Another Year for Rice
by Glenn Dickey
May 26, 2005

THE GOOD NEWS is that Jerry Rice will get a chance to extend his career for another year. The better news is that it won’t be with the 49ers.

When it was announced that Rice had signed with the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan, who had been the offensive coordinator with the 49ers during the last Super Bowl year, made a point of saying Rice would only be competing for a job as a backup receiver. Shanahan added that, if he had to release Rice, “”I would have one of the toughest jobs in the world.’’

But nowhere near as tough as it would have been for Mike Nolan, if the 49ers had signed Rice.

Many 49ers fans still don’t understand how far Rice has slipped. He lost the speed that enabled him to break long gainers when he tore up his knee in 1997, but he could still separate from defensive backs and get open on the shorter passes, as he did in his first two years with the Raiders.

By last year, though, he’d lost that ability. Now, special plays have to be designed to get him open, and what’s the point? When he went to the Seahawks last year, with another former 49er offensive coordinator in charge, Mike Holmgren, that seemed like an ideal spot, but by the end of the year, Rice was a non-factor. Not one pass was thrown to him as the Seahawks lost in the first round of the playoffs.

The tipoff on Rice is that Holmgren didn’t want him back – and Scot McCloughan, who was at Seattle last year and is now the chief personnel guy for the 49ers, didn’t recommend him to Nolan, either.

Shanahan can give Rice his chance in training camp to win a spot as the fourth or fifth receiver and decide on his merits. Most likely, he’ll prefer to go with his younger receivers. Though it will be tough to say goodbye to the greatest receiver ever, Shanahan won’t have to worry about a backlash from Broncos fans, who have only seen Rice in another team’s uniform – and that of the hated Raiders for two years, to boot.

With the 49ers, there would have been all that sentimental baggage. When Rice had to be cut, it would have been a nightmare for Nolan, who has enough problems without that.

IT CAN BE awfully difficult to the superstars to retire. Michael Jordan made two comebacks, only the first one successful. Rickey Henderson is still hopeful, at 46, of getting a final shot at the major leagues. Greatly improved workout regimes, medical attention and attention to diets have enabled athletes to last much longer than in previous eras, but Henderson and Rice, at 42, are really pushing the envelope.

Why? I can only speculate, but my speculation is based on many conversations with athletes over the year.

Money was the reason earlier stars, like Willie Mays, hung on, but it’s not a factor now with the big salaries that are paid. The attention athletes get (though the spotlight isn’t shining very brightly on Henderson now) is a factor. So is the camaraderie between teammates, though that, too, diminishes as the aging athlete is dealing with teammates 20 years younger. It’s the only career they’ve known, and the game has been the central part of their lives since they were very young.

The most important factor, I believe, is that the drive they’ve had to excel betrays them at the end. They’re the last to be able to acknowledge their diminished skills. Willie McCovey is an example of that. The baseball world thought McCovey was through after a dismal 1976 season with San Diego (and a September coda with the A’s) in which he averaged .204 in just 82 games. McCovey insisted he could still play, and he was right. He returned to the Giants in 1977 and hit 28 home runs and knocked in 86 runs in 478 at-bats. By the end of the next season, though, he had lost his ability to get around on a good fast ball, but it wasn’t until 1980 that he finally listened to his friends and retired at midseason.

Rice is the football equivalent of the 1980 McCovey, but he can’t come to grips with that. At least, he’s trying to stay with an NFL team. Henderson is playing in an independent league, the Golden Baseball League, hoping for another shot at the majors. His odds are roughly those of his winning the California lottery.

WHEN McCOVEY retired, he was honored with a ceremony at Candlestick Park, and everybody was left with memories of his great moments over the years.

I’m hoping something like that will happen with Rice. When he’s released by the Broncos, the 49ers can sign him to a one-day contract so he can retire as a 49er, and then, they can hold a ceremony either before a game or at halftime, and we can all hold on to the great memories.

That’s how it should be. Watching Rice struggle while creating an embarrassing distraction for Nolan with the 49ers is not the way this story should end.

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