Randy Moss's quote before the Super Bowl, in which he claimed that he was the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, got a lot of people talking. Obviously, that's more or less what Moss wanted, and the fact that Moss thinks that is fine with me. Athletes can and perhaps should be overly confident. But that's a discussion for a different post.
Our friend Gregg Easterbrook, noted anti-Semite and haughty dipshit, wrote in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column after the Super Bowl that Randy Moss would not even be in his top 10 list of all-time great wide receivers. This prompted a reader of THIS blog to send in a question to our weekly letters segment asking where Moss actually ranks among every NFL wide receiver ever. I gave a cursory half-answer, but it got me thinking: where does Moss actually rank? And more importantly, how does one evaluate greatness in the NFL?
The NFL is much different from MLB or the NBA in that it dramatically changes constantly. The NFL of even 20 years ago is completely extinct today for the most part. Paradigm shifts like the three-point line or lowering the pitcher's mound happen once in a generation in the other sports, whereas I've seen NFL offenses and defenses evolve just as dramatically several times in my own lifetime. This basically means that it's really really hard to compare one era's statistics with another's in the NFL. Context is absolutely the name of the game when evaluating greatness in the NFL. And not only is that true for the NFL in general, but it's even more true when evaluating passers and receivers. Tony Romo is fifth all-time in passer rating, 5 spots ahead of Joe Montana and 70 spots ahead of Johnny Unitas. Larry Centers has more career receptions than Steve Largent. It's bonkers-ass.
Another problem with NFL statistics is that, unlike baseball, there are very few good advanced stats. The great website Football Outsiders is an exception to this, but the depth and breadth of their statistical analysis only scratches the surface when compared to a baseball stats website like FanGraphs. You can go back to the 1901 baseball season and see advanced statistics, but you can't go back more than, say, 25 years in football. Advanced baseball stats compare people to the league average, and they take into account other adjustments that make it much easier to evaluate players from one era to another. That just doesn't exist in the same way in football.
One FURTHER complicating factor is that the contributions of a wide receiver to his team cannot be boiled down as nicely a baseball player's. There are nice round statistics in baseball that attempt to capture the entire value of a player in one number (WAR, wOBA, wRC+). Each player hits, each player plays the field. Even in basketball, each player can score, each player plays defense. There are differences as to the "how, when, where, and why" in those sports, but more or less, everyone is doing the same thing. This could not be farther from the case in football. A wide receiver's contribution to a team's winning is vastly different from a quarterback's, and from a free safety's, and from a fullback's, and from an outside linebacker's. Context is not only important era-to-era, but also position-to-position and team-to-team to degrees that aren't approached in other sports.
So basically, what I'm saying is that IT'S HARD to do this in a completely objective, neat, easily justifiable, and theoretically sound way. So the methodology I'm going to use is as follows, in order of importance:
1. Raw stats in context of the era. How many times did a wide receiver lead the league in important statistics? How did he stack up to his peers? Where the player ranks all-time will be somewhat important, but in different ways.
2. Contribution to his team/value. This will absolutely favor more recent guys, and it should. Wide receivers are way more important now than they ever have been, and I think that should be recognized. This is sort of where stats in an all-time context fit.
3. Highest height. How good was this receiver at his best? How sustained was this receiver's height as a player?
4. Importance in football history. Because I have to.
Okay, so here's the list. I predict that 0% of people will agree with it, because this is too hard to do reasonably.
10. Lance Alworth. Alworth would be higher on this list if it weren't for the fact that he played most of his career in the AFL. But he led the league in everything always during his career. With over 10,000 career receiving yards and a yards per catch of 18.9, his production on the field is fairly staggering. That's the highest yards/catch of anyone on this list. Pret-ty good.
9. Tim Brown. I don't want to put Tim Brown on this list because he's just a total "consistency matters" guy. He made 9 Pro Bowls which is a ridiculously high number, but I don't know if you could say he was ever even the 2nd-best receiver in the league in any given year. That being said, he's great across the board in terms of his career. Fifth in receptions, fifth in yards, and tied for seventh in receptions. This was mostly for bad Raiders teams. He contributed a ton of value to the teams he played on. So he squeaks in.
