(Ed. Note: This piece originally ran September 6, 2005. Naturally, it pissed of those modern fans who believe John Elway invented football at Stanford in 1982.)
In a rare moment of sobriety, we remember the walls of our cardboard chalet echoing as the lid was slammed shut on the proposition that Jerry Rice
was the greatest football player of all time.
And when we use Jim Brown to slam shut
a lid, that LID STAYS SLAMMED SHUT. Even if we would like to make a case for Bobby Bell as Brown's defensive equivalent, that case might well be as fizzy as a 12-pack of Old Milwaukee and more anecdotal than my grandfather after a 98 (that's seven 7&7s). And in a future column, we may revive the old Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain debate by reminding readers of the legacy of another Cleveland Brown, Otto Graham, the greatest winning quarterback
in NFL history.
But for now, there are a couple of points to make about Rice, who retired yesterday after a brilliant, record-shattering 20-year NFL career
. When baseball guru Bill James produced all-time rankings of players, he made two separate lists, one for "peak value" and the other for "career value." Certainly Rice's career value is unparalleled. Like a gridiron equivalent of Hank Aaron or Eddie Collins, he turned in top-flight seasons in three different decades – including a mini-revival in Oakland – and his ability to deliver first downs and touchdowns remained impressive. He played 20 seasons, and really only two of them were duds (one of those due to injury). Longevity, in this instance, is a strong indicator of quality, in and of itself.
So surely, if Rice's career value is so high but he's not the greatest player of all time, he's got to be the greatest receiver of all time, right?
Wrong. Much as we'd like to agree, the Cold, Hard Football Facts suggest otherwise. There's a very good argument to be made for the guy who could be said to have invented the pass pattern: Don Hutson, who tore up defenses for Green Bay from 1935 to 1945. If greatness is reflected in dominance, no receiver was greater because no receiver ever dominated his game the way Hutson did.
Rice has more catches (1,549) than anyone in NFL history, obviously. But no one has ever led the league in receiving eight times – except Hutson. Eight times in 11 seasons. Runner-up Lionel Taylor of Denver led the AFL five times in the earliest days of the upstart league's existence. Rice led the league in receptions twice (1990, 1996). Hutson led the NFL five years in a row (1941-45)! No one else, not even Rice, has come close. Among NFL receivers, just three (Tom Fears of the L.A. Rams, Pete Pihos of Philadelphia and Raymond Berry of Baltimore) boast three consecutive years leading the league in receptions. Taylor topped the AFL receiving list its first four years (1960-63), putting him alone at second on this elite list of reception leaders. Hutson retired with 488 receptions, more than doubling the previous record of 190 catches.
What about yards, you say? Rice led the league in receiving yardage six times in his 20 seasons. Impressive, for sure. But Hutson led the league seven times, including a record four years in a row (1941-44). Hutson doesn't figure in the yardage-per-season figures, but he does have four games with over 200 yards, second in NFL history only to Lance Alworth's five. (Rice and Charley Hennigan, who played for Houston of the AFL, also have four 200-yard games on their resume). Hutson, in other words, was a big-play receiver. In the first play from scrimmage of his first NFL start (his second game) Hutson caught an 83-yard touchdown pass from Arnie Herber, which led the Packers to a 7-0 win over Chicago.
Rice led the league in touchdown catches six times in 20 seasons, but Hutson led the league nine times in 11. He retired in 1945 with 99 touchdown catches, which was the record until Steve Largent passed it a full 44 seasons later. Sixty years after Hutson last played, back in the Stone Age of NFL offense, he remains fifth on the all-time touchdown reception list. He led the NFL in scores every year between 1935 and 1938, skipped 1939, and then every year from 1940 through 1944. His 17 TD receptions in the 11-game 1942 season has been eclipsed by guys playing longer seasons, including Rice's record 22 in the 16-game 1987 season, but remains the Packers team record.
Rice was a premier postseason performer
, and he won three championships in his career with San Francisco before ending up on the losing end of Super Bowl XXXVII, when he wore an Oakland uniform. Hutson also went 3-1 in NFL title games, winning championships for TitleTown in 1936 (beating the Boston Redskins at the Polo Grounds in New York City), 1939 and 1944. The Packers lost to the Giants in the 1938 championship game.
