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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Top 10 Pass Combos in NFL History



****** Note: This week's top Tuesday was actually posted on Wednesday, due to unforeseen responsibilities bestowed on the blogger. I'll promise to be more prompt in the future ********


Today's top 10 Tuesday list will explore the marvelous pass combos throughout NFL History. Quarterbacks and wide receivers need each other to have a successful passing attack on the football field. But, there is something spectacular and magical about the QB and WR combos that have become so prolific that no defense can contain their production. Every player, coach, and fan knows that the two players will seek a way to find each other; yet no one can stop them from connecting. These are my top 10 pass combos of all-time:

10) John Hadl and Lance Alworth (San Diego Chargers: 1962-1970)

John Hadl was the starting quarterback for the San Diego Chargers in the American Football League (AFL) before the merger and before the Super Bowl era. His favorite target was Lance "Bambi" Alworth; a stocky, doe-eyed, wide receiver that was drafted in both the NFL and the AFL in 1962. Hadl and Bambi Alworth would become one of the most accomplished passing combos in Chargers history.

Together the pair connected for 56 touchdowns. That total is 6th all-time for NFL pass combos and 1st in the AFL record books. Hadl and Bambi would go on to win the 1963 AFL championship game over the Boston Patriots. They would connect for a 48 yard touchdown in the game. Much of the credit for their success belonged to coach Sid Gilman. His offensive ideology was to to stretch the field by having the quarterback throw deep passes downfield; a notion that has morphed the game of football into the sport we see today.

9) Arnie Herber and Don Hutson (Green Bay Packers: 1935-1940)

Arnie Herber and Don Hutson was the first prolific passing combo in Pro Football history. Long before the Super Bowls and Pro Bowls, Herber and Hutson were shaking up the game by taking the offense from a one dimensional running attack and airing out the football before baffled defenses around the league.

Herber had success before the arrival of Don Hutson. The NFL started keeping statistics in 1932 and Herber immediately topped the passing numbers with 639 yards and 9 touchdowns. But it was the arrival of Hutson that changed everything. Don Hutson was known as the "Alabama Antelope". He became the NFL's first true wide receiver. Hutson dominated defenders with his graceful speed and sure hands.

As featured players of Curly Lambeau'a Green Bay Packers, Herber and Hutson were dangerous from the very start. Herber's expertise was throwing the deep, long pass downfield and Hutson loved to out run the defense and use his hands to finish the play. Their first pass and catch was an 83-yard touchdown bomb. That first season they quickly set records for passing yards, receiving yards, and touchdowns. They easily advanced to the NFL championship game and beat the Boston Redskins 21-6 for the title.

8) Ken Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff (Oakland Raiders: 1970-1978)

Ken "the Snake" Stabler did not have the rocket arm that most quarterbacks had in their arsenals. But, he did have the accuracy and the tenacity to be successful in the National Football League. Fred Biletnikoff did not have the speed that most wide receivers had in their arsenals. But, he had the hands and the route running to catch anything thrown his way. Together, Stabler and Biletnikoff would become one of the most dangerous passing combos of the 1970's.

Stabler and Biletnikoff complemented each other well. Biletnikoff would always find a way to get open. Even when double teamed, Biletnikoff had a knack for running the route that would get him the space he needed. Biletnikoff was also known for his use of "Stickum", a sticky substance used by wide receivers to increase their chances of making the catch. Whatever Stabler threw in his direction, Biletnikoff would find a way to catch the ball. Their performance in Super Bowl XI set an offensive record for 429 yards in the game with a record 288 yards in the first half. Biletnikoff would be the game's MVP.

7) Tom Brady and Randy Moss (New England Patriots: 2007 - Present)

This may be a hard sell for most folks. The reason being is that New England quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss only had one full season together thus far. My reason for having them on this list? It was one heck of a season. In the 2007-2008 NFL season, Brady and Moss connected to break two of the most coveted records in NFL history. And, they did it while winning every single regular season game in a 16 game season; something no other passing combo has ever accomplished.

