- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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Jerry Rice caught passes from two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. He played for the most influential offensive coach of his era, surrounded by a roster flush with talent.
The most prolific receiver in NFL history also flourished after the league changed rules to favor the passing game, fueling statistical inflation on a scale previously unseen.
Rice had a lot going for him, in other words, but not enough to dissuade seven expert panelists from naming him the greatest receiver in NFL history. Singling out Rice was the easy part.
"Jerry Rice, he's so obvious, it scares me," said panelist Boyd Dowler, a longtime scout and coach who finished his playing career in 1971 with 474 receptions, five championships and an eventual spot in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Unanimity turned to ambiguity when ESPN.com asked Dowler and fellow panelists Raymond Berry, Mike Holmgren, Warren Moon, Ken Houston, Ted Thompson and Keyshawn Johnson to rank the greatest receivers after Rice. Panelists placed 13 players in the second through fifth overall slots. They ranked seven others between sixth and 10th. That left 20 all-time greats fighting for nine spots, and much work to be done.
"You reach a certain point and it's hard to do," said Berry, the NFL's career leader in receptions and receiving yards when he retired from the Baltimore Colts in 1967. "I've seen too many great ones, and it's hard to find a standard."
An exhaustive analysis of the panelists' rankings, supplemented by more than six hours of interviews, gave New England's Randy Moss a slight edge over Green Bay legend Don Hutson for the second overall spot. Michael Irvin was fourth, followed by Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Steve Largent, Cris Carter, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison. (Click here for bios of panelists.)
"Moss has the best hands of anyone today," said Thompson, the Packers' general manager. "A lot of guys can catch. He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down -- and it doesn't matter if he is covered."
All 10 receivers put up numbers that ranked them among the top producers of their eras. But panelists unanimously discounted raw statistics as a meaningful tool. They explained how changes in the game made the number of receptions less relevant than ever. They placed more value on touchdowns and yards per reception. They also singled out toughness as a leading characteristic of the great ones.
"They've got to have big-play ability," said Moon, one of three panelists enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with Berry and Houston. "They have to have toughness. They have to be able to get off man-for-man, bump-and-run at the line of scrimmage. And they have to be able to make the big play at the right time."
Inside the Rankings
Among those left on the outside, Art Monk, Berry and James Lofton came closest to cracking the top 10.
ESPN.com asked panelists to pay particular attention to their top five overall choices. The goal was to make sure players commanding multiple high selections made it onto the list.
Berry declined to vote for himself. Three other panelists ranked Berry between eighth and 10th. An additional ranking among the top five probably would have moved Berry onto the list.
Monk drew two top-five selections, topped by a No. 4 ranking from Johnson. Three other panelists left off Monk entirely. Johnson, the youngest panelist by a wide margin, steered clear of ranking players from earlier eras. The rankings provided by more seasoned panelists carried more weight as a result.
No player without a top-five ranking earned a spot on the list. Lofton drew three top-10 votes, but none in the top five. Two of the three top-10 votes cast for Taylor fell in the top five, helping him land the sixth overall spot.
Charlie Joiner -- once described by Bill Walsh as "the most intelligent, the smartest, the most calculating receiver the game has ever known" -- was the only receiver other than Moss and Hutson to earn a No. 2 overall ranking from a panelist. But five other panelists left off Joiner from their top 10s, another indication of the project's complexity.
ESPN.com provided panelists with a list of nearly 200 receivers. The list showed Hall of Famers at the top. The rest were sorted by most seasons played, beginning with Rice (20).
With so many candidates, panelists hunted for ways to narrow their lists. For some, misgivings about defensive talent during the early days of the AFL hurt Hall of Famers Lance Alworth and Don Maynard.
Panelists agreed to participate as long as their full rankings remained private. They wanted to offer unvarnished rankings without offending former associates who failed to appear on their lists.
ESPN.com also adjusted for favoritism. Holmgren and Thompson offered strong arguments for Sterling Sharpe, but their testimony on the subject carried less weight because Sharpe played for them in Green Bay, and he failed to generate momentum among other panelists.
Moon ranked Carter, his former Minnesota Vikings teammate, among his top five. Four other panelists ranked Carter among their 10 best, including two who ranked him sixth. Harrison, Moss and Rice were the only others to appear on at least five top 10 lists. That was enough to affirm Carter's standing among the greats.
"I think the best hands of the bunch belonged to Cris Carter in terms of just making unbelievable catches," Dowler said.
