Jerry Rice, Willie Mays, Super Bowl, Tim Lincecum
JERRY RICE was dedicated to his craft and that’s the reason he became the best wide receiver of his time.
Note that I said, “of his time.” Those who make the claim that he is the best of all time – or even the best football player of all time – don recognize how the game has changed. Rules changes since the late ‘70s have opened up passing opportunities dramatically. One particular play demonstrates that, the slant pass Rice would take from Joe Montana or Steve Young and then turn into a much bigger gain with his running after the catch. If he’d been playing in the ‘60s, middle linebackers like Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Willie Lanier would have taken his head off – but that tactic is no longer allowed. When I covered the Raiders, 1967-71, they never had receivers run patterns into the middle of the field because they’d get injured.
If you go even further back, to the earliest years of pro football, the ball was round and much more difficult to pass. So, teams ran the ball much more frequently, which meant fewer passes, fewer completions and fewer receptions by receivers.
So, rather than make absolute comparisons, I look at how they did against their peers. By that standard, the two best receivers of all time are Rice and Don Hutson. Though Hutson’s stats pale beside Rice’s, because of the different conditions, both of them were miles ahead of their peers in all categories. I once saw film of Hutson and he was amazing. On one play, he grabbed the goal post with his left hand, spun around and caught the ball with his right hand.
The “best player of all time” claim for Rice is silly. How do you even begin to compare players at different positions? Teams usually build around quarterbacks, for instance, and offensive tackles are a big item in free agency – but an offensive lineman would never be considered in a “best player” comparison.
I’m not trying to downgrade Rice’s accomplishments, just to put them into perspective. I have a very high regard for him because he worked so hard to become the best.
Many football people thought Bill Walsh was crazy to trade up to get Rice as the 16th pick of the 1985 draft because they didn’t think Rice was fast enough to be a deep threat. But Walsh realized that there’s a difference between what a player runs in shorts in the 40 and in uniform with a football under this arm, a distinction that Al Davis still doesn’t understand. And nobody ever caught Rice from behind.
The two receivers drafted ahead of Rice, Eddie Brown and Al Toon, both had better 40s times but they won’t be joining Rice in Canton.
Walsh always claimed the first time he knew about Rice was when he saw highlights of him in a newscast while he was in his hotel room the night before the 49ers played in Houston. That’s hard to believe because Walsh always seemed to know everything that was happening in the football world and Rice was setting records, albeit for a Division 2 school. No doubt, though, it was the first time he’d seen film on Rice. Before the draft, he looked at more and saw the potential. The rest is history.
Walsh thought Rice could provide the one element his 1984 championship team lacked, a true long distance receiving threat. That wasn’t obvious at first because Rice, confused by the complex Walsh offense, dropped so many passes early in his rookie year that writers started keeping count. Once he learned the offense, he could concentrate on catching the ball – and he wound up as Rookie of the Year.
He got even better after that because he worked at it constantly. Roger Craig had started a rigorous offseason workout and Rice joined him. No other teammate did because it was so rigorous.
Late in his career, we had one runin. In 1998, when he came off a season-ending injury the previous year, he had lost some of his quickness. I wrote that the 49ers were suffering because Young was still treating Rice as if he were the No. 1 receiver when he wasn’t. At practice that week, Rice came off the field screaming at me and continued that into the dressing room.
I sat down on the opposite side of the room and tried to talk to Tim McDonald, while I was waiting for Ken Norton Jr. to come out of the linebackers meeting for the interview we had earlier arranged.
Meanwhile, Rice was walking up and down in the locker room, screaming “motherf-----“ over and over at me. McDonald was amused. “Looks like you got somebody upset,” he said.
Finally, Rodney Knox, then the team’s PR director, came over and suggested I go up to his office and he would bring Norton up. I agreed because the situation was a distraction for the team. Norton was not aware of any of this and we had a good interview.
I had never written in The Chronicle about run-ins with players, and I didn’t write about this one, either. I knew that Rice was angry because the truth hurts.
A week later, I was sitting in the lobby of the 49er headquarters, waiting for Steve Mariucci to be free for an interview, when Rice came out of the dressing room. He came over and apologized to me for his outburst, and we shook hands.
Aside from that incident, Rice was always very cooperative and informative when I talked to him. I thought we had a good relationship overall until I saw a book he did a couple of years ago. Talking about the media, he said that Ira Miller and I were the only writers he didn’t like because we were so critical of him, and that he thought we wanted the 49ers to fail..
That wasn’t the way I saw it but it’s not the first time an athlete and I differed in our views of the situation. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Rice was a terrific player. Of all the great players the 49ers had during their dynasty run, Rice, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott were the best. Now, all three are together again in the Hall of Fame.
WILLIE MAYS/EXAMINER COLUMNS: I have a review copy of the new biography on Willie Mays, done with his cooperation, and will be reviewing it for the Examiner on Friday. I’ll write something on the relationship between Mays and me, which went from one pole to another, in next week’s website column.
Re my Examiner columns: If you have problems accessing them, go to the Home Page and scroll all the way down. At the very bottom is a section called “Examiner people” I have a picture icon with my latest column on the side, so you can click on that. There is also a list of columns underneath. At least, that’s the plan. With the Examiner website, you can never be sure.
