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How Larry Fitzgerald Proves the Impossibility of Jerry Rice’s Records

The Cardinals legend is poised to move into no. 2 on the all-time receiving list on Sunday. He won’t get to no. 1—and it’s unlikely anyone else ever will.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the Cardinals play the Chiefs on Sunday, Larry Fitzgerald will likely become the second-leading receiver of all time. Fitzgerald currently has 15,902 yards, just 33 yards from passing Terrell Owens on the all-time receiving yards list. Soon he will become just the second receiver to ever crack the 16,000-yard mark, and cement his place as one of (if not the) best receiver of his generation. Yet as hard as it’s been for Fitzgerald to climb to no. 2 all time, closing the gap between no. 2 and no. 1, Jerry Rice, will be almost impossible for him—and anyone else. Even in an era of unprecedented offensive numbers, Rice’s record is the most insurmountable record in football.

Forty-seven players have surpassed 10,000 career receiving yards in NFL history. Those 47 players are distributed fairly evenly by volume after the 10,000-yard mark.

10,000-10,999: 13 players

11,000-11,999: 8 players

12,000-12,999: 8 players

13,000-13,999: 6 players

14,000-14,999: 6 players

15,000-15,999: 5 players

We’re still missing Rice, so let’s finish the table.

16,000-16,999: 0

17,000-17,999: 0

18,000-18,999: 0

19,000-19,999: 0

20,000-20,999: 0

21,000-21,999: 0

22,000-22,999: 1

Yes, Jerry Rice finished his career with 22,895 yards. That is 43.7 percent more yardage than Owens, who is currently in second place. For Fitzgerald to catch Rice, he would need to play 100 more games, which would take him to midway through the 2024 season. And that’s assuming he could continue his career average of 70.4 yards per game without missing any time. Rice’s record isn’t mentioned alongside Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point performance, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, or Wayne Gretzky’s all-time points record, but perhaps it should be.

While all of the NFL’s other offensive records are set to shatter in the near future, Rice’s records look like they’ll stand the test of time. Consider the following:

  • He was named first-team All-Pro for 10 of the first 11 seasons after he became a starter.
  • He still led the league in receiving touchdowns in the one season he was not named first-team All-Pro.
  • Randy Moss broke Rice’s single-season touchdown record with 23 touchdowns in 16 games in 2007, but Rice had 22 touchdowns in a strike-shortened 12-game season. In 1987, Rice was on pace for 29 receiving touchdowns.
  • The gap between Rice and Owens is bigger than the gap between Owens and Fred Biletnikoff, who is tied for 63rd all time.
  • The gap between Rice and second place is more yards than Golden Tate has in his entire career.
  • He has more receiving yards than Michael Vick has passing yards.
  • Rice did not miss a game until his age-35 season.
  • After that season, he didn’t miss another game until he was 42.

The closest active player with a realistic chance of catching Rice is Antonio Brown, who is less than halfway there at 10,504 yards. (Though if you added Calvin Johnson’s total onto Antonio Brown’s current numbers, they would still be short.) For Brown to get the extra 12,392 yards he needs, Brown would need to play another 146 games and continue his 85.4-yard-per-game average into his age-39 season. The other candidate is Julio Jones, who has averaged 97.0 (!) yards per game since entering the league and is just 13 yards from reaching 10,000. But Jones, who has dealt with foot injuries throughout his career, would need to keep up that average for eight more seasons to reach Rice.

If either Brown’s or Jones’s per-game average numbers dip slightly, they’d need to play into their 40s to catch Rice. Here are the players who have caught a pass at age 40 or older in NFL history:

  • Jerry Rice
  • Brett Favre

Favre caught a pass that was batted back to him in 2009. Meanwhile, Rice caught 161 balls for 2,169 yards and 10 touchdowns between the ages of 40 and 42. Even if we drop the threshold, Rice has more yards after turning 38 than everyone else in NFL history combined.

With access to better medical care and health science, it’s possible that receivers can play longer into their careers than they have in the past, but it’s hard to envision anyone outdoing Rice. Other receivers like DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. are talented, but it’s silly to predict what they’ll be doing in a decade.

