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The modern NFL game has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years with the implementation of stronger safety protocols and the introduction of spread offense schemes. Less physicality and targeting means more spacing and speed for elite athletes to break free. Add in the continued evolution of complex passing schemes and offenses with pace, and you’ve got a recipe for massive yardage numbers across the board.
Holding a team to under ten points is considered a Herculean effort at this point. The game is too fast, too complex, and too regulated to keep offenses stifled for very long. Running backs, once the crown jewel of the offense, have been relegated to role players meant to keep defenses from totally selling out. Franchise quarterbacks and their outside weapons dictate success in the NFL now, and the modern career numbers are reflecting the change.
Despite the inflation, one old timer still holds all of the major receiving records, even though he played in a run-heavy, more physical era. Hall of Fame wideout Jerry Rice, widely and rightfully considered the greatest receiver of all time, retired in 2004 after a twenty year career in which he amassed 22,895 receiving yards, 1,549 catches, and 197 receiving touchdowns—all of which still stand as records today. In fact, he’s so far ahead that the only record that could even be threatened is total receptions; Larry Fitzgerald, who entered the league in 2004 (Rice’s last, coincidentally), is about 100 catches behind Rice on the list. Fitzgerald is about 5,500 yards back, and a staggering 76 TDs back (Rice’s 197 touchdowns looks presently untouchable and likely immortal).
The absolute consistency, health luck, and utter dominance required to put up those numbers in eras that regarded passing as a second option is beyond comprehension. Rice recently gave some thoughts on the current NFL, and what his numbers would like had he played in today’s game.
“First of all, the game really favors the wide receiver now, because you can’t put your hands on him,” Rice said. “Linebackers can’t take shots at you coming across the middle anymore. It’s kind of hard [to forecast modern numbers] because it’s hypothetical, but I probably might be able to, like, double everything.”
Athletes comparing generations is nothing new, but you get the feeling that if there were ever a legitimate argument to be made for big modern numbers, it’s this one.
You have to assume that whatever made Jerry elite in the 80s and 90s would make him unstoppable in today’s game. Defensive preparation has certainly improved, and Rice was blessed with Hall of Fame quarterbacks throwing to him, but his incredible numbers—especially touchdowns—prove that he had a nose for the ball that just couldn’t be contained.
Can you imagine him catching balls from Aaron Rodgers in both of their primes? Just look at Davante Adams’ numbers after seven years in Green Bay: 6,568 yards and 546 receptions, or about one third of Rice’s numbers in both categories. And that’s catching balls from the best arm in the game. Adams will have to replicate that success two times over to get within sniffing distance of Rice and his legendary career.
The man was just incredible, and he was able to stay incredible for twenty years and win three Super Bowls. To claim he could have doubled those numbers might induce eye rolls from some people, but not from me. I won’t ever be the guy who gets caught doubting the great Jerry Rice.