Would the two legends be who they are today had they never played together?
Jerry Rice and Joe Montana were recently named No. 1 and No. 4 respectively on the NFL Network's list of the Top 100 Greatest Players in NFL History.
The honor was the latest in a great pantheon of commendations for the pair of first-ballot Hall of Famers and legends of the game and served as cause for some celebration for a San Francisco 49ers organization longing for yesteryear but mired in the bitter reality of the present. Few questioned the merit of the selections directly, but a good many raised an interesting query: Had Montana and Rice never played together, would they rank so highly?
The question is not new. As long as people have questioned the legitimacy of the New York Yankees' 27 World Series titles in light of their supposedly exorbitant payroll, people have also questioned the legitimacy of Rice and Montana's career achievements, saying they would not be so lofty had the duo not had each other to fall back on.
Did Montana and Rice make each other better during the time they spent together? Undoubtedly yes. Was the effect great enough to significantly bolster their place in posterity? That is difficult to fathom.
Consider the following. Jerry Rice played 20 seasons in the NFL (1985-2004) and Joe Montana played 15 (1979-1994, excluding 1991). Their careers overlapped for just 10 years, during only eight of which they played for the same team. Furthermore, during four of those eight years, either Rice or Montana made fewer than nine starts. That leaves just four years in which the two played nine or more games together—25 percent of Montana's career and 20 percent of Rice's.
Four years is a brief time indeed in which to bolster a merely great career into the stuff of legends. Furthermore, they both made other teammates better as well. Dwight Clark and John Taylor combined for four Pro Bowl appearances under Montana, and Steve Young, Jeff Garcia and Rich Gannon made a combined nine trips to Hawaii while throwing to Rice. In fact, every quarterback with whom Rice played at least one full season made the Pro Bowl at least once during Rice's tenure with his team.
Rice holds his stature based primarily on statistics while Montana holds his based primarily on playoff mystique. Montana helped Rice rack up yards and touchdowns early in his career, but many of Rice's records are so far and beyond his next nearest competitor that one would think they would stand regardless of his QB (and the majority of his stats came during his time with Steve Young). Having a future Hall of Famer calling signals certainly cannot hurt, but did it make Rice's routes crisper, his hands softer or his vision sharper?
What about Montana? Rice was nearly always where he expected him to be and was instrumental in helping Montana accumulate many critical playoff wins that fueled his legend. But Rice's talents did not make Montana's delivery any smoother, his pocket presence any stronger or his instincts any keener.
Montana was already an established star by the time Rice arrived in 1985. He was a veteran of two Super Bowls, three Pro Bowls and had two world titles and two Super Bowl MVP honors to his credit.
Montana may barely rank in the top ten in career yardage, passer rating and touchdowns for a QB, but his playoff and especially Super Bowl statistics speak for themselves—4-0 with a 127.8 passer rating, 68 percent completion ratio, 1,142 yards, 11 touchdowns (plus two more rushing), 0 interceptions and three MVPs in four career Super Bowls. Rice had some say in the passer rating, yards and touchdowns in two of those games but did not keep Montana from throwing any interceptions.
Both Rice and Montana were unquestionably aided by one another, but either would have been great on his own. Consider also the fact both had competition that may have hampered their overall numbers.
Montana was locked in a QB controversy with Steve Young from 1987 to 1992, one which finally ended with his trade to Kansas City. In only two of Montana's 15 seasons did he start all 16 games.
Rice had to split touches with the likes of Dwight Clark, John Taylor, Brent Jones, Roger Craig, Ricky Watters, Terrell Owens and Tim Brown during his career. One can only imagine what his stats would have looked like had his teams had to be more reliant on him.
There is, however, one more interesting wrinkle to this question. If Rice and Montana never played together, that would have to assume that one of them never played for the great Bill Walsh. While the overall effect of Rice or Montana on the other is questionable, the effect that Walsh had on both men was utterly profound.
Would Rice be the player he is today without the influence of the man he said affected his life more than anyone outside his own father? Would Montana have achieved such success at QB had Walsh not built an innovative offense to cater to his unique capabilities? Had Walsh not hired Mike Holmgren to hone the raw skills of a young spry Montana, would No. 16 be held in such regard in San Francisco to this day?
These seem much more legitimate questions than Rice and Montana's effect on each other.
Had Rice not had Montana and Montana not had Rice, each would still have been spectacular. Rice would in all likelihood still be the greatest player of all time, and Montana would likely still rank in the top ten, if not the top five. However, had either not had the tutelage and mentoring of the legend Bill Walsh, that is an entirely different matter.
Luckily for the 49er Faithful, this is nothing more than an interesting mental exercise.
Keep the Faith!