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I was planning on ignoring the latest Randy Moss news, using that word liberally as it applies to things said on media day. In case you missed it, Moss said yesterday that he believes he is the greatest receiver of all time. Moss is an obvious future Hall of Famer, but Jason Lisk gave Moss’ comments the appropriate treatment yesterday.

Today, though, Moss upped the ante by noting that “Jerry Rice had two Hall of Fame QBs his whole career. Give me that and see where my numbers are.” Yes, Rice was fortunate to play with Joe Montana and Steve Young, , but there is a pretty simple response to that. I wrote that response when Rice was a finalist for the Hall of Fame three years ago. You can read the full HOF profile I wrote on Rice, but I’ve reprinted Part III below:

No one questions Rice’s legitimacy as a Hall of Famer. But when it comes to Rice’s ultimate legacy, the question is whether he was one of the greatest players ever, or the greatest player ever. And there will be some who think Rice’s otherworldly numbers (aka Parts I and II) need to be discounted because he benefited so much from playing with Joe Montana and Steve Young for the majority of his career. Clearly, Rice was fortunate to play with Montana and Young. No one disputes that. The question is: by how much? That’s an impossible question to answer, but what we can do is look at the seasons during which Rice was working with a non-Montana/Young QB for a substantial amount of time:

  • In Rice’s rookie year, Montana missed one game. Matt Cavanaugh started against the Eagles, who had one of the best pass defenses in the league. Rice caught 3 passes for 71 yards and a score.
  • In 1986, Rice’s second season, Montana suffered a severe back injury in week one that nearly ended his career. Jeff Kemp (6) and Mike Moroski (2) started half of the season before Montana came back. In those eight games, Rice caught 40 passes for 820 yards and 9 TDs. Over sixteen games, 80 receptions, 1640 yards and 18 TDs would have been the most impressive season by any receiver in the league. Excluding Rice (who had 86-1570-15), Stanley Morgan had the second most receiving yards (1491) and Wesley Walker was second in receiving touchdowns (12). And yes, to those observant readers, Rice’s numbers that season were better without a gimpy Montana than with one.
  • Montana and Young would start every non-strike game over the next four seasons, so let’s skip ahead to 1991. Montana had a season-ending elbow injury in the pre-season and Young injured his knee in mid-season. Steve Bono started six games for the 49ers, and Rice caught 33 passes for 415 yards and four scores playing with Bono. After losing their first start under Bono, the 49ers would win their next five games. Pro-rated over 16 games, Rice (88 receptions, 1107 yards, 10.7 TDs) would have ranked 4th, 8th and 5th in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs with Bono.
  • In 1995, Young went down again, and this time Elvis Grbac took over. In five starts, Rice put up an absurd 31-550-4, for a pro-rated 99-1760-12.8 (actual 122-1848-15). Those 1760 receiving yards would be good enough for #2 all-time on the single-season list.
  • Young missed four more starts in 1996, with Grbac again picking up the slack. Rice scored in every game, and caught 27 passes for 322 yards and 5 scores. The pro-rated Rice would have led the league with his 108 catches and ranked 4th with his 1288 yards; his 20 TDs would outpace the #2 man by six scores. The actual Rice had 108-1254-8.

So for 5 seasons, Grbac (9), Kemp (6), Bono (6), Moroski (2) and Cavanugh (1) started 24 games for the 49ers. In exactly a year and a half’s worth of games, Rice caught 134 passes for 2,177 yards and 23 TDs, and ran for one score as well. That’s an average season of 89 catches, 1451 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, or roughly the career best season for nearly every WR who has ever played the game. And, of course, only 25% of those games came during what we would typically call a wide receiver’s prime. Eighteen of those 24 games that he played without Montana or Young came during Rice’s first or second season, or when he was 33- or 34-years old. In ’95 and ’96, playing at an age when most receivers start slowing down, catching passes from Elvis Grbac, and playing with Derek Loville and Terry Kirby at RB, Rice put up numbers that could arguably pass for the best season of Cris Carter’s or Steve Largent’s career.

