No. 1: Rice was only the greatest because of his two Hall of Fame quarterbacks:
On the surface, this looks like a good theory. I mean, Joe Montana is arguably the greatest QB of all time. Steve Young was a pretty good Hall of Famer in his own right. That must be why Jerry achieved all those numbers right? Wrong.
First, let's look at why Joe Montana is one of the greatest if not the greatest of all time. It's because of his performances in Super Bowls or in pressure situations was second to none. Not because he had a strong arm, which is one of the most ideal attributes for a wide receiver. Not because he threw for 4,000 yards every year like Manning, Favre, Marino, or the 10 QBs in 2009.
Fact is, Joe never threw for 4,000 yards. One more fact about Joe Montana: He started the majority of games for the 49ers
for nine seasons. Four without Jerry and five with Jerry. In the five years with Jerry, he was a three time First Team All Pro QB, and two time NFL MVP. In the four years without Jerry, he had 0 First Team All Pros, and 0 NFL MVP.
Sure, Montana was one of the most accurate QBs of all time, which helped. But his below average deep ball hindered Rice just a bit to offset the accuracy. In fact, Rice's most productive games during the Montana era was with a less heralded, strong armed QB named Jeff Kemp.
To further bury the QBs made Rice theory, from 1985-1996, Rice played 24 games with starting QBs not named Montana or Young. In those 24 games, Rice caught 134 passes for 2,177 yards and scored 24 TDs, while the 49ers were 16-7-1 That is 5.6 catches, 90.7 yards, and one TD per game. With Montana and Young, 5.6 catches, 86.6 yards, and 0.86 TD per game.
Theory No. 2: Randy Moss
Moss is faster and can jump higher. So, he must be the greatest, right?
Sure, and Vince Carter in his prime was better than Michael Jordan, right? Moss may have a faster 40 time than Jerry, but Rice's game speed and the ability to catch up to a deep ball was second to none. No doubt Moss had more natural speed, but game speed with the pads on? It's very close. And the next time Randy Moss
goes over the middle, catches a pass, sheds tacklers, and takes it 60 yards, will be the first time. Jerry made a living out of that.
Rice played in a much more desirable situation than Randy Moss. Two Hall of Fame QBs on one of the greatest dynasties ever?
Every Quarterback Moss had in Minnesota
, although Culpepper, Cunningham, and Jeff George weren't as good as Montana or Young, they all had rocket arms. As I mentioned earlier, for a wide receiver, especially a deep threat like Moss, you can't ask for more from a QB. Also, with the aid of a more passer-friendly league during Moss' entire career, he has enjoyed five seasons where his QB threw for more than 3,800 yards and three seasons of 30+ TDs, during his 12 year career to this point. In Rice's first 12 seasons, he had three seasons where his QB threw for 3,800 + and two seasons of 30+ TDs.
The teams Moss played for in Minnesota for the most part gave up a chunk of points, therefore they had to outscore the opponent, another huge advantage for a WR. Playing alongside one of the greatest possession wide receivers of all time in Cris Carter didn't hurt either. What an asset to have if you are a deep threat.
Moss played two miserable years in Oakland
where he started off well, but quickly gave up. His numbers there were similar to Jerry Rice's last two seasons with Oakland, with similar teams, but Jerry was 41 and 42 years old. Then Moss is traded for a fourth round pick to New England
. Moss teams up with Brady, Wes Welker (another top flight possession receiver), and a go for the throat coach who had them slinging it when it was 42-0. They had a historic 2007 season, then Moss disappears in the playoffs and Super Bowl, while the Patriots lose.
Bottom line in Rice-Moss: Moss had a more favorable situation to put up numbers, and played in a pass happy era for his entire career, yet his numbers in his prime fall short of Rice's in his prime. Also, Rice had 10 First Team All Pro Selections in his first 12 years. Moss had 4 in his first 12 years. Rice was a 2 Time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Moss and every other WR since the award came out, 0. Rice was a unanimous pick for the All-Decade teams of the 80s and 90s, while being named NFL Player of the Decade for the 90s. Moss was the 3rd WR on the 2000's All-Decade Team with 0 Player of the Decade Awards.
