Who would you prefer...Calvin Johnson or Jerry Rice?

Published: Oct 28, 2013 16:02pm EDT
By JasonNeal, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Oct 28, 2013 @ 04:02pm EDT


The best debates in sports always seem to center on who is the best player at any one position or who was the best player in their sport.  Would you rather have Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James?  Who is the best quarterback ever; Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or John Elway?  Is Barry Sanders the best running back ever or does Sweetness or Emmitt Smith hold that title?  These are subjective questions that have fostered years of discussion, arguments, bets, and animosity amongst friends.

In light of Calvin Johnson’s 329 receiving yards yesterday, I decided to tackle who is the better wide receiver during their first six seasons in the NFL; Calvin Johnson or Jerry Rice.  Depending on your knowledge of the NFL, its history, and your fandom leanings, you may say the answer is not a tough one, but looking at things through statistics and objectively, the answer may differ from what you had originally thought.


Calvin Johnson

Calvin Johnson was drafted by the Detroit Lions and started his career in 2007.  Matt Millen made his best pick as a member of the Lions front office when he took the ‘can’t miss’ prospect from Georgia.  Johnson recorded 76 catches for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns in his junior season before declaring for the NFL draft.

In his first year in the NFL, Calvin Johnson started 10 games while playing in 16 total and had a fairly mediocre stat line by modern day standards.  Johnson totaled 48 catches, 756 yards, and four touchdowns.

Johnson’s best season depends on what you deem valuable, so I took a look at two different seasons based on where most people place importance: catches, yards, and touchdowns.  In 2011, Johnson had 96 catches, led the league with 1,681 yards, and added 16 touchdowns, just for good measure.  In 2012, Calvin Johnson set a new NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards on 122 catches, but he only found the end zone five times.  Depending where you place importance, these are his two best seasons.  Adding 16 touchdowns to the Lions total should account for more than anything, so for the sake of this discussion we will use 2011 as his best season.

2011 stat line: 96 rec. 1,681 yards, 16 touchdowns.


Jerry Rice

The San Francisco 49ers traded up in the 1985 draft with the New England Patriots in order to select Jerry Rice, a wide receiver that Bill Walsh was enamored with out of Mississippi Valley State.  The 49ers gave up their 28th and 56th selections in addition to swapping 3rd round picks in order to draft Jerry Rice one spot ahead of the Dallas Cowboys who were rumored to have significant interest in Rice as well.

In Rice’s first NFL season, he played in 16 games, but only started four of those contests.  Rice had 49 catches for 927 yards and three touchdowns.  To amass almost 1,000 yards receiving in 1985 was something special considering the leading receiver that year was Steve Largent with 1,287 yards.  The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1985 was Eddie Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals and his stat line was similar to Rice’s; 53 catches, 942 yards, eight touchdowns, 16 starts.  Eddie had four more catches, 15 more yards, and five more touchdowns in 12 more starts than Jerry Rice had, so he clearly deserved the award by adding value in scoring for the Bengals.

Much like Calvin Johnson, Jerry Rice has two seasons that could be considered to be the best in his first six seasons.  In the strike shortened season of 1987, Rice played in 12 games, caught 65 balls for 1,078 yards and scored 22 touchdowns.  To put that into perspective, Randy Moss caught 23 touchdowns with Tom Brady in 2007, but it took him 16 games to accomplish that feat…like I said, it took Jerry 12.  In 1989, Jerry Rice had 82 catches for 1,483 yards and found pay dirt 17 times. Again, based on level of importance, you will have to determine which is a better season in your eyes, but 1989 seems far more valuable than 1987 when considering Rice found the end zone five less times but added over 500 more yards, and did all that on only 15 more catches.

1989 stat line: 82 rec. 1,483 yards, 17 touchdowns


Looking at their first six seasons as a whole, Jerry Rice and Calvin Johnson are not very different from each other in most categories. 

Calvin Johnson's first six seasons:  488 receptions, 7,836 yards receiving, and 54 touchdowns.

Jerry Rice's first six seasons: 446 receptions, 7,866 yards, and 79 touchdowns.  

There are a million different ways to look at all of these numbers; like I said, these debates are subjective.  Calvin Johnson hasn’t had a Roger Craig, Ricky Watters, or Garrison Hearst running in his backfield.  Johnson also has Matt Stafford throwing to him and not Joe Montana.  From the other side, Jerry Rice played in an era where defenses were not hampered by rules favoring the offensive players.  There was no such thing as a ‘defenseless receiver’ and quarterbacks weren’t treated as if they were as fragile as your wedding china. 

Matthew Stafford and the other Lions quarterbacks (Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton, and Shaun Hill) have thrown a minimum of 509 times every season since 2007 with the highest total being 727 pass attempts (these stats are from starting QB's, not including running backs or mop up duty).  In Jerry Rice’s first six seasons, he had Joe Montana, Matt Cavanaugh, Jeff Kemp, Bob Gagliano, and Steve Young all get starts under center, even though Joe Montana was the number one starter all six seasons.  Twice, 1985 and 1990, the 49ers attempted over 509 passes (548 and 582, respectively).  The other four seasons, the 49ers as a team attempted 507, 496, 498, and 478 passes from significant starters (not including running backs or passes not made by the starting quarterback).


No matter how you look at it, both of these players are phenomenal in every aspect of their profession from their work ethic to making defenses look silly.  Both were incredibly difficult to cover, both kept defensive coordinators up late at night game planning on how to stop them, and based on his current career trajectory, we may be witnessing the best wide receiver since Jerry Rice.  Time will tell, but if you had to choose, who would you choose?  Number 80 in the red and gold or number 81 in that pretty baby blue?  Either way, I don’t think you can go wrong.


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