Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.
Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:
Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I’m combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don’t always fit cleanly into a single decade, I’ve gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1970-79 and 1975-84. This is the fifth installment, examining 1980-89 and 1985-94. The great receivers of the early ’80s, such as Steve Largent and Charlie Joiner, were in last week’s column.
Let’s begin with some specific categories and honors, then we’ll go in depth on the finest wide receivers of each decade.
Fastest Receiver: Willie Gault
Best Deep Threat: James Lofton
Best Hands: Steve Largent
Best Possession Receiver: Art Monk
Toughest Receiver: Art Monk
Underrated in 2016: Cris Collinsworth
Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Jerry Rice
Best Overall WR: Steve Largent
Former players who become announcers are usually overrated. Cris Collinsworth is an exception. A lot of viewers probably don’t even realize he was a player. He’s skinny, doesn’t really look like an athlete, and in the TV booth you can’t tell that he’s 6’5″. Collinsworth doesn’t talk much about his playing career, and when it comes up, he’s extremely modest, almost self-deprecating like Bob Uecker. But Uecker really wasn’t a very good baseball player. Collinsworth made three straight Pro Bowls, had two more 1,000-yard seasons in which he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, and played in two Super Bowls.
Roy Green is underrated, too. He played for the Cardinals when the rest of the NFC East dominated the NFL, and the Cardinals were an afterthought. But Green had a long, productive career. He gained at least 500 yards every season from 1981-90 (except the nine-game ’82 season), with back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons. In 1983, Green gained 1,227 yards and led the league with 14 receiving touchdowns. In 1984, he gained 1,555 receiving yards, setting the record for an NFL season, and scored 12 TDs. He retired with 8,965 career receiving yards and scored touchdowns in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.1
When Dan Marino joined the Dolphins, he carried a pair of rookie receivers, Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, to stardom with him. The Marks Brothers were both small, 5-foot-9 and under 190 pounds. Clayton had five 1,000-yard seasons, plus 996 in 1985 and 776 in the strike-shortened 1987 season. He made five Pro Bowls, and retired with 84 TDs, including 18 in his second season. Mark Duper was born Mark Dupas. But people pronounced Dupas wrong (it’s French), and he changed his name from Mark Dupas to Mark Duper. But he didn’t just change his last name, he changed his middle name, too, going from Mark Kirby Dupas to Mark Super Duper. No, I’m not kidding, and yes, I know the ’80s were awesome. Duper had four 1,000-yard seasons and made three Pro Bowls.
Willie Gault was obviously the fastest receiver of the decade, but Henry Ellard, Louis Lipps, James Lofton, and Stanley Morgan were all very fast, as well. I think the aptly-named Mike Quick was the first player of whom I heard the phrase, “If he’s even, he’s leavin’.” Gault was a record-setting track star, excelling as a sprinter, hurdler, and even bobsledder. As a wide receiver, he was more good than great. He never had a 1,000-yard season, never scored double-digit TDs, and never made a Pro Bowl. He retired with 6,635 receiving yards and 45 total touchdowns, and remains active and successful in sprinting competitions.
The two best receiving seasons of the 1980s were both strike-shortened. I’ll discuss those below, in the player summaries for Wes Chandler and Jerry Rice.
New Orleans Saints, 1978-81; San Diego Chargers, 1981-87; San Francisco 49ers, 1988
559 receptions, 8,966 yards, 56 TD
Wes Chandler did not have a long career, his best season was shortened by the 1982 strike, and his numbers are frequently dismissed as a by-product of the Air Coryell offense. In his prime, though, Chandler’s production was staggering.
People forget that Chandler was a Pro Bowler with the Saints, their only 1,000-yard receiver between 1970 and 1987. He broke 1,000 again in 1981, his first year with San Diego. In the nine-game 1982 season, Chandler finished with 49 receptions for 1,032 yards and 9 TDs. Projected to 16 games, he was on pace for 87 catches, 1,835 yards, and 16 touchdowns. That would be the fourth-best yardage mark in history, and the only one of the top four to also lead the league in touchdowns. That actually understates Chandler’s dominance, because he only played in eight of the nine games. Chandler averaged 129 receiving yards per game; only two other players even averaged 80, and one of them, Chandler’s teammate Kellen Winslow, was at 80.1. I hate to say this about a strike year, but it’s probably the most remarkable season by any receiver in the 1980s, including Jerry Rice.
