Rice was fast enough for 20-year career

Being considered slow turned out to be a blessing for Jerry Rice.

Sure, it caused him to fall to the 16th pick in the 1985 NFL draft, but things even out once a player enters the NFL. Rice was a 6-foot-2 receiver who supposedly had 4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash. Obviously, dropping him down in the draft because of that was an oversight. He turned out to be the greatest receiver of all time and he can thank those initial scouting reports for not only making him work harder but for allowing him to stay in the league longer.

Rice retired Monday and started the five-year clock ticking toward his induction into the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame. That he was the best receiver ever can't be argued. The numbers speak for themselves. He played 303 games, caught 1,549 passes for 22,895 yards and had 197 touchdown receptions.

Think about those numbers for a second. Rice averaged 77 catches a season for 20 years. Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison are considered the game's best active receivers, but what they'd have to do to catch Rice is staggering. Moss has 574 catches and would have to average 100 catches a year for the next 10 years to catch Rice. That means he would have to play until he was 38. Harrison has 845 catches and he's 33. To catch Rice, he would have to average 101 catches a year the next seven years and retire at the age of 40. Owens, who has 669 catches would have to average 100 receptions for close to nine seasons to get there.

Nothing is impossible but Rice has set the bar so high, it's unlikely anyone will catch him.

His nickname is G.O.A.T. It stands for Greatest of All-Time. And that's really the only debate as Rice leaves the NFL.

Was he the best player of all time?

Former Browns halfback Jim Brown was a generation's definition of the best. I grew up in Pittsburgh and Brown epitomized the NFL. He was physical. He thrived on contact. As a runner, he was unstoppable. Because of the physical nature of the game, it's hard to erase those visual memories of Brown powering through helpless defenses and getting his yards.

Rice's game was different. His execution was his artistry. He ran routes precisely. And, yes, he was physical. Rice was a good downfield blocker on running plays. He was hard to tackle once he had the ball. For those who can't forget Brown, Rice might go down in the books as 1-A for the greatest of all time.

Actually, Rice's supposed lack of speed probably allowed him to stay in the game longer. While that might sound strange, it's hard to lose speed when people never thought you had it. Rice got the most out of his tremendous athletic ability. He constantly trained as hard as anyone in the NFL to make sure his runs were powerful.

Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent of the Seahawks had a special talent. He could run as fast out of his cuts as he did going into them. Rice could do that and more. Two of the most beautiful plays in NFL history to watch were his crossing routes and his skinny posts.

The crossing patterns were particularly beautiful. Rice would slant into the middle of the field. Cornerbacks might have been faster than him, but Rice would position his body and gain momentum and speed as he would get into the middle of the field. Even faster cornerbacks didn't have a chance.

His supposed lack of speed -- along with his great conditioning -- allowed him to play until he was 42 years old. Watching him during the preseason, he still showed flashes of the past. Rice found ways to get open.

But Friday's game against the Cardinals showed why it was time to retire. First, it was weird seeing Rice in a fourth preseason game. Star players sit those games out, but this game was a proving ground for where he was as a player.

But you could see his legs were losing some power as the game progressed. Of course, they would. He's lasted six to seven years longer than most of the other great receivers in the league.

From the tape of the game, Mike Shanahan decided the younger legs of Darius Watts and Charlie Adams better filled the Broncos' tenuous role of No. 3 receiver. At 42, Rice couldn't be asked to play special teams and fourth or fifth receivers, no matter how old they are, have to play special teams or risk being inactive many weeks.

Rice didn't come back for his 21st season to be inactive. He came back to play. Shanahan was the right coach to entrust in this venture. Rice knew and liked Shanahan when he was the 49ers offensive coordinator. He could put him back at flanker and work plays in packages that were so successful in San Francisco.

Rice started camp well. Rice still had separation for defensive backs. He was still open. He still had it.

But games and seasons are marathons, not sprints. For receivers, it's the legs that go first. Rice's legs started to show signs of losing some power and it was time to retire. Rice did the right thing.

Those who criticize him for staying so long, though, are wrong. The 49ers let him leave in 2001 at the age of 38 and they were wrong in evaluating where he was at. He caught 83, 92 and 63 passes for the Raiders. More amazing is that he changed positions to make those catches.

Tim Brown had the flanker position that Rice made popular in the West Coast offense. Rice had to go to split end where he lined up directly in front of a cornerback trying to jam him. At flanker, Rice was behind the line of scrimmage and could use his guile and precision to avoid contact from cornerbacks. Rice had to work harder to beat corners at split end and he did.

The consistent Rice was fading in 2004, but he still showed flashes, especially after getting traded from Oakland to Seattle. He had a great Monday night game against the Cowboys, catching eight passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. That game earned him the right to have one more chance.

Had Rice entered the league as a speedster, he might not have lasted until he's 42. Because he was supposedly slow, he could stay longer.

Monday was the right time to retire. His next stop is the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a vote that will take no more than 4.7 seconds.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.