Brace yourself, because I am about to say something that may sound like football heresy: Odell Beckham Jr. could overtake Jerry Rice as the best receiver of all time.
I know — it’s still early in Beckham’s career — but don’t dismiss it so easily.
Beckham caught two touchdown passes in Sunday’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles, making him the first player since the 1960s with 30 receiving touchdowns in his first 35 games. Rice had only 22 at the same point of his career. It was also the seventh time Beckham had caught at least two touchdowns in a game. The only players since the merger with more such instances through 35 career games are New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (nine) and San Diego Chargers wide receiver John Jefferson (eight). Randy Moss is the only other player with seven. Rice had five.
Beckham also has more receiving yards through his first 35 games than anyone has ever had, slightly edging out Charley Hennigan, who amassed 3,338 receiving yards while playing for the Houston Oilers of the AFL. Rice had 2,778 receiving yards through his first 35 games, good enough for No. 10 all time.
And Beckham has done all this with just an average passer throwing him the ball. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, Eli Manning ranks 18th out of 32 qualified passers, close to where Football Outsiders has him ranked, at No. 17. The game charters at Pro Football Focus are less impressed, ranking Manning No. 24 out of 30 passers playing at least half of their team’s snaps. Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young under center for most of his career, arguably two of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game.
Manning also has completed a league-average 63.2 percent of his passes over the past few seasons. Montana and Young both led the league in completion percentage five times, with Young winning the crown in four straight years, from 1994 to 1997. Manning has only led the league in interceptions, doing so during the 2007, 2010 and 2013 seasons.
Having a quarterback like Manning under center is both a curse and a blessing. Since Beckham entered the league in 2014, the Giants have won a total of 17 games, with zero playoff appearances. The San Francisco 49ers, meanwhile, won at least 10 games in each of Rice’s first three years, qualifying for the postseason in each of those seasons. In fact, the 49ers won at least 10 games for the first 14 seasons of Rice’s career, winning three Super Bowls in that span as well.
Playing for a team that struggles to win typically means trailing in terms of points scored, and that increases a team’s propensity for passing the football. Since 2014, the Giants threw a pass on 70.4 percent of their plays when they trailed by more than a touchdown, plays that accounted for almost a quarter of their time on the field (22.2 percent of plays from scrimmage). During the 1994 season, the earliest year in which data is available and a year in which the 49ers won the Super Bowl, San Francisco found themselves trailing by eight or more points on just 80 of 1,033 (7.7 percent) plays on which they threw a pass or ran the ball.
But no matter what the scoreboard says, there is no doubting Beckham plays in a league that is much more reliant on the passing game than at any other point in the NFL’s history.
When Rice won his first offensive player of the year award, in 1987, NFL teams averaged 32.1 passing attempts per game. When he won for the second time, in 1993, teams passed 32.2 times per game. This season, teams pass at an all-time high of 36.4 times per game. More passing attempts per game obviously give Beckham more opportunities to get his hands on the football, and that will only help him pad his totals early in his career.
And that’s important, since it is unlikely Beckham will have a career that spans 21 years and lasts into his 40s. Then again, Beckham also started a year younger than Rice did, so perhaps that will help his production during his prime.
Some will say Rice has the edge in the only stats that matter: three Super Bowl rings in four appearances. But that won’t stop Beckham’s trajectory, which could write Rice out of the record books.
Neil Greenberg | washingtonpost.com | November 6, 2016