Chandler made two more Pro Bowls after that, for a total of four, but ’82 was his only all-pro year. He’s often compared unfavorably with teammates Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, and with the receiver he replaced, John Jefferson. Chandler, however, had more catches, yards, and TDs than Winslow or Jefferson, and he made more Pro Bowls than Joiner. He is also the only one of the four who had a 1,000-yard season with a different team, proving his credentials outside the Air Coryell system.
San Francisco 49ers, 1979-87
506 receptions, 6,750 yards, 48 TD
“The Catch” is still famous 35 years later. With under a minute remaining in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, the 49ers trailed the Cowboys 27-21, with the ball at the Dallas six-yard line. Joe Montana rolled right and lofted a prayer into the corner of the end zone. Dwight Clark leaped into the air, higher than anyone thought he could jump, and came down with the ball, giving San Francisco a 28-27 lead after the extra point. What few fans remember is that the Cowboys nearly came back; Danny White completed a pass to Drew Pearson, who looked bound for the end zone, and came up short only because of a tackle that would be illegal today. White fumbled on the next play, clinching the game for San Francisco. People also forget that Montana threw three interceptions that day…
Clark made the Pro Bowl in 1981, but The Catch catapulted him to stardom. Clark didn’t disappoint. In 1982, he led the NFL in receptions, made another Pro Bowl, and was a consensus all-pro. He was 6’4″, a dominant possession receiver and an excellent blocker. “Clark is the kind of receiver most teams don’t have, and don’t realize they need,” said Bill Walsh. After ’82, Clark remained a good player, but not a great one. He never again made a Pro Bowl, and never had another 900-yard season. After four more pretty good seasons, Clark was reduced to a role player in 1987, and then retired, after less than a decade in pro football. For a couple of years in the early ’80s, though, he was the best possession receiver in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers, 1978-86; Los Angeles Raiders, 1987-88; Buffalo Bills, 1989-92; Los Angeles Rams, 1993; Philadelphia Eagles, 1993
764 receptions, 14,004 yards, 75 TD
James Lofton never caught 75 passes in a season, never scored double-digit TDs, and never led the league in a major statistic, unless you count yards per reception (which he led twice). But he had six 1,000-yard seasons, and probably would have had eight if not for the strikes in 1982 and 1987. He had 43 100-yard receiving games, the most between Don Maynard and Jerry Rice. He made eight Pro Bowls, and he was all-pro four times, first-team all-pro twice. He had a 16-year career that wasn’t just holding on at the end, and he retired with the most receiving yards in the history of professional football.
Like many of the best downfield receivers, Lofton challenged defenders because he was fast and explosive. He ran a 4.3 40, and at Stanford, he was not only a second team All-American football player, he was a successful sprinter and the NCAA long jump champion. Lofton averaged 18.3 yards per reception over his long career, including 18.8 in his final 1,000-yard season, when he was 35. At the time, he was the oldest player with 1,000 receiving yards in a season. On October 21, 1991, Lofton caught 8 passes for 220 yards and 2 touchdowns; he is still the oldest player with 200 yards from scrimmage in a game (35 years, 108 days).
Lofton also excelled in the playoffs, despite that most of his postseason games were played after his 33rd birthday. He caught a TD in each of his first five postseason appearances, finally breaking the streak against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, when he didn’t score but did catch a 61-yard pass. The top five oldest players with a 100-yard receiving game in the postseason are: Jerry Rice, Steve Smith, Cris Carter, and James Lofton twice — he had 149 yards and a touchdown in the 1991 Divisional Playoff, then 113 yards and 2 touchdowns in the AFC Championship. Lofton also had a team-best 92 yards in Super Bowl XXVI, when he was 35.
