Okay, gentlemen, are you all here? Green. Hayes. Irvin. Lewis. Walls. Good, then, let's start the briefing. Put your egos in your watch pockets. We want all you elite cornerbacks to grasp the gravity of the situation. Things are getting out of hand with San Francisco's Jerry Rice. Item: He has three gears—fast, very fast and gone. Item: He can fake the decals off your helmet without disturbing the paint. Item: At 6'2", 200 pounds, he's perfectly built to carry out his missions. We know that most of you like to work one-on-one, but we want you to work closely with your safeties on this operation. All we can do is warn you. Now listen up. We have Rice's voice on tape. Here's what he has to say about each of you:
•Darrell Green, Redskins. "Vulnerable to the slant shake. He'll bite hard on the slant because he feels he's got the speed to recover. Bite. Shake. Gone!"
•Lester Hayes, Raiders. "Get him on the third move. Take him in, out, come under. Let him alongside. Nod out, break back hard inside. The opening will be there."
•LeRoy Irvin, Rams. "The comeback. First thing he'll do is take off. He doesn't want you behind him. So eat up his cushion. Turn him. Once he's turned—once anybody's turned—he's mine."
September 27, 1987
•Albert Lewis, Chiefs. "Good speed. Need more than one move. On Albert I have to run three outs, with an out shake in there. Change the order. Let him decide. As soon as he lifts that foot to turn, shake, burn, by him."
•Everson Walls, Cowboys. "Ah, Everson. You've got to take him a couple of extra steps into a route. You've got to use your head, your eyes. Be subtle. Out, in, then in hard. Look for the ball to the post. Demand the ball in the post with your eyes. See, you've got to make him believe it. Then shoot to the corner. On Everson, you want to run a go, a burn, and you want to do it early. Then we've got a ball game."
We see we have your attention now, gentlemen. Save your indignation. It won't help you. You're dealing with a cold executioner. You must study Jerry Rice—what he does, when he does it, how he thinks, what he doesn't like. You must find the flaw in his character. You must know him as well as you know yourselves. Why? So you won't embarrass yourselves or the cities and the institutions you represent when Rice comes to terrorize you and tread on your painted end-zone grass. Are you with us now? We thought you might be. By the numbers, then.
1) GETTING OPEN
"I need my space," says Rice. "That's just the way I am. I don't like crowds." He has just eaten dinner in the cafeteria at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., where the 49ers hold their training camp. Rice even looks open in the dinner line. He's part of the group, yet off to one side. Some of the guys may joke with him on certain days, but this isn't one of them. Rice is wearing stone-washed jeans over legs that belong on a horse, dark glasses and the hairdo that led some teammates to call him Fifi, as in poodle cut. They called him that before he shocked the NFL last season, his second in the league, by scoring 16 touchdowns and catching 86 passes for 1,570 yards. That's the third-highest receiving yardage total in NFL history. The top two—Charley Hennigan's 1,746 yards and Lance Alworth's 1,602—came during the aerial circus that was the AFL.
Twice last year Rice caught three TD passes in a game. He had 12 receptions for 204 yards against Washington—and dropped 3 passes. The drops suggest he's human. Ignore that for now. At only 24, Rice is running his name into the record books with a smooth and impeccable stride. "But the Number 1 thing about receiving, getting open, is speed," says Rice. "Speed's essential."
Throw out those 40-yard-dash times, gentlemen. They mean nothing. Nowadays everybody says he runs at least 4.4. Outside of, oh, 20 guys, everybody is lying. "I'm a 4.4," says Rice with a gleam in his eye. Not all the time. The book says he's a 4.6. But it doesn't matter what he runs in shorts for a guy holding a stopwatch. That's track. You don't play track. You run track. You play football. "Jerry's got game speed," says San Francisco safety Ronnie Lott. "He's 4.2 in games. Hard to explain, but nobody outruns Jerry in a game."
"It's the speed coming out of the break, the speed with the uniform on, the speed of the first five steps," says Rice. "My first five steps are right now. I'm on you. Sprinters don't have the full body control you need. They chop their steps going into cuts. I accelerate into my cuts, accelerate again coming out of them. I amaze myself, sometimes."
Rice developed his speed as a kid growing up outside Crawford, Miss., which is 38 miles from Starkville, which is where you can get the bus to Jackson. And from Jackson, two or three plane rides will get you almost anywhere. Rice grew up simon-pure. No street lights, or sidewalks, or traffic signs, or stadium concerts. No drugs, or crime, or sirens. No distractions.
When Rice wanted a good time as a boy, he and some of his five brothers would go into the family's field and chase the neighbors' horses who grazed there. "They didn't just come to you," Rice says. "If you wanted to ride, you chased them down." So the Rice brothers would pursue the horses, zigging and zagging over seven acres of farmland. When they caught the horses, they would ride bareback.
"He just gets...so open," 49er quarterback Joe Montana says of Rice. "He has the knack of knowing when to break, when to use his speed." Backup quarterback Steve Young says, "What makes Jerry so special is his body language. I've never seen anything like it, what he can do to a defensive back. Yet at the same time, the quarterback can read him perfectly. Whenever he has an optional cut, it's like, I know where he's going to go."
The reason Rice gets so open is that defensive backs have so much trouble figuring out where he's going to go. In an Aug. 15 preseason game against the Raiders, Rice sold cornerback Lionel Washington on the post and then beat him to the corner and caught a 23-yard scoring pass from Young. Piece of cake. Rice beat Washington by five yards. This, gentlemen, was a mismatch. Nothing against Washington, of course, but he has only one pair of legs.
