49ers Should Honor Jerry Rice
This would have been easy to do earlier in the summer, when rosters were bigger; Rice could have been signed and released with no problem. Now, if he’s signed before the start of the season, he would count against the 53-man roster and his salary would count against the salary cap.
So, the 49ers need to immediately petition the league to make a one-time exception. I can’t imagine anybody objecting to this because the Niners would be honoring a player who has all the significant career records at his position. As for other teams doing the same with their retiring stars. . . so much the better. Paying homage to the past is never a bad idea.
Rice’s retirement comes as no surprise. Since he left the Raiders early last season to go to Seattle, Rice has been reunited with two coaches who had worked with him in his 49er glory days, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan. If he couldn’t make it work with either of them, there was no chance he could do it for another coach who didn’t have personal ties.
That’s the reason Mike Nolan didn’t pick him up, despite the nostalgic 49er fans who wanted to see him on this year’s team. Nolan is trying to rebuild the team with young players, and Rice would only have taken playing and practice time from one of the young wide receivers.
I don’t blame Rice for trying to play one more season. We’ve all seen this before. All athletes have a hard time dealing with retirement and the stars, who are where they are because of their tremendous competitive nature, have the hardest. At least, he was trying to continue in the major league of football. Rickey Henderson is still auditioning for that major league call that won’t come in an independent minor league.
It isn't just the games that keep athletes going. A couple of weeks ago, when I was a panelist on “The Last Honest Sports Show”, Bubba Paris was asked what he missed most about football. He replied that, when he saw his basketball-playing daughters as part of a team celebration, he realized he would never again be a part of that kind of celebration. Imagine how much more difficult that will be for Rice, who played on three four Super Bowl teams, three with the 49ers, and was the Super Bowl MVP in one of them.
For Rice, then, it was the emotional pull, but coaches have to evaluate what a player can do on the field. Rice lost the speed that allowed him to go deep several years ago, but he was still able to make the shorter plays until last season, when he also lost the quickness than enabled him to separate from receivers. To get open, he has to have specially designed plays for him – and what team would do that for him at his age? Rice finally faced the reality: As the No. 4 receiver for the Broncos, there would be games when he wouldn’t even be on the active roster.
But these last desperate days won’t be how we’ll remember Rice. What we’ll remember is the great catches, the great games from his 49ers career. It’s that Rice whom the 49ers should honor, the sooner the better
RICE’S STORY is a familiar one: Bill Walsh saw him in TV highlights in Houston the night before a 49ers game and moved up to 16th to draft him, despite objections from his own scouting director. Others in the NFL doubted him, too, because he didn’t run an especially fast 40 time and he played against inferior competition in college.
Rice’s success is just another example of what a mistake it can be to get caught up in the non-football issues, such as the 40 time and weight-height relationship. It’s production that counts. Rice seemed to run faster with the ball in his arms, and boy, did he make plays.
Not at first, though. He dropped so many passes early in his rookie year that writers started tallying them. Later, Rice would say that he was so confused by Walsh’s offense that he couldn’t concentrate on the physical aspect of the game. By midseason, he’d learned enough to catch 10 passes in a game against the Rams, and nobody again questioned his ability.
He was the right man in the right place at the right time. Walsh’s offense put a premium on receivers running after the catch, and Rice and the underrated John Taylor were unexcelled at that. Taylor actually has the first and third longest receiving touchdowns in 49ers history, 97 and 95 yards, with Rice’s 96-yard effort sandwiched in between. All three were relatively short passes turned into long touchdowns by their running ability.
All this was made possible by changes in NFL rules, limiting defenders. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, receivers who tried to run across the middle were routinely flattened by middle linebackers like Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Joe Schmidt. When that kind of contact was outlawed, it opened up the field for receivers – and nobody took advantage of that as much as Rice and Taylor.
What set Rice apart from everyone, though, was his total dedication to the game. His offseason training regime, which he learned from Roger Craig, was incredible; teammates who tried to keep up with him usually dropped out very quickly.
He was always trying to improve. One time at training camp, he told me he had lost 10 pounds in the offseason to try to get quicker. Since he had already had a minimal amount of body fat, I didn’t see the reason for that, but if nothing else, it gave him a mental edge.
His work ethic on the practice field was legendary, and the example set by Rice and other star players, Craig, Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young, made certain that the younger 49ers would follow.
While other players like to say it’s all about the team, not their personal statistics, Rice honestly admitted that he checked what other top receivers were doing, because he always wanted to be the best. That didn’t mean he was trying for personal records at the expense of the team; his individual exploits always helped the 49ers win.
Everybody around the team knew that, if he didn’t see the ball as often as he liked, Rice would complain to the coach and quarterback. But, he was right. No matter what the coverage, Rice in his prime could beat it, so Montana and Young always looked for him first.
IT DOESN’T matter that Rice ended his career playing for the Raiders and Seattle. Montana, Lott and Craig all ended their careers with other teams, too, but their legacy is with the 49er years.
It’s the same with Rice. In everybody’s eyes, he’ll be remembered for his play with the 49ers, so team management should get hopping to make it possible for him to be honored this season.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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