Washington, 1980-93; New York Jets, 1994; Philadelphia Eagles, 1995
940 receptions, 12,721 yards, 68 TD
James Arthur Monk was the last player to concurrently hold NFL records for most receptions in a season and most receptions in a career; he also held the mark for consecutive games with a reception. He had five 1,000-yard seasons and won three Super Bowl rings. When Monk caught 106 passes in 1984, no other player caught as many as 90; Monk led the league by 17 receptions (almost 20%). The record stood for nearly a decade.
Despite the rapid growth of pass-oriented horizontal offense near the end of his career, Monk held the all-time receptions record for two years and was ahead of everyone except Jerry Rice for four more. Although his touchdown totals are comparatively modest, Monk was also the first player to catch a touchdown pass in 15 consecutive seasons.
His statistical accomplishments are especially impressive because head coach Joe Gibbs preferred ball-control offense. In 1983, the year before Monk shattered the single-season reception record, Washington led the league in rush attempts. When he broke the record in 1984, they ranked 3rd in rush attempts. And of course — like most players of this era — Monk’s numbers would be even higher if he hadn’t missed a dozen games in his prime because of two strike seasons.
Monk was also the best blocking wide receiver of his era, and at times, Gibbs used him almost like a tight end. Monk was big (6’3″, 210) and strong, and a dedicated blocker, which many wide receivers aren’t. Gibbs raved, “Art’s the strongest outside receiver I have ever coached, and he’s caught a lot of balls inside and taken the hit. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s intelligent, he has everything.” Monk certainly wasn’t one of the faster receivers in the league, but he had underrated quickness and agility, and he plowed into tacklers rather than shuffling out of bounds or dropping like a quail. Lance Alworth praised him, “I like watching Art Monk, the way he fights for the ball. You don’t see a lot of guys doing that.” The media didn’t love Monk, because he was quiet and a reluctant interview subject, but fans in Washington and around the league appreciated his class and dedication to the team.
Monk was a groundbreaker, and a consistent and clutch performer. But he was turned away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame seven times before his election in 2008. Fans around the league celebrated the overdue induction of a record-breaking, championship-winning player who was the opposite of today’s diva receivers. When Monk was inducted into the PFHOF, he received the longest standing ovation in HOF history, timed by NFL Films at 4:04. Four minutes is a long time; it was really something.
New England Patriots, 1977-89; Indianapolis Colts, 1990
557 receptions, 10,716 yards, 72 TD
Stanley Morgan was the seventh player to reach 10,000 career receiving yards. That milestone has now been met 45 times (most recently by Brandon Marshall), but it used to be a pretty big deal. Seldom among the league leaders in receptions, Morgan was a speed demon who three times led the NFL in yards per reception. He is the only player in history to average more than 19 yards per catch in a career with at least 500 receptions, and this distinction will probably stand forever.
Morgan was chosen for four Pro Bowls and two second-team all-pro designations. His 38 career 100-yard receiving games through 1987 were then the 4th-most in history — trailing only Don Maynard, Lance Alworth, and Steve Largent — and he remained in the all-time top 10 until 2003. Through 2015, he’s tied for 22nd, with Anquan Boldin. That’s amazing for a player whose career began in 1977.
Morgan played in essentially the same era as Steve Largent, James Lofton, Wes Chandler, Roy Green, Drew Hill, and perhaps Art Monk (1980) or John Stallworth (1974). Morgan’s statistics fit well in that group:
Player Rec Yards TD Lofton 764 14,004 75 Largent 820 13,292 101 Monk 940 12,721 68 Morgan 557 10,716 72 Hill 634 9,831 60 Chandler 559 8,966 56 Green 559 8,965 66 Stallworth 537 8,723 63
Looking at those stats, you understand why Morgan is not in the Hall of Fame, but it’s also clear that he’s one of the best receivers who isn’t.
