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.
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.