This past weekend featured a matchup of the NFL's top wideouts, as Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions hosted A.J. Green and the Cincinnati Bengals. With the game coming down to a game-ending Bengals field goal, the receivers most certainly did their parts by both totaling 155 receiving yards (Johnson with 9 receptions, Green with 6). While this showdown has not become a must-see television event as of yet, it reminds me of a time when it was such a spectacle.
During the 1990's, one of the most anticipated games of each year was the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. In the span of a decade, the two franchises accounted for half of the Super Bowl titles. While each team was star-studded on both sides of the ball, it was the wide receiver spot where similarities were a lot closer than many give credit for. By most accounts, Jerry Rice is considered to be the greatest wide receiver in the history of the game. NFL.com even went as far to rank him as the greatest football player of all-time. However, after analyzing numbers of the 1990's, it was the Cowboys' Michael Irvin who was "very" close in comparison to Rice, making you wonder if at some point, he had the edge as the game's best.
Take a glance. From 1991-1995, Irvin is barely behind Rice, and a mile ahead of everyone else. Rice averaged 1,451 yards per season where as Irvin was only 32 yards behind (1,419). The next player on the list is Chris Carter at 1,068. Even if you consider all five-year stretches that started within five years of 1991, Irvin's is still second best, still close to Rice's best, and it's more than a hundred yards better than anyone else.
What is also understated is that Irvin was playing on a conservative offense. During Rice's best stretch, the 49ers were throwing 536 passes per season, compared to 482 passes per year for the Cowboys during Irvin's peak. From 1991-1995, Irvin averaged more yards per team passing attempt than any player in post-merger NFL history. (2.95 to Rice's 2.71)
Without question this is extremely debatable and most will say that numbers do not tell the full story. But regardless of the intangibles and theories, you know how the saying goes, numbers never lie.
Very rarely do you hear anyone make the argument that Irvin was better than Rice, but leave it to Skip Bayless who put all his chips on "The Playmaker."