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Jerry Rice < Don Hutson. Wait, What?

August 7, 2010

Here’s an article from SI’s Kerri Byrne. Half of it is OK, the other half is utter nonsense. We’ll look at the nonsense half.

Byrne is writing in light of the 2010 NFL Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. In the first half, he argues that Emmitt Smith is not the best running back of all time. I think that’s pretty fair to say. Yes, he had a lot of yards, and TDs, and championships, but Smith drew his career out, and finished with several less than mediocre seasons. Not saying he wasn’t a great running back, just not the greatest.

Now here’s where the craziness starts.

Jerry Rice: dominant, but not the most dominant

Rice, for his part, was the most awe-inspiring receiver most of us have ever seen: a true football phenom who put up gaudy numbers over a lengthy career and seemed to reserve his greatest efforts for the biggest games — as evidenced by his incredible list of postseason records, too.

Yes indeed. Awe-inspiring. Phenom. Gaudy numbers. Records. Post-season dominance.

Add it all up and…

He was a dominant player, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts prove. But he was hardly the most dominant receiver ever. Not even close.

This probably isn’t true.

That honor goes to Green Bay Hall of Fame receiver [Don] Hutson, who plied his trade for the Packers from 1935 to 1945.

Oh yes, the great Don Hu…wait, what? Really? This must be a typo.

Listen, I don’t have a problem looking into long-held sports assumptions and confirming or debunking them. In fact, I think it’s great fun, but come on now. Don Hutson?

There’s a slight part of me, I guess, that’s willing to question whether or not Rice is the best-ever WR. There are maybe two or three guys that are even in the conversation, and this Hutson fellow is not one of them.

Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor and the BBC’s NFL broadcaster, Mike Carlson, conducted a lengthy study comparing Rice to Hutson several years ago. The numbers changed our view of football history and clearly place Hutson well above Rice as the most dominant receiver the game has ever seen.

1.) The BBC? We’re going to let a guy who talks about football on the BBC tell us that Jerry Rice isn’t the best? No offense to the guy, but no.

2.) I don’t think the numbers changed our view of history. Maybe yours, and Carlsons, and Hutson’s granddaughter. But that’s it.

Here’s how they stack up, relative to their times, in every major receiving category.

Receptions: Rice caught more passes than any other player in history (1,549), easily blowing away Hutson’s career total (488). But Rice played in a pass-happy era when 100 catches in a year were common. And he led the league in receptions just twice (1990 and 1996). Hutson led the NFL in receptions an unbelievable eight times in 11 seasons.

Don’t care. Rice had over three times as many receptions as Hutson. It doesn’t matter what sort of metrics your using, or how you account for different eras. Three times as many receptions.

When Hutson joined the NFL, the single-season record was 22 catches. He set a new record with an incredible 74 receptions in 1942. And while the former Alabama star’s 488 career receptions seem humble by our stands, it more than doubled the previous record of 190 and reinvented our concept of the receiver as a weapon in pro football.

Sure, Hutson was  a really good receiver. He started revolutionized the position, BUT just because you’re the best receiver out of a bunch of shitty ones, doesn’t mean your the best ever. The NFL doesn’t work on a curve.

Yards: Rice, with his record 22,895 career receiving yards, clearly blows away Hutson (7,991) in this category, too.

This is so ridiculous. Again, Rice has three times more yards. You can try to force this all you want. But this little contrarian crusade just isn’t going to work.

But in the context of their time, it’s quite a different story. Rice led the league in receiving yards six times in 20 seasons. Hutson led the league seven times in his 11 seasons, including a record four years in a row (1941-44).

Here again, so what? First of all, with both receptions per year and yards per year, it wasn’t like Rice was getting blown away. He was often in the top five, and it was rarely the same guy above him. Rice’s consistently great performance is astounding.

Second, it’s not “dominance” when you lead a pretty much non-passing league in receptions and yards a bunch. As I said before, this just means that Hutson was a pretty good receiver among a bunch of crappy ones. Just because no one else at the time is as good as you doesn’t mean you’re the best ever, or the most “dominant.”

In fact, I think it’s a mark in Rice’s favor that despite not leading the league in receptions or yards every year, that he is the all-time leader in most receiving categories. It much more of a sign of dominance to hold those records while playing in pass-happy than to be better than the blocking ends and outs that Hutson was playing against.

And consider this: When Huston joined the NFL, no player had produced more than 350 receiving yards in a season. He topped that mark in all 11 seasons of his career — like we said, he was Ruthian in his production relative to the standards of the era.

