This story, by Ann Killion, first appeared in the Dec. 24, 1990, issue of The Sporting News under the headline “Catchword: Rice,” and served, in his sixth season, as an early speculation about whether Rice would become the greatest receiver in NFL history. That season he led the NFL in receptions (100), receiving yards (1,502) and receiving touchdowns (13).
It all seems effortless.
Jerry Rice sprints down the sideline and glides up over the defender, his huge hands reaching toward the sky. The 49ers wide receiver clutches the football, brings it to his chest and lands on the ground, keeping both of his feet a fraction of an inch in bounds.
There are no gasps, no exclamations from observers. It’s as if they are anesthetized to the beauty and grace of the action. And, in a way, they are. This is practice, and the people watching Rice in motion have witnessed this scene before.
Even opposing players can be lulled by the smooth, powerful ballet of Rice in action.
“I know it’s a cliche, but Jerry Rice is poetry in motion,” said New York Giants cornerback Mark Collins. “I love watching him (on television) catch the ball and run by people. I especially like when they slow down the highlights and play that music in the background. I say to myself, “Wow.’
“Then I start thinking, ‘Damn, I got to cover this guy!’”
And on game day, no defender can afford to be an appreciative onlooker.
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Some form of the scene played out in practice has been repeated hundreds of times during games the last six years. In Super Bowls and in regular-season games. In victories and, occasionally, in defeats. In the first quarter, in the final two minutes and in overtime.
This is what Rice does. He catches passes.
His background has been well-documented. Rice grew up in the tiny town of Crawford, Miss., (population 195), where he toughened up his hands during the summer by catching bricks. His father, Joe, was a bricklayer, and Rice used to stand on a scaffold and catch bricks from his brothers, who sometimes tossed them four at a time.
After that experience, catching footballs was easy. And Rice caught plenty of them at Mississippi Valley State College in Itta Bena, where he set 18 Division I-AA receiving records and was an All-America selection as both a junior and a senior.
He was picked in the first round of the 1985 National Football League draft by San Francisco. He was the 16th selection overall and the third receiver taken after Al Toon (by the Jets) and Eddie Brown (by the Bengals).
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He is a three-time Pro Bowl selection, he was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1987, when he caught 22 touchdown passes, and was the MVP in the 1989 Super Bowl, where he tied one record with 11 receptions and broke another mark with 215 receiving yards in the 49ers’ 20-16 victory over Cincinnati.
That’s what Rice does. He catches passes.
“You almost expect it of him in a game,” 49ers tight end Jamie Willams said. “Maybe it isn’t fair to him, but we’re all on the sideline, knowing something is going to happen.”
To Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh receiver who made plenty of clutch receptions of his own during a nine-year NFL career, that is the highest accolade a receiver can be paid.
“That is one of the great compliments paid to any performer,” Swann said. “You expect Jerry Rice to make the catch. You’re not on pins and needles wondering what’s going to happen. You expect it. And if you don’t, then you’re not a great player.”
Rice is a great player; there is no argument there. The debate that began about two seasons ago revolves around a more subjective question: Is Rice the greatest wide receiver of all time?
Some, like Swann and former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, think it’s too early for such a coronation.
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“He could prove to be (the best), but I think it’s a little early to take that position,” Walsh said. “He has everything now but longevity.”
Others are not waiting for time to be the test. They are willing to jump off the high dive directly into the pool of unequivocalness and say it: At age 28, Rice is the greatest wide receiver in history.
“He is the greatest receiver ever to play the game,” said Steve Sabol, who is in a position to judge as president of NFL Films. “It’s a terrible thing for a film historian to say. We’re supposed to always be looking at the past. But I’ve seen it all, and Rice is the greatest receiver to ever play the game.”
Sabol backs up his claim by listing the areas he thinks are important to a receiver: toughness, speed, ability to catch the ball, ability to run with the ball, blocking ability, ability to run patterns, ability to beat a defender and durability. Rice has never missed a game in his NFL career.
“He’s complete in everything,” Sabol said. “Other receivers might be better in one area than Rice, but they’re not as complete.”
Others may look at Rice and see a total package, but Rice still sees shortcomings in his game.
“There’s always one or two mistakes I can pick up (watching tape),” Rice said. “I think the best game I ever had was during the playoffs in the cold in Chicago (in the NFC championship game after the 1988 season). I was very sharp that game. I try to get back to that standard.”
In that game, a 28-3 49ers victory, Rice caught five passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns. A good but not remarkable game statistically for Rice.