Irvin placed among the top five three times.
"I thought he was one of the guys that probably could have played in any era," said Houston, one of nine safeties in the Hall of Fame. "That is probably a good way to put it when talking about these guys: Could you play in any era? He would fit that profile."
Hutson, Rice and Largent remain the only players since 1950 to hold the career records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Two panelists ranked Largent fourth overall. Two others ranked him eighth.
"Steve Largent has to be a guy I would think about right away with his consistent track record and production over the years," Berry said.
What To Do With T.O.
No receiver generated a wider range of opinions than Owens.
Most panelists criticized the Dallas Cowboys receiver for dropping far too many passes. (Owens dropped a league-high 17 in 2006 and 10 more in 2007, tied for third-most in the league, according to Stats, LLC.) But most panelists also lauded Owens' toughness and big-play ability (he has nearly twice as many touchdowns as Monk -- 129 to 68 -- despite 58 fewer receptions and 51 fewer games).
Dowler, who retired in 2007 after a decade in scouting with the Atlanta Falcons, ranked Owens third, behind only Rice and Moss. Two other panelists ranked Owens sixth and seventh. A fourth panelist ranked him 10th.
Dowler's input was significant because he played the position at a high level and coached with five NFL teams before becoming a scout. His willingness to rank Moss and Owens among his top three suggested Dowler, a member of the NFL's all-decade team for the 1960s, wasn't partial to a bygone era.
"(Owens) probably drops too many passes to be on this list," Dowler said, "but he makes so many that are so good, it's incredible. The ones he drops, he comes right back. I can't eliminate him. He is so big and so strong.
"And he is the epitome of toughness. It isn't good enough to just go out there when you are hurt. If you go out there and play, you have to play the same. Some guys are capable of doing that."
Even Johnson, one of Owens' most outspoken critics, grudgingly found a spot in his top 10 for the Dallas receiver.
"It's a hard one not to put him in because he has good numbers," said Johnson, who caught 814 passes with four teams, most recently Carolina in 2006. "The reasons why he shouldn't be in are because he drops too many balls, he isn't as consistent, he's not a complete wide receiver in my book, he doesn't dominate all the time, he doesn't dominate in playoff games, he didn't help his team win the Super Bowl and he's selfish."
Three other panelists left off Owens altogether.
"The No. 1 job, you gotta catch it," one of the dissenters said. "You would never consider a guy who drops 17 balls in a season. It's off-the-board ridiculous."
A Different Game
Twenty-four players caught at least 75 passes last season.
Berry never caught more than 74 in a season. Taylor never caught more than 72. Warfield peaked at 52 in his rookie season with Cleveland in 1964.
The numbers don't just lie. They also cheat and steal, particularly across eras.
Seasons have grown in length from 12 to 14 to 16 games.
The NFL has expanded from 12 teams to 32 teams.
When Berry played for Baltimore in the 1950s, the six-team Western Division featured five Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, Norm Van Brocklin, Bobby Layne and Bart Starr.
"Today you look at a 16-game schedule and ask yourself, 'Is there anything halfway close to facing a Hall of Fame quarterback 80 percent of the time?'" Berry said.
Years ago, receivers lined up in sprinters' stances, the better to launch themselves downfield against tight man-to-man coverage. Rules allowed defensive backs to make contact with receivers until the ball was in the air. Officials held offensive linemen to stricter standards for holding. The best teams ran the ball on early downs, passing more out of necessity than by design.
Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense came to dominate.
"In those days, to get open you had to work very, very hard on technique, your releases, your leans, whatever technique you used, because you could get banged around a lot," said Holmgren, entering his 10th and final season as Seattle Seahawks coach. "Those guys like Freddie Biletnikoff became wonderful technicians of their trade. You still have those today, but you don't have as many. It's not quite as necessary because you don't see a lot of teams who are just going to challenge you man-for-man all the time."
A few players with world-class speed managed to succeed by outrunning defenders. Olympic sprint champion and longtime Cowboys receiver Bob Hayes averaged 20 yards per reception in the 1960s and 1970s. More than any receiver in NFL history, Hayes forced opponents to abandon man-coverage schemes for safer zone-based approaches. He had run the 100 meters in 10.05 seconds at the 1964 Olympics, tying the world record at the time.