And then there are the Jeff Garcia and the Rich Gannon years.

Rice’s two worst seasons in San Francisco (ignoring 1997, when he missed most of the season with a torn ACL) were the two seasons when Garcia was the 49ers primary QB. In 1999, he had 830 receiving yards and 5 scores, and the next season he had 805 yards and seven touchdowns. Far from great numbers, but he had a good excuse: Rice was 37 and 38 years old. Only two players in NFL history, Rice and Charlie Joiner, have caught even 600 yards worth of passes at age 37 or older. Only a handful of receivers in NFL history have caught any passes at age 37 or older. It’s easy to be blinded by the standard Rice set for himself, but apart from one Charlie Joiner season, those two disappointing seasons were the best in NFL history for a man of his age. [Since I originally wrote this, Terrell Owens gained 983 yards at age 37, but no other receiver that age had even 200 yards. Owens did not play at age 38 or 39.] And then he moved to Oakland and blew those seasons away.

Of all the unbreakable records set by Rice, what he did in Oakland may be the most impressive. At age 40, he caught 92 passes for over 1200 yards. No other player in NFL history has gained a single yard receiving while in his 40s.

One final note: in the summer, I calculated what percentage of receiving yards came from which quarterback for over 100 receivers. For Rice, 37% came from Young, 27% from Montana, 12% from Gannon, 6% from Garcia, 5%- from Grbac, and the remainder from his other quarterbacks. For Moss, 38% came from Daunte Culpepper, 19% from Tom Brady, 10% from Randall Cunningham, 7% from Kerry Collins, 7% from Jeff George, 7% from Matt Cassel, and less than five percent from every other passer. This excludes the 2012 season, and the contributions Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick made to Moss’ career.

  • Danish

    Young was so good i part because Rice was so good. Same for Moss and Culpepper.

    I’m sure the coding for this will be complicated to figure out, but ANY/A to other recievers could be cool to look at ie. “how good was the QB when he wasn’t targeting reciever X”.

    Related: How long back does PFR have play-by-play?

    • Chase Stuart

      ANY/A to receivers would be interesting, but I’d hesitate to draw too many conclusions from it. I’m very skeptical of penalizing receivers for incomplete passes on targets, absent drops.

      Since 2000.

  • Tay

    Jerry Rice was the greatest system player of all time. Before you label me a Randy Moss fan I think Sterling Sharpe and Michael Irvin were better wr’s than Rice was.

    • Don

      I wouldn’t label you a Moss fan, I think the label that fits what you said is “stupid.”

    • Christopher Miller

      I totally agree with you! I think that the best all around wr ever was Sterling Sharpe. I am a Dallas fan and I went to college at S Carolina, when Sterling was there. I am about the same age as both those guys. My jaw dropped when I saw your comment. Rice couldn’t have played Irvin’s role in Dallas’s 90’s offense. Sterling could do everything. Short slants across the middle, outs, go deep and even block linebackers if asked. It’s Sterling and these fools don’t even have him in the HOF.

    • disqus_5qLPTeGiyn

      what in the world. Sterling Sharpe???? you serious… this guy had 24 touchdowns in 4 seasons. Mind u moss and rice basically got that in one year.

      • Darrell Logan

        You meant to say that Sterling had 42 tds in 3 years. Before he broke his neck, Sharpe was pretty much the only other wide out Rice had to compete with in all catagories of recieving. That being said, Rice is the greatest of all time, definitely a better team player, role model, and overall football player than Moss. He never gave up on a route like Moss did. 40 YEARS OLD 92 RECEPTIONS 1200 YARDS. You guys are nuts to forget about Don Hutson, over 70 receptions and 1200 yards with 17 tds in 1942. Those numbers weren’t heard of for decades to come. He held every recieving record for 50 years until tiny Steve Largent broke them. He created every damn route these guys run. He was tripple covered in a time when there were no rules protecting him from contact downfield. Cmon guys!