Moss was traded to the Patriots in April 2007, on the weekend of the NFL draft. He had an immediate impact on the Patriots offense and actually made future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady even better. With Moss as his wide receiver, Brady was able to break the record for touchdown throws in a single season. He threw an astonishing 50 touchdowns breaking Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning's record of 49. On his 50th touchdown throw, Brady helped Moss break another highly regarded record. With the catch, Moss broke the record for single season touchdown catches for a wide receiver; a long standing record previously set by the legendary Jerry Rice in 1987. Both records were broken on the final game of the Patriot's undefeated 16 game season.

Brady and Moss would falter in the championship that year, losing to the Giants in what was arguably the best Super Bowl ever played. But their historic season is unprecedented and with a bright future on the horizon, Moss and Brady will continue their record breaking combo.

6) Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin (Dallas Cowboys: 1989-1999)

Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin were the passing combo for the dominant Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990's. If success in the NFL is measured in Super Bowl rings, then Aikman and Irvin was one of the most successful duos in NFL history. They won 3 Super Bowl championships together: Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII, and XXX. From 1991 to 1995, Aikman and Irvin each made it to the Pro Bowl every season. Their chemistry and timing were undeniable and many times it was also unstoppable.

Aikman wore the #8 jersey and Irvin wore the #88. Both were known for their off season work ethic at the Cowboys training facility known as Valley Ranch. Michael Irvin was known as "the Playmaker" and the moniker was fitting. Troy Aikman knew he could throw the ball down field and Michael Irvin would come up with the ball more often than not. Whatever the defensive coverage, whether double teamed or not, Michael Irvin would find a way to make the play. The Aikman-to- Irvin passing combination connected for 49 touchdowns. Both players were subsequently inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

5) Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry (Baltimore Colts: 1956-1967)

Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry were an unlikely duo. First off, Berry had poor vision and lacked the speed of most receivers in the NFL. As for Unitas, his first start was shaky at best. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Even though these guys didn't make the best first impression, they have left a lasting impression that is still a major influence on the NFL decades later.

As players for the Baltimore Colts, Unitas and Berry connected for an amazing 63 touchdowns together. Their connection helped create the concept of timing passes and the two-minute drill. They found their bond in their work ethic. Both Unitas and Berry would practice endlessly; with the goal of getting their passing game timed perfectly. Berry would actually game plan those practices with a list of routes taped to his wrist.

But, it was the 1958 NFL Championship game that saw the duo at their best. Dubbed the "greatest game ever played" by fans, players, and NFL analysts alike, Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry connected repeatedly on the final drive of regulation. Using the first two-minute drill ever, Unitas hit Berry over and over again for first downs. The Colts then tied the game with a field goal to send it into overtime. They would win the game 23-17 in sudden death and become the 1958 NFL Champions. Unitas and Barry are now in the NFL Hall of Fame and their two-minute drill is still used in the sport today.

4) Jim Kelly and Andre Reed (Buffalo Bills: 1986-1996)

Andre Reed took the NFL by surprise. Drafted in the 4th round as the 86th pick overall, Reed came out of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania; hardly a well-known football school. But once he paired up with Jim Kelly, Reed became part of a very dominant passing duo for the Buffalo Bills. Their partnership would appear in an NFL record 4 straight Super Bowls.

Kelly and Reed combined for 65 touchdowns. Both players were tough. Reed was known to go across the middle of the field and make the catch, even though he was sure to take a big hit for it. Kelly, a linebacker at one point in his early days, was also known to withstand a big hit or two. Andre Reed was also known for his yards after the catch. A five yard pass from Kelly would turn into a 30-40 yard gain courtesy of Reed. Even more impressive, the Bills ran a "no-huddle" offense, which always kept defenses on their heels.

