Aging Jerry Rice is going down with the 49ers' once-proud ship
This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1999 issue
The legend leaned forward in his chair in a 49ers meeting room
last Friday and balled his fists up. He was edgy, anxious. What
he said seemed so sad. So wrong. So unbelievable.
"Over the years," Jerry Rice said passionately, "I have
always--always--been a factor. Now it's like I'm not there. Now
maybe I get one ball in the first half, two or three in the
second half. To not be a factor, that's the toughest thing."
Then the leading pass receiver in NFL history leaned back and
smiled, apparently accepting his fate, his bald head moist from
the 49ers' last practice of the week, the diamond stud in his
left ear glistening in the soft light. That is what's so weird
about the decline of Jerry Rice: He's impassioned about his
future one minute, accepting the next. He is not the same man
who has so consistently dripped intensity. "I always thought
that when you started thinking about football as a job," Rice
said, "it was time to get out."
"Is that what you're thinking?" he was asked.
"I am," he said, smiling ruefully. "Football's become a j-o-b."
No one imagined that the 49ers would sink to the bottom of the
NFL and take the 37-year-old Rice with them, but it is happening
before our eyes. He is Mickey Mantle with the Yankees in 1967,
Wayne Gretzky with the Rangers last spring, maybe the greatest
football player of his generation finishing badly, his team and
his talent failing him.
On Sunday it came to this for Rice against the NFC West-leading
Rams: single coverage the entire game, and loose coverage at
that, by a third-year cornerback named Dexter McCleon. Of the 26
plays from scrimmage that the Niners ran in the first half, one
pass came in Rice's direction, an eight-yard crossing route from
Steve Stenstrom. The ball hit Rice in his tacky gloves. Instead
of tucking the ball in, he juggled it, and McCleon knocked it
Early in the third quarter Rice caught a quick slant for 12
yards against McCleon, but he dropped another pass that hit him
in his gut. In the fourth quarter, with San Francisco down 23-7
and well on the way to its sixth straight loss, he snagged a
pair of garbage-time passes. All told, Stenstrom and the other
inept Niners quarterback, Jeff Garcia, threw six balls in Rice's
direction. Rice caught three, for 23 yards. He dropped two. The
other was intercepted.
Afterward, McCleon, who against the Lions on Nov. 7 had cost his
team a victory when he was torched for a 57-yard gain on
fourth-and-26 in the last 90 seconds, said it felt good to have
beaten Rice. "All respect to Jerry," McCleon said. "But if this
is the last game of his great career that he plays against the
Rams, I can always say I got the best of him."
Those words stung Rice. It's a confusing time for him. He railed
at his young teammates in the locker room after a 24-6 loss in
New Orleans on Nov. 14, saying they lacked passion. "I won't go
out like this!" he yelled. He seems to be leaning hard toward
retirement--in part because of the 49ers' woes, in part because
of a nagging injury to his right kneecap, in part because age
and infirmity have robbed him of his quickness off the line, in
part because football has become a j-o-b. But he doesn't want to
be pushed out of the game. He wants retirement to be his decision.
The more he talked after the loss to the Rams, the more his
frustration poured out. "I think I've done enough around here in
15 years to see more opportunities than I saw today," he said.
"I'm baffled. I realize the team is changing, but I mean, throw
me a bone. It's hard to establish a rhythm when you have to wait
so long to get a ball thrown to you. I have stressed to the
coaches that I need to get a ball or two early to get in sync,
but they don't look at me in the first quarter. If that's the
game plan, let me know. After 15 years, I deserve that."
This season he has caught 39 passes for a paltry 350 yards, a
pace that will leave him far short of the 1,000-yard mark he has
reached routinely ever since his rookie year in 1985. Last week,
for the first time, Rice spoke publicly about the possibility of
finishing his career with another team. "I don't want to turn
this into the Jerry Rice soap opera," he said. "But would I go
somewhere else?" He paused for five seconds before answering,
"If the right opportunity is there."
If Rice wants to play next year, he may have no choice but to go
somewhere else. Shown a copy of the San Francisco salary-cap
sheet for 2000 last Friday, Rice shook his head in disbelief.
The 49ers, who had to make huge cuts and do major restructuring
of contracts last year to get under the league's $57.3 million
cap limit, are $24,385,112 over the projected 2000 number.
Rice's cap number next year is $7.69 million. Even if he doesn't
play in San Francisco, he will cost the 49ers $5.95 million
against the cap because once a player is traded or waived or
retires, the prorated portion of his signing bonus comes due on
the cap immediately.
"Man," Rice said, scanning the sheets, "we're $24 million over
the cap, and it's not even the off-season yet. I always thought
it was the right thing to get new guys in here year after year to
help us win Super Bowls. Now I guess it's time to pay the piper."
San Francisco's cap troubles figure into Rice's decision-making.
Who will be on this godforsaken team to play with him next year?
The 49ers face hard decisions on underachieving defensive end
Gabe Wilkins (2000 cap number: $5.10 million), center Chris
Dalman ($4.77 million), guard Ray Brown ($3.49 million), safety
Tim McDonald ($3.04 million) and linebacker Ken Norton Jr.
