Mailbag: Fallout from Rice as greatest ever

MIAMI -- We're approaching 1,700 comments on the piece about Jerry Rice's potential standing as the greatest player in NFL history. I have also heard from people through the NFC West mailbag. Those comments and my responses follow.

Greg from Carlisle, Pa., writes: Hey there Mike, Jim Thorpe should probably be on any football great list. I guess it was NFL though. Jerry Rice is an all-time great, but best ever? Please! The man played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a great offensive line. Not to mention the great mind of Bill Walsh. Rice benefited from these tremendously. Put him on a terrible team, and he looks like a normal great receiver like an Issac Bruce.

There are more than 10 players that are better than Jerry Rice, and that is with no doubt. Probably 10 or 20 more. Of course that is only my opinion. Even a guy like Brett Favre is an all-around better player than Jerry Rice. Mark it down! Wide receivers aren't even involved in a lot of the game. Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young to make him involved. Watching Rice his last few years was painful. Best WR ever? YES. Best player ever, not even close.

Mike Sando: I think the most accurate way to put it is that Rice had the best career. Lots of factors go into that, including enjoying team success thanks to having great teammates. Rice made his quarterbacks look good, too. People questioning Kurt Warner's credentials often point out how he played with great wide receivers. I always counter by asking what those receivers ever won without Warner as their quarterback. Warner wasn't the only reason those teams won, but he was a big reason.

Rice was a big reason for the 49ers' success. We did cover some of the ground you alluded to through the comments Aeneas Williams made about what it's like playing on good teams.

James from Baytown, Texas, writes: I think Barry Sanders is the best running back of all time, because of what he accomplished and who he did it with. Now, I really don't like comparing different eras, because for one, the players' skill sets have changed and rules have changed. Like today we have defensive ends, defensive tackles and linebackers running faster than running backs. If that would have happened back then, the players would have been assumed to be taking steroids.

This is the same reason you can't compare quarterbackss from different eras. The rules are set up for a QB to stand upright in the pocket and pick a defense apart. Defensive backs can't even touch a reciever now, when back in the day, the reciever had to fight the DB all the way up the field. So, comparing the Bradys and Mannings to the Montanas and Elways would not be fair, because their eras are totally different. It's still a fun barber shop argument, though, we just love to have.

Mike Sando: Great points, James. Some have said we should look at where players ranked when they retired. For example, Steve Largent ranked first in all-time receptions when he retired. Those numbers reflected NFL history to that point. Where he ranked, not how many catches he had, should stand as the more telling indicator.

The rules changes and corresponding styles of play definitely affect production. John Elway had a career passer rating of 79.9. Brian Griese has a career passer rating of 82.7. Those figures seem comparable, but there is absolutely nothing similar about how they played, what the accomplished or what they meant to the league.

Dan from Duluth, Minn., writes: Why is Emmitt Smith not at least in the discussion? You've got Walter Payton and not Emmitt? Come on, there is more to his game than just longevity and even still you gotta give him props for being an indestructible beast at a position with a ridiculously short career span. You Cowboys haters will do anything to keep a Cowboy out of any discussion about the greatest -- apparently even exclude the NFL's all-time leading rusher. Wow.

Mike Sando: It's a positional thing to a degree. I loved the way Smith played the game and wouldn't have a problem with him being in the discussion. Remember the way he ran against the Giants in that playoff game despite a pretty serious injury? I won't forget it. Great, great player. My thinking was that Sanders, Brown and Payton were better runners, and that is why I left off Smith. Perhaps I was wrong there. The Cowboys conspiracy theory is admittedly more fun, though.

Matt from parts unknown writes: Greatest of all time? Rice surely is ... but Tim Brown's stats put him in the Carter, Harrison, Owens comment you stated.

Mike Sando: Brown was one of my favorite players to watch. I remember the touchdown he scored to win at Buffalo in 1993. Rich Stadium was such a tough place to play back then. The Bills could be dominant there. Buffalo had hammered the Raiders, 51-0, in the AFC title game after the 1990 season. Brown caught 10 passes for 183 yards in that 1993 game, a 25-24 Raiders victory. Brown provided the winning 29-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. That is one of my lasting memories of him.

Go ahead and include Brown in any discussion about all-time great receivers.

Ray from Hannibal, Mo., writes: Mike, I'm a huge Niners fan and love your blog. I don't know if you ever caught this Ralph Wiley column comparing Rice to Jordan, but it is a neat read.

Mike Sando: Thanks for that. Jordan was more dominant as a basketball player than Rice was as a football player, I think, but that also has a lot to do with the nature of their sports. Basketball definitely highlights the individual more than football. That worked against Rice because the ball wasn't in his hands all the time. Jordan probably touched the ball on the vast majority of offensive plays. He also played great defense, impractical for an NFL wide receiver.

George from Buffalo writes: How do you have a list of greatest players ever and not have the all-time sack leader on the list, Bruce Smith. What a bogus list without it!

Mike Sando: Sacks became a stat in 1980, so I would not base a list of all-time greats solely on that category. However, it's true that Smith was a great, great player.

Steve from Odenton, Md., writes: I believe Rice playing for the Niners played a large impact on being voted to so many Pro Bowls. Don't agree? Look at London Fletcher. Identical stats to Ray Lewis, but Fletcher makes one Pro Bowl as an alternate! If Ray Lewis had played for St. Louis, would he have gone to so many Pro Bowls and be in the same conversation as the best ever?

Mike Sando: Ray Lewis was much more of a force at linebacker than Fletcher, and that is no knock on Fletcher. Lewis was the heart, soul and fists for one of the NFL's all-time great defenses. He dominated games physically and emotionally. Fletcher might be underrated. He probably should have gone to more Pro Bowls. But that has nothing to do with Lewis or Rice.

Rice put up historically great numbers. Remember, too, that when he went to the Raiders late in his career, he put up big numbers for two seasons and Rich Gannon became league MVP.

Tom from parts unknown writes: Johnny Unitas had a career rating of 78.2 Was that good for that era? Even so, why is he called one of the best ever? I don't think above average play coupled with longevity should get you in the talk of best ever.

Mike Sando: See earlier item referencing Elway. And please do brush up on NFL history. Unitas topped our list of greatest quarterbacks.

Nick from Littleton, Colo., writes: Jerry Rice is great no doubt. But a better story would be how an organization can be a six-time winner of AFC championships and have only two players in the hall. The Denver Broncos have consistently, since 1976, won games and conference championships. The Chargers have seven Hall of Fame players and one AFC championship. Please help spread the word. Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright, Steve Atwater, Floyd Little, Dennis Smith, Tom Nalen, etc. These are all great football players that get no respect. How does the best tight end ever not make the hall on the first ballot.

Mike Sando: I have written that story, Nick. Shannon Sharpe will make it in. The only question is whether it happens right away given the other players ahead of him in line.

Bob from Winter Garden, Fla., writes: Mike, I am sure that you are a bright young man and a good writer, but you quote statistics like they are indisputable proof. You should remember that statistics are for losers.What you should be thinking about when deciding who was the best ever, the proof should be who dominated the game, league, etc., more than anyone during the time that they played. There is only one answer and that is Jimmy Brown. If you had ever seen him play, you would be convinced. He was bigger, faster, stronger than any linebackers in the league. He describes his talent as "strength, power, speed, vision and balance". He is the best football player that ever lived.

Mike Sando: I do not dispute what you are saying. I offered the case for Rice while acknowledging that statistics are not everything. The basic conclusion was that it's tough to make a case against Rice.