Fastest Receiver: Willie Gault
Best Deep Threat: Henry Ellard
Best Hands: Sterling Sharpe
Best Possession Receiver: Sterling Sharpe
Toughest Receiver: Art Monk
Underrated in 2016: Henry Ellard
Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Jerry Rice
Best Single Season: Jerry Rice, 1987
Best Overall WR: Jerry Rice
In this era, Jerry Rice rewrote our ideas of what a wide receiver could do. Was Rice the greatest possession receiver of the decade? Probably. But he was so much more than that. Was he the finest deep threat? Possibly. I don’t want to pigeonhole a player as dynamic as Jerry Rice, and I don’t want the best-of list for this decade to be dominated by a single player. Throughout this series, in cases where there’s a close call in the superlatives, I’ve tried to get away from selecting the superstar, instead highlighting less celebrated players. But I’d hate for anyone to think I don’t get the greatness of Jerry Rice.
Drew Hill had a strange career, and didn’t get a chance to shine until he was almost 30, a little like Keenan McCardell or Rod Smith. A 12th-round draft pick in 1979, Hill’s first six years were wasted as a kickoff returner (he did have a KR TD in 1980). In 1985, Hill escaped the Rams and moved to the Houston Oilers, where he became one of the most consistent and productive receivers in the league. Hill went over 900 receiving yards for seven consecutive seasons, over 1,100 yards in four of them. In his prime, Hill compared favorably to Andre Reed (see below).
Washington, 1985-92; Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, 1993-94; Miami Dolphins, 1995
699 receptions, 10,856 yards, 65 TD
Despite playing alongside Hall of Famer Art Monk, Gary Clark led Washington in receiving yardage six times in eight years — including the 1987 and 1991 Super Bowl seasons — and he was the leading receiver in Super Bowl XXVI, with 7 catches for 114 yards and a score. He made four Pro Bowls and three all-pro teams, including a first-team selection in 1987.
Clark played well for the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls in 1984, and made an immediate impact in Washington when the rival league folded. Clark was the first player in NFL history to catch at least 50 passes in each of his first 10 NFL seasons, and as of 2016 is still one of only five to accomplish the feat (Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald). You probably think of those four players as being better than Gary Clark, maybe a lot better, even though they played in much more favorable passing environments, and they played with Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks, which Clark did not.
For years, Monk was passed over in HOF voting partially because Giants players told the New York sportswriters that Clark was Washington’s best receiver. Their lack of respect for Monk may explain why he caught 900 passes, but Clark was the deep threat and the touchdown guy — the one who would really make you look bad. Monk kept the chains moving, and that helps the team, but Clark could burn you deep and embarrass you. Undersized at 5’9″ and 175 lbs., Clark nonetheless was a relentless downfield blocker.
I split up this project to look at decades every five years, rather than every 10, because of players like Clark, whose career split down the middle between the ’80s and ’90s. When you look at the 10 seasons from 1985-94, Clark probably has the best numbers this side of Jerry Rice:
Player Rec Yards TD Gary Clark 662 10,331 63 Henry Ellard 617 10,268 48 Andre Reed 676 9,536 66 Drew Hill 574 8,484 50 Art Monk 632 8,351 46 Sterling Sharpe 595 8,134 65 Irving Fryar 489 7,842 49 Mark Clayton 503 7,471 65 Michael Irvin 416 6,935 40 Andre Rison 475 6,453 60
Clark isn’t usually regarded as a serious HOF candidate, because he only played in the NFL for 11 seasons, and doesn’t have the big career numbers. Ellard, Reed, and Monk played 16 seasons each. Drew Hill played 15 seasons, Irving Fryar 17. Obviously we shouldn’t ignore longevity, but when they were in their athletic primes, Clark was perhaps the one who stood out most. Playing with a host of mostly mediocre quarterbacks (Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Steve Beuerlein), Clark posted five 1,000-yard seasons and is distinguished by truly great years in 1987 — when he didn’t have huge stats because of the strike, but gained over 1,000 yards in just 12 games — and 1991, when he had more yards (1,340) than Rice and more touchdowns (10) than Michael Irvin.
Twenty of the 25 wide receivers enshrined in Canton played with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Clark had a cup of coffee with Dan Marino in 1995, but played almost his whole career with average QBs. The knocks on Clark are his short career, and the spotlight shared with Art Monk and Ricky Sanders. Was Clark truly a great player, or was he just on a good team, in the right system, with defenses focused on the Hall of Famer on the other side of the formation? Is it more fair to reward a player for continued production past his prime, or to judge receivers mostly on what they did at their best? Clark was a two-time Super Bowl champion, a good blocker, and the playmaker who created opportunities underneath for Art Monk, while posting five 1,000-yard seasons of his own.