($2.97 million). Then there's the status of quarterback Steve
Young, who despite a series of concussions has told the team he
wants to play. His cap number next year is $8.1 million. If
Young retires or the club cuts him, he'll still count $6.9
million against the cap. This team's cap was bloated beyond any
reasonable limit by departed president Carmen Policy, following
orders from former owner Eddie DeBartolo, who adopted a win-now
philosophy when the cap was instituted in the early '90s. New
general manager Bill Walsh gets an assist for reaching to sign
fading stars like defensive end Charles Haley, whom the 49ers
will almost certainly have to waive after the season. Haley's
2000 cap cost: $900,000. "The credit card bills are coming in,"
admits San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, "and it's time to pay
Everyone in Ninerland knows Rice may be among those on their way
out. He has 1,178 catches (238 more than Art Monk, who's second
on the alltime list), 17,962 receiving yards (3,958 more than
No. 2 James Lofton) and 177 touchdowns (32 more than runners-up
Marcus Allen and Emmitt Smith). "Retiring will be my decision,"
Rice said. "My surgically repaired knee is fine. The right knee
[the one with cartilage damage behind the kneecap that doctors
say they can't repair] is just not there, but it's improving.
I'm at least 90 percent in the right knee. If I can't regain my
form, it's time. If I can and if the fire's still there, I'll
On an off day a few weeks ago Rice was preparing for a round of
golf at a Bay Area course when he felt a tap on the shoulder.
"How's it going, old man?" Joe Montana said. The two laughed.
Walking off the field in the twilight on Sunday, Rice wasn't
"I just don't know anymore," he said glumly. "I just don't know."
Coaches Should Study the Clock
Lions coach Bobby Ross has been under fire for his decision to
go for two points in the fourth quarter of a 23-19 loss to the
Cardinals on Nov. 14. Forgotten in all the controversy, however,
was Ross's call to go for two early in the third quarter, a
decision that might have cost his team a chance to win the game
Coaches have charts that tell them when they should go for two.
But those charts deal strictly with point differentials and
don't take into account a number of other factors, most notably
the time on the clock. Consider the Detroit-Arizona game. With
about 11 minutes to go in the third quarter the Lions scored a
touchdown to make the score 23-13. Going by the card, Ross
shunned an all-but-automatic extra point for a two-point
attempt, which failed. Even though 26 minutes remained, Ross was
basically saying that he wasn't confident his team could score
more than once. Had he kicked the extra point there, he could
have done the same after the Lions' third touchdown, which would
have left his team down by just 23-21 with 5:26 left. Then when
Detroit drove to the Arizona 10 with just over a minute left,
Ross could have sent out the field goal team on fourth down
rather than having to go for a touchdown.
"Early this season we scored in Minnesota late in the third
quarter to go ahead by 12 [22-10]," recalls Raiders coach Jon
Gruden of a game that Oakland eventually won 22-17. "According
to our chart, going for two was the appropriate decision. We
failed. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't go for two. The
Vikings figured to get the ball three more times, and who's to
say they couldn't get a touchdown and two field goals with that
offense to beat us. Plus, when you fail on a two-point play,
it's a momentum play, a downer."
On Sunday against the Lions, the Packers trailed 14-12 after
scoring a second-quarter touchdown. They went for two but were
unsuccessful. After pulling ahead 18-17 on a third-quarter
touchdown, Green Bay had to try a two-pointer to stretch its
lead to three. The Packers converted and scratched out a 26-17
win, but again, why roll the dice so early in a close game?
Considering how ineffective teams have become at converting
two-pointers (chart, left), coaches would be wise to keep those
cheat sheets in their back pockets until the fourth quarter. Why
are offenses struggling? "You're in a confined area," says
Giants coach Jim Fassel. "You can't run guys down the field and
hope the underneath opens up. There is no underneath. So even
though you're going from the two-yard line [colleges spot the
ball on the three], the holes are so much smaller. It's tough to
make a fourth-and-two at the goal line."
Last week Ross continued to defend his strategy against the
Cardinals, saying he hadn't wanted to risk going into overtime
because his team was so battered. "I know [the two-point
attempt] creates more pressure on the coach," Ross says, "and I
know it can be controversial. But I think it's good for the
game." If not for the Lions.
Chargers Boss On the Hot Seat
Given the Chargers' painfully weak recent drafts, it is little
wonder that they are foundering in their usual spot near the
bottom of the AFC West. The release last week of wideout Bryan
Still, the club's top pick in 1996, was the latest in a series
of embarrassments for the man once considered the best talent
scout in the game. Now the question around San Diego is whether
general manager Bobby Beathard's annual ritual of impetuously
trading future first-round draft choices for more immediate
second-round picks might cost him his job. "My plan is to be
here," says Beathard, the 62-year-old architect of the strong
Redskins teams of the '80s. "But at the end of the year I will
ask myself, Am I hurting this team? I don't want to stay on if I
feel that I am. I won't let my ego get in the way of what's best
for the team."
