The San Francisco 49ers are set to retire number 80 this fall, to no one's surprise thus ensuring that Jerry Rice will be the last 49er ever to don that number (except for Isaac Bruce in training camp). However, with the way that Jerry's career epitomized the wide receiver position, I am left to wonder whether a larger honor is warranted.
Yes, Jerry will also be immortalized in Canton this August, in what fellow FC Joseph Burkey aptly called perhaps the most deserving induction the Pro Football Hall of Fame has ever seen. A fitting honor, but is it enough?
Should the whole of the NFL retire number 80 from use in honor of the great Jerry Rice?
The NFL (and AFL prior to the merger) has never honored a player league-wide in such a fashion, and precedents are few. Major League Baseball retired 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson in 1997. Granted, that was very much after the fact and was a posthumous honor for Robinson himself. Not to mention the fact that, while Robinson was a talented player, the honor was more of a reflection of the social ramifications of his career—being the first African American player in Major League Baseball—than his play on the field.
In 2000 the NHL retired number 99 from use, in honor of the widely-held greatest hockey player ever, Wayne Gretzky. The Great One holds nearly every meaningful career and single season scoring record in the NHL and it would be a difficult argument to disprove him as the greatest in NHL history. While the NBA has casually discussed the possibility of retiring 23 league-wide in honor of Michael Jordan, little concrete progress has been realized on that front.
Should the NFL set this precedent for football by honoring Jerry in such a way?
Some would ask why Jerry Rice deserves such an honor over some other legends of arguably equal status. After all, while the argument that anyone but Jerry is the best wide receiver in NFL history is ultimately frivolous, legitimate cases can be made that someone else may have been the greatest player in league history.
There are certainly plenty of good candidates, but nobody flat-out dominated a position with such absolute aplomb as Jerry did the wide receiver role.
Who was the best quarterback in league history? Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw have the most jewelry, but Dan Marino had much better stats than either. People could also make strong cases for the likes of Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, John Elway, and perhaps even Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
Who was the best running back in league history? Emmitt Smith has the stats and the rings to back them up, but is he clearly head and shoulders above the competition? Very good arguments could be made for names like Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Jim Brown.
There is no such question at wide receiver (at least not legitimately). Jerry holds an exhaustive list of career, single season, post-season, and Super Bowl records. In many cases he is so far beyond the rest of the players on the list that it is doubtful he will ever be caught.
Jerry Rice finished his career with an NFL-record 22,895 receiving yards. Who holds second place? Isaac Bruce at 15,208 yards. Since he just announced his retirement, we know that total will not change. Who is best among active players? Terrell Eldorado Owens, who is already 36 years old and has just 14,951 yards (though he claims he would be up there with Jerry if he had played with better quarterbacks throughout his career).
In order to eclipse Jerry, a player would have to gain 1,000 yards in each of 23 seasons. Catching 1,000 yards in a season is still a significant accomplishment, and even with Jerry's legendary work ethic and training, his career lasted only 20 seasons. I do not see this mark ever being broken.
Consecutive games with a reception is a similar story. Jerry holds the record with 274, a streak broken in 2004 with the Raiders. Second place belongs to Art Monk with just 183 games.
Jerry's 208 total career touchdowns, 42 game-winning touchdowns, and 589 yards for eight Super Bowl touchdowns are all NFL records as well and he also owns three Super Bowl rings and a Super Bowl MVP trophy. Beyond all the stats, he was a terrific competitor, teammate, and ambassador for the game. Jerry epitomized the role of wide receiver, model NFL player, and great teammate. He has served as a role model for droves or aspiring athletes who followed in his footsteps. Not bad for a rumored-to-be slow, scrawny kid from Mississippi who never took a snap in a major college program.
You could make a case that Jerry's stats were improved by the fact he caught passes from Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Rich Gannon throughout his career and was a part of a terrific and dangerous offense for most of his time in San Francisco. But those facts can also be used to counter that same claim. What if Joe and Steve had not had other options like Roger Craig, John Taylor, Brent Jones, and Tom Rathman? I think Jerry might have had a few more receiving yards and touchdowns.
If anyone in NFL history deserves such an honor, it has to be Jerry Rice. It is without question a huge precedent to move forward with the process of retiring a number league-wide, but when it is so clear that we will never see another player of this caliber, I believe it is warranted.
The NFL should follow the 49ers' lead, and retire number 80 for perpetuity.
Thanks for the memories, and congratulations, Jerry.
Keep the Faith!