The fast-paced offense was possible because of Andre Reed's ability to change his routes at a moment's notice and Jim Kelly's ability to find Andre Reed. Andre Reed went on to set many receiving records for the Bills and he's near the top of most receiving records in NFL history. Jim Kelly was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

3) Joe Montana and Jerry Rice (San Francisco 49ers: 1985-1992)

Joe Montana had already won 2 Super Bowls when the 49ers drafted wide receiver Jerry Rice in 1985. In fact, when Montana won his first Super Bowl in 1981, Rice was just entering college. So when the accomplished Montana was given the young, fast, sure-handed Rice as a new receiver in his already dominating offense, it resulted in one of the most spectacular passing combos in NFL history.

As a part of the San Francisco 49er West Coast Offense, Montana and Rice became household names. Although all their opponents knew Joe Montana would throw the ball to Jerry Rice, no defense could stop them from connecting. Montana and Rice would score 55 touchdowns together. They made the playoffs every year they played together and won 2 Super Bowls. The duo stormed the NFL record books and never looked back. One of the most impressive performances by the combo was against Atlanta in which they connected on 5 touchdowns in one game; still an NFL record.

Montana would win two more Super Bowl MVP trophies with Jerry Rice as a receiver. Rice would go on to set or break almost every single receiving record in league history. Speaking of Jerry Rice.....

2) Steve Young and Jerry Rice (San Francisco 49ers: 1992-2000)

When Joe Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, the 49ers went with the left-handed Steve Young as their starting quarterback. Young would inherit a tough fan base that was used to winning with Joe Montana. However, he would also inherit the incomparable Jerry Rice. Rice had already won 2 Super Bowls with Joe Montana. Now it was up to Jerry to find the chemistry necessary to be successful with Steve Young, and Rice had never played with a left handed quarterback before.

Rice hit the off-season practice time with a fierce determination. He and Young would create their own legendary passing combo. Their success legitimized Steve Young in the hearts and minds of 49er fans and further cemented Rice's place in NFL history. Rice would connect on even more touchdowns with Steve Young than he did with Joe Montana. A lot more. The Young to Rice combo scored 85 touchdowns compared to 55 from the Montana to Rice pairing. But for Young and Rice to be truly successful, they would have to win a Super Bowl.

They did so in 1994 at Super Bowl XXIX. The combo connected for 3 touchdowns in that game; the first one came within the first 1:30 of the first quarter. Steve Young was Super Bowl MVP of that game. He also became the first left-handed QB inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Jerry Rice is sure to follow him being that he is the best wide receiver to ever play the game.

1) Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (Indianapolis Colts: 1998-2008)

I guess you can say that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison clicked from the very start. Manning's first NFL throw came in a preseason game in 1998. It went to Marvin Harrison for a 48-yard touchdown. As they say, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Manning and Harrison put in the time, effort and practice to hone their chemistry. The results were phenomenal. They have combined for a record setting 86 touchdowns as a passing combo; beating the record 85 touchdowns held by our #2 passing duo. Their success was due, in part, to their ability to communicate at all times while on the field.

Their game language came in glances, nods, and slight gestures. Manning always knew where Harrison would be during a play and Harrison always knew that Manning would get him the ball. The Manning-to-Harrison combo connected for 664 catches; a record for all combos in NFL history. They also hold the record for most yards for a passing combo in league history.

Not to be outdone by previous passing combos, Manning and Harrison made sure to add Super Bowl champs to their impressive resume. They won Super Bowl XLI, with Manning taking home the MVP trophy. Marvin Harrison was released by the Colts, per his request, in 2008. Peyton Manning continues to show up in the post season each year with the Colts. Both players appear to be headed for the NFL Hall of Fame.



That wraps up this week's countdown and our look at the best passing combos in NFL history. I know some of you will wonder about Zorn and Largent or Marino and Clayton, etc., etc.... and I truly love your debates. I say, keep 'em coming. With the vast talent displayed throughout the history of the league, I'm sure there will be other passing combos out there that need recognition.