The NFL’s Best Receiving Duos Ever

Earlier this month, I compiled a list of the 10 best NFL receiving tandems of the past decade. It's time to go big picture: the best pass-catching partnerships in the history of the league.

A quick discussion of eligibility and methodology, then the list:

1) Modern Era only. This column only includes receiving duos from 1946-present. That means the league was racially integrated, there was no dip in performance because of wartime service, and statistics are pretty reliable. Also, this helps us avoid "Don Hutson and Anybody."

2) Players are judged by their partnership, not individually or on their whole careers. Lance Alworth played with Bob Hayes when they were both past their primes. They were great players, but I'm only interested in what they did together. Same thing for Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, or any number of other pairs. Perhaps most notably, Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff didn't make the cut. Both were great receivers, and they played seven years together, but Biletnikoff's best years came in the '60s, while Branch's were in the '70s. Great receiving tandems are great at the same time, terrifying defenses who don't know who to cover. I tried to balance peak performance and total productivity, but the list definitely tilts toward longer partnerships. I think that's appropriate. Without further ado:

1. Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore, Baltimore Colts, 1956-67
981 receptions, 15,109 yards, 116 touchdowns

At the time of their retirement, Berry and Moore held the records for most combined receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. For 25 years, they were the only duo with 15,000 receiving yards together, giving up the record only long after the schedule had increased to 16 games and new rules had opened up the passing game. Both players were voted to the NFL's 50th Anniversary Team. The teammates also combined to win two championships, including The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Berry and Moore have a lot of things going for them: both are Hall of Famers, they played together for 12 seasons, and their primes overlapped almost exactly. From 1957-60, no other receiving duo was close. Over those four seasons, Berry led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Moore ranked second in catches and yards, and third in TDs. The Colts had by far the two best receivers of the day. Imagine Steve Largent and James Lofton as teammates in the '80s, or Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin in the early '90s, even Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss in the early 2000s, and that's still not as dominant as Berry and Moore.

Best season: 1960 — 74 rec, 1,298 yds, 10 TD (Berry); 45 rec, 936 yds, 9 TD (Moore)

In 1960, Berry and Moore combined for 119 catches, 2,234 receiving yards, and 19 receiving touchdowns. The second-best NFL receiving tandem was Tommy McDonald and Pete Retzlaff, who combined for 85 catches, 1,627 yards, and 18 TDs, more than 600 yards behind the Baltimore duo. Pretty much the same thing happened in 1959. (When you look at the stats, bear in mind that these were 12-game seasons.)

2. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, St. Louis Rams, 1999-06
1,287 receptions, 19,388 yards, 115 touchdowns

No receiving tandem in history has combined for more yards than Bruce and Holt. That alone earns them a high spot on the list, but this pairing is particularly distinguished by how dominant it was. Few receiving groups have actually earned nicknames, but this was one of them: the Greatest Show on Turf. In 2000, they became only the second duo in history to top 3,000 yards, helping the Rams set a single-season passing record that still stands and has never been seriously challenged. Not including Bruce's injury-shortened 2005 campaign, these two combined to average over 1,250 yards for eight seasons in a row.

Best season: 2000 — 82 rec, 1,635 yds, 6 TD (Holt); 87 rec, 1,471 yds, 9 TD (Bruce)

This is one of only three times in history that teammates have both gained over 1,400 receiving yards in a season. You probably cannot guess both of the other two, but the answer is at the bottom of the column.

3. Art Monk and Gary Clark, Washington Redskins, 1985-92
1,094 receptions, 16,114 yards, 99 touchdowns

What Monk and Clark accomplished with a series of mostly mediocre quarterbacks is phenomenal, unmatched. Of the top 10 combos on this list, all the others but one played with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. Monk and Clark excelled no matter who was throwing the ball. In 1985, with Joe Theismann, they led the NFL in receptions. The next year, with Jay Schroeder, they were second in yards. In 1988, with Doug Williams, Monk and Ricky Sanders led all teammates in combined receiving yards, while Clark and Sanders led in touchdowns. In 1991, with Mark Rypien, Monk and Clark led all NFL tandems in receiving yards.

