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Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports


Is Jerry Rice the Greatest Receiver of All Time?

Jan 23, 2021 at 5:46 PM0


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I remember sometime in the early nineties I had a discussion with a friend about who the best wide receiver in the NFL was. I expected him to name Jerry Rice as the greatest. Even at that stage, Rice had left monster receiving numbers in his wake.

My friend, an Atlanta Falcons fan, calmly informed me that Jerry Rice really wasn't that good, that Andre Rison was actually the best receiver in the NFL. You see, Rice had Montana and Young as his quarterbacks to pad his numbers. Rison did not. Rison had innate athleticism and blazing speed. Rice did not. In his twisted logic, my friend convinced himself Rison was the better receiver because his potential was greater.

After I spit my coffee all over him (okay, not really, but I should have!), I thought to myself, "Andre who?"

Fast-forward to 2020. As you read this, you may be saying, "Andre who?" That's because Rison is simply a footnote in the list of the NFL's greatest receivers.

Even in his prime, Rison didn't even shadow Rice on his worst day. That's because no one touches what Jerry Rice accomplished on the field as a receiver. No one. Every other receiver in the history of the NFL is nothing more than an echo of Rice's greatness.

Yet, there are still doubters today. The players have changed, but the argument is still the same. Many can't accept the fact that Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver in NFL history.

How can we make such a statement? What makes Jerry Rice the greatest receiver ever? Let's take a look:

Rice's statistics speak for themselves.


From this standpoint, there can be no comparison. The arguments today that share a common thread with that conversation I had from that bygone time normally go something like this:

"Randy Moss is the greatest receiver ever. He was bigger, stronger and faster than Rice. If he could have stayed healthy…"

"Terrell Owens was the greatest receiver ever. He was glitzier and more talented than Rice. If his attitude hadn't gotten the best of him…"

"Larry Fitzgerald is the greatest. If he had better quarterbacks…"

Blah. Blah. Blah.

You can't build a strong argument on woulda, shoulda, coulda. Facts often speak for themselves.

Were these players great? Yes! Were they talented receivers who could shred defenses at will? Yes! Were they better than Rice?

Um. No.

Why? Because the stat sheet states otherwise. Let's take the players we've already mentioned and use their career stat lines for starters:

Player Games Receptions Yards YPR Rec TD Rushes Yards Rsh TD
Moss 218 982 15,292 15.5 156 25 159 0
Owens 219 1078 15,934 14.8 153 39 251 3
Fitzgerald 263 1432 17,492 12.2 121 20 68 0
Rice 303 1549 22,895 14.8 197 87 645 10
All statistics are from Pro-Football-Reference.com.

What do these stats suggest? They suggest one thing: Rice put up numbers no one else has even come close to nearly two decades later. He stomps the competition in most statistical categories with few exceptions. The only one who has a chance at breaking Rice's most important records is Fitzgerald, and he's had three straight sub-1,000-yard seasons.

Rice's yards receiving total alone speaks volumes. His yards per catch is up there with the best. His receiving touchdown total may never be reproduced. Let's not forget he also had 10 rushing touchdowns to add to that total as well.

These stats don't take into account single-season accomplishments, like his 22 receiving touchdowns or his 1,848 yards receiving in one campaign. His 11 straight seasons of 1,000 receiving yards is unparalleled and may never be broken.

We haven't even mentioned his celebrated playoff history, multiple Super Bowl appearances and his Super Bowl MVP. As Rice excelled, Rice produced.

It's true, stats don't always tell the whole story, and that would be a legitimate argument here if not for two other criteria by which we can measure Rice's greatness.

Rice's character speaks for itself.


With Rice it was all about attitude. He played better because he practiced harder. He healed faster because he trained harder. He put up monster stats because he worked harder.

With Owens it was all about attitude as well, but it was the wrong kind with him. He bounced from team to team adapting but never thriving like he may have had he stayed put.

Moss had attitude. I remember seeing an example of this from an aging Moss when he played for the 49ers. He caught a pass in the middle of the field that was thrown high. Had the pass been on the money, he probably would have made a move, and off to the races.

It was obvious Moss was frustrated with the pass. He came down with the ball flat-footed, lazily turned and found himself laid out by a defender he might have had a chance to beat had he made one of his patented moves. Instead, he took the yardage on the pass. That one play shouted what kind of football character stitched Randy Moss together.

Fitzgerald is the aberration in this list. He seems to be the ultimate team player and competitor. Yet, he still falls shy of Rice's production.

Rice stands out, not just from these phenomenal players, but also from a litany of receivers who litter the history of the NFL. He was a competitor, a real football player who didn't take off a play. He harnessed his greatness when others couldn't because he harnessed his own attitude and made it work for him.

Rice's longevity speaks for itself.


Those of us who remember Rice's career often thought he wasn't quite human. Had the Greeks known Jerry Rice, they would have built a statue to him next to Adonis and Hercules. His incredible health and ability to overcome injuries that would have broken other players was more godlike than human.

In all, Rice spent 21 hard-fought seasons in the NFL. In that time, he had one injury-riddled season in 1997 when he blew out his knee, inconceivably came back near the end of the same season, only to injure the same knee his next game back. Maybe that wasn't the best decision, but no one can say it wasn't gutsy.

The next season Rice was right back at it with 82 receptions for 1,157 yards. Several years later, at a measly 40 years young, he posted 1,211. That would be his last 1,000-yard season.

What stands out is how long Rice excelled at football. Rice played his last season when he was 42. Compare that to Randy Moss, who played for the 49ers in his last season at 35. Owens lasted a little longer at 37. Rison made it to the ripe old football age of 33. Once again, Fitzgerald is the aberration, still playing at 37, albeit at reduced efficiency.

While these players' career flames were already beginning to flicker in their thirties, Rice was simply hitting his stride on his way to another touchdown or 100-yard game. He was truly an ageless wonder.

All this points to one resounding conclusion: Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver to ever play the game.

Will his records be broken? Many have tried and failed since Rice retired. With a few exceptions, no one has come close to most of his top spots.

It's probably safe to say his records will one day be broken by someone. The question is whether it will be one person as good as Rice or simply players who have specific skill sets that pick away in a team effort to unseat the reigning receiving champion.

Only time will tell. For now, it's obvious who the greatest receiver is of all time. Everyone else is a distant second.
  • Written by:
    Bill has written for a wide variety of online publications, ranging in topics from academics and education to life management and public speaking. He has also written for regional publications. However, one burning passion drives him more than most others: his obsessive loyalty to the 49ers franchise. Practically born into it, he bleeds red and gold. He also enjoys public speaking and talking about himself in the third person.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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