Rice regards statistics as his path to being considered the greatest of all time. Some observers, such as Swann, who holds no NFL receiving records himself except for postseason marks, don’t agree. Swann thinks the development of the passing game in recent years has led to inflated statistics, and that average players will wind up with more catches and yards than some of the great receivers of the past.
But Rice has his eyes set on some specific goals that he believes will be the litmus test as to whether he is the best of all time.
“I know I’m not there right now,” he said. “There’s still a lot that has to be proven. To be the ultimate receiver one day, I have to hold all the records for receptions, for yardage, for touchdowns. If I can break all those records, I can accept being the best. Right now, Steve Largent is the best.”
Largent, who played 14 seasons for Seattle before retiring after the 1989 season, holds, among others, the NFL career receiving records for catches (819), yards (13,089) and touchdowns (100), as well as the mark for most consecutive games with a pass reception (177).
“I don’t think because a guy holds the NFL records that he’s the best receiver in the NFL,” Largent said. “I was just very fortunate to play with the people I played with for as long as I did.”
Rice holds NFL receiving records for most touchdowns in a season (22, in 1987) and consecutive games catching a touchdown pass (13, in 1987). This season, he equaled the NFL record for most touchdown catches in a game when he scored five times in San Francisco’s 45-35 victory over Atlanta in Week 6.
Going into last Monday night’s game against the Rams, Rice had regular-season career totals of 428 receptions, 7,893 yards and 81 touchdowns. If he stays on that pace and meets his goal of playing 15 seasons, he should easily shatter all of Largent’s standards.
“Jerry Rice is sure to break most or all of them,” Largent said. “If he’s not the best, he’s one of them. What I’m impressed with is that, though he’s obviously very gifted physically, you see him doing a lot of the little things. Little things like body leans and head movements, the things a lot of guys who have great physical ability won’t do. Other guys will say, ‘I’m faster’ or ‘I’m better than this defender.’ But Jerry does them both.”
While casual observers are amazed about Rice’s physical ability, his teammates most often praise his work ethic. An avid offseason trainer, Rice comes to camp each summer in top physical condition. And throughout the season be works at the same high level.
“He demands a lot from himself,” said quarterback Joe Montana.
Safety Dave Waymer, now Rice’s teammate on the 49ers, covered Rice for years when he played for New Orleans.
“The thing I admire most about Jerry — and that I was glad to see when I came here — is the way be works,” Waymer said. “Sometimes when a guy is successful, there’s a tendency to get complacent. With Jerry, there’s no complacency anywhere.”
Rice realizes that much of the work he puts in isn’t visible to the general public.
“People think I’m a natural receiver, like I was born with everything I’ve got,” he said. “But everything that I’ve achieved, I’ve worked at. … There are so many receivers out there with good hands, that are fast, but they don’t really have that work ethic or determination to be the best.”
The remarkable collaboration between Rice and Montana likewise is the result of hard work rather than some kind of supernatural psychic bonding.
“It comes from a lot of work during camps,” Rice said. “Getting to know this guy and his reactions in a lot of different situations. I could feel it start to happen my second year. At times, it’s not going to work out the way you draw it up on paper. We’ve got to be able to just work it out sometimes.”
Montana said, “Jerry has the ability to go after the football, and when you’re in trouble, he’s going to come running. So you say, ‘I know he’s around here somewhere.’ He’ll find a way to get open.”
A lot of Rice’s success obviously comes as a result of having played his entire career with the same quarterback and in the precision passing system used by the 49ers.
“He’s fortunate that they feature him in the offenses — as well they should,” Largent said.
When Rice isn’t featured, he’s not pleased. As the 49ers have struggled in recent weeks to get their weak running game untracked, Rice’s numbers have dropped. He went four weeks in a row without a touchdown reception for the first time since his rookie season and he voiced his unhappiness.
“If they get me the ball early, the defense has to respect me,” he said. “As a competitor, you want the football. I’m not a selfish ball player, but I want that opportunity to prove to myself that I can do it.”
Rice already has proved that to his coaches and critics. Even 49ers Coach George Seifert, one of the more verbally reserved men in the NFL, allows himself a superlative or two when talking about Rice.
“He’s the best,” Seifert said. “At the moment he makes a catch, it surprises you. But then you think, ‘Gee, that’s what he does.”
Catch passes. That’s what Jerry Rice does — perhaps as well as any receiver who’s ever played.
Postscript: Rice played 10 more seasons with the 49ers and then capped a 20-season NFL career with three full seasons with the Raiders and parts of one more with Oakland and then the Seahawks. He owns virtually every significant NFL receiving mark. Some of the more notable career records include receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895 yards), most 1,000-yard receiving seasons (14), total touchdowns (208) and combined net yards (23,546).