Best season: 1989 — 79 rec, 1,229 yds, 9 TD (Clark); 86 rec, 1,186 yds, 8 TD (Monk)

In 1989, the top three pass-catching combos in the NFL were Monk and Sanders (166), Monk and Clark (165), and Clark and Sanders (159). All three had over 1,000 yards. Sanders didn't make this list, but this trio — nicknamed the Posse — is the best in NFL history.

4. Jerry Rice and John Taylor, San Francisco 49ers, 1987-95
1,154 receptions, 18,224 yards, 171 touchdowns

I know, Jerry Rice and anyone. He had successful partnerships with Dwight Clark, Roger Craig, Brent Jones, Terrell Owens, and Tim Brown. But none of them complemented Rice, in his prime, like John Taylor. This pairing combined to win three Super Bowls and holds the record for most receiving TDs of any teammates in history (Rice and Jones are next, at 170, and no one else is within 30 of that). Rice was obviously the star of the show, but Taylor was no joke, going over 1,000 yards twice during his time with Rice.

Best season: 1989 — 82 rec, 1,483 yds, 17 TD (Rice); 60 rec, 1,077 yds, 10 TD (Taylor)

This is the same best season as I chose for Monk and Clark. I think the 49ers were better that year, but what set the Washington pairing apart were balance (Monk and Clark were both great, whereas Rice was the best and Taylor merely good), consistency (Monk and Clark were great every year), quarterbacking (the Niners had Montana and Young), and system (Washington played a ball control offense, while San Francisco was running a pass-oriented West Coast Offense).

5. Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, Jacksonville Jaguars, 1996-2001
1,061 receptions, 14,365 yards, 71 touchdowns

I don't think there's much room for argument with the first four choices, but this could be controversial. In fact, I've probably lost most Steelers fans already. They're at the bottom of the page, writing nasty comments about why Lynn Swann and John Stallworth are the best ever. What I like about Smith and McCardell is dominance. They were only together for six seasons, but all six seasons were high-quality. Every year, they were over 2,000 yards. Only once were they under 150 catches or double-digit TDs. Four times, they were both over 1,100 yards receiving. This is another pairing that maintained success without an elite quarterback. Mark Brunell was a nice player, but he's no one's Hall of Famer.

Best season: 2001 — 112 rec, 1,373 yds, 8 TD (Smith); 93 rec, 1,110 yds, 6 TD (McCardell)

This is one of only eight seasons in history in which teammates combined for over 200 catches. The others are: Cris Carter and Jake Reed (1994), Herman Moore and Brett Perriman (1995), Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey (2000), Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin (2005), Randy Moss and Wes Welker (2007), Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (2007), Wes Welker and Randy Moss (2009).

6. Tom Fears and Crazy Legs Hirsch, Los Angeles Rams, 1949-56
660 receptions, 10,521 yards, 81 touchdowns

Hall of Fame teammates who would be top-three on this list if their best seasons had come at the same time. Fears was the best in the NFL in 1949, when the Rams were still trying Hirsch as a running back. Hirsch was still a good receiver when Fears retired in '56. In 1950, Fears set a single-season record with 84 receptions. No one else had more than 50. That's like getting 168 catches when the other leaders are all below 100. The next season, Hirsch had what is very probably the greatest season by any receiver in history: he led the league in catches and set records for yards (1,495) and TDs (17). No NFL player topped either mark for more than 30 years, when the schedule had grown from 12 games to 16.

Best season: 1950 — 84 rec, 1,116 yds, 7 TD (Fears); 42 rec, 687 yds, 7 TD (Hirsch)

Forty-two catches and 687 yards might not sound like much, but that was great in 1950. That season, Hirsch ranked seventh in yards, tied for sixth in receptions, and tied for fourth in receiving TDs. That's about the same as Brandon Marshall the last two years.

7. Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, Miami Dolphins, 1983-92
1,061 receptions, 17,512 yards, 140 touchdowns

Am I putting too much faith in statistics? Sure, the Marks Brothers have the most combined TDs of anyone not involving Jerry Rice, and they rank fourth in combined receiving yardage, but they played on an offense that threw all the time, and they had the privilege of catching passes from Dan Marino. Well, plenty of players have been with high-octane passing offenses, and there are a couple dozen QBs in the Hall of Fame, but only a handful of WR duos have accomplished what Clayton and Duper did. Marino could make anyone look good, but these receivers helped him look great.

Best season: 1984 — 73 rec, 1,389 yds, 18 TD (Clayton); 71 rec, 1,306 yds, 8 TD (Duper)

The Marks Brothers easily led the NFL in combined receiving yards and TDs this season, but they actually finished second in combined catches, behind Art Monk (106) and Calvin Muhammad (42) of Washington. Monk and Muhammad combined for 2,101 yards and 11 touchdowns.

8. Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner, San Diego Chargers, 1979-86
956 receptions, 13,220 yards, 75 touchdowns

The Air Coryell teams of the early '80s are the greatest passing offense in NFL history, leading the league in passing yards for four years in a row. The air attack was successful with both John Jefferson and Wes Chandler, but the constants were Winslow and Joiner. I mentioned earlier that Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders is the greatest pass-catching trio in history. Winslow, Joiner, and Chandler would probably be second.

Best season: 1980 — 89 rec, 1,290 yds, 9 TD (Winslow); 71 rec, 1,132 yds, 4 TD (Joiner)

Joiner and Winslow were probably the best tandem in the league in '81 and '83, but this was their best joint effort. Unfortunately, they were outdone by an even stronger pairing: Winslow and Jefferson (82 rec, 1,340 yds, 13 TD).

9. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974-82
635 receptions, 10,766 yards, 95 touchdowns

If a poll were taken of NFL fans, asking them to name the greatest receiving tandem in history, I suspect this would come in at the top of the list, or at least very close. Everyone already knows that Swann and Stallworth are great, so I'm going to devote this space to explaining why they're not ranked higher.

The biggest problem was Stallworth's injury issues. Teammates are ranked on their success together, not individually, and Stallworth was often hurt while Swann was in his prime. Similarly, Swann was already retired when Stallworth had his best season. From 1977-79, this was the best receiving duo in the NFL. Other than those three years, there's not much to speak of. Neither player started in 1974, and they combined for just 27 catches. Swann was already a star in '75, but Stallworth was still coming into his own, averaging less than 1.5 catches per game. Stallworth was injured in '76, and caught only nine passes. Evaluating them as a duo, the years from 74-76 are virtually worthless, Swann's MVP performance in Super Bowl X notwithstanding. Stallworth couldn't keep up; this was "Lynn Swann and anyone." Franco Harris had more catches (74) than Stallworth (45) from '74 to '76.

After three fine seasons together, in 1980 Stallworth was hurt again. He had a breakout year in '81, but by then Swann was already slowing down. In the strike-shortened '82 season, Swann had just 18 catches and no TDs, and he retired following the season. Stallworth had two more 1,000-yard seasons afterwards, which helped punch his ballot to Canton. Evaluated solely on his time with Swann, Stallworth wouldn't have been a serious HOF candidate. Are three great seasons and basically nothing else enough to merit top-10 inclusion on this list? Honestly, I'm not sure. I think this ranking is generous, and I'd be more inclined to move them down than up.

Best season: 1978 — 61 rec, 880 yds, 11 TD (Swann); 41 rec, 798 yds, 9 TD (Stallworth)

Their best regular season probably was 1977, but including postseason contributions, this is the better choice. They were almost as good during the season, and they were awesome in Super Bowl XIII: a combined 239 yards and 3 TDs, with both players topping the century mark and finding the end zone.

10. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts, 2001-08
1,265 receptions, 17,155 yards, 134 touchdowns

Similar to Swann and Stallworth, they're great players whose best seasons don't have much overlap. Harrison was the best receiver in the league from 1999-2002, when Wayne was in college or still learning the pro game. Wayne has been terrific the last three seasons, with Harrison gimpy (2007), washed-up (2008), or retired (2009). Five times, though, they combined for 2,000 yards, and they were positively fantastic for about three years.