KOUFAX/WEST: Bruce Jenkins had some good words for Sandy Koufax and Jerry West in his Saturday column, and I totally agree.
Koufax was the most dominating pitcher I’ve seen. Randy Johnson is close, but there are two basic differences: 1) Though he pitched in an era when it was common for pitchers to throw at hitters, Koufax never did. Even after Johnson conquered his original wildness, pitches would sometimes “get away from him”; 2) Once in awhile, Johnson wouldn’t have an effective slider, and he became vulnerable. Koufax was a two-pitch pitcher. In the final game of the 1965 World Series, pitching on two days rest, he discovered in the first inning that his curve wasn’t working, so he threw nothing but fast balls the rest of the way.And, he won.
Koufax’s career was cut short by arm problems so his career stats aren’t Johnson’s equal but, as one who saw them both, I can tell you that Koufax was definitely superior.
The writers who were quick to proclaim Kobe Bryant the greatest Laker of all time forget that West played before the advent of the three-point shot. How many more points would he have scored if that rule had been in effect? He once made a shot from the other team’s free throw line as time ran out. It only counted for two points.
The problem with these ratings is that younger members of the media don’t have any sense of history. When I started out in the business and even when I came to The Chronicle in 1963, there weren’t many televised games, so we were all aware (by the ancient method of reading) of the stars of previous eras. But for the younger media now, if they haven’t seen players, they don’t exist.
SUPER BOWL LEFTOVERS: Reader Janice Hough had the best comment on Peyton Manning: “He looked like a Hall of fame quarterback – Brett Favre.”
Despite all the talk about the quarterbacks, the difference in the game was Dwight Freeney’s bad ankle. In the first half, Freeney pressured Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In the second half, he was no factor. Without that kind of pressure, Brees picked the Colts apart.
I was also pleased with Saints coach Sean Payton’s aggressive playcalling. He went for the touchdown when the Saints had fourth-and-goal on the Indianpolis one near the end of the first half. The Saints didn’t get it but they wound up getting a field goal just before the half ended. Then, he called for an onside kick, which was successful, at the start of the second half, and that set the tone for the rest of the game.
It was a remarkable game in another respect: It was so fast. There were few penalties, only one Instant Replay (on the two-point conversion) and the ball seldom hit the ground; Drew Brees had only five incomplete passes in 37 attempts. Penalties and incomplete passes, which stop the clock, are usually what lengthen the game.
That two-point conversion brings up what I think is the worst rule in the game. Anywhere else on the field, a runner or receiver is down where his knee hits but at the goal line, a player can reach the ball over and it’s a touchdown. To me, that’s ridiculous.
QB COMPARISON: A reader, Nick Duka, reminds me that I did a 1995 column for The Chronicle in which I rated the top quarterbacks of all time and put Otto Graham at the top of the list.
Of course, I was younger then. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know it’s impossible to call anybody the best of all time because the game has changed so much. I did a more reasonable comparison a couple of weeks ago in the Examiner and only rated quarterbacks I had actually seen often enough to evaluate. That eliminated Johnny Unitas, who is obviously one of the all-time greats. It also eliminated Graham, whose career ended before I came to The Chronicle.
NFL STRIKE? There have been a lot of “the sky is falling” stories about a strike which would wipe out the 2011 NFL season, but all of these emanate from a statement by NFL executive director DeMaurice Smith and a column on the “Bleacher Report” blog. I’ll believe it when I see it – and I don’t believe I will.
I’m a veteran of the NFL owner-player wars, and I’ve always sided with the players. When Ed Garvey proposed a wage scale, owners called him a Communist, but what he proposed was better than what they finally got.
There were some real hard-liners in the NFL at that time. Dallas general manager Tex Schramm drew a line in the sand – and he was a close friend of then commissioner Pete Rozelle. There were cost-cutting owners like Hugh Culverhouse in Tampa and the Brown family in Cincinnati who were much more interested in profits than wins.
Their incalcitrance created strikes in 1982 and ’87. Gene Upshaw, then executive director, had the union decertified and took the issue to court. After the owners lost the legal battles, they finally sued for peace.
Once again, the two sides are far apart in negotiating but predicting a work stoppage is no way to negotiate. Upshaw, who has since died, would have known better.
Even so, both sides have too much to lose to go down this road again. It may take some time and there will certainly be more scare stories, but I don’t believe the 2011 season or any part of it will be lost.
LINCECUM ARBITRATION: The Giants star has the right attitude regarding the upcoming arbitration, figuring that he’ll be a big winner whether the arbiter takes the Giants’ figure of $8 million or his agent’s $13 million – or if theycompromise before the hearing.
In the early years of arbitration, players got upset when they heard management’s arguments during the proceedings but current players know it’s all part of the negotiating game. It also helps that the money, even adjusted for inflation, is much more.
Why don’t the Giants offer Lincecum a long-term contract? Because they don’t have to. Pitchers are much more prone to serious injuries than position players. Remember Noah Lowry? The Giants don’t want to get locked into a longterm contract with Lincecum and have that happen.
SPANISH WEBSITE: For the second straight year, the A’s will feature a Spanish website, www:losathleticos.com, with writings by veteran announcer Amaury Pi-Gonzalez. Amaury, who lives in Fremont, pioneered Spanish broadcasts in the early ‘70s when Charlie Finley owned the team.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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