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Rice and Smith were the most productive, but not the best ever

Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice headline the Hall of Fame Class of 2010 this weekend, after similarly awe-inspiring careers of gaudy stats, a trio of title rings and more glittery highlights than a New Jersey hair salon.

Smith carried the ball more often (4,409 attempts) for more yards (18,355 yards) and more touchdowns (164) than any other running back in history. Rice caught more passes (1,549) for more yards (22,895) and more touchdowns (197) than any other receiver in history.

Clearly, both are legit first-ballot Hall of Famers. Both are the most productive players ever at their respective positions. These facts are inarguable. But are they the BEST ever at their respective positions?

The short answer is no.

Smith's greatest quality was a physical constitution the likes of which we've never seen. He pounded away at the heart of opposing defenses like a human hammer, handing out and surviving a weekly beating often compared to a series of car wrecks each Sunday. He is, and was, a true physical marvel.

But even at his very best, Smith's marvel was a machine-like efficiency, not a spectacular and explosive Jim Brown-like athleticism that frightened opponents.

Rice, meanwhile, dominated his position like no other player we've seen -- but only because we don't have game tape of Don Hutson from the 1930s and 40s. Instead, the new Hall of Famer played the role of Hank Aaron to Hutson's Babe Ruth.

Aaron, and Rice, ultimately produced bigger numbers. But there's no doubt that Ruth, and Hutson, dominated their positions like nobody before or since, with stats that dwarfed anything of their respective eras and stood as records for decades.

At a position where most players burn out after about 1,500 career carries, Smith nearly tripled that number of attempts. It's truly amazing.

But beyond his survival factor, Smith's numbers were largely pedestrian, especially by the standards of the game's elite ball carriers. Certainly, his game lacked that certain thrilling explosiveness we've seen from many of the best.

An average running back on an average team, for example, will average 4.0 yards per attempt (YPA) on the ground -- pretty much the universal mean throughout football history. Smith, for his part, averaged a slightly above-the-norm 4.16 YPA. But that's well below the standards of the players we'd list as the greatest ever -- namely, Jim Brown (5.22 YPA) and Barry Sanders (4.99 YPA).

You can argue that Smith's lengthy career brought down his average. And it certainly had a minor impact. But even in his most explosive season, Smith averaged 5.25 YPA (1993) -- barely edging out Brown's average over his entire career. It was the only time in 15 seasons that Smith topped 4.7 YPA.

Brown, given Smiths' number of attempts, was on pace to produce 23,015 yards -- a mark that would have dwarfed Smith's rushing record.

Of course, those numbers are conjecture. More concretely, we see that Brown and Sanders were far more productive and more exciting than Smith in their peak seasons. Here's how each player stacked up in their signature campaigns:

It's not even close: Smith, at his peak, was merely ordinary compared with Brown and Sanders at their respective bests.

Brown, in 1963, was on pace for a record 2,129 yards projected over a 16-game season. Smith's career-best 1,773 yards in 1995, meanwhile, doesn't even crack the all-time Top 20.

Finally, there's the "explosion" factor -- the raw breakaway ability that makes the best running backs, for our money, a threat to score from anywhere on the field. We touched on this topic in great detail a couple weeks ago, with our look at Tennessee's amazing Chris Johnson.

Brown scored an incredible 17 touchdowns of 50 yards or more, on a mere 2,621 touches in his career. Sanders turned his 3,414 touches into 16 long-strike scores. Johnson scored seven 50-plus TDs last year alone, on a mere 408 touches. Smith exploded for just six touchdowns of 50 yards or more, despite his record workload of 4,924 touches.

But, as we said, Smith's greatness was not his production at any one time, but that he produced so consistently over such a long haul. The incredible figure of those 4,924 touches -- easily the most ever -- is Smith's signature statistic, the one that they should put right below his brand-new bronze bust. It's a figure we may never see again, at least not while mere humans play football.

Rice, for his part, was the most awe-inspiring receiver most of us have ever seen: a true football phenom who put up gaudy numbers over a lengthy career and seemed to reserve his greatest efforts for the biggest games -- as evidenced by his incredible list of postseason records, too.

