Sunday, January 31, 2010

Random Discussion of a Random Athlete: Jerry Rice


Normally I think I’d hold back using such a non-random athlete for the Random Discussion of a Random Athlete, but this is a special occasion. This is the playoffs (and if I was working with the Fox Network I’m sure I’d be obligated to say something like “I live for this!”). In any case, it is the point in the year where certain cold blooded, freakishly talented characters step out of anonymity and into that part of our memories that can (like my DVR) be labeled “un-erasable even at gun point by Kiefer Sutherland.”

It’s a different breed of NFL player that can make a serious play in the postseason. Certainly the most basic and most compelling reason for this is simple: everyone is watching during the playoffs. This isn’t some week three west coast game between the Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks. The winner in a postseason game literally keeps an entire organization of people moving and working (or at least until the next week.) The team that fails in a playoff game sees that same organization grind to a halt in the most abrupt and sudden manner possible.

Professional sports are so unique in this way. In very few other professional working places are the performances of only a small percentage of the workforce so telling on the direction of the whole organization. The players, who are really only like 10% of a team’s total paid personnel, completely determine the course of an entire professional structure for an indefinite (but undeniably long) period of time. And they do this in a matter of hours on a weekend. Name another professional company where all of those factors are in play? It’s a horribly unpredictable and cutthroat business as professional organizations go. There is nothing to hide behind. If you screw up, everyone will know about it.

Mel Kiper Jr. had nothing on this guy

So what does all of this have to do with Jerry Rice? I guess the point of the intro was to show just how pressure filled an NFL playoff environment is. The stakes are higher in only a few other occupations (and most of those literally involve life and death). Only a small fraction of players know what it is to make even a single big play in the playoffs. It’s about as exclusive a fraternity as there is in the NFL. With this in mind, any man who can legitimately say he made plays in the playoffs in three different decades should scare the hell out of you. I guess now you know how the Raiders felt on this night in particular...

Certainly Rice is someone that we all know. He is decidedly not random. Still, he’s worth talking about because he made so many playoff plays that even the most ardent football fans lost track somewhere around 1994. And yet for most of his early life, Rice was consistently undervalued. The son of a bricklayer, the story goes that he developed good hands early in life catching bricks from his father when he helped out at work. He never really got into football until one day when he got into trouble at school. The high school principal came to get him, but Rice took off at a sprint. After a fruitless chase, the principal deemed two things: first that Rice was in deeper trouble and second that the football coach needed to see this kid.

Rice went on to have an outstanding high school career, becoming All-State. Still, not a single Division I college decided Rice was worth a scholarship (think about that for a second). Finally, an offer came in from Division I-AA school Mississippi Valley State. Rice didn’t miss the opportunity. He electrified his team and shattered opponents with his uncanny ability to make plays downfield. More than that, his nickname, ‘World,’ was a reference to his incredible hands (his teammates said he could catch ‘anything in the world.’) Even still, he didn’t receive the kind of hype you would expect someone like Jerry Rice to get.

The road trip to Houston that gave us ‘Montana to Rice’

Former 49er coach Bill Walsh was a genius. He revolutionized offensive and (as a chain reaction to his offense) defensive football. He also drafted in a way that was well ahead of his time. Yet, for all his sound rational and expert analysis, it was only by luck that he got attached to idea of drafting Rice. Had it not been for one of Walsh’s more usual habits before a game, he may never have seen the electrifying Mississippi native:
“As usual on the night before a game, I was in my hotel room watching television to learn the college scores. It was near midnight and I was beginning to doze off when I heard the sportscaster say, ‘Following this break, we have some incredible highlights of Jerry Rice and the Mississippi Valley State game.’ That caught my attention and I sat up to take a look at this ‘living legend.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Walsh went on to make a draft day deal with the Patriots, swapping the two teams’ first round picks. Still, even in the NFL draft Rice received a lot less billing then he deserved. Taken 16th overall, Rice also was the third receiver in that class. This one’s for you Jets fans, but I can’t help but note that it was Al Toon and not Jerry Rice who was selected by the J-E-T-S Jets (it’s okay, cause that’s only a difference of like 16290 career receiving yards).

