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Jerry Rice’s records are essentially unbreakable. Over a marvelous twenty-year career, Rice caught 41 more touchdowns than Randy Moss, 44 more than Terrell Owens, and 67 more than every player other than Moss and Owens. He also holds the overall touchdowns mark, with 33 more touchdowns than Emmitt Smith, 46 more than LaDainian Tomlinson, and over 50 touchdowns more than every other player in NFL history. If you check the NFL records books, no player has finished his career with more than 16,000 receiving yards and fewer than 22,895 receiving yards: that’s how wide the gulf is between @JerryRice and the rest of the great wide receivers.

But there is one record that possibly, maybe, hey you never know could be broken. Jerry Rice is the career leader with 1,549 receptions. For some perspective, Steve Largent was the first player to reach the 800 receptions mark, and Art Monk passed Largent in 1992. Rice caught the still-active Monk in the final game of the 1995 regular season. Monk would retire after the season with 940 catches to his name; as he laced up his cleats for the last time, he was the career leader in receptions. When he came off the field that day, he had been relegated to number two. That’s because 700 miles away, Rice caught 12 passes against the Falcons, bringing his career total up to 942. Oh, and Rice also set the single-season record for receiving yards that day, too. Rice turned 34 in 1996; up until that point, only Charlie Joiner (325) had recorded more than 300 receptions after his age 33 season. Even though Rice missed nearly the entire 1997 season due to injury, he still caught 607 passes after 1995. Which is why we always assumed this record was unbreakable.

However, as teams began passing more frequently (and more conservatively) than ever before, some modern receivers have compiled massive receptions totals. Did you know that Tony Gonzalez is number two all-time in career receptions? With 1,242 catches, Gonzalez has a 140-catch lead on #3 man Marvin Harrison, but Gonzalez still trails Jerry Rice by 307 catches.

But what about Gonzalez’ statistical doppelganger, Jason Witten? Four years ago, I wrote that Witten was going to find himself in the Hall of Fame because of his massive numbers:

Jason Witten entered the NFL at age 21. That’s very young for a player at any position, let alone tight end. So how has he done?

  • Through age 22, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • Through age 23, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • Through age 25, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • Through age 26 (the 2008 season), he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
  • With 40 receptions and 472 receiving yards in 2009, he will have more receptions and more receiving yards than any other tight end through the age of twenty-seven.

Witten hasn’t slowed down since I wrote that article. With 806 receptions, he has the most catches of any player through age 30 in history (although Larry Fitzgerald should catch him next year). I thought it would be interesting to chart the career receptions totals of Rice, Witten, and Gonzalez. The graph below shows the career receptions of each player at the end of each season, with age on the X-axis and career receptions on the Y-axis. Witten is in Cowboys blue and silver; unfortunately Chiefs fans, I chose to reserve red and gold for Rice, leaving Gonzalez in Falcons black and red.

Rice Witten Gonzalez career receptions

Even now, Gonzalez has a lead on Rice, and he’ll be 36 catches ahead of Rice after 2013 even if he doesn’t catch a single pass. Of course, Rice went (literally) off the chart in his final years, making it essentially impossible for Gonzalez to catch him.

But Witten has basically had the same career as Gonzalez but with an even larger buffer against Rice. Witten’s lead on Gonzalez grew significantly this year thanks to a 110-catch season at age 30 (the year Gonzalez had just 73 catches), but ages 31 to 33 were ridiculous years for both Gonzalez and Rice. The odds are very much against Witten getting to 1,549 catches, but becoming the second player to hit the 1400-catch mark is a realistic (and incredibly impressive) goal.

The left columns in the table below shows the number of career receptions through each age for each of Rice, Gonzalez, and Witten. The right three columns show the number of catches by each player at each age.

AgeRice (C)Gonzalez (C)Witten (C)Rice (S)Gonzalez (S)Witten (S)

Witten has a nearly 200-catch lead on Rice through age thirty. If we assume Witten can stay healthy in each of the next five years, he’ll get an even bigger buffer when he hits age 35. If we give Witten 351 catches over the next five years, he’ll be at 1157, giving him a 100-catch lead on Rice. Based on what Rice did after age 35, that’s not going to be anywhere near enough. If Witten wants a realistic shot, he’s going to need to keep pumping out 90-100 catch seasons for the next four years, at least. In any event, Witten will be able to keep this dream up for awhile: he needs just 38 catches in 2013 to end the year with the most receptions of any player through age thirty-one.