Without Rice, who was sidelined by a broken finger he sustained while blocking in practice, the Niners looked punchless in an Aug. 22 exhibition against the Cowboys. While Rice watched the 13-3 loss from the stands, his body twitched as he vicariously ran patterns against Walls, who intercepted two passes. "I was running and moving," said Rice after the game. "I was yelling, 'You've got to turn him!' My wife, Jackie, thinks I'm crazy."
Rice can get open in his sleep. He'll sometimes break into a pattern in the middle of the night, shaking out of bed in his Redwood Shores town house with a jab step, either way, eating up the cushion between him and the bedroom wall. Jackie, who 3½ months ago gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Jaqui, might peer at him and mumble something about there being two babies in the house.
But we all know that fancy-pants wide receivers who think getting open is the whole show can get their comeuppance. Last January against the Giants, Rice was behind the defense, preparing to take in a Montana pass and score the first touchdown of the NFC semifinal game, when he dropped the ball. "It just came out," says Rice. New York went on to win 42-3. If Rice had held on to that pass, the score probably would've been 42-10. Safety Kenny Hill of the Giants was later fined $5,000 by the NFL for two flagrant hits against Rice. Throughout the game, usually when Rice had his head turned toward a play unfolding on the other side of the field, Hill leveled him with a succession of forearms. Niner coach Bill Walsh demanded punitive action. Rice never uttered a word. "You won't hear me say anything about that, ever, because football is a physical game," says Rice.
The day after San Francisco's loss to the Giants, he began working out. If anything, Rice practices harder than he plays. "He's always at top speed," says Lott. "Young defensive backs want to avoid him in coverage line. Covering Jerry in practice is the closest I'll ever come to covering a Paul Warfield, a Charley Taylor."
"When we went to the Hall of Fame Game, I went in the Hall," says Rice. "It sent chills through me. That's where I want to go. That means this year I'd like to get 90 catches, 18 touchdowns, 1,800 yards [after the 49ers' first two games, a 30-17 loss to Pittsburgh and a 27-26 beating of Cincinnati, in which he grabbed the game-winning TD pass with no time remaining, he was on pace with 12, 3 and 1921.1 want to be in there with guys who didn't play for the money as much as for the challenge."
Obviously, we can't wait for Rice to rest on his laurels. We can't count on intimidation. We interrogated Montana further, asking if Rice could still improve. He half smiled, looked away and said, "I don't know if there's anything that he can't already do." So, we've found no physical or attitudinal weakness in Rice. We must probe deeper. Open your red files, gentlemen.
3) DEEP BACKGROUND
Forget those big-school reputations, gentlemen. How many times did Texas or Oklahoma or Alabama throw the ball at you out of a double-split, triple-right, no-huddle offense? Rice helped put Mississippi Valley State in Itta Bena on the map. In one game he caught 24 passes—and 4 more were called back by penalties. He went to Valley State because it was the only school that sent a coach to see him.
Before Rice caught the Greyhound to Itta Bena, the Delta Devils ran a standard pro-set offense. The coach at that time, Archie Cooley, took one look at Rice and began devising all manner of bizarre formations designed to spring Rice loose. Rice caught more than 100 passes in each of his last two seasons. As a senior he had 28 TD receptions. He has faced constant double-teaming since he was an 18-year-old freshman. That's another reason he came so far so fast.
That leaves us with the matter of the dropped passes. It's not a question of hands. Rice's father, Joe, built their house near Crawford with his bare hands. He's a bricklayer whose handiwork can be admired all over Oktibbeha County. Jerry helped his father with his work. He stacked bricks, shoveled and slapped mortar and banged his knuckles raw. So Jerry's hands are tough. "And he could stand more sun than I could," says Joe. "He handled bricks better than any worker I ever had. I was sorry to see him go."
When Rice chose to play football, his mother, Eddie B., had her doubts. He started out as a skinny boy. "I didn't love it," she says, "but the more I fought it, the more determined he was, so I gave it up." She alludes to Malachi: "You just never know what God has in the storehouse for you."
"It was just fun to them," says Joe. "Tom, Jimmy and Jerry, they were always after that football. I saw Jerry dive in a thorn bush after a ball one day. He got stuck bad, but he caught it. When I saw that, I felt something." Now Joe will sometimes excuse himself early from church to head back to the house that Jerry bought his parents in Starkville. "I have to come home, just to see my boy on television, and get that feeling."
"To tell the truth, I don't know much about it," says Eddie B. "But I have to admit that I like those 49ers now. Before Jerry bought us this house, he said, 'Pick a place.' So we did. Every year, we go to Atlanta to see him play. But Crawford—I liked that little town."
Says Jerry, "You know, that's what made me, running those back dirt roads and country fields."
That was then. Nobody can remember Rice ever dropping a pass as a kid. But he dropped two in exhibition games this August. He dropped at least nine last year; if he'd kept that number down, he probably would have broken Hennigan's receiving-yardage record. "I have to clean that up," says Rice.
He's pretty clean, otherwise. Jerry drives a Porsche, and Jackie tools around in a Jag. Jerry owns a Rottweiler named Max, and Jackie has a poodle named Casio. And Jerry is well dressed. Very GQ. Armani, Ungaro, "whatever looks good," says Jackie. "He's got some clothes; I don't even know what they are," says his father.
So this is all we can give you, gentlemen. Perhaps the dropped balls reflect a tendency to be distracted, to lose his concentration. Maybe the way to cover Rice is to get to know him, be his friend—if you can find the real Rice under the Fifi cut, behind the dark glasses, inside the designer clothes. Turn his head. Tell him how great he is. Maybe he'll believe you. Maybe he'll forget what made him so good and get caught up in his own hype. Maybe he'll forget to catch the ball. We know it isn't much, gentlemen, but it's all we have. You're on your own now. Consider yourselves briefed.