Leading the league in ‘functional speed’

After struggling initially with the increased speed of the game (which manifested itself in some uncharacteristic drops), Rice became a firmly entrenched starter in year two. He was Desean Jackson before Desean Jackson, mastering the art of getting downfield. In an offense that was built on passing horizontally (from sideline to sideline), Rice gave it an added vertical dimension. Probably the most dominant season ever by a receiver was Rice’s 1987 season, in which he caught a then record 22 touchdowns and ran for an additional score (so 23 touchdowns total). Considering that Rice only played 12 games that year (strike-shortened year) coupled with the fact that he’s a receiver (and was thus targeted for use by his own offense only a fraction of the time as most running backs who’ve scored 20 plus touchdowns) then it’s perfectly legitimate to say that his ’87 season was the most efficient by any skill player ever. This was also before any of the ridiculous pass-interference rules were put in by the league in the 21st century. And all this before he even became a superstar.

Rice first came to the forefront of the national public’s imagination during the 49ers run to Super Bowl XXIII. He made five catches in the Divisional round game against the Vikings (where San Francisco avenged the previous year’s playoff defeat in a 28-3 stomping). Of those, three went for touchdowns. Against the Bears in the NFC title game, Rice struck the early and decisive blow, catching the ball on a short comeback route before exploding on one of his customary “you guys are NOTICABLY slower than me” slalom runs through the entire Chicago secondary. In the Super Bowl that year, facing the Cincinnati Bengals, Rice smashed the record for most receiving yards in the NFL’s biggest game, compiling 11 catches for 215 yards and giving poor Bengals coach Sam Wyche a sense of paranoia.

“It’s to Rice now” Wyche was recorded as saying by NFL films before the final San Francisco touchdown with 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Of course, that final touchdown, which was the culmination of a trademark Joe Montana drive of 92 yards, went to John Taylor. Yet watching the replay, Rice had done enough, drawing the attention of every member of the Cincinnati coverage, allowing Taylor to slip in behind and catch one of the iconic touchdowns in Super Bowl history.

After being named Super Bowl MVP, Rice vaulted himself into the status he enjoys to this day: the best receiver of all time. Of course it helped that he won two more Super Bowls after that and ran up an insurmountable lead in about every receiver category in Super Bowl records. He has almost double the all-time receiving yards as the next closest guy. He also owns the records for most total yards all-time, touchdowns all-time and touchdowns in a single Super Bowl (three) which he did twice (Super Bowls XXIV and XXIX).

So yeah…he’s pretty good (just filling my quota here for the “Tony Gwynn memorial understatement”.) He was once the subject of a joke by then-President George H.W. Bush that he was America’s favorite TV show (Miami Rice) during one of his several trips to the White House following a championship. More than that, his longevity was perhaps the most impressive thing about him. Even after he was no longer able to get downfield so freely, Rice was still the best in terms of route-running (check out Rice helping Desean Jackson earlier this year.)

He’s scored more touchdowns than any man ever in the NFL. And all this from a guy that some 49er scouts said was too slow. Just like how college scouts said he wasn’t good enough. Luckily for him (and for us as fans) Bill Walsh wasn’t fooled:
“Some thought he lacked the really blazing speed we wanted, that he would be no better than 4.6 in the forty (yard dash). What they overlooked—as scouts also did with Dwight Clark–was his ‘functional speed,’ when running with the football.”

This was the genius of Walsh. It’s one reason why, in my opinion, the 49er dynasty of the 1980’s into the early ‘90’s is the most fascinating football team of all time. With Walsh as its architect, they assembled one of the best collections of talent in NFL history. And Jerry Rice, the kid who got good hands from catching bricks, was the best player on the team.

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