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There is silence near Jerry Rice’s locker inside the San Francisco 49er training complex; it is a silence that brings to light an omen of no return by the greatest receiver of all time. At Rice’s request, equipment manager Kevin Lartigue removed the last few items remaining inside his locker.
There weren’t very many items as Jerry was in full awareness of his expected predicament; he has been preparing for this day since the middle of the 2000 regular season. He has played over a million times in his head memories of past glories and reminisced about those he enjoyed most in playing with in his birthplace of success.
Lartigue packed the frame picture of his wife, Jackie, his workout clothes, a bottle of mouthwash and a pair of dollar bills, adding to the nine large boxes of shoes, shoulder pads, game pants, helmet, nameplate and gloves he himself put away for Jerry just weeks ago.
You would have to imagine what Kevin Lartigue was thinking as he packed the legendary wide receivers items away, knowing full well he would not see Jerry gracing the locker room ever again as a player. I know I would be overcome with a melancholy that would hang over my head for a very long time. Acceptance of this tragedy will be ongoing inside my head for a very long time, as it signals the changing of the guard in real life.
“That’s a lot of memorabilia but I want him to be able to have what he wants,” Lartigue said. The 49er’s kept a helmet, several pairs of shoes, 10 sets of gloves and shoulder pads for eventual display in the NFL Hall of Fame or in localized halls of fame.
Rice, has already indicated he plans on picking up his items and moving on as the 49er’s prepare to release Rice in order to clear salary cap room in the vicinity of $2.5 million dollars. Rice has every intention of playing again in a different uniform.
Jerry Rice was the very main weapon of great Hall of Fame Quarterback Joe Montana and soon to be Steve Young. He even made new generation Pro Bowl Quarterback Jeff Garcia look good in 1999 and 2000.
Is Rice accepting the loss? For all intents and purposes he is dealing with it well in his own way. Rice one of the most maniacal competitors in the world of sports today, admits even today that it often took him many days to recover from a loss on the football field in regular season.
But he is coming to terms with the reality of losing his presence among the young rookies and second-year starters in the 49er locker room and is preparing to make his presence in a different locker room, that will undoubtedly be in awe of the great one.
“I’m not going to say it’s not good news,” Rice said. “Sometimes you have to move on, man. It might be something that’s good for both parties.”
How has Jerry Rice come into this new focus and acceptance of his departure from the city he put on the map in professional football? He has without question become the most brilliant and talented wide receiver in professional football due to hard work and ferocious dedication to physical fitness and psychological training.
He has inside himself energy very few will ever be able to equal let alone conquer, it drives him hard almost every day from the moment he awakes in the morning he is constantly on the move. He has driven himself to heights no one will ever touch and it goes far beyond comprehension as to his accomplishments.
He has set so many milestones for others to look at and savor the thought of reaching. His NFL records speak for themselves in bold black and white with extreme definition. He still feels the burning to stretch those records even farther then they are now.
His connection with San Francisco will always be alive and prosperous for this is the place that gave him the opportunity to become exactly what he is today the greatest wide receiver of all time. Deep inside of him though he feels it is high time for him to move on and has publicly acknowledged that his relationship with Head Coach Steve Mariucci was not all it was cracked up to be.
Rice even admits he understands the feelings of former general manager Bill Walsh the very technician that saw and acquired his talent, in having too be the one to come in and put a period on his career here in San Francisco. The task has to be the most unpleasant one in his lifetime.
Jerry Rice still has a stinging pain that aches constantly as he remembers his final home game as a 49er, last December 17th, 2000 against the Chicago Bears. Where he caught seven balls and had to watch Terrell Owens catch 20 to smash a NFL record for receptions in a game. After the game even as all the home fans cheered and chanted Rice’s name again and again. Jerry felt an acidic heartburn inside one that questioned the coaching staff for this was supposed to be his day. He honestly felt like it was their intention to avoid him and downplay his last big day.