Hutson's 1942 campaign was probably the greatest season by a receiver in NFL history. In 11 games, Hutson caught 74 passes for 1,211 yards (16.4 YPC) and 17 TDs – numbers that even by today's pass-happy standards would have put Hutson in the Pro Bowl. Rice, the dominant receiver of our day, played his entire career with the benefit of a 16-game schedule. He surpassed 17 TDs just once and equaled it one other time. Projected over a 16-game schedule, Hutson would have caught 108 passes for 1,761 yards and 25 TDs in 1942.
The year 1942 was for receiving what Babe Ruth's 1920 season was for home runs. Ruth hit 54 dingers that year, one season after hitting 29. Before Ruth came along, the home run record stood at 16.
Pros and cons
Hutson did it all in an era where the forward pass was still considered risky. Of course, the era argument works both for and against Hutson. You might argue that because the passing game wasn't featured, it was easier for Hutson to lead the league so often. The obvious rejoinder is that Green Bay passed so much because, in Hutson, they had a unique receiving threat.
In the two-way era, he also played defensive back for the Packers. He had 30 interceptions in the seven seasons those stats were kept. He was also a place kicker, though not an exceptional one by the standards of the day. But remember, he was kicking, and Hebner was throwing, a ball which was as close to a rugby ball as it is to today's aerodynamic spiraller. Just ask Bennie Friedman.
We don't doubt that Jerry Rice would have grabbed some picks if the NFL still played both ways. And you can argue that the NFL between 1942-44 wasn't as strong as it would have been had not coaches Eisenhower and MacArthur drafted players away for the big games against the Berlin '39ers and Tokyo Rising Suns. But from 1935-41, that argument doesn't apply.
A great comparison can be made across the eras as well. In the same sense that Hutson was lucky to have joined the Packers when they were coached by Curly Lambeau – who wasn't philosophically opposed to the forward pass, like most contemporary coaches – he also had capable quarterbacks. He was thrown to by Herber and then by Cecil Isbell, both fine passers for the time, but he also had good results catching balls from Irv Comp. Rice, of course, was a perfect fit for Bill Walsh's offense, and blessed with Joe Montana and Steve Young tossing him the ball. But the 49er West Coast offense flourished without Rice. Green Bay's passing floundered in the years after Hutson.
In 1945, the Packers went 6-4 with Hutson catching 47 passes for 834 yards (17.9 per catch) and 9 TDs (the equivalent of 75 for 1,326 and 15 TDs in a 16-game season). The Packers offense was second in the NFL, scoring 25.8 points per game. The next season, without Hutson, the Pack managed to finish 6-5, but their offensive production was cut virtually in half, falling to just 13.4 PPG.
In Rice's last season in San Francisco, he caught 75 passes for 805 yards (10.5 per catch) and 7 TDs. The 49ers went 6-10. The next year, without Rice, and with no one stepping up as second receiver, they improved to 12-4 as Terrell Owens (93 for 1,412 and 16 TDs) filled both the No. 1 and No. 2 receiving slots.
We don't doubt that Hutson could have competed well into the succeeding decades, even at his 1930s-40s stature: 6-foot-1-inch, 183 pounds. In that sense the receiver he most resembles is a Raymond Berry, but who was also an exceptional deep threat. As much as anything, Hutson was an athlete; he went to Alabama on a baseball scholarship, and was a football walk-on.
The "Alabama Antelope" never made All-America for the Tide. It wasn't until he got into an aerial context that his real skills showed. He was the pioneer: the first guy with the curved stick, the first one shooting the jump shot. No one else in his 11 years was even close to him as a receiver. Jerry Rice was very good for longer than anyone in football history. He was great for a similar time as Hutson, perhaps longer (of course, Hutson had to make a living after football, which was a great career-shortener). But Rice was less dominant at his peak and wasn't the trailblazer the Hutson was. All of which suggests that Rice may rank No. 2 on the all-time list.
Iron Mike Carlson broadcasts the NFL for Britain's Channel 5, covers NFL Europe for Pro Football Weekly
, the International Herald Tribune
, and NFL.com
, and will be writing Friday Morning Tight End weekly during the season for NFLUK.com
. The New England native has wrung every possible inch of football mileage from having played college lacrosse with Bill Belichick at Wesleyan when Bill was a freshman and didn't play football, thus missing the opportunity to wring appropriate mileage from Iron Mike. Carlson attributes his rapid decline in intelligence during his teenaged years not to playing football in high school and college, though he did, nor to drugs, though he might have, but to over-indulgence in Hull's Export, Narragansett and Pabst Blue Ribbon. He now lives in Haslemere, England, within striking distance of the Ringwood and Harvey's Breweries.