        • Kyle

          I agree with everything you said. Don Hutson was so dominant in that era. His 17 TD season wasn’t broken until 42 years later when Mark Clayton broke it with 18(but it doesn’t sound as impressive when you add that Clayton had Marino and did it in 16 games..Hutson only played 11!) As far as Sharpe goes, he could have rivaled Jerry Rice’s records I truly believe that. You consider that he was 29-30 years old and was still in his prime playing with gunslinger Brett Favre who didn’t miss a game in the 90’s. It is very possible that he could have played at a high level for several more years..It’s a shame that he retired so soon.

  • Jim

    When people mention Rice had young and Montana throw to him I like to mention that 57 of his touchdowns came from qbs not in the hall of fame. Which means he caught more touchdowns from those quarterbacks not in the hall of fame than he did from Joe Montana.

    • Johnny Rotten

      Well a bunch of those TDs came in the four years he played Rich Gannon who was a Pro bowler, All pro, Pro bow MVP and NFL MVP.

      • Curt

        Look at Rich Gannon’s numbers the 13 seasons before Rice. They were below avg to mediocre at best & he wasn’t a HOFer or pro bowler. A 40yr old Rice caught over 90 passes & had over 1200yds with a mediocre QB who you wouldn’t even know if not for Rice.

        • Kyle

          Plus you add to the fact that Rice was 40 years old…As a Chiefs fan I can tell you that Gannon was very average and only became a great player because of the fact that he played with Tim Brown and Jerry Rice in Oakland.

  • bill

    They had already won 2 superbowls before he got their. He walked into the best offense in the NFL. Bill Walsh was an offensive genius. He’s great but you can’t tell me Tim Brown or Chris Carter wouldn’t have been almost as productive in the same situation.

  • bill

    If you take just 16 games played with Kerry Collins, Todd Bauman, Andrew Walter, Matt Cassel, Jeff George, and Brad Johnson, Randy Moss has 112 receptions 2212 yards and 20 TDs. Numbers can lie. Randy Moss did things that stats can’t show. When he joined the Vikings they broke the offensive points record. He was the high scorer for them. It wasn’t broken until 2007…by the Patriots… Moss was the high scorer. He changed the entire offense. Montana’s numbers weren’t even better when Rice came. The media has a grudge against Randy so I get it. Don’t make it seem like the argument is so simple though. No defensive coordinator would choose to face Moss over Rice.

    • Steven

      You do of course realize, bill, that all you’ve done is reject a set of stats that favor Jerry Rice because “Numbers can lie” — and then proposed a new set of numbers which favor Randy Moss? And you also realize that the portion of Moss’s career spent with the Patriots, a significant portion including record breaking 2007, was spent during an era in which passing offense was exploding across the entire league, and that all passing stats from the modern era are inflated relative to historical stats?

      • Chase Stuart

        He also cherry-picked the games. The comment is best ignored.

    • Curt

      If you look at Moss’ SB performance with Brady & compare it to Rice’s SB performance at age 40, you can see why Rice is better. At age 40, Rice had 77yds & a 48yd TD in the worst SB performance of his career, yet it was still better than Moss’ best SB performance w/Brady & reception leader, Wes Welker.

    • Rick Shrodeur

      What you, and a lot of people forget, is what Minnesota was like the year BEFORE Moss came into the league. The highest scoring receiving tandem that year?

      Cris Carter and Jake Reed of the Minnesota Vikings. The same pair that had set a record for WR tandems.

      Moss came into the league and went to what was already the highest scoring passing offense in the league.

  • Curt

    Most of these comments are from Rice haters who didn’t even bother to read the article. Rice’s numbers were better w/o Joe & Young than they were with them. Joe’s career high TDs was 31 & Rice caught 22 of them in only 12 games. Joe also had a 112 passer rating with Rice as the leading WR, but never had anything close to that w/o Rice. Gannon’s 13yrs before Rice were mostly below avg & he had never had anywhere near HOF like performance or SB appearance.