Los Angeles Rams, 1983-93; Washington, 1994-98; New England Patriots, 1998
814 receptions, 13,777 yards, 65 TD
When Henry Ellard retired, I figured he was a cinch for Canton. He was third all-time in receiving yards, and not just as a compiler; he was tied with Lance Alworth and Michael Irvin for third all-time in 1,000-yard seasons (7). Ellard had three seasons of over 1,300 yards, plus he was a superb punt returner: 11.3 average, 4 TDs, first-team all-pro in 1984. But receiving statistics have exploded since then, Andre Reed emerged as the most celebrated non-Rice receiver of the era, and the Hall of Fame voters ignore special teams. Ellard has received very little support from the PFHOF voters, never even reaching the semi-finalist stage, the group of 25.
I don’t entirely understand the case against Ellard. He made only three Pro Bowls, one of them as a returner. However, Ellard was not chosen to the Pro Bowl in 1990, when he was 2nd in the NFL — not just in the NFC — in receiving yards (1,294). The same thing happened in 1994, when Ellard’s 1,397 yards ranked 2nd in the league, and he was passed over. Personally, I believe reaching 1,000 yards with Heath Shuler as your quarterback deserves a statue in your honor, to say nothing of almost 1,400, but evidently the voters weren’t impressed.
Ellard may be tough to evaluate partly because he was sort of a unique receiver: a deep threat who caught a ton of passes. There are 33 players with at least 800 career receptions. Among those 33, Ellard has the highest average yards per reception — by almost a full yard. He’s 0.95 ahead of Steve Largent, 1.35 ahead of Randy Moss, 1.90 in front of Irving Fryar, and better than two yards ahead of anyone else. James Lofton, who caught 764 passes and had an even higher average than Ellard, is really the only comparable player. Paul Zimmerman described Ellard as “a possession receiver who can also burn deep.”
Ellard was a great deep threat, but he was also a chain-moving possession receiver. Nearly 90% of Ellard’s receptions went for first downs, the highest figure in his generation and probably one of the highest all-time (first down data is spotty prior to 1991). In 1994, Ellard caught 74 passes for 71 first downs, a 95.9% rate that is the highest on record. Thirty of those 74 receptions went at least 20 yards. Calvin Johnson is the only player since 1991 with more than thirty 20+ yard receptions in a season.
Ellard was a great leaper, a champion triple jumper2, and he was blazing fast, with split-second acceleration that defenders couldn’t match. He had tremendous agility, and he was an excellent route runner. Norv Turner called Ellard “the best route-runner I’ve ever seen.” Jim Everett rhapsodized about Ellard’s precision routes: “Every step has a purpose.” Writing on Twitter in 2014, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders singled out Ellard as the receiver who gave him the most trouble.3
Ellard had seven 1,000-yard seasons, and probably would have had eight without the 1987 strike (799 yards in 12 games). Through 1994, he and Jerry Rice were the only receivers with four 1,250-yard seasons. In 1996, Ellard became the second-oldest player — 16 days younger than James Lofton — with a 1,000-yard season, and the oldest (35) to lead the league in receiving average. He three times ranked first or second in the NFL in receiving yardage, and at various times he led the NFL in receiving yards (1988), yards per reception (1996), punt return average (1983), and punt return TDs (1983 and 1984). In ’88, when Ellard caught a team-record 86 passes and led the league in receiving yards, head coach John Robinson lamented the loss the league’s most explosive returner, “Part of me still wants Henry returning punts.”
Buffalo Bills, 1985-99; Washington, 2000
951 receptions, 13,198 yards, 87 TD
How many great receivers have ended their careers in Washington? Several outstanding receivers spent most or all of their careers with Washington, but there’s also Irving Fryar and Henry Ellard and Andre Reed, plus Keenan McCardell and Joey Galloway. It’s like Florida for wide receivers.
