SANTA CLARA, CALIF. -- The collective memory of professional sport is as fickle as it is powerful. We tend to both relish and forget the football greats from years past, which accounts for a new best ever player seemingly every decade.

The words best ever roll off tongues with the greatest of ease. So it is no surprise that when comparing the best ever quarterback-receiver combinations in the history of the NFL, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and his favorite receiver, Jerry Rice, are tossed into center ring.

Warning: This article may irritate those over age 40, or anyone else who had the fabulous first-hand opportunity to watch Johnny Unitas go to Raymond Berry, Norm Van Brocklin to Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch or Sonny Jurgensen to Charley Taylor. These past quarterback-receiver combos are always followed by the words Hall of Fame.

Those words, in all likelihood, will someday follow the names of Montana and Rice, who get yet another chance to show their primetime stuff on "Monday Night Football" against the 10-1 New York Giants.

Some of the very legends themselves say "best ever" is valid when mentioning this duo. They have been awed by the Montana-Rice magic and athleticism. Even the great chronicler himself, Steve Sabol, the man who has put NFL greatness on celluloid for the past 25 years with NFL Films Inc., says rather shyly that Montana-Rice is the best thus far, barely edging out Jurgensen and Taylor.

"I should be one of those old guys who says Unitas or something like that," said Sabol. "But I think it has to be Montana-Rice. Rice makes this special because he can take a short catch and turn it into something great."

For their parts, Montana and Rice remain somewhat humble, not yet ready to test the waters of history. When asked if they were the best duo ever, Montana smiled and said, "Let history be the judge." How does Rice feel? "I don't know," he said. "But I do know I want to be the all-time receiver. That's it. The all-time receiver.

"The main thing is that Joe is the best quarterback ever. He's going to make things easier for you so you can go out and play your type of football. That's the main reason we're having so much success."

But let's have the past greats themselves -- or those that know them well -- discuss the matter. Not in any particular order, of course.

Unitas-to-Berry was all about precision. Unitas may have never made a bad read while Berry may have never run a wrong pattern. Basics were the key. Flash wasn't in great excess.

"We had great rhythm," said Berry, who played 13 years and is the seventh-ranked receiver on the all-time list with 9,275 yards and 68 touchdowns. "I think you see that with {Montana-Rice}. They certainly do put up a great argument for the best."

Jurgensen-to-Taylor was explosive. Like Rice, Taylor, who caught 79 touchdowns in 13 years, could turn a short grab into something tremendous. And Jurgensen was a pit bull in the pocket, waiting until the final second to throw the ball, even if it meant being clotheslined by a blitzing linebacker.

Jurgensen agrees that Montana-Rice is one of the most talented duos to play the game, but finds it hard to compare across football generations.

Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann. Bradshaw had the grit while Swann supplied the iambic pentameter in mid-air. In the first half, Bradshaw would commit one blunder after another, then come back after intermission and be perfect.

"Joe Montana told me several years before San Francisco drafted Jerry Rice that he's like to have a receiver like me who would go after everything," said Swann, "and I think he got his wish. They have the perfect talent in the perfect offense.

"Jerry Rice would be a great receiver wherever he went. But he wouldn't catch {11 passes for 215 yards in last year's Super Bowl} if he played for the Steelers of the '70s or the Packers of the '60s. They wouldn't throw that often."

Dan Fouts to Kellen Winslow. Fouts threw for more than 43,000 yards in his career and Winslow was often his favorite target. "I had the opportunity to play with a lot of great receivers," Fouts said, "so I know a good combo when I see one.

"It's true that there are so many different generations of combinations. But each one has something in common. With each, there's a lot of excitement, a potential for greatness. And I think Montana and Rice, quite possibly, could be remembered as the greatest of all."

Bob Griese to Paul Warfield, like Unitas and Berry, was a combination based on precision. Griese knew all of Warfield's intricate route adjustments. In 1972, Warfield was the team's leading receiver with only 30 catches, but most were of the critical third-and-five variety.

"That was a great combination," said former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, the man who designed the system that makes Joe and Jerry go. "But when Jerry touches the ball, he's gone."

Van Brocklin to Hirsch. "Great hands," said Sabol of the jitterbug Hirsch. "There has never been a better receiver that could catch the over-the-shoulder pass. They were great, but I still think Montana-Rice was better."

When the game needed to be won in the final seconds, the duo that comes closest to Montana and Rice -- if not surpassing them -- is Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson. Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli were devastating in the mid-1950s. Dave Krieg helped Steve Largent become the all-time leading receiver with 13,089 yards and 100 touchdowns. Who knows what Largent could have done with a quarterback like Montana?

"No matter what, you still have to say that Montana-Rice is one of the best one-two punches in the history of pro football, if not the best," Largent said. "It's one of those rare things that comes along every so often, where everything fits together perfect."

Joe Theismann knew that he could always count on Art Monk, the ironman of receivers still playing with the Redskins. Theismann acknowleges Montana and Rice's splendid talents, but he isn't convinced they are the greatest of all time.

"That one I wouldn't agree with," he said. "I'll agree that Joe Montana is the best quarterback of all time, but when you say that combo is the best of all time . . . I say from an execution standpoint Unitas and Berry is the best. If Raymond ever dropped a pass in his life . . ."

Jurgensen says the game is so different from his era that a comparison is difficult. He refers to the "old days" when quarterbacks and receivers had less protection from the rulebook. Today, no bump-and-run. In yesteryear, it was common for Taylor to get gouged or punched in the midsection, even before he got into his pattern.

"This is a different era now," Jurgensen explained. "Now, Rice runs down the field and no one lays a glove on him. That's not Charley Taylor running down the field. Charley played in an era in which you could knock someone's butt off coming across the field before he even caught the ball. They used to knock Charley down twice before he even started his pattern.

"There was a bigger intimidation factor. We played by a different set of rules. Guys come back there and clothesline the quarterback and not get called for a penalty. Guys would gouge you in the eyes. If you knocked a quarterback out you got a bonus.

"You put Charley Taylor and Sonny Jurgensen in today's game and put Montana and Rice back in the old days and I don't know. Are they tough enough? I don't know. I think we would have fared well."

Said Rice: "People are trying to headhunt me all the time. They try to take out Joe all the time because he's Joe Montana. All that stuff {Jurgensen} is talking about I believe still goes on."

One of the things that makes the Montana-Rice combo so special is the volatile Rice.

No one in football today can do as much on a five-yard slant or crossing pattern than Rice. Among all of Rice's statistics one may be the most telling: Rice has caught 74 touchdown passes in his last 71 games. Of the 419 passes he has caught in his NFL career, nearly one in five -- 77 -- were touchdowns.

Of all the game's receivers only Hall of Famer Don Hutson has done better, scoring 99 touchdowns among his 488 catches, slightly better than one in five. "Jerry has 4.6 speed on Tuesday and 4.2 speed on Sunday. No one outruns {Rice} in a game," said all-pro 49ers cornerback Ronnie Lott.

"We believe we can catch the short passes and do something with the ball," Rice said. "I see a lot of receivers catch the ball and then just fall to the ground. But we believe that when we catch the ball the fun is just starting. That's the way I like it. Catch one for five yards and go 80."

He then added, "I'm still looking for the ultimate game."

The great players of football past will be watching.