Jerry Rice. To even the most minimally initiated football fan, the name rings familiar. To long-time fans, the name commands a sort of reverence. The title of "Greatest of All Time," is almost unanimously bestowed upon Rice, and not without good reason. The list of accomplishments is long: three Super Bowl victories, thirteen Pro Bowls, twelve All-Pro selections, a two-time Offensive Player of the Year, a Super Bowl MVP, and numerous all-time records. But Jerry Rice is not the Greatest of All Time. You heard me right. That title belongs to none other than Green Bay's Don Hutson.
You may not be too familiar with the name Don Hutson, and that's not too surprising, considering the fact that he played six decades ago and has been deceased since 1997. However, one cannot understate how dominant he was during his eleven seasons from 1935-1945. Lets take a look at his career stats:
All stats courtesy of http://www.pro-football-reference.com/
Not too shabby. Heck, his 1942 season would easily be a Pro Bowl season in today's league. Now Rice's stats.
Rice's career stats are off the charts, nobody comes close to him on the all-time list in almost every category.
So...how is Hutson the greatest of all time, when Rice has him beat all over? Well, there's two big differences between both players, and both have to do with the nature of the game during each of their careers. One, season length, and two, average passing attempts.
You can see that Hutson played in an era of 10 and 11 game seasons. Rice played his full career with 16 game seasons. How would Hutson's numbers look if he had the benefit of 16 games?
|Don Hutson - 16 Game Schedule|
Things start to get a little interesting. Hutson's career stats look like they came from a player in the modern era, and that's just from giving him 16 game seasons. That 1942 season goes from an Pro Bowl selection in today's league to an All-Pro performance with Offensive Player of the Year or MVP credentials. When extrapolating the data, I changed none of Hutson's per game averages; I simply gave him more games. If Hutson missed games in his original stats, I kept him out of those games instead of giving him a full season.
Now that they are both on even ground in terms of season length, what about the passing game during each player's era? I compared the total pass attempts per game for both player's careers. I found that over Hutson's career, the Packers averaged 23.2 passes per game. Over Rice's career, the teams he played on threw an average of 34.2 passes per game. That's a 47 percent increase in passing attempts. What if Hutson got 47 percent more opportunities, in addition to 16 games?
Holy crap. Hutson goes off the charts. He actually has more receiving touchdowns than Rice in nearly half the time. His 1942 season becomes the most statistically prolific season in NFL history. 158 receptions, 2589 yards, 36 touchdowns. When extrapolating this set of data, I didn't change anything other than the number of passing attempts each team threw. Their pass completion rate remained the same; I didn't turn Arnie Herber into Steve Young. I also did not change the percentage of total team completions that Hutson accounted for. That percentage would obviously decrease somewhat in a modern passing attack, due to the emphasis on multiple receiver sets.
Hutson also had other disadvantages, ones that cannot be calculated, but certainly had an impact: pass interference and defensive holding. The modern pass interference rule was introduced in 1978, well after Hutson's playing days were done. With that in mind, it seems logical that Hutson would have benefited from the receiver-friendly rules.
In summation, it appears that Hutson was a more dominant receiver than Rice, or at the very least just as dominant. This is also reflected in some of Hutson's NFL records such as:
Most seasons leading league in receptions (8)
Most consecutive seasons leading league in receptions (5)
Most seasons leading league in receiving yards (7)
Most consecutive seasons leading league in receiving yards (4)
Most seasons leading league in touchdown receptions (9)
Most consecutive seasons leading league in touchdown receptions (5)
Most seasons leading league in scoring (5)
Most consecutive seasons leading league in scoring (5)
Hutson was so far ahead of his contemporaries that it isn't even close. His numbers in his 1942 season were better than the next three guys combined. No one has ever dominated the league on such a scale. Period. Even if you take one of Rice's best seasons, say his 1995 campaign, he would have to put up 364 receptions, 44 touchdowns, and 4838 yards to equal Hutson's effort.
But we're not done yet. That was just the offense. Hutson was also a defensive star, playing the safety position throughout his career. In his last 6 seasons (the NFL did not track interceptions before 1940), Hutson picked off 30 passes, leading the league in 1940 with 6. Essentially, Hutson was a combination of Jerry Rice and Ed Reed. Oh, and he also contributed on special teams too, kicking 7 field goals and 172 extra points over his career, including leading the league in field goals made in 1943.
In conclusion, it is these attributes that bolster Hutson's case for Greatest Player of All Time over Rice. Hutson was dominant in two facets of the game, and a solid contributor in the third. He was a integral part of three championship teams and a two-time league MVP-award winner. He invented passing routes. He is the Greatest of All Time.