It's "Decades Month" here at NFL Media, and the 1990s are taking center stage this week. One of the defining aspects of this 10-year period was a series of spectacular quarterback-receiver connections, with four teams boasting particularly potent tandems:
When it comes down to it, which was the best pitch-and-catch combo of the '90s?
Truest connection was between Aikman and IrvinTroy Aikman to Michael Irvin tops the list for me. Regardless of their comparative statistical success, I'll go with these two Hall of Famers.
In crucial moments of big games, there wasn't a QB more accurate than Aikman and there wasn't a more reliable pass catcher than Irvin. They continually delivered in the clutch. When it was third-and-7 with everything on the line, Aikman to Irvin on a slant route was almost a sure thing.
Only one pair includes the GOAT ...The 49ers' duo gets the edge. Jerry Rice is the GOAT. He led the NFL in receiving yards four times and touchdowns three times in the decade. He averaged a 101/1,430/13 stat line from 1990 to '96 before tearing his ACL in 1997. Steve Young led the NFL in completion percentage and yards per attempt five times and in passer rating six times over a seven-year span. He had a .737 winning percentage in the 1990s compared to Aikman's .629.
Had Sterling Sharpe's career not ended prematurely, though, he and Brett Favre would have been stiff competition. Favre won three consecutive MVPs during the decade, and Sharpe averaged 105/1,285/14 in their three seasons together.
Young and Rice were lethal in their primeJerry Rice and Steve Young would be my choice, and it's not that close. Rice is the greatest receiver of all time, and this was his prime. Young doesn't rank as an all-time top-five quarterback, but I'll take him in his best years over nearly anyone. Young took over as the 49ers' starter in 1991 and wound up leading the league in yards per attempt -- something he'd do for four consecutive seasons. No passer in the '90s was more explosive and efficient while also being able to improvise when necessary. Troy Aikman and Jim Kelly weren't able to do that.
Production and trophies give the edge to the Cowboys' comboSteve Young to Jerry Rice was historically prolific ... but that duo loses out because Joe Montana to Rice was even more so. Choosing between the two pairs is like picking between Sean Connery-as-James Bond and Daniel Craig-as-James Bond: You might prefer one over the other, but neither is Timothy Dalton. (Alright, that analogy fell apart at the end ... but you get my drift.)
I'll go with Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin. From 1990 to 1999, Irvin caught 58 touchdown passes and racked up 10,872 yards, with mostly Aikman throwing to him. That would have been impressive in any era. Between that and the three Lombardi Trophies the pair helped capture for the Cowboys, Aikman and Irvin trump almost any QB/WR combo in history.
One of these duos looms as the best of all timeThis one is a cinch; the best QB-WR tandem from the '90s was Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
Going beyond that decade, I think Young to Rice is one of the elite combos in NFL history, vastly underrated because of the amazing rapport Rice had with Joe Montana before Young ascended in San Francisco, and because of the perception that Young was a running quarterback. Rice and Young had the stats, the touchdowns, the wins and the championship. And they passed the eye test; just think of how majestic they looked when they played.
Aikman to Irvin dominated statistically, but Young to Rice still stands outTroy Aikman and Michael Irvin were outstanding with their timing routes; in fact, since 1991, they have the third-most total yards (8,844) among all quarterback-receiver combos and the fourth-most completions (580), better than any of the duos listed above.
But Steve Young and Jerry Rice are close behind them, ranking fifth in yards (8,022) and sixth in completions (569) -- and Rice also happened to be the best receiver in the game. So while both combos produced at a prolific level that has been nearly impossible to match to this day, I have to give the nod to the Young-Rice tandem.