You can sum up Andre Reed’s career with two stats: he made seven Pro Bowls and was never first-team all-pro. This is a player who was always good but seldom great. He never led the league in any statistic, and in his best season ranked 5th in the NFL in receiving yardage. Reed ranks 2nd in Super Bowl history in receptions (27) and third in receiving yards (323), but never won a championship. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
Reed had four 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and he might have had five if not for the 1987 strike (752 yards in 12 games). But he was just the 25th player with four 1,000-yard seasons, and many of his contemporaries had as many or more. Brian Blades had four 1,000-yard seasons. Anthony Miller had five. Henry Ellard had seven. Jerry Rice had 14. Today, Reed is one of 69 players with at least four 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Even his seven Pro Bowls are as much a reflection of the AFC’s weakness as anything. Who was he beating out? Haywood Jeffires, Reggie Langhorne, and Al Toon?4 The real competition (Clark, Ellard, Irvin, Rice, Rison, Sharpe) was all in the NFC.
Let’s be honest about the quality of competition in the AFC. The AFC won three Super Bowls during Reed’s 16-year career, all in his last four seasons. While his peers in the NFC were going up against tough defenses, Reed feasted on the weak AFC East. During Buffalo’s Super Bowl seasons, the Colts, Jets, and Patriots went a combined 61-131 (.318). The Dolphins were pretty good, but mostly because of Dan Marino, not a strong defense.
Reed’s Bills were four times the best team in the AFC. Where would they have ranked in the NFC, competing with San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, the Bill Parcells Giants, the Brett Favre Packers, the Mike Ditka Bears? Buffalo’s dominance was at least partly an illusion created by lack of competition. To some extent, that has to color our assessment of Andre Reed, too. Let’s compare Reed to a contemporary AFC wide receiver, Drew Hill. Reed was a 21-year-old rookie in 1985, when Hill was 29 but just coming into his own. Both played on bad teams that got good around 1988.
Reed Hill Year Rec Yds TD Rec Yds TD 1985 48 637 4 64 1,169 9 1986 53 739 7 65 1,112 5 1987 57 752 5 49 989 6 1988 71 968 6 72 1,141 10 1989 88 1,312 9 66 938 8 1990 71 945 8 74 1,019 5 1991 81 1,113 10 90 1,109 4 Total 469 6,466 49 480 7,477 47
Hill, who was 35 by the end of the ’91 season, has 1,000 yards more. Maybe you think there are mitigating factors that might help Reed draw closer, and certainly he had a much longer career as an effective player; Hill’s productivity was largely limited to those seven seasons. But Reed’s stats are more consistent than outstanding, and that’s without adjusting for strength of schedule or the quality of the AFC.
Reed was a great player. He had a long career as an effective player, and he made some spectacular plays. Reed had good hands, and he was tough. He was terrific with the balls in his hands, and gained more rushing yards (500) than any career WR except Jerry Rice. He made four Super Bowl appearances and seven Pro Bowls, and he was the first player with fourteen 500-yard seasons.
But it seems to me that Reed’s long career and his visibility on a high-powered offense that appeared in four Super Bowls have led him to receive substantially more recognition than other, equally worthy players. The 1990s Bills have more Hall of Famers (6) than any of the teams that beat them in the Super Bowl. Buffalo obviously had a lot of talent in those years, but did it really have more Hall of Fame-caliber personnel than the Giants (2), Washington (4), and Dallas (4)?
It’s easy to watch Reed’s highlights and see a player who was better than his stats. But it’s also easy to consider the context of the AFC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and conclude that Reed’s stats — more consistent than exceptional — are even less impressive than they appear.
San Francisco 49ers, 1985-2000; Oakland Raiders, 2001-04; Seattle Seahawks, 2004
1,549 receptions, 22,895 yards, 197 TD
Jerry Rice, like Don Hutson 50 years before, was so exceptional that he completely skews our idea of what mere humans can accomplish. He set every major career receiving record, and set them far out of reach. He had fourteen 1,000-yard receiving seasons and ten seasons of double-digit TDs. He led the league in receptions twice, in receiving yards and TDs six times each. He holds every major Super Bowl receiving record, and he was MVP of Super Bowl XXIII.
