Tonight, I am going to watch Jerry Rice. Every route he runs, every block he throws, what he does between plays, every twitch. There will always be another football game, not that the Redskins vs. the 49ers in San Francisco figures to be much of one. But there appears to be a chance we won't be seeing much of The Great Jerry Rice after this, not in a 49ers uniform anyway, and maybe not at all. The exodus of the greatest of the great seems close to claiming another career. Michael Jordan, John Elway, Wayne Gretzky--and Rice now appears to be on deck.
Easily lost amid the holiday bustle and end-of-the-century retrospectives was a report that came from 49ers headquarters on Christmas Eve. Bill Walsh, Mr. 49er, said to the Contra Costa Times, in his capacity as the team's general manager, that the good people watching this game should know they may be seeing Rice play for the final time in San Francisco as a 49er. This is something northern Californians wanted to hear on Christmas Eve? Thank you, Mr. Grinch.
He had a message for the fans who will come to the park formerly known as Candlestick on Sunday night. "I really hope they account for the fact that it's not certain that he'll play next year and that they'll respond accordingly," Walsh said. ". . . We never know, so this might be the last time they see him at home."
Actually, Walsh probably was doing folks a favor. This isn't the time to be laid back. This could be the curtain call. Show some love, because you might not get another chance to see the greatest receiver who ever played the game.
You can argue about the best quarterback ever, whether it's John Unitas or Joe Montana. As revered as Jim Brown is, you could argue, without embarrassing yourself, that Walter Payton was Brown's equal at running back. For every argument supporting Lawrence Taylor as the greatest linebacker, there are cases to be made for Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke. But let's not waste any time trying to put wide receivers in the class of Jerry Rice. He holds more than a dozen NFL receiving and scoring records. Some of his numbers are so skewed they start to lap the field. They're Gretzky numbers, distortions.
Appropriately, if this is to be Rice's last home game, he'll run some of his final routes against one of the few active players who can legitimately be considered a peer: the Redskins' Darrell Green, another future Hall of Famer. Most of these wide receiver-cornerback matchups don't faze Green; the man will turn 40 in February. He's played two careers worth of games against everybody from Harold Carmichael to Randy Moss. But playing Rice in San Francisco isn't just another defensive assignment Green is carrying out.
"I remember the first time I played against him," Green said yesterday. "I remember making preparations for him all week. I went into the game and those were the wrong preparations. I went back in the game, I changed my style, and I intercepted a ball, hurt my shoulder and didn't play anymore. That was my first encounter with him. He was giving me a tough time until I began to adjust to what he was doing.
"Another time," Green recalled, "I remember going one-on-one with him--with Montana at quarterback--one-on-one coverage. I intercepted a ball; that was a pretty big thrill for me. I remember another time when he ran a deep route on me and I was right there, hit the ball and tipped it. But he kept his feet in, caught it and just kept going. So, there's a lot of memories, a lot of memories of great plays. . . .
"It means a lot to play against guys like that. I was just watching last night [on ESPN Classic] Gretzky, Jordan and Elway. To play against guys like that means you're in the big time. He forged his way into the league and made himself one of the greatest. We've had a lot of great head-to-head matchups and it's just a thrill for me. . . . My son has seen me playing a guy who is a legend. I think Jerry Rice fits in the all-time greats in football, as Jordan is in basketball and Gretzky is in hockey. So when you can say, 'I played against Gretzky,' 'I played against Jordan,' 'I played against Rice,' I think you're saying a lot."
All too soon, we're going to be talking about Green in these same terms. Last year, when I was in San Francisco for a Monday night game, at the end of a conversation with Rice, he said: "Do people in D.C. really appreciate the fact that they get to watch Darrell Green play every week for more than 15 years?" Rice asked. He wasn't asking rhetorically. He waited for an answer. I told him I wasn't sure, but I hoped so. The same way I hope people in Miami have appreciated watching Dan Marino every Sunday all these years, the same way I hope they'll savor watching Rice tonight.
It isn't that Rice can't play anymore; he leads the 49ers with 56 receptions and has scored five touchdowns. It's just that at 37, with two recent knee injuries, he isn't dominant anymore. He's averaging only 11.5 yards per catch. Last week, one of the networks ran a stat that said Rice, whose greatest exploits came after catching the ball, is averaging just 2.7 yards after the catch. It's not like Rice doesn't want to come back; he does. The problem is, the 49ers have to rebuild, and it's impossible to do that in the age of salary-cap restrictions with a 37-year-old wide receiver who is set to earn $5.5 million. The same goes for the injured Steve Young, who, at 38, would earn $8.1 million next season. Neither will be around in three or four years when the 49ers start to climb again. Walsh came right out and said this week, "The only way we can have them back is if we re-calculate their contracts."
Rice told reporters in California this week, "I never thought I'd be in this predicament, but here I am. . . . I think I'm looking at it with a positive attitude and working hard during practices, and I'm just trying to make the team for next year."
Of course, Rice has played with that attitude for 15 years, which is part of the reason for his success. What I wouldn't give to see Steve Young throw one more touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to Jerry Rice. Sadly, we won't see that tonight, if ever again. But we get to see Rice at least once more, we get to see him run side by side with Green. It's not something to take for granted.