  • Tim Truemper

    Us old timers can recall that Raymond Berry’s receiving record might not be passed (thanks to the paltry passing numbers of the 70’s), that Jim Brown would not be surpassed (given that when he retired he was 4000 yards higher than # 2, Jim Taylor), and that Unitas’ record of 47 straight games with a TD was defintintely never going to be broken (I think Peter King listed this as records that will never be broken in an old SI article). And yet, all were broken. Regardless, given Rice’s unusual longevity and amazing consistency, it will truly be unusual for anyone to beat his receiving record. For now, the game just does not let 40+ year old receivers to thrive. It had no precedent before Rice and there appears to be no successor. Its interesting to see how Witten’s head start on receptions due to his young age at the start of the NFL career compares to Rice. And given Witten’s toughness and durability, I see him going on to age 36 to 37. But 100 catches on a regular basis? Well, unlikely. But then again, who would have predicted Rice’s career longevity? Which sort of begs the question, what other records appear to be “unbreakable?”

    • Chase Stuart

      The interesting thing to me is that Rice caught just 56 passes during his age 21, 22, 23, and 35 seasons. During that time, Gonzalez caught 248 passes. So due to injury (age 35) and the rules prohibiting juniors from declaring (age 22), Rice missed two full seasons. And while entering the NFL at 22 is normal, some players like Gonzalez do enter at age 21.

      Nobody has a prayer (at least, I don’t think) of matching what Rice did from ages 24 to 34 and 36+. From age 24 to 34, Rice caught 1,001 passes, which ranks second to Marvin Harrison (1,022). Gonzalez was exactly 100 behind Rice over that span. But from 36+, Rice is at 492, Joiner 219, Brown 157, TO 127, and Irving Fryar (115) is the only other player over 100.

      Essentially, you need to get in early like Larry Fitzgerald (who, as noted above, will pass Witten this time next year — he’s a year younger), play like Marvin Harrison during your prime, and then have a Charlie Joiner-esque end to your career. If you don’t get hurt at age 35, and do all of those things, you might — just might — catch Rice.

      Witten is at least on the path, but yeah, the odds are pretty low.

  • Richie

    Has Gonzalez officially announced if he is retired or not? Back in January he was saying something like 99% sure he would retire. But then I thought I heard him waver a bit recently.

    It sure seems like Gonzalez could break Rice’s record if he wanted to, with a 93-catch season at age 36. ~4 seasons could get him there.

    • Chase Stuart

      Gonzalez has announced that he is coming back, but it will only be for one year (or maybe two if something changes). I think we can safely say he’s out of the running.

  • Richie

    It looks like other active receivers who have started off with a good pace are Fitzgerald (you mentioned) with 764 receptions through age 29 (better than the 3 guys above) and Brandon Marshall with 612 through age 28 (just behind Witten). But Marshall was a part-time player at age 22, so basically lost a year.

    The key (obviously) to Rice’s numbers are his insane production in his late 30s and early 40s when most players can’t produce, or have retired.

    But, with the NFL so pass-heavy now, it seems likely that some young receiver is going to come along who can average 100-110 receptions over his first 7 or 8 seasons, which could help him not need to be a 90+ catch guy at age 40. (Every time I look at Rice stats I get blown away. It’s almost like Wilt Chamberlain.)

    Looking at some of the really young receivers, nobody is jumping out as a potential candidate. AJ Green is averaging 81 catches, but he was a 23-year-old rookie, so he’s already fallen behind. Gronkowski has 187 catches through age 23, but may be injury-prone, and just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who might be able to sustain.

    Poor Larry Fitzgerald’s catches are really dying, presumably because of his QB situation. He went from averaging about 93 with Warner to 80 (and falling) with non-Warner QBs. So he would basically need to double his career and play at a high level through age 38 to catch Rice.

    • Chase Stuart

      Agreed. Wes Welker is the ideal candidate — he set the record for most receptions in a six-year span — but the late start doomed him. If Tavon Austin could turn into a Wes Welker type of player, I suppose it could work. But let’s remember, Wes Welker type of players need to play with a HOF QB and on a pass-happy team that runs a zillion plays, so the odds seem pretty long.

      • Louis Carman

        it’s jumping the gun a little but Greg Jennings caught from both Favre and Rodgers. Rodgers hasn’t cemented a HOF career yet but even if he declines his numbers will still get him there. unless of course he gets injured, but Jennings will miss those years anyway.

  • Tim Truemper

    Thinking of Rice’s career, what other receiver played with two HOF QB’s?