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Wednesday, February 3, 2010
The case for Rice as the greatest ever

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Rice
Wide receiver Jerry Rice retired with his name all over the National Football League record book.
MIAMI -- Anyone advocating Jerry Rice as the greatest player in NFL history can bury the opposition in statistics.

Rice averaged 1,145 yards receiving and more than 10 total touchdowns per season -- for 20 NFL seasons.

Rice caught 69 touchdown passes -- more than the career totals for Art Monk, Michael Irvin, Charlie Joiner, John Stallworth and numerous other Hall of Fame receivers -- during a five-season span ending in 1993. Rice then caught 28 touchdown passes over the next two seasons, more than half the career total for Hall of Famer Lynn Swann.

He retired holding NFL records for:
Rice, whose selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a formality Saturday, probably enjoyed the greatest NFL career. He was probably the greatest wide receiver despite some arguments for Don Hutson. But was he the greatest player, period?

"Oh, yeah," Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said almost reflexively during Super Bowl media day.

Woodson, perhaps mindful of history as a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary team, then showed he could still backpedal a bit.

Brown
When talking about the greatest players ever, Jim Brown needs to be in the conversation.
"I mean, he is definitely up there," he said. "I don't think one player is the greatest player ever, but he is in that water-cooler conversation. Now, if you say greatest receiver, absolutely. But the greatest player, to make him the most dominant player ever in NFL history or just say pro football history, that is a profound statement. But I can say that he will be in that argument time in and time out."

The conversation might include Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Sammy Baugh, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Hutson, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders among players no longer active. And that list is probably shortchanging defensive greats such as Deacon Jones and Dick Butkus.

But Ray Lewis, arguably the greatest defensive player of the current era, didn't hesitate in singling out Rice.

"I don't know what argument you are going to make why he is not," Lewis said.

And that might be what separates Rice from the rest. There really isn't a great case against him. No one played at such a high level for as long with such grace.

"Jerry Rice doesn't rank in the all-time greats," said Saints safety Darren Sharper, a five-time Pro Bowl choice and member of the 2000s All-Decade team. "He is the greatest receiver and maybe the greatest football player of all time."

Maybe?

"I can't comment on eras that I didn't perform in," retired cornerback Deion Sanders said, "but the era I performed in, Jerry Rice is the best football player to play in that era."

On what grounds beyond the numbers?

"Work ethic, precision, routes, physical toughness, awareness, that hunger," Sanders said. "Jerry stayed hungry until the day he retired."

Perhaps more than anyone, Rice changed the way players trained, particularly during the offseason. Running sprints up a 2.5-mile hill wasn't enough. Rice would even run stairs on game days to lose weight if he felt the need to trim down.

"Not many people that own all the records spend that type of commitment and give that type of commitment in the offseason," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told reporters when Rice retired in 2005 after one final training camp, with Denver. "That's why, in my opinion, he's the greatest player to ever play the game."

Sanders
Despite playing on sub-par teams, Barry Sanders still put up Hall of Fame numbers.
The numbers Rice put up after age 30 -- 1,000 receptions for 13,546 yards and 102 touchdowns -- would put him in elite company if left to stand on their own. Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter and Terrell Owens are the only other players in league history with career totals on those levels for all three categories.

"If you ask me," Lewis said, "I'm talking about the greatest."

Rice was a 13-time Pro Bowler and 10-time first-team All-Pro choice. Only Bruce Matthews and Merlin Olsen had more Pro Bowls (14 apiece). Only Jim Otto earned as many first-team All-Pro honors. But there are many ways to measure excellence. Sometimes only a trained eye will catch them.

"People talk about excellence, and when I saw him, I saw excellence defined as attention to details," said retired defensive back Aeneas Williams, like Sanders an eight-time Pro Bowl choice and member of the 1990s All-Decade team. "There are some guys who are very good and probably Hall of Famers, and some like Jerry where, not only did it look like his shoes fit his feet, but they were so well shined and buffed that you would notice it."

Some great players exercise caution in anointing one of their peers as the greatest ever. Not so much, the rest of us.

Some boldly proclaimed Rice or Brown or Montana or others as easy choices for greatest player when I encouraged discussion on the subject Monday. The ensuing conversation did not devolve into chaos, though. Several made strong, reasoned points bearing mention:
Williams called it grace, noting that Rice wasn't the type to taunt opponents, hog the credit or indulge the selfish nature Williams said all players possess on some level.

Montana
Quarterback Joe Montana was a three-time Super Bowl MVP.
"The truly great understand that their masterpiece is on display for the benefit of those watching," Williams explained, "and they always leave the display and the perception of what we are seeing to determine the value that each person will place on him."
That's a fair and rational argument. Quarterback is the most important position, and increasingly so. Montana and the 49ers won two Super Bowls before Rice helped the organization win three more. Rice benefited from great quarterbacks throughout his career.

But receiver can be an underappreciated position, in part because so many wideouts have shown prima donna tendencies over the years. Rice wasn't that way at all. Quite the opposite.

"I've always thought the wide receivers, because of what you ask them to do, are some of the best athletes on your team, first of all," former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren said when I reached out to him for a piece on all-time great receivers. "They may be the toughest guys, the really good ones, because they get a hit a lot of times when they do not see the hit coming. There are usually collisions with those guys on every play, one way or another way. You must have tremendous courage and concentration. Not every great athlete can do that."

Rice played in 303 regular-season games, never missing a game to injury for his first 12 seasons. Even when Rice suffered a torn ACL and MCL when Warren Sapp tackled him awkwardly in 1997, he bounced back with 82 catches for 1,157 yards and nine touchdowns the following season.

Rice caught seven passes for 133 yards against the Rams on his 40th birthday, the first of seven 100-yard games in his 40s. Rice played 16 games in 17 of his 20 regular seasons. He played 17 games in 2004, when Seattle acquired him from Oakland.
Unitas
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, Johnny Unitas was a 10-time Pro Bowler.
Football is such a team sport. Rice made those around him better, no doubt, but if the Colts, Lions or Bucs hadn't passed on him in the 1985 draft, the conversation might be taking a different course.

"Being on teams that didn’t win, I know what it’s like," said Williams, who played for the Cardinals before finishing his career with the Rams. "I also know what it was like when I got here with the Rams, with a Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Kurt Warner, Orlando Pace and Isaac Bruce. It’s a difference. Jerry could have been on a lousy team and put up some of the same numbers, but would we have the same reverence for him? Collectively, they did it as a team, which caused the shoe to shine on not only one person."

Four of the 14 other modern-era finalists for the 2010 Hall of Fame class played with Rice in San Francisco. Four additional Rice-era 49ers -- Montana, Steve Young, Lott and Woodson -- are already enshrined in Canton, as is former 49ers coach Bill Walsh.

Rice outlasted and outproduced all of them.

"You talk about longevity and playing at a high level for umpteen number of years," Sharper said. "His work ethic, I think it permeated through his team and allowed for them to kind of win the championships that they did, even though they had a lot of good players. I think he always just strove for excellence, and as a football player, that is what you want to try to achieve. It's being excellent year in and year out. You have to rank him as the top receiver of all time and one of the top football players, too."

See also: Sando mailbag continues the conversation.