Best season: 2006 — 95 rec, 1,366 yds, 12 TD (Harrison); 86 rec, 1,310 yds, 9 TD (Wayne)

Even with Peyton Manning throwing the passes, both players over 1,300 yards is special. There has never, ever, been a duo as good as these two at making a catch on the sideline or in the corner of the end zone. Harrison is the best I've ever seen at the toe-tap in the corner, and Wayne isn't far behind.

11. Cris Carter and Jake Reed, Minnesota Vikings, 1991-2001
1,294 receptions, 17,129 yards, 131 touchdowns

Carter and Randy Moss were a more explosive combination, but they only played together for four seasons. Carter and Reed were together for 10. Best season: 1995.

12. Charley Taylor and Jerry Smith, Washington Redskins, 1965-77
1,010 receptions, 13,717 yards, 132 touchdowns

The first receiving duo ever to top 1,000 receptions together, they held the record for combined receiving TDs until 1992. I'd entertain arguments that these two should be top-10. Best season: 1967.

13. Tommy McDonald and Pete Retzlaff, Philadelphia Eagles, 1957-63
570 receptions, 10,054 yards, 89 touchdowns

Played with a pair of HOF QBs, Norm Van Brocklin (1957-60) and Sonny Jurgensen (1961-63). They were overshadowed by Berry and Moore, but great nonetheless. Best season: 1960.

14. Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White, Minnesota Vikings, 1976-82
735 receptions, 11,002 yards, 79 touchdowns

A remarkably consistent partnership, they kept up a very high level of success for an unusually long time, ranking near the top of the league every year from 1976-81. Best season: 1976.

15. Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, Cleveland Browns, 1946-52
592 receptions, 9,669 yards, 77 touchdowns

This bothers me. Lavelli is a Hall of Famer and Speedie probably should be. Why so low? Lavelli had some of his best seasons after Speedie retired. They only had one really great year together. Best season: 1947.

16. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals, 2004-09
1,008 receptions, 13,210 yards, 95 touchdowns

When Kurt Warner gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, he should spend about 15 minutes thanking Boldin, Bruce, Fitzgerald, Holt, and Marshall Faulk for getting him in. Has any QB in history played with so many great receivers? Best season: 2005.

17. Drew Hill and Ernest Givins, Houston Oilers, 1986-91
787 receptions, 12,048 yards, 69 touchdowns

Edged out Givins and Haywood Jeffires (935 rec, 12,308 yds, 82 TD). Hill is one of the more underrated receivers in history. Best season: 1987.

18. Kellen Winslow and Wes Chandler, San Diego Chargers, 1981-87
817 receptions, 11,613 yards, 76 touchdowns

Their 1982 season is perhaps the greatest of any receiving tandem in history. Projected to 16 games, their stats would be: 87 rec, 1,835 yds, 16 TD (Chandler); 96 rec, 1,282 yds, 11 TD (Winslow).

19. Don Maynard and George Sauer, New York Jets, 1965-70
631 receptions, 11,217 yards, 73 touchdowns

Maynard is a Hall of Famer, but not many fans today remember Sauer, who had three 1,000-yard seasons back when that was a major accomplishment. Best season: 1967.

20. Jerry Rice and Brent Jones, San Francisco 49ers, 1987-97
1,339 receptions, 19,153 yards, 170 touchdowns

The most combined receptions of any duo in history, but Jones was never an elite receiver. His best season produced just 747 yards. Of those 1,339 receptions, 922 are Rice. They're listed here mostly for longevity. Best season: 1990.

Honorable Mentions

Pete Pihos and Bobby Walston, 1951-55 Eagles; Ray Berry and Jim Mutscheller, 1955-61 Colts; Lance Alworth and Gary Garrison, 1966-70 Chargers; Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff, 1972-78 Raiders; Randy Moss and Cris Carter, 1998-2001 Vikings; Randy Moss and Wes Welker, 2007-09 Patriots

The 10 Best Receiving Trios

In chronological order:

Dub Jones, Dante Lavelli, Mac Speedie (CLE, 1948-52)
Bob Boyd, Tom Fears, Crazy Legs Hirsch (LA, 1950-56)
Ray Berry, Jim Mutscheller, Lenny Moore (BAL, 1956-61)
Bobby Mitchell, Jerry Smith, Charley Taylor (WAS, 1965-68)
Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow (SD, 1981-86)
Gary Clark, Art Monk, Ricky Sanders (WAS, 1986-92)
Ernest Givins, Drew Hill, Haywood Jeffires (HOU, 1987-91)
Brent Jones, Jerry Rice, John Taylor (SF, 1987-95)
Larry Centers, Rob Moore, Frank Sanders (ARI, 1995-98)
Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt (STL, 1999-2005)

Best By Year

1946: Mal Kutner and Bill Dewell, CHC
1947: Jim Keane and Ken Kavanaugh, CHB
1948: Mal Kutner and Bill Dewell, CHC
1949: Bob Mann and John Greene, DET
1950: Fears and Hirsch, LA
1951: Fears and Hirsch, LA
1952: Billy Howton and Bob Mann, GB
1953: Pete Pihos and Bobby Walston, PHI
1954: Harlon Hill and Jim Dooley, CHB
1955: Pete Pihos and Bill Stribling, PHI
1956: Billy Howton and Gary Knafelc, GB
1957: Berry and Moore, BAL
1958: Berry and Moore, BAL
1959: Berry and Moore, BAL
1960: Berry and Moore, BAL
1961: Charley Hennigan and Bill Groman, HOU
1962: Sonny Randle and Bobby Conrad, STL
1963: Sonny Randle and Bobby Conrad, STL
1964: Johnny Morris and Mike Ditka, CHI
1965: Dave Parks and Bob Casey, SF
1966: Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell, WAS
1967: Maynard and Sauer, NYJ
1968: Lance Alworth and Gary Garrison, SD
1969: Warren Wells and Fred Biletnikoff, OAK
1970: Marlin Briscoe and Haven Moses, BUF
1971: Gene Washington and Ted Kwalick, SF
1972: Gene Washington and Ted Kwalick, SF
1973: Harold Carmichael and Charle Young, PHI
1974: Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff, OAK
1975: Chuck Foreman and John Gilliam, MIN
1976: Cliff Branch and Dave Casper, OAK
1977: Swann and Stallworth, PIT
1978: Swann and Stallworth, PIT
1979: Tony Hill and Drew Pearson, DAL
1980: John Jefferson and Kellen Winslow, SD
1981: Winslow and Joiner, SD
1982: Winslow and Chandler, SD
1983: Winslow and Joiner, SD
1984: Clayton and Duper, MIA
1985: Clark and Monk, WAS
1986: Clayton and Duper, MIA
1987: Hill and Givins, HOU
1988: Ricky Sanders and Art Monk, WAS
1989: Rice and Taylor, SF
1990: Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson, RAM
1991: Clark and Monk, WAS
1992: Andre Rison and Mike Pritchard, ATL
1993: Rice and Taylor, SF
1994: Andre Rison and Terance Mathis, ATL
1995: Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, DET
1996: Carter and Reed, MIN
1997: Rob Moore and Frank Sanders, ARI
1998: Randy Moss and Cris Carter, MIN
1999: Randy Moss and Cris Carter, MIN
2000: Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, DEN
2001: Smith and McCardell, JAC
2002: Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, PIT
2003: Holt and Bruce, STL
2004: Holt and Bruce, STL
2005: Fitzgerald and Boldin, ARI
2006: Harrison and Wayne, IND
2007: Randy Moss and Wes Welker, NE
2008: Fitzgerald and Boldin, ARI
2009: Randy Moss and Wes Welker, NE

Only three times in history have teammates both gained over 1,400 receiving yards in the same season: Moore and Perriman in 1995, Holt and Bruce in 2000, and Fitzgerald and Boldin in 2005. Moore and Perriman hold the records for combined receptions (231) and yards (3,174). Randy Moss and Wes Welker have the record for TDs (31), set in 2007.

Comments and Conversation

July 3, 2010

Chris Driedger:

Holt and Bruce played together in 2007 as well. So their combined stats should read 1431 receptions, 21310 yards, 126 TDs.

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