Also in the AP MVP era, Rice, Moss, Steve Largent, and Otis Taylor are the only wide receivers to ever receive MVP votes. Rice was runner-up twice (1987 and 1995) and received votes 4 other seasons for a total of 6 seasons receiving votes. Moss received votes in his rookie season in 1998, Largent and Taylor received votes also 1 time each. Rice took home every other MVP award known to mankind in 1987, but was somehow slighted the award by the AP.
Theory No. 3: Don Hutson
I rank Johnny Unitas and Sammy Baugh as one of my top five Quarterbacks. Jim Brown is still the most dominant running back of all time. So I am not slighting the players of the past. Hutson ran circles around the league from 1935-45, which deserves its place in history. But that place belongs nowhere close to Rice's.
Sure, Hutson's 99 TDs in his 11 NFL seasons, plus the fact that he led the NFL in touchdowns eight times is amazing.
To really slam home this debacle of a theory, take the majority of those guys away, send them to war, and replace them with even worse talent. That is exactly what Hutson faced in his last four seasons from 1942-45, which were coincidentally his four best seasons.
While Rice faced Deion Sanders, Darrell Green, Rod Woodson, not to mention team defenses that Hutson never faced, Hutson might have been covered by mailmen, dentists, or whoever else wanted to play.
That and the lack of visual evidence from Hutson only leaves this argument short.
Ask someone about what made him so good, the only response you'll hear are stats.
Theory No. 4: Rice was surrounded by great offensive weapons:
The 49ers West Coast offense was designed to spread the football around using precision, timing, and crisp execution by the quarterback and wide receivers. The short slant was the bread and butter, and Jerry Rice did it better than anyone, turning many into long gains.
During the 80s and 90s, you had Roger Craig then Ricky Watters. You had Dwight Clark, to John Taylor, to J.J. Stokes, to Terrell Owens
. Brent Jones the tight end. One might think that Rice had his way with opposing defenses because they were worried about all these players too. The interesting thing is all these players covered a 15 year span, and the only constant was Rice. It was Rice that opened it up for them.
Let's look at four of Rice's top six seasons:
In 1995, Rice caught 122 passes for an NFL Record 1,848 Receiving Yards and scored 17 Total TDs (15 Rec). Who was the great No. 2 wide receiver of that year? J.J. Stokes caught 38 for 517 Yards and four TDs. Brent Jones caught 60 for 595 and three TDs. Derrick Loville led the team with 723 rushing yards, and had 87 receptions as the 49ers ranked 23rd in the NFL in rushing offense. Elvis Grbac started five games and came in for a banged up Young in many others. The offensive line was decimated with injuries. This year truly showed how good Rice was, who was runner up to Favre for the AP MVP Award.
In 1990, Rice became the fourth player to catch 100 passes or more in a season. He was named Sport Magazine's NFL Player of the Year catching 100 passes for 1,502 Yards and 13 TD Receptions. The 49ers had a balanced running game which ranked 18th in rushing offense. Craig had 439 Yards and Dexter Carter had 460. Hardly mind boggling. As for the other WRs, Taylor caught 49 for 748 Yards and seven TDs and Brent Jones 56 Receptions for 747 Yards and five TDs.
1987: Rice had perhaps the greatest season ever by a WR. 23 TDs (22 Rec) in just 12 games, while catching 65 for 1,078 Yards.The AP Offensive Player of the Year helped the 49ers have the No. 1 offense in the NFL in yards and scoring. The 49ers did have the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL. They had a balanced running game. Craig and Rathman were also the most productive receivers that year besides Rice. In fact, the best season by a WR or TE that year alongside Rice was 29 Rec. for 450 Yards and five TDs.
1986: Rice was the Sports Illustrated NFL Player of the Year. He caught 86 passes for 1,570 Yards and 16 TDs (15 Rec). He had a backup QB for eight games, and Montana for the other eight. The 49ers running game was balanced and they ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing. Clark was the No. 2 WR with 61 rec. for 794 Yards and two TDs.
As you can see, Rice was pretty much the only dominant player for the 49ers offense during his prime. Yes, Craig had some really good seasons, but Rice had four of his top six seasons without much help. Defenses keyed on Rice all the time, yet he amassed these spectacular numbers, no matter who the QB was. Rice opened everything up for Rathman, Craig, and Brent Jones. And to do it on an offense that spreads the ball around to everyone, rather than feeding your superstar, is equally amazing.