“I told my wife the night before: There’s no way I’m going to have a big game,” Rice said. “Look at it. If I had a big day on that day, look at all the controversy. You know why release this guy? So it didn’t take a genius to figurer that out.”
The anti-sentiment grew inside Jerry like a cancer eating away at him over and over again as he came to realize that the demons of yesterday had come full circle and were there inside him to remind him of his humanity.
“I came out, caught a few balls, and after that. I didn’t see another ball. Like someone just snatched the rug out from under me. Like, oh, we can’t make him have a big day today; if I had a big day, it would have opened up a can of worms, know what I’m saying?”
You have to agree with his reactions, certainly the front office and the coaching staff believed that if too much attention was given to Jerry it would have created a strong insurgency to resign him to an extension. Should we had focused on Jerry and he did have an awesome receiving day the fever to keep Jerry would have intensified greatly.
Jerry walked away from that last home game very dissatisfied and very disappointed in the sense he was not allowed to go out on his terms, but went out on what the 49er staff deemed necessary damage control.
“The only thing I was offended about is the respect factor,” he said. “I really felt like I had worked hard for the 49er’s on and off the field, and for that to happen to me like that, I was really disappointed.”
Jerry has always been upfront with his emotions and what is on his mind, I can still recall many instances under Mariucci’s rule seeing him go over to the sideline and signal his displeasure directly at Mariucci. One has to realize he has the right to express his opinion based on his knowledge and experience. But one also has to realize was it done in a professional tone as Mariucci in my opinion has done an outstanding job with this franchise.
“I think it tainted (memory). It really did. Even though the fans showed appreciation, yeah it tainted the whole ordeal. If you say it’s this guy’s day, you would think you’re going to do everything possible to make this guy look good.”
Jerry characterized the finality of this game afterwards noting that his relationship with head coach Steve Mariucci was a dysfunctional four years. He often questioned game plays and strategies the coaching staff had designed in several games.
What Rice once treasured with Bill Walsh as his coach from 1985-1988, what he then tolerated with George Seifert as his coach from 1989-1996, he felt he could never duplicate with Mariucci. Steve Mariucci has a unique reputation as being a player’s coach whose brilliant personality has been verified as being able to carry some NFL players through the rigors and hardships of a regular season process. However Jerry never felt that bonding for some reason.
One has to try and understand as to why Jerry felt like he did? Why was there so much contempt inside of him for what Steve Mariucci was trying to do with the team? Certainly we all have to agree that when Mariucci took over the 49er’s in 1997 he did so in the middle of a ownership overhaul and faced the prospect of having to rebuild as many aging veterans were strangling the franchise from needed youth.
Was Mariucci focusing then on the youth such as Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes and allowing them to come into their own as the starting duo in the 49er’s lineup? Or was it the mere fact that following Rice’s injury that his productivity continued to decline and his once unbridled speed began to resemble that of an ordinary wide receiver?
“When I first came in, the relationship I had with Bill Walsh was unbelievable,” he said. “I think that’s the reason I went out and laid everything on the line. When Steve Mariucci came in, we never got that relationship. Because I didn’t know what he wanted from me, on the field or off the field.”
When you break this comment down you have to know that no head coach is alike in total scrutiny especially when you are comparing Bill Walsh to Steve Mariucci. Even Jerry would have to somehow understand this upon review of his comments. The criticism of Mariucci has really come to disturb me in a way that opens my eyes to the frustrations that Jerry must have been feeling as he tried to rebound from a catastrophic injury.
Was it all that though? That is the question we still needed to examine, was there a real personality clash between Mariucci and Rice? Of all the interviews I have seen done I can still remember the honorable mentions from Mariucci’s own mouth about the accomplishments of Jerry Rice. He has always in public acknowledged Jerry as being a lethal weapon in the 49er offense.
“I think he was like: Ok, this is Jerry Rice. The legendary Jerry Rice. And I’m not going to say he didn’t know how to deal with it, but it made things a little more difficult.” Rice said. “There was never chemistry, never a bond there. He’s a great coach, and I respect him, but I never felt like I really knew him.”