Guahhhh!! Here we are again. Clearly, Hutson helped revolutionize the position, but it does not mean that he was the best or the most dominant. “Ruthian” is just a joke. Yes, Babe Ruth was the first true power hitter, but even now he’s still third all-time in home runs. Hutson is 120th in receptions and 76th in yards. All good an impressive to be sure, especially for his era, but “Ruthian” is laying it on a bit thick.

Huston’s 1,211 yards of 1942 was the first 1,000-yard receiving season and stands as the most by any player in the first 31 years of NFL history. Meanwhile, Hutson’s ability to produce big games stands unchallenged, even today.

First is not best, remember that kids.

—SNIP— (some stuff about 200-yard games in here)

[Hutson's] mark of 17 TD receptions in a season stood for 42 years, until Mark Duper grabbed 18 TD passes from Dan Marino in 1984.

Again, truly Ruthian numbers.

Again, not they are not. And then Rice broke that one, too. Byrne conveniently left that out.

The knock on Hutson, much like it is on Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman, is that he dominated the talent-starved war seasons of 1942-44 (players began returning by the 1945 season). But keep in mind that Huston dominated the pre-war seasons of 1935 to 1941, too, leading the league in TD catches in five of those six years.

Sure, but once again, if you’re good among a group of, not even bad receivers, just kind of non-existent receivers, well, it doesn’t make you dominant. I don’t understand how we’re still arguing this.

Also keep in mind that, 65 years after he retired, Hutson remains No. 8 on the all-time TD reception list (99). Six of the seven players ahead of him on the all-time TD receptions list played here in the pass-happy 21st century.

That’s pretty impressive. But still, not the greatest ever. Sorry.

We can only imagine what kind of dizzying numbers Hutson might have produced in the 21st-century, when teams pass the ball more than 500 times a year over the course of a 16-game season.

And when defenders are built like tanks. A good chunk of Rice’s success was because of his incredible fitness regime.

Sure, imagine what numbers Hutson would have put up. We could just as easily say, imagine how sad it was when he was broken in half in his third game. This act of transferring guys across generations in football, and yelling, “See!!” is bunk.

Championships: Finally, both players enjoyed incredible team success. Rice won three titles in four opportunities during his 20-year career. He played on three championship teams with San Francisco before ending up on the losing end of Super Bowl XXXVII, when he was with Oakland.

Hutson also went 3-1 in NFL title games, winning championships for TitleTown in 1936, 1939 and 1944. The Packers lost to the Giants in the 1938 championship game.

Pretty much irrelevant to this discussion.

Rice was the most productive receiver in history and the most dominant receiver of our time. But certainly not the most dominant receiver of all time. That title seems like it will always belong to Don Hutson.

No it won’t !!! I’m trying not to punch my computer here. Good lord, man! I do understand that different eras have different denominators so to speak. And in order to compare people across eras we need to find a common denominator. I get that. But you did not do that, Byrne (or Carlson I suppose…I can’t find his original piece). What was done here was basically this. “See, these stats? Hutson was clearly the first to be the best. Sure, Jerry Rice and lots of other guys were better and more dominant, but Hutson was the first best one. So he’s the best.” It’s like in pickup basketball when the two guys go after a lose ball. “First!”

Anyway, Jerry Rice goes into the Hall of Fame today as the best ever. (Note, I’m not a 49ers fan, just a fan of rationality).

Here’s a video of some of his highlights (apologies in advance for the Young Jeezy soundtrack. I don’t make these things).

Other recent Posts: A-Rod’s 600th HR and PEDs–Why We Need to Rethink the Issue and Why Bill Simmons is Boring

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Nathan permalink
    August 7, 2010 12:15 pm

    Hey great article. Writers love to bemoan how much better “the good old days” were. This is just another example of someone trying to say how some older player was much better than any player we’ll ever see. Also, I just stumbled across this site and read a few articles, and let me tell you that you’re doing a fantastic job. The simmons criticism on his red sox piece was fantastic. You are now in my bookmark bar. Keep up the good work! Never get complacent like reilly and simmons have!

    • Tapps permalink*
      August 7, 2010 12:41 pm

      Thanks for reading! I mean, stats don’t always tell the whole story of course, but in this case the evidence is just overwhelming. Seems like purely an argument for arguments sake.