Rice’s numbers are jaw-dropping on their own, but they are even more astounding given how many other NFL records will fall in the near future. A combination of rule changes and schematic evolution has made this the most pass-happy era ever. The 2018 season currently features the most completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passing first downs on a per-game rate in NFL history. The seasons with the highest average passing yards per game are as follows:

No. 1: 2018 (250.9 passing yards per team per game)

No. 2: 2015 (243.8)

No. 3: 2016 (241.5)

No. 4: 2014 (236.8)

No. 5: 2013 (235.6)

No. 6: 2012 (231.3)

No. 7: 2011 (229.7)

No. 8: 2017 (224.4)

No. 9: 2010 (221.6)

No. 10: 1995 (220.8)

No. 11: 2009 (218.5)

No. 12: 2007 (214.3)

That passing inflation is putting every passing record on the books in danger. Drew Brees just took his mantle as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards, but Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford have a chance of surpassing him, and they will likely be just the first in a wave of quarterbacks that will force us to re-evaluate how we look at passing numbers.

Rice is likely to remain the all-time leader in receiving yards, and he’s almost definitely going to remain the all-time leader in combined rushing and receiving touchdowns. Here are the top 10 players of all time by total touchdowns scored from scrimmage.

No. 1. Jerry Rice (207)

No. 2. Emmitt Smith (175)

No. 3. LaDainian Tomlinson (162)

T-no. 4. Randy Moss/Terrell Owens (156)

No. 6. Marcus Allen (144)

No. 7. Marshall Faulk (136)

No. 8. Cris Carter (130)

No. 9. Marvin Harrison (128)

No. 10. Jim Brown (126)

The gap between Rice and those behind him isn’t as large as it is on the receiving yards list, but the difference in who might be able to catch him is even more shocking. (Hint: nobody.) Here are where active players check in on the same list.

No. 13: Antonio Gates (115)

No. 14 (tied): Larry Fitzgerald (112)

T-no. 18: Adrian Peterson (109)

No. 26: Frank Gore (95)

T-no. 29: Marshawn Lynch (93)

T-no. 50: Brandon Marshall (83)

T-no. 58: LeSean McCoy (81)

T-no. 65: Rob Gronkowski (78)

T-no. 88: Jordy Nelson (72)

T-no. 92: Jimmy Graham (71)

T-no. 106: Antonio Brown (68)

T-no. 144: A.J. Green (63)

T-no. 159: Vernon Davis (61)

T-no. 165: Demaryius Thomas (60)

T-no. 173: Cam Newton/Jonathan Stewart (58)

T-no. 234: Todd Gurley (51)

Only three active players—Antonio Gates, Larry Fitzgerald, and Adrian Peterson—are halfway there. Antonio Brown is not even a third of the way to Rice. The closest to even approaching Rice’s mark may be Todd Gurley, but he’s not even a quarter of the way there.

If there is a record of Rice’s that could fall, it might be career receptions. Rice is no. 1 at 1,549, and Fitzgerald is at no. 3 all time with 1,268, just 57 behind Tony Gonzalez for second place and only 281 behind Rice. It’s possible that Fitzgerald could reach that figure if he doesn’t retire in the next few years. (Fitzgerald had 216 receptions combined in 2016 and 2017, the most in the league, but has just 34 in eight games this season.) If Fitz can’t do it, the next player with a shot is Brown, who at 784 catches is almost exactly halfway. With the pass-happy rules taking shape around the league, this might be the easiest category for a receiver to catch Rice (when completions are at an all-time high, so are receptions) but also the least noteworthy. Nobody really cared when Brees surpassed Favre for the all-time completions record in Week 3 (you may not even be aware that happened), but referees stopped Monday Night Football midgame when Brees beat the all-time yardage record and NFL officials handed him an (extremely sketchy) laminated certificate.

The game won’t stop if Fitzgerald moves into second all time on the receiving list on Sunday, but his efforts will be celebrated around the league—while also highlighting how all NFL receivers are just competing for second place. Even after two decades of NFL evolution have made everything about the position easier, Rice’s records look utterly untouchable. If his records ever fall, they’ll likely be surpassed by a player who isn’t even in the league yet. (Perhaps to someone watching Fitzgerald on Sunday as he takes on the Chiefs.) Until then, the NFL won’t have a Mount Rushmore of four wide receivers—just one patron saint.