So the line in the sand has been drawn in regards to Jerry Rice and his relationship with Steve Mariucci. You have to wonder why it came to such a barrage of semi-negative commentary and why Jerry believed that he was not used to his fullest potential.
Rice was clear and graphic on his thoughts about how the 49er offense was run in the final years as a 49er. He felt like the 49er offense had suddenly become one dimensional and that the versatility of the offense was not explored enough or used to it’s exact science in terms of talent and it’s overall abilities as a unit.
He criticizes head coach Steve Mariucci and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg for failing to move him around, how they always put him in a position to catch the ball over the middle, double-teamed. He felt trapped, caged in a sense.
“When teams are calling the plays before the snap,” Rice said, “you’re dead.” Rice can recall when Bill Walsh would move him around, lined up in the split formation, in the X, moved him out of the backfield. This was what classic Rice was all about, and this is what he missed most about the internal compromises coaches had with some of their players. His reflections on Bill Walsh ring with fondness and sincerity, as Rice was willing to go to Mars and back to bring satisfaction to Walsh’s face in the midst of uncertainty. He did that and performed brilliantly on the field for him. That is why in large part he can come to accept the clarity as to why Bill has done what he has to end what he started.
"I think about the opportunity he gave me,” Rice said. “That’s all you want in life. Now, for him to say, “We don’t have the money, I don’t take it in a bad way. That’s just part of the business.”
Certainly that comfortable relationship will remain with Walsh as years go by as Walsh readily concedes that Jerry Rice was and still is the most dedicated and fearsome athlete he has ever had the honor of drafting and working with.
As far as his years with Steve Mariucci he endured lots of heartache and physical milestones, as his season in 1997 was marred right from the beginning as in the opening game of the 1997 regular season, Jerry Rice was tackled illegally and the result was horrific. His knee was mangled and he had torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. Mariucci’s first year in control was suddenly thrown a curve ball of major proportions. Quarterback Steve Young had made a comment about Jerry Rice back in 1994 that had really come back to haunt him, with the result of this incident. Said Steve Young of Rice’s ability to avoid big hits, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him all stretched out.”
The injury was crippling to the 49er’s and to Jerry himself, it took Jerry out for almost the entire season. He endured an extremely painful rehabilitation and broke another record. No player had ever returned from such a terrible injury during the regular season. He made his return against the Denver Bronco’s, but fractured his kneecap on a touchdown catch. His season was officially over after that.
The physician that said Jerry was “the man from Mars” ate his words. Jerry was after all an actual human being; he wasn’t invincible, as many people had thought. Those 106-days of rehabilitation were for nothing; the ligaments in his knee had healed, but the surgery done on him required cutting into the kneecap, and that had not completely healed.
Even so his return was still great for the short time that it was, though, it ensured the 49er’s home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the 49er’s lost to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, the same team that defeated the 49er’s the previous two years as well. Even with all this Rice came out looking like a winner to so many.
1997 was a year of many trials and tribulations for Jerry in one incident again his wife Jackie, nearly died during childbirth, and the memory still haunts Jerry to this day. His workouts at Stanford take him by the hospital where she grappled for life. He remembered “sleeping there, seeing my wife with all those tubes in her, being able to read all the machines; it’s been tough.” Jackie Rice is better now, and Jerry says he is too. The traumatic experience made him that more aware of life’s inter-connecting winds. So did seeing his teammate Quarterback Steve Young retire, when Rice crumbled and bawled in Mariucci’s arms at the press conference.
“I knew,” Rice said. “I could see myself doing that one-day.” Rice reflects on those things even today, and does think about Canton, and wonders if he will ever be able to address the distinguished guests there without being overly emotional.
Where does Jerry go now? He does not have real blockbuster proposals as of yet, he has visited and even been examined but the teams interested seem to be down to three, that being: Detroit, Seattle and Oakland. Rice’s agent Jim Steiner, has requested more time to make decisions, Mariucci said. “And that’s fine with us. We’re being very cooperative with them. So we’ll extend that date until later in June.”