He was a dominant player, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts prove. But he was hardly the most dominant receiver ever. Not even close.

That honor goes to Green Bay Hall of Fame receiver Hutson, who plied his trade for the Packers from 1935 to 1945.

Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor and the BBC's NFL broadcaster, Mike Carlson, conducted a lengthy study comparing Rice to Hutson several years ago. The numbers changed our view of football history and clearly place Hutson well above Rice as the most dominant receiver the game has ever seen.

Here's how they stack up, relative to their times, in every major receiving category.

Receptions: Rice caught more passes than any other player in history (1,549), easily blowing away Hutson's career total (488). But Rice played in a pass-happy era when 100 catches in a year were common. And he led the league in receptions just twice (1990 and 1996). Hutson led the NFL in receptions an unbelievable eight times in 11 seasons.

When Hutson joined the NFL, the single-season record was 22 catches. He set a new record with an incredible 74 receptions in 1942. And while the former Alabama star's 488 career receptions seem humble by our stands, it more than doubled the previous record of 190 and reinvented our concept of the receiver as a weapon in pro football.

Yards: Rice, with his record 22,895 career receiving yards, clearly blows away Hutson (7,991) in this category, too.

But in the context of their time, it's quite a different story. Rice led the league in receiving yards six times in 20 seasons. Hutson led the league seven times in his 11 seasons, including a record four years in a row (1941-44).

And consider this: When Huston joined the NFL, no player had produced more than 350 receiving yards in a season. He topped that mark in all 11 seasons of his career -- like we said, he was Ruthian in his production relative to the standards of the era.

Huston's 1,211 yards of 1942 was the first 1,000-yard receiving season and stands as the most by any player in the first 31 years of NFL history. Meanwhile, Hutson's ability to produce big games stands unchallenged, even today.

Rice, for example, topped 200 yards four times in his 303-game career. Hutson? He topped 200 yards four in just 116 games. Given 303 games, Huston might have produced an incredible 10 200-yard days. Only the AFL's Lance Alworth produced more 200-yard games (five) in his career than Rice and Hutson.

Touchdowns: Once again, Rice's career numbers dwarf Hutson's. The 2010 Hall of Famer boasts a record 197 touchdown catches. The 1963 Hall of Famer hauled in 99 touchdown passes. But Hutson's record stood for nearly half a century, before finally broken by Steve Largent (100 career TDs) in 1989.

Hutson scored a record 17 touchdowns in 1942. Very good, even by today's standards. But far more impressive when you consider that the Packers played just 11 games that year and that Hutson hauled in more touchdowns than eight entire clubs in the 10-team NFL.

His mark of 17 TD receptions in a season stood for 42 years, until Mark Duper grabbed 18 TD passes from Dan Marino in 1984.

Again, truly Ruthian numbers.

The knock on Hutson, much like it is on Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman, is that he dominated the talent-starved war seasons of 1942-44 (players began returning by the 1945 season). But keep in mind that Huston dominated the pre-war seasons of 1935 to 1941, too, leading the league in TD catches in five of those six years.

Also keep in mind that, 65 years after he retired, Hutson remains No. 8 on the all-time TD reception list (99). Six of the seven players ahead of him on the all-time TD receptions list played here in the pass-happy 21st century.

We can only imagine what kind of dizzying numbers Hutson might have produced in the 21st-century, when teams pass the ball more than 500 times a year over the course of a 16-game season.

Championships: Finally, both players enjoyed incredible team success. Rice won three titles in four opportunities during his 20-year career. He played on three championship teams with San Francisco before ending up on the losing end of Super Bowl XXXVII, when he was with Oakland.

Hutson also went 3-1 in NFL title games, winning championships for TitleTown in 1936, 1939 and 1944. The Packers lost to the Giants in the 1938 championship game.

Rice was the most productive receiver in history and the most dominant receiver of our time. But certainly not the most dominant receiver of all time. That title seems like it will always belong to Don Hutson.

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