Jerry Rice is widely considered to be the greatest receiver in NFL history, and he played in an era where a quarterback throwing for 4,000 yards or a player racking up 1,000 yards receiving was a much more noteworthy accomplishment than it is now. The rules were enforced much differently in the 1990s than they are today, and Rice is confident his Hall of Fame career would have been even more remarkable if his prime were right now.
In an appearance on Ian Rapoport’s “RapSheet and Friends” podcast this week, Rice talked about the emphasis the NFL places on protecting receivers now. He said he was getting hit far more often during his 20-year career than today’s pass-catchers are.
“Back when I played, if I was on the left side and if the ball was not even coming my way, I was still getting hit, and you just can’t do that today,” Rice said, as transcribed by David Bonilla of 49ers Webzone. “It was more physical downfield against bump-and-run. You can’t push the receiver or put your hands on the receiver after five yards.”
If illegal contact and pass interference were officiated a decade or two ago the way they are now, Rice says he would have had even more “amazing” numbers.
“So the numbers could have been amazing, to be honest with you, because I played in an era where I was still able to put up outstanding numbers, and I think the game was a little bit more — maybe I shouldn’t say a little bit more physical because it’s still physical, but I think back when I played, they could put their hands on you just a little bit more,” he said.
He’s right. Rice is still the NFL’s all-time leading receiver by a mile. The only active player who is remotely close to him is Larry Fitzgerald, and he would need more than 6,000 yards to catch Rice. That is not going to happen. Rice’s 1,848-yard season in 1995 ranks third all-time, which is even more impressive when you consider the way the game has changed.
These are the reasons it is impossible to compare players from different eras, and we all know about the similar debates people love to have with the NBA. What makes Rice’s career so special is that he will probably always be known as the greatest receiver of all time, so you can just imagine how he would have terrorized opposing defenses if cornerbacks were hardly allowed to touch him.