For decades, goat was a sports pejorative. It’s only in the last decade or so that the acronym GOAT came to mean Greatest Of All Time and it’s been tossed around liberally ever since.
Especially here in New England where Tom Brady’s statistical body of work, otherworldly performances on the game’s biggest stages and his longevity have made him undeniably the greatest winner in NFL history and — in my opinion — the greatest quarterback of all-time.
But the NFL GOAT? At any position? I still have a hard time moving off of Jerry Rice.
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It was this week’s Sports Uncovered Podcast reflecting on the disappearance of Raiders center Barrett Robbins that got me thinking about that team, that game and Rice.
That ill-fated Super Bowl loss for Oakland was the final Super Bowl of Rice’s career. It was the final playoff game of the 29 in which he played where he caught a pass.
And Rice wasn’t just out there for the Raiders in February of 2003 running routes and being a decoy. At 40, Jerry Rice was still a force. He led the Raiders in receptions (92) and yards (1,211) during the 2002 regular season and had another 14 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns in the Raiders' three playoff games.
As the Bucs defense wore out the Raiders offense in the 48-21 dud of a Super Bowl, I remembered feeling badly that Rice was quite likely playing in his final Super Bowl and going out that way.
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After one more productive season with the Raiders at 41, catching 63 passes for 869 yards, he split 2004 between Oakland and Seattle and had just 30 catches. Rice retired before the 2005 season, finishing his career in a Broncos uniform.
When he was done, he held 38 NFL records including career receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and touchdown receptions (197). He averaged 77 catches a season for 20 years.
There will never be another wide receiver who’ll match Jerry Rice’s production because no receiver will ever play as long. But he wasn’t just marking time at the end of his career. Randy Moss — probably the greatest downfield wide receiver in NFL history — finished his 14-year NFL career with 982 receptions for 15,292 yards and 156 touchdowns. After retiring at 33, he came back for the 2012 season at 35 and caught 28 passes for San Francisco.
After the age of 35, Rice had three seasons with over 1,100 yards and six seasons over 800 yards. He caught 492 balls for 6,440 yards in 114 regular season games (he played 17 games in the 2004 season between Oakland and Seattle). So an average season for him was 70 catches for 920 yards from the age of 36 through 42. An average game was 4.3 catches for 56.5 yards.
In the 111 games A.J. Green’s played in his career, he’s caught 602 balls for 8,907 yards. That’s 5.4 catches for 80.2 yards from the ages of 23 through 30.
Jerry Rice after 35 was a reasonable comp for A.J. Green in the prime of his career.
What Rice did over the course of his career as a wide receiver was Ruthian. Nobody will match his numbers. Similarly, nobody figures to catch Brady’s six Super Bowl wins nor will they author the same indelible moments he did over his two decades. And he’s not done yet.
Which one is the GOAT? We can go around and around on that for a real long time. They are, when you think about it, very similar in terms of longevity, durability and absolute refusal to give even an inch of leeway to old age and diminishing skills.
Rice, of course, was on that Raiders team that lost in the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs at Foxboro. We call it The Snow Bowl and remember it most for Adam Vinatieri’s miraculous game-tying field goal. The rest of the country calls it the Tuck Rule Game.
Had Brady’s fumble stood, would Rice have won another Super Bowl that season? Had Barrett Robbins not gone AWOL, would the Raiders have won in 2002?
Those are “what ifs” and they’ll forever stay that way.