The Raiders have done a turnaround in their approach to Rice by actively considering resigning wide receiver Andre Rison. Rison who last year was signed and played for the Raiders after leaving Kansas City has the inside edge due to his performance and age along with knowledge of their system already.
The Seahawks offer the best opportunity for Rice because they have the necessary salary cap room and are trying to alleviate Rice’s concerns about his surgically repaired knees. They have been stressing the benefits of their forgiving Field Turf surface at Husky Stadium as well as their 2001 schedule, which features only one game on Astro-turf.
Jerry stands a very big chance at becoming the number one receiver on the offense for Seattle, as they have nothing but rookies and second-year players at that position. Detroit seems to have cooled to the idea of Jerry Rice.
The release of Jerry Rice will allow the San Francisco 49er’s to field some very eager receivers awaiting in the wings for some time now. These receivers have publicly made their cases for more playing time over the 2000 season. Both offer real excitement for us as a team in this 2001 season. J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets will receive every opportunity to excel at what they do best catch footballs.
The greatest asset to Rice’s departure will save the organization a badly needed $2.5 million against the 2001 salary cap. However it will force the franchise to absorb a $3.6 million hit in 2002.
Drawing out the process of waiving Jerry Rice kind of benefits both parties as Rice has an insurance policy in being still on board with the 49er’s. And at the same time the 49er’s could generate competition among teams in the league where they could reach a point where they might decide to trade for him, allowing the 49er’s to come away with a draft pick. However that scenario seems highly unlikely.
“The chances are he’s going to stay on the West Coast, if possible,” Steiner said. “All we’ve done is we’ve pushed the date for the roster bonus back to give us a little more time.”
Going back to the interested teams Detroit seems to be taken out of the picture for some very viable reasons. Rice made no mistakes about criticizing the 49er offense over the last four years regarding it as almost predictable at times and not allowing him to move around under Mariucci and Mornhinweg.
Jerry Rice and Steve Mariucci had at least a couple arguments on the sideline over the past three seasons. And late last season, a day after Rice caught four passes for 31-yards against the Atlanta Falcons, he and Mornhinweg had a heated exchange in the locker room. Because of these feelings toward Mornhinweg, many insiders believe it’s ludicrous to think that Rice would finish his career with the Detroit Lions, where Mornhinweg is now the head coach. However Rice does have a good relationship with Lions receiver coach Larry Kirksey. Who coached Rice with the 49er’s for six seasons.
“I think if I went to Detroit, I’d sit down basically and talk to Marty and know exactly what my role would be right from the jump start because I don’t want to fall into that situation again,” Rice said.
I find it very unlikely as well in seeing Jerry going to Detroit, Seattle seems to be the area of most opportunity to demonstrate and fine tune his skills in the open field once again courtesy of his old offensive coordinator and Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren.
What would be ideal for Seattle and that makes Rice look so valuable is the fact that Rice would be able to tutor their first round draft choice wide receiver Koren Robinson and the new quarterback at the Seattle helm Mike Hasselbeck acquired from Green Bay.
The Raiders are filling up at the receiver position in having second-year Jerry Porter, veteran James Jett and rookie draft picks Ken-Yon-Rambo and Derek Combs. They have room for maybe one more veteran. But news is that Andre Rison looks to slip into that role again. Rison was a popular free agent acquisition, not only to his Raider teammates but quarterback Rich Gannon as well.
Life after Jerry will not be easy but the San Francisco 49er’s still will field one of the best trio’s in the receiving offense the league has ever seen, they will feature one of the most dynamic and explosive units in the game today.
Headlining will be Terrell Owens, Owens had a remarkable 2000 season that included his first Pro Bowl nomination, a Career-High 97 receptions (fifth in the NFL), a Career-High 1,451 receiving yards (fourth in the NFL) and 13 touchdowns. But even more impressive is the fact that Owens posted those numbers while missing two games.