8. James Lofton. He had the record for receiving yards at the time of his retirement, and his peak lasted as long as anyone's on this list. He gives Moss a run for his money in terms of "best deep threat of all time" with his crazy 18.3 yards per catch. Eight Pro Bowls to go along with that historically high yards per catch give him high marks in stats compared to his era and contribution to his team. He did what he did really well and for a long time.
7. Terrell Owens. Terrell Owens is second all-time in receiving yards. Terrell Owens. Is second. How weird is that? He's also sixth in receptions and third in receiving touchdowns. All TO did was produce produce produce. Definitely the third-best receiver of the decade with the best receivers in NFL history.
6. Cris Carter. Led the league in TDs three times, which is pretty great, and receptions once. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler in an era stacked with receivers. He's very high on all the important all-time lists. He's very much overshadowed by Randy Moss because they were teammates, and I think he's criminally underrated. A great among the greats of his era.
5. Steve Largent. This is one of the guys on this list who's a "he had all the records when he retired"-type person. He didn't lead the league in much during his career, however. Among his peers, season to season, he wasn't off the charts. But when he retired, he had the most receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs ever. All these records were achieved with Dave Krieg throwing the ball to him for the most part. No disrespect to Dave Krieg, a good QB in his own right, but he's not exactly Peyton Manning, Joe Montana or Steve Young. So Largent deserves to be way high on this list.
4. Marvin Harrison. Marvin Harrison is a quintessential receiver from his era. He was good year in and year out, caught tons of passes, caught tons of touchdowns, and all of a sudden he's way up on the all-time lists. At few points might you have said he was the best receiver in the league, but his longevity, consistency, and production put him in an absolutely elite class. He's essentially the greatest manifestation of the Cris Carter/Tim Brown mold. Granted, he had one of the best QBs ever throwing to him that whole time. But that can only account for so much of his ludicrous production.
3. Randy Moss. Straight-up, all-around best deep threat in NFL history as far as I can tell. He's second all-time in receiving touchdowns behind Rice, third in receiving yards, and ninth in receptions. His heights are the highest of anyone in NFL history. He had many ups and downs, but the ups were SOOOOO up. Let's put it this way: the year he caught 23 touchdowns was arguably the best year of his career. Don't sleep on his rookie year of 1998 or his 2003 campaign. So THIS is where I put Moss on my list, definitively, fo rizzle. Greggggggg's an idiot.
2. Don Hutson. I know that in my answer in the letters segment, I said that putting Hutson at #2 was a cop out answer. That was before I actually looked into it in detail. Don Hutson, like Gordie Howe in hockey, is the only player you could say has a semi-legit case to be better than the GOAT. He led the league in receptions 8 times, receiving TDs nine times, total non-passing TDs 7 times, receiving yards 7 times, and receiving yards/game 8 times. And his contribution to those Packers teams is somewhat ridiculous. For instance, in his best season (1942), he grabbed 17 touchdowns. The Packers scored 38 total touchdowns for the year. Seems like a pretty high ratio. Off-the-charts stats when compared to his era, unparralleled contribution to his team, pretty ridiculously high height, and perhaps the most important person to ever play the position in NFL history. I don't see how I can put him any lower than #2.
1. Jerry Rice. The gaudiest all-time numbers. Top of the list for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs and it ain't even close. He's a Gretzky. There's no doubt that Rice benefited from having 2 all-time great QBs throwing to him for almost his entire career, and there's no doubt that his era saw millions of great wide receivers. But it's the degree to which he stands above everyone ever that separates him as a clear, clear #1.
Honorable Mention: Tony Gonzalez would be high on this list, but he's a tight end and this is a list of wide receivers.
So there you have it. Let the flame war begin. Do we start flame wars on this blog?