Beathard, who joined the Chargers in 1990, has left himself with
only one first-round draft choice since 1994. That was last
year, when he shipped a king's ransom, including his '99 No. 1,
to the Cardinals to move up one spot and select quarterback Ryan
Leaf with the second pick. None of the other top choices
Beathard has made for San Diego during that six-year span is
close to being a franchise player or even a star. The Chargers
have taken guard Isaac Davis (43rd choice), cornerback Terrance
Shaw (34th), Still (41st), tight end Freddie Jones (45th) and
fullback Jermaine Fazande (60th).
San Diego doesn't have a first-round pick next April, either. To
get into position to select wideout Mikhael Ricks in the second
round in '98, Beathard peddled San Diego's first-round pick in
2000 to the Buccaneers. Ricks, who played at Division I-AA
Stephen F. Austin, has caught 53 passes in 26 games.
It wasn't the first time that Beathard had given up so much to
acquire an unheralded wide receiver he deeply coveted. In 1996
he traded San Diego's 1997 first-round pick--also to Tampa
Bay--so he could move up nine spots and get Still, who had 74
receptions during a nondescript career at Virginia Tech. In his
first three seasons in San Diego, Still caught 73 passes; this
year he had eight receptions.
"I wish we had the Still pick to do all over again," Beathard
says. "We found out he didn't love the game. On Ryan, I may be
naive, but I still think there's a way to get the talent out of
Beathard's contract runs through 2001, and club president Dean
Spanos has been supportive of him. However, after a 4-1 start
the Chargers dropped their fifth straight game on Sunday, losing
23-20 in overtime to the Bears. If San Diego doesn't turn things
around, Spanos might have to reconsider.
Deion Explores Return to Reds
Though his agent has been discussing a return to the Reds with
Cincinnati management, Deion Sanders has no support from his
football employers on the matter of resuming his baseball
career. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has bitten his tongue
more than once so as not to alienate Deion during his flights of
baseball fancy, is peeved that Sanders--who has missed 10
football games over the past three seasons because of injury and
is currently struggling to make it through games with a strained
groin--would further challenge his 32-year-old body. "We would
prefer that Deion play only football," is about all Jones would
say last Saturday when asked about Sanders, who last played
baseball in 1997....
A source familiar with the league's investigation into
salary-cap violations by the 49ers and the Steelers says that
commissioner Paul Tagliabue will probably dock those teams draft
choices if, as expected, they are found guilty of skirting the
cap. In addition the former maestro of San Francisco's cap,
Browns president Carmen Policy, will most likely get a hefty
fine, the source said....
The hottest coaching rumor has embattled Redskins coach Norv
Turner replacing Chan Gailey next year in Dallas, where Turner
was offensive coordinator from 1991 through '93. If that
happens, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman will have to convince
his teammates that he's not the team's general manager....
Steelers tackle Wayne Gandy had the following take on his team's
postseason chances after a 16-10 loss to Tennessee dropped
Pittsburgh to 5-5: "We have six to go. There are no real
world-beaters on our schedule." Only the 9-1 Jaguars and the 8-2
The End Zone
You Are What You Eat
Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, a noted supplement freak,
has begun testing his urine and stool samples to "see if there's
anything else, any other supplement, I can take to help myself"
get an edge on the field.
Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.
You might think that offenses would keep getting better at the
two-point attempt, which was introduced in the NFL in 1994. But
in 1999 teams are worse than ever at cashing in. Here's a
season-by-season breakdown of the two-point try and a look at
the teams that have been the best and the worst at making it.
Year Att. Made Pct.
1994 116 59 .509
1995 104 40 .385
1996 92 44 .478
1997 109 47 .431
1998 105 41 .390
1999 56 19 .339
Totals 582 250 .430
Team Att. Made Pct.
1. Cardinals 15 11 .733
2. Vikings 25 16 .640
3. Panthers 11 7 .636
Team Att. Made Pct.
1. Giants 14 3 .214
2. Jets 18 4 .222
3. Dolphins 34 9 .265
1. This Guy Knows Football Think Mike Holmgren has had an impact
in his inaugural season in Seattle? For the first time in their
24-year history the Seahawks entered Sunday's play with a
two-game lead in the AFC West. Then they improved their record
to 8-2 with a 31-19 victory over the Chiefs, winning at
Arrowhead Stadium for the first time since 1990.
2. Automatica Gramatica That is the nickname of Martin
(pronounced mar-TEEN) Gramatica, and it's what the Bucs' rookie
kicker was on Sunday against the Falcons. On a day the Tampa Bay
offense failed to score a touchdown--surprise!--Gramatica kicked
four field goals, including 50- and 53-yarders in the last six
minutes, to lift the Bucs to a 19-10 win over Atlanta.
3. Miller Time Dumped by four teams, Jim Miller has the following
numbers to show for his two games as the Bears' starting
quarterback: 68.6% completion rate, four touchdown passes, one
interception and a stunning 779 yards through the air. "Where he
leads, we will follow," Chicago tackle James (Big Cat) Williams
said after a 23-20 overtime win over the Chargers.