Rice’s numbers are staggering. He had 100 catches four times. He had 1,500 yards four times. He had 15 TDs five times. I named his 1987 season the best of this decade, so let’s look at that. In 12 games, Rice caught 65 passes, for 1,078 yards and 22 TDs. He also had a rushing TD. That’s 23 touchdowns in 12 games, when the 16-game record was 24. Most major news organizations named Rice NFL MVP, the only pure wide receiver ever chosen.
It’s hard to argue with that as Rice’s best year. But you could. In 1986, he gained 1,570 receiving yards and scored 16 TDs. In 1990, he caught 100 passes, for 1,502 yards and 13 TDs, leading the league in all three categories. In 1993, he was AP’s Offensive Player of the Year, with 98 receptions for 1,503 yards and 15 TDs. Receiving stats went crazy across the league in 1995, but Rice remained at the forefront, with 122 catches for 1,848 yards — a record that stood 17 years — and 15 touchdowns.
Rice had incredible work ethic, plus speed, intelligence, and sticky hands. He was probably the greatest route runner of all time, and he was sensational with the ball in his hands. He was a great postseason player, and he sustained effectiveness throughout his long career; he had a 1,200-yard season when he was 40. Don Hutson was more dominant, but in a much different league and a shorter career. Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver of all time.5
Green Bay Packers, 1988-94
595 receptions, 8,134 yards, 65 TD
Sterling Sharpe never missed a game in his seven-year career, but a serious neck injury in 1994 forced him to end a career that almost certainly would have led to Canton. In just seven seasons, Sharpe led the NFL in receptions three times, in receiving TDs twice, and in receiving yardage once. He twice set the record for most receptions in a season, 108 in 1992 and 112 the next year. In his final season, Sharpe caught 94 passes for 1,119 yards and 18 touchdowns. He retired at age 29.
Sharpe made five Pro Bowls and was first-team all-pro three times. He had five 1,000-yard seasons and scored double-digit TDs four times. But when you look at the great receivers of this era, how do you take someone who only played seven seasons ahead of those who played twice that long? Seven seasons is really short. Tim Brown and Michael Irvin began their careers the same year as Sharpe. In his 8th-best season, Brown gained 1,104 yards. In his 8th-best season, Irvin gained 962. Cris Carter had 1,011, Henry Ellard 945, Gary Clark 892, Andre Reed 880 — those players provided value to their teams years after the hardest part of Sharpe’s job was finding a tie to match his suit.
Forced to retire in his 20s, Sharpe’s short career limited his opportunity to cement his own greatness. During his time in the league, though, he led the NFL in a major statistic six times and broke the single-season reception record twice.
- In 1981, Green was a 60-minute player. He led the Cardinals in receiving TDs, scored a rushing TD, intercepted three passes, and played on four special teams. In one game, he was in for 108 plays. “The only thing Roy hasn’t done is tape all our ankles,” joked teammate Dan Dierdorf. Green was very fast, and he had good hands. Quarterback Jim Hart said, “There are certain guys you want to throw to, guys you know will hang on to the ball. Roy’s one of those.” [↩]
- Ellard won the CIF California State Championships in 1979, set the into-the-wind world record of 56′ 5½” at Fresno State, and qualified for the 1992 Olympic trials, jumping 54′ 1″ despite not having triple-jumped in six years. In 2014, Ellard entered the USATF Masters Outdoor Championships. He won the M50 group easily, jumping 42′ 8″ and winning by eight inches. [↩]
- During Sanders’ career, only Jerry Rice gained more yardage against Deion’s teams than Ellard. [↩]
- In Reed’s seven Pro Bowl seasons, the AFC leader in receiving yards, among those who missed the Pro Bowl, was: Ernest Givins, Tim McGee, Haywood Jeffires, Drew Hill, Reggie Langhorne, Reggie Langhorne again, and Anthony Miller. [↩]
- Editor’s note: I’ve written a ton about Rice, so much so that it’s hard to think of just one piece to link to. But if there’s one piece of criticism that Rice receives, here’s the answer to it. [↩]