I’m sure most of you didn’t realize that I am a huge 49er fan, from the days when I grew up in the Bay Area to the present, the 49ers have been my obsession. I recall the dark days of the 70’s when I was 9-10 years old through the 80’s when we were in the stratasphere, then into the 90’s with another Superbowl and now into the dismal years again. I have a picture of Joe Montana and myself on a mantle next to this computer, along with the ball he signed and the room I am in is filled with 49er pictures, both historic and new.
So now today Jerry Rice retires. It’s a sad day for myself but one that should of come earlier, but I can understand his refusal to leave this game since it’s the only thing he has known since childhood.
This was, you see, one of the longest long goodbyes in NFL history, one not typically afforded to players. You crowbar your way into the Hall of Fame with one team, hit your sell-by date, and then you try one more team to see if you can ring the carnival bell again. When you can’t, you retire. It happened with Unitas, and it happened with Montana, and it happened a thousand other times.
But Rice didn’t want to take “no,” “hell no,” or even “please, stop, don’t” for an answer. He was intent on finding out just how far he could go until he hit “E,” and “E” came today.
Oh, there will be the over-the-top paeans to the man universally considered the greatest wide receiver of all time. There will be a few people who complain that he stayed too long. There will even be some who will think the Broncos didn’t see the greatness still in him.
The first group will be correct. So will the second. The third will be, well, wrong.
There is no morality play here. Rice stayed and stayed and stayed because he didn’t want to leave until he was told not just, “You can’t play for us,” but “You can’t play any more, period. Go, rest. You’ve carried enough bricks. You have nothing left to do.”
Oh, he could have tried to squeeze out three more short touchdowns to get to an even 200, but Rice’s career isn’t explained by the numbers but by the mere recitation of his name. He caught more, gained more, scored more, and did it all in some of the biggest games of his era. He did it all, and did it where everybody could see, in September and in January.
But to lament that he stayed too long is silly. He wanted to stay too long. He chose to stay too long. He knew he was staying too long, and he did it anyway. This was a willful act of a man who had the leverage and reputation to pull it off.
That, too, is part of the plaque at Canton. “He played and played and played because nobody had the nerve to tell him he couldn’t play any more. That’s how good he was.”
The Broncos were willing to let him play behind Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie and Darius Watts. They were willing to let him dress in some games. They didn’t have the nerve to kick him out.
But they knew, and despite the fact that the NFL is the harshest and cruelest work environment unions can allow, they were willing to carry him until he knew, too.
Now he knows. He’s not as useful as Darius Watts. He’s 42, 13 years older than Jim Brown when he retired, five years older than Montana, a year older than Gary Anderson, for God’s sake. In baseball terms, he got to be Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan at the same time.
This is what he chose. Don’t forget that when you want to start slagging him for not knowing when to go. He didn’t want anything left in his tank. He wanted to run out of gas on the road. He wanted to be used up completely, because he didn’t know how else to go out, and perhaps because that is not a choice football offers to mere mortals.
He hadn’t been deferring his retirement, as he kept hinting. He knew, in his soul, that this was the path he would choose, and one suspects that he’s known it all along — that he even knew it in San Francisco, when he was all but named second chair to Terrell Owens five years ago.
Thus, when you ask, “Didn’t he know this day would come?” expect the answer, “Yes, and it’s what he wanted.”
Going out on top was enough for Jim Brown. Going out on fumes was enough for Jerry Rice. Regret it if you must, lament if you wish, but the NFL doesn’t give choices very often, so take it for what it’s worth. Jerry Rice chose this, with full knowledge and awareness of how it would end. He might have hoped otherwise, but he knew.
Either way, Jerry Rice retires as the greatest receiver ever to play the game. There is no one even close to what he has accomplished.
Now my mission to meet, take a picture with, and get him to sign my football alongside Joe’s signature begins.
Thanks for the great memories Jerry.
Being considered slow turned out to be a blessing for Jerry Rice.
Sure, it caused him to fall to the 16th pick in the 1985 draft, but things even out once a player enters the NFL. Rice was a 6-2 receiver who supposedly had 4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash. Obviously, dropping him down in the draft because of that was an oversight. He turned out to be the greatest receiver of all time and he can thank those initial scouting reports for not only making him work harder but for allowing him to stay in the league longer.
Rice retired Monday and started the five-year clock ticking toward his induction into the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame. That he was the best receiver ever can’t be argued. The numbers speak for themselves. He played 303 games, caught 1,549 passes for 22,895 yards and had 197 touchdown receptions.
Think about those numbers for a second. Rice averaged 77 catches a season for 20 years. Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison are considered the game’s best active receivers, but what they’d have to do to catch Rice is staggering. Moss has 574 catches and would have to average 100 catches a year for the next 10 years to catch Rice. That means he would have to play until he was 38. Harrison has 845 catches and he’s 33. To catch Rice, he would have to average 101 catches a year the next seven years and retire at the age of 40. Owens, who has 669 catches would have to average 100 receptions for close to nine seasons to get there.
Nothing is impossible but Rice has set the bar so high, it’s unlikely anyone will catch him.
His nickname is G.O.A.T. It stands for Greatest of All-Time. And that’s really the only debate as Rice leaves the NFL.
…Rice started camp well. Rice still had separation for defensive backs. He was still open. He still had it.
But games and seasons are marathons, not sprints. For receivers, it’s the legs that go first. Rice’s legs started to show signs of losing some power and it was time to retire. Rice did the right thing.
Those who criticize him for staying so long, though, are wrong. The 49ers let him leave in 2001 at the age of 38 and they were wrong in evaluating where he was at. He caught 83, 92 and 63 passes for the Raiders. More amazing is that he changed positions to make those catches.
Tim Brown had the flanker position that Rice made popular in the West Coast offense. Rice had to go to split end where he lined up directly in front of a cornerback trying to jam him. At flanker, Rice was behind the line of scrimmage and could use his guile and precision to avoid contact from cornerbacks. Rice had to work harder to beat corners at split end and he did.
The consistent Rice was fading in 2004, but he still showed flashes, especially after getting traded from Oakland to Seattle. He had a great Monday night game against the Cowboys, catching eight passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. That game earned him the right to have one more chance.
Had Rice entered the league as a speedster, he might not have lasted until he’s 42. Because he was supposedly slow, he could stay longer.
Monday was the right time to retire. His next stop is the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a vote that will take no more than 4.7 seconds.