“Terrell is certainly one of the most explosive wide receivers in the game today,” said offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. “He had a great 2000 season and he should continue to be extremely productive in our system.”
One of the most experience returning receiver is the 6-4, 220-pound J.J. Stokes. Entering his seventh season in the NFL, Stokes figures to see an increased role in the 49er offense, as he has protested over the last season that he has not been given adequate time on the field.
In 2000 he did not see the ball, as much as he liked, but when he did see it he was productive, Stokes led all the 49er receivers with a 17.5 yard per catch average.
“J.J. Stokes will be on the field a great deal more than he has been,” said Knapp. “His playing time will increase and we will find a way to get him the ball more often.”
And the third member of the returning threesome is Tai Streets. The silky smooth Michigan graduate had his 2000 season cut short when he fractured his right tibia against the Bears in December. He also figures to see significantly more action this year after catching 19 passes in 2000.
“We need Tai to get some reps on the field,” added Knapp. “He has proven to be a quick healer before and we are hopeful he comes back quickly and healthy from the broken leg.”
Another prospect in the wings is Dwight Carter who is still on the 49er roster. Carter spent time with the 49er’s during training camp last season and was later brought back as a member of the practice squad. He is currently in Europe where he is playing with 49er’s quarterback Gio Carmazzi for the Rhein Fire.
And then there is newly drafted wide receiver Cedrick Wilson out of Tennessee in the sixth round of this years 2001 NFL Draft. He is expected to be added to provide depth and be a presence on special teams.
From the 1940’s to present day now the San Francisco 49er’s have always been blessed with great wide receivers. In the 1940’s it was Alyn Beals. In the 1950’s the team had Gordy Soltau and Billy Wilson. The 1960’s featured Bernie Casey and Dave Parks. The 70’s ushered in the years of Gene Washington and Freddie Solomon.
Then along came Bill Walsh and his era and along with him came Dwight Clark, John Taylor and Jerry Rice. And now the 49er’s is in the capable future hands of Owens. Stokes and Streets.
What is the secret? “I think we have always done a good job of assessing players abilities,” Bill Walsh said. “We have looked for athletes who have great body control, are agile and have great hands.”
And of course it takes great quarterbacking as well to enhance a receiver’s god given talents. “Oh sure, that’s part of it,” added Walsh. “Our quarterbacks have always thrown very good balls. But we are also ahead of the curve in judging how people would perform in this system. Most people wouldn’t know that Dwight Clark caught 33 passes during his time at Clemson; and he went on to win the NFL Most Valuable Player.”
San Francisco also has changed its philosophy on receivers selecting bigger, more physical wide receivers. At 6-2, 210 pounds Rice was among the first big receivers in the NFL. Since that time players have become bigger and now it is not unusual to find receivers who stand 6-3 or taller. In fact, the 49er’s Stokes measures in at 6-4, 225-pounds and Owens is in at 6-3, 220-pounds.
“Size has always been a plus in the system we run here,” said Walsh. “We don’t want our receivers to just take on corners and safeties. They have to be able to deal with linebackers too and you need some size and toughness to go across the middle in this league.”
So the receiving corps. Of the San Francisco 49er’s still rests in very capable hands, not that it justifies our releasing Jerry Rice but it does open up the area of youth and permits those receivers with marginal playing time more, so experience will be gained.
Certainly the salary cap savings is enormous so much that we will be able to sign probably all our draft picks and negotiate other outstanding contracts, making us fiscally stronger in the long run. Acceptance to seeing Jerry in another uniform possibly playing against him will be no bed of roses for us to smell. But I feel Jerry Rice will always be a 49er in his heart and in his soul, that is something he will never be able to deny nor do we want him to.
I hope that in all we will still look back and take into account all that this great talented and gifted athlete and honorable human being has brought to us as a team and as a league as a whole. He has effected many lives, caused many voices to soar and many eyes to widen in anticipation of his majestic receptions. I will miss him and know you will also.