Rice Should Retire As 49er
It isn’t that Rice can’t play any more. Even though he’ll be 43 in October, he still has his moves and he can still catch the ball. But he’s slipped from his once-lofty perch and is now similar to the many, many receivers who will go to training camp with hopes of hanging on as the fourth or even fifth receiver on a team. All of them are younger, some much younger, than Rice.
His last hurrah should have been with the Seattle Seahawks last season. As the Raiders went increasingly to a deep pass option with their offense, it was obvious to Rice that he wouldn’t be a factor, so he talked to Raiders owner Al Davis and got him to make a trade with the Seahawks.
It was almost like coming home for Rice because the Seahawks coach is Mike Holmgren, who was an offensive coach with the 49ers, 1986-91, first as quarterbacks coach and then as offensive coordinator. Holmgren had seen Rice mature into the best receiver ever, including an award as Most Valuable Player in the January, 22, 1989, Super Bowl, so he hoped that even with his diminished skills, Rice could help the Seahawks.
But that experience ended badly for Rice. When the Seahawks lost to the St. Louis Rams, 27-20, in a wild card playoff, not one of quarterback Matt Hasselback’s 43 passes was thrown to Rice.
Now, it’s hard to see anybody signing Rice because he can no longer bring anything significant to a team. If you’re going to sign a journeyman receiver, you might as well sign a younger one who has no expectations and no reputation. Any team that signed Rice would have to deal with the inevitable stories that he wasn’t part of the offense.
From time to time, readers suggest that the 49ers sign Rice, but that’s a non-starter, too. All the reasons cited in the previous paragraph for other teams not signing Rice go double for the 49ers. Right now, the 49ers are in a very bad place, but they need to be looking forward, not back to their glorious past.
When Rice went to Seattle, Holmgren thought he could be a mentor to his young receivers, who would theoretically benefit from the example of Rice’s work ethic and also from any coaching tips he might give them.
That didn’t happen with the Seahawks and it wouldn’t happen with the 49ers, either. The sad reality of professional sports is that young players follow the example of older players only as long as the older players are performing at a high level.
The 49ers had a great thing going for many years because Rice, Craig, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and Steve Young set a great example. When younger players saw how hard these stars worked at their game – Craig was the one who started the rigorous off-season training regime which Rice has since followed – they had to do the same. But the younger players on the 49ers now, though they’d say something else publicly, would be saying to themselves, “Jerry Rice? He’s yesterday’s news.”
It’s hard for players who have been the very best to accept the fact of their diminished skills. I saw that years ago with Willie Mays, who I still regard as the best all-round player (though Barry Bonds is a superior hitter) that I’ve seen.
Mays reached his 40th birthday in May, 1971, and he had still been playing at a high level to that point; he set a National League record for runs scored that month.
But he deteriorated rapidly in the second half of the season, both in the field and at-bat. He could no longer get around on a good fast ball and, in a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a runner on third base, he tried to bunt the runner home because he no longer thought he could get the hit or even fly ball that was needed.
Mays was traded to the New York Mets in the 1972 season, and he played in one last World Series in 1973. In the 1954 World Series, he had made possibly the most famous catch of all time, an over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz fly ball in the vast Polo Grounds center field. In the ’73 Series, though, his most memorable moment came when he misjudged a fly ball.
That doesn’t take anything away from Mays’ Hall of Fame career, and the fact that he’s now just an ordinary receiver won’t take any lustre from Rice’s career. What we’ll remember about Jerry Rice is the many great catches he made and the many great seasons, as he played for four Super Bowl champions with the 49ers.
Now, though, it’s sad to see him desperately trying to hang on. He really needs to look at the Craig model and retire as a 49er. If he did that, the 49ers could hold a ceremony for him, perhaps at halftime of a regular season, where his uniform could be retired and fans could remember his greatness. Aside from the few fans who are unrealistic about his return to the 49ers, I think that’s how we all want to remember Rice.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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