At Media Day today, Randy Moss proclaimed himself as the greatest receiver of all-time. Not in Georgia - shout out to Charley Steiner and Evander Holyfield - but of allllllll time. What do you think Jerry Rice has to say about that, not to mention the legions of others who can stake a semi-legitimate claim to that?
Unlike a fight with your girlfriend, there is one way to solve this argument - math. We're going to turn to the cold, impartial hand of math and get this sorted out, once and for all.
We all know that Jerry Rice is tops in history when it comes to career receptions, yards, and touchdowns; there is no dispute of that. However like any sabrematrician could tell you, counting statistics are just that: simple counts of what happened, with no context towards the opponent, situation, and so on. It tells a story, but not the whole story.
This is where advanced metrics come in. Our model at numberFire uses a concept called expected points, where we measure the amount of a points a team is likely to score in any given drive, and then measure a player's impact on how that expectation changes. To put it another way, we measure the kind of impact a player has on the amount of points his team scores, which obviously has a direct correlation to their likelihood of winning. This figure doesn't take into account drops or errant throws towards a receiver; it's simply a measure of how many points a player earns by catching the ball. Since the majority of Jerry Rice's playing career came before 2000 (the beginning of our data), we used regression to estimate Rice's pre-2000 contributions. Let's start with Randy Moss.
Randy Moss, by the numbers
Note: Years with NEP below 100.00 excluded.
Randy's best years came in 2003 and 2007, the former with Minnesota under the hand of Daunte Culpepper and the latter under the hand of Tom Brady at this peak of his powers. All of that efficiency only led the 2003 Vikings to a 9-7 record, whereas the 2007 Pats went 16-0 across the regular season only to get bounced in the Super Bowl by the Giants.
Randy had some great years in there, along with a few years where he sort of disappeared, despite playing for the fantastic Patriots offense. Either way, at his peak, his abilities as both an unparalleled deep threat and a uncoverable possession receiver made him the tops on the league. But was he the best ever? Only one way to find out.
Jerry Rice, by the numbers
Notes: Years with NEP below 100.00 excluded. Because of limitations with data, *Rice's NEP before 2000 is estimated based on regression testing against current NFL players.
One thing to immediately notice is that Jerry's table is bigger, indicating more consistency (every year from 1986-1996) and longevity (16 year difference between 1986 and 2002) in comparison to Moss.
Additionally, no single Moss year can top Rice's 1995 campaign, the standard of standards until Megatron came in and shattered the record.
Enough of them individually though, let's put them side by side and compare.
Rice vs. Moss
Notes: Years with NEP below 120.00 excluded, for space. *Rice's NEP before 2000 is estimated based on regression testing against current NFL players.
Let's go through it one at a time. Jerry Rice has the best year, his 1995 campaign. Jerry is more consistent, covering an entire decade where Moss has a few years lost in the ether after his breakout 2003 season. Jerry also has longer longevity, doing it over a much wider range than Randy, while also keeping up a higher pace; between the two of them, Randy has the top 2 of 3, whereas Jerry has the top 6 of 8.
It seems pretty clear from the data: Jerry Rice is the best receiver of all-time.
As an aside, one thing worth noting is that receiver efficiency is being counted only on receptions, and that it is highly correlated with QB performance. One could argue - weakly - that some of Moss' early results was negatively influenced by inferior QB play than to that of Rice. Of course, one could also argue that the league has changed so much since Rice's first season that his early performances are even more remarkable when compared to his peers at the time...but that's another article for another day.
Oh, and in case you're curious: Megatron's year this year - the one lauded by many as the best ever - came in with a NEP of 178.61, just a shade under Jerry's best year. He wins again.