      • Nathan permalink
        August 7, 2010 2:52 pm

        Peter King tweeted this: “RT @TS_Yankees1: Jerry Rice is the best WR ever. Who is next on the list in your view? … Best WR ever: Don Hutson. Google him. You’ll see.”
        What is with these people at sports illustrated and don hutson

      • Tapps permalink*
        August 7, 2010 3:28 pm

        I mean, I guess the guy was pretty good, but I think a lot of it has to do with this type of thinking: “I’m paid to talk about sports. I better have revolutionary opinions. Most fans think this, but no, it’s this.” It’s dumb.

  2. August 7, 2010 4:55 pm

    Best RB I ever saw was Barry Sanders. Best WR I ever saw was Steve Largent.

    They were both on shitty teams. But those guys were awesome.

    • August 7, 2010 5:02 pm

      Best LB is Lawrence Taylor. Best DE is Reggie White. Best QB is Dan Marino. Best coach is Bill Walsh.

      Write that down in ink.

      • Tapps permalink*
        August 7, 2010 6:02 pm

        I’ve got no problem with those. May not agree with them all (I do think Jerry Rice is the best WR). Marino’s time may be coming to an end. But at least you can argue them with a straight face. Don Hutson, though? Not so much.

  3. Joel permalink
    August 7, 2010 8:56 pm

    Jerry Rice does have eye popping statistics, but in order to compare them you have to adjust for the different eras they played in. This article,, does that and shows why Hutson is the greatest receiver in NFL history.

    • Tapps permalink*
      August 7, 2010 9:24 pm

      I understand the argument, but while quarterbacks weren’t as good, neither were defensive backs (at least at defending the pass). I’m not saying Hutson was bad, or that he shouldn’t even be in the conversation, but simply projecting from then to now doesn’t work. Like the commenter below said, Rice would have killed in Hutson’s era, and I think there’s a good chance Hutson would have been killed in Rice’s era. Was Hutson revolutionary? No question. Was he very very good? Yep. Was he the best ever? I don’t think so.

      But hey, I’m just a guy with an opinion. Thanks for reading and thanks for the dialogue. It’s good to debate this stuff.

  4. Jacques Strappe permalink
    August 7, 2010 8:58 pm

    From the first sentence I pretty much knew exactly what was going to be said, basically the argument is that the gap between Hutson and “the rest” was bigger than the gap between Rice and “the rest.” In other words, a purely relative argument. Maybe it’s true, but that’s not necessarily going to be everybody’s definition of “dominance,” which is the assumption that this article makes. Also the main problem with using an argument based purely on relativity is that you can’t then turn around and say “Imagine if Hutson played today!” Because it’s not like you can draw it to scale and say he’d catch, like, 250 passes a season or something. Especially since you could put Rice in Hutson’s era and laugh at how nobody could touch him. It would be like Red Grange’s game against Michigan, only every single week against every single team.

    I don’t have a problem with Hutson being included in the discussion for best wide receiver, personally. Just like I don’t have a problem with George Mikan being in the discussion for best center. But they always have to come with caveats, because we don’t know what they would do with year-round training, better equipment, far superior opposition, etc. Hutson only played 10-12 games a year, and we can’t even know whether this helped or hurt him and/or his numbers in the long-term. That’s why the “it’s not even close” is condescending and misguided…if you’re going to make this argument at the very least you have to say that it’s a close call, because you’re using relative arguments rather than absolute ones.

    One reason why it’s safe to say that Rice is the best ever is that you don’t have to even explain why, people will know what you mean even if they don’t agree. If you ever want to claim somebody else as the best wide receiver, though, you’ll have to write a convincing argument as to why that player is better than Rice. You can get away with ignoring others, but you have to deal with Jerry Rice. Even the fan who sponsored Don Hutson’s page at pro-football-reference knows that.

  5. pedros rooster permalink
    October 10, 2010 9:14 am

    Centuries late to the discussion, I know, but just came across your site.

    It seems that the Packers over that span were consistently among the league’s top teams in Attempts, adopting this “new technology” (the forward pass! kidding, I know it was around before then) ahead of competitors. Wouldn’t it follow that their best receiver would compile more yardage as a result of more balls thrown to him than the average NFL receiver? He led the league in receptions eight times; wouldn’t it make sense that he’d often pile up more receiving yardage?

    I’m no football stats expert, but I would think that yards per catch would be a more telling stat of a receiver’s dominance among his peers. Hutson managed to lead in that stat only twice in eleven seasons.

  6. Shawn permalink
    February 10, 2013 1:00 am

    The difference between Hutson and Rice is the difference between greatness and bestness. Hutson is the greatest, due to how he dominated his peers. Rice is the best, because if the two were in the league together at the same time, Rice would have dominated more.


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