"We played a lot of single-high (safety) and man-on-man back then, so speed and catching was a big thing," said Hall of Fame cornerback and Atlanta Falcons assistant coach Emmitt Thomas. "Now it's more combination coverages. You have to be mentally tough to work in the crevices and you must have great hands to catch because you're going to get hit much sooner (after the catch) than you would when I played (from 1966 to 1978)."
Adjusting For Inflation
Rules began to change as the NFL sought ways to increase scoring in the late 1970s.
Defensive backs could no longer rough up receivers more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, even if the ball remained in the quarterback's possession.
The trend toward offense has continued. Above-average receivers are posting numbers previously associated only with the greats. Detroit's Shaun McDonald caught 79 passes last season.
"This is what you call inflation," Berry said. "The numbers have gotten worth a lot less."
Offenses have become far more sophisticated, regularly using three and four receivers, even on early downs. Defenses have countered, but often their third and fourth cornerbacks are outgunned.
Receivers now stand upright at the line of scrimmage, allowing them to read increasingly complex defenses before the snap. Short passes have replaced running plays in some cases.
Indianapolis completed 12 passes to Reggie Wayne during less than two quarters of a game last season. The receptions netted only 87 yards, but they allowed Wayne to finish with a league-leading 1,510 for the season.
Four receivers have more than 1,000 career receptions. None began his career earlier than 1985. Rice leads the way with 1,549 receptions for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns.
"You have to say he was a great receiver, but he played at a time where you couldn't bump a receiver, where they are throwing three out of four downs or whatever," said Houston, a 10-time Pro Bowl choice for Houston and Washington from 1967 to 1980. "That would not necessarily change my ranking on him, but it would for a lot of others.
"When you go and compare that to Charley Taylor or Paul Warfield, where they fought off the line of scrimmage and they only threw the ball on third down, you have to kind of figure how many balls they would catch in an era like they would now."
Warfield averaged 20.1 yards per reception. He scored 85 touchdowns on only 427 receptions, retiring in 1977.
"A guy like Paul Warfield or Lance Alworth or Charley Taylor, those guys could sit down in the cracks of these defenses today and they would kill people," said Thomas, who played his entire career with Kansas City. "And they were good runners once they caught it."
Only Tough Need Apply
Moss is the only top 10 receiver known for possessing great stopwatch speed. He reportedly has finished a 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds, a feat that is significant only because Moss is so productive on the field.
"If you are going to pick your best receivers by their 40-yard time, you're going to end up with a lot of players who aren't very good," Dowler said.
Moss is an exception that way. He routinely runs past defenders five years younger than he is. Most of the other top 10 receivers earned respect for other qualities, notably toughness.
"What separates those guys at that position is their courage and their ability to concentrate when they know they are going to get tagged," Holmgren said.
Taylor, 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, spent two-plus seasons as a running back before the Redskins moved him to receiver in 1966. He retired after the 1977 season with 649 receptions, the most in league history at the time.
"Charley Taylor, I thought he was extremely tough," Houston said. "James Lofton was, I like to say, a mean receiver. He would fight you.
"Back then, you couldn't run across the middle and catch the ball without fighting your way across the middle first. And I guess the guy that I would put in that category from today's receivers is Terrell Owens."
Houston called Owens a throwback.
"If I had to pick a receiver out of today's guys, I'd pick him over Randy Moss because he's tough," Houston said. "Say what you want to about him, he will go across and catch the ball. I've seen Randy and he's great -- I love to watch Randy Moss -- but I've seen him kind of deny some passes across the middle where he just didn't want to go in there and catch those kinds of balls."
Of all the ways to separate Rice, Keyshawn Johnson might have settled on the simplest one.
"Jerry Rice is probably the only guy at a position that is clearly, clearly the best ever at his position," he said. "You could debate anybody, but you can't debate him."
Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana at quarterback? Tough call.
Jim Brown or Walter Payton at running back? What about Barry Sanders?
At receiver, there's Rice -- and then there's everyone else.
"First of all, you had a very gifted guy," Holmgren said. "You had a work ethic that was unparalleled. I can't imagine anyone working harder and preparing more for what he did.
"When I was in San Francisco with him, he was virtually unstoppable in the red zone. If you covered him man-for-man, it was a gimme almost."
ESPN.com's seven-member panel has combined to make 30 Pro Bowl teams in 77 NFL seasons. The panelists have combined to win 12 NFL championships as players, coaches and executives. They feature two members of the league's 75th anniversary all-time team, and members of the all-decade teams for the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Three of the seven are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.