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On June 5th, 2001 the legendary wide receiver known as Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49er’s delivered on his promise that he was not done yet, and signed with the Oakland Raiders. Jerry Rice was the very last player of the old regime and glorious dynasty that evolved out of obscurity in the 1980’s under Bill Walsh.
The deafening thud of the signing was to be expected but with the Oakland Raiders? Many 49er fans shook their heads in disbelief and pronounced obscenities too graphic to write the rivalry and competition among the two franchises in the National Football League is well documented.
There is not much love between the bridges and water that separate the two from one another, only a mutual respect that once San Francisco waives or chooses not to resign one of it’s own they generally are lured across the bay for a look-see.
The same can be considered of great running back Roger Craig and defensive back Ronnie Lott, and now Jerry Rice will join them in that exodus following behind recently signed running back Charlie Garner. He joins a familiar system the same West Coast Offense under an old boss in reference to his former offensive coordinator Jon Gruden.
The entire Raider organization is thrilled to be the franchise to embrace and keep Jerry Rice for the remainder of his professional career in football. The warm welcoming and over-flowing support from owner Al Davis all the way down the roster has rejuvenated Jerry to a new beginning in his new surroundings.
Once hated and loathed by the radical and mouthy Raider fans from all over when he played as a 49er on their territory. He is now hailed as the new messiah, in coming in to transform their receiving unit into the very best it can possibly become with his insight and vision. And of course his legendary playmaking abilities.
“A new toy” said Jon Gruden who beamed like a child on Christmas morning as he came off the field after his first practice as Jerry’s head coach. It was an atmosphere filled with positive sentiments as everyone was in perfect harmony over the arrival of Jerry Rice.
Gruden has big plans for Jerry Rice and he expects him to contribute right away on the field regardless of the age question, the indications from sports critics that he has lost a step or two. Rice will come in and make an impact not like Desmond Howard or Rocket Ismail but better.
“He looked outstanding to me today,” Gruden said. “We don’t discriminate against 38-year olds. He’s not here to be a role model. We think he can play or he wouldn’t be here.”
After Jerry drove across the bay and met Gruden and the rest of the Oakland coaching staff, he participated in meetings, and then put on his brand new uniform sporting the distinct black and white with the number #80 on both sides and admired himself in the mirror. He liked what he saw as if transfixed that it was a new era, a new agenda.
“ I stood there and said, “Look guys, I look pretty good.” Rice said. The number #80 was the same numbered jersey worn by Raider wide receiver Andre Rison last season. It was apparent that Rison’s Raider days were numbered.
Jerry is expected to team up with number one receiver All-Pro wide receiver Tim Brown with the Oakland Raiders. Brown has indicated he has no ego in regards to Jerry and looks forward to playing with the legend himself.
“He’s the man, Brown said after playing a round at the NFL Golf Classic sat the Upper Montclair Country Club. “You know, he is the man and you have to give him that respect. No matter what he is doing right now, no matter what he is doing, he will always be the man.”
“The guy can obviously play the game and he obviously knows our offense,” Brown said. “He’s the inventor of the position I play in this offense. I don’t know how it can be a bad thing. I think he understands the situation. I’m fine with it. Let’s just play some football.”
Raider Quarterback Rich Gannon was equally impressed with Jerry especially after his first practice. The signing of Rice means many positive things for Gannon and his potential array of varying targets. “Especially when you’re a quarterback, it’s a unique feeling to line up and see No. 81 on one side and No. 80 on the other,” Gannon said about Brown and Rice.
Many within and outside the Raider organization expressed fear that new jealousies and bitter infighting would take place between Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. It was thought that should Jerry come in and outperform Brown there would be hell to pay. It seems just the opposite though for Brown is very happy to have him on board.
“If he’s making plays, so be it,” Brown said, “I’m just trying to win a championship. That’s the bottom line. When I am done with my career no one can erase my numbers.”
Tim Brown has caught 846 passes for 12,072-yards and 86 touchdowns, all team records. “Obviously I still think I can play this game,” said Brown, who had 76 catches for 1,128-yards and 11 touchdowns last season helping the Raiders reach the American Football Conference title game. “I am going to do what I have to do. If he can help the team out; if I am getting double-teamed or he’s getting double-teamed, whatever the situation is, I am just going to be there to help this team.”
Jerry Rice in comparison with his statistics makes the combination one of the most formidable in the league with their new merger. Rice, 38, holds league records with 1,281 receptions and 187 touchdowns. He was NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1993 and the Super Bowl MVP in 1989. He has amassed 19,247-yards receiving, including at least one catch in his last 225 games, another record.
Rice also holds records with 176 touchdowns on pass receptions; 12 seasons with more than 1,000-yards receiving; 1,848-yards receiving in a single season; and 22 touchdown receptions in a single season.
As you can see this remarkable combination seems to spell doomsday all over it as the 2001 season approaches. But the questions remain will their age be a factor? Will their endurance and durability really hold up? Will they be able to perform as they did in their peak career high’s? These are the questions we will have to answer for ourselves once regular season is in session.
The reality of Jerry being a Raider was so very hard for me to swallow, but I had an idea as many did that he would choose Oakland as it was still in close proximity to his new home just built in the Bay Area. This was more important to him as negotiations heated up. He was also keen on joining a winning franchise as Oakland had just come out of the playoff hunt from last season, and is expected to propel itself right back there again this season.
The San Francisco 49er’s dealt with the fallout of the loss of Jerry Rice in mixed reviews, as many players sounded off with great respect and the awareness that the franchise must move on now, and focus on the season at hand.
“The one thing about the NFL, you just keep moving,” tight end Greg Clark said. “No matter, who leaves, the train keeps going.” Clark in particular stands most to benefit from Rice’s departure, as his receiving abilities were never exercised to the point where he liked them to be.
“The last three years, we’ve had three established receivers,” Clark said. “Maybe now, this will provide the tight end, more opportunities in the passing game.”
This has been an option that I have vocally sounded off about for some time now. And I am with Greg Clark on this one, I hope that the coaching staff along with the front office will use Clark more as an option in the receiving category, as his confidence would be much more enhanced with the increase in opportunity.
Clark was not the only player that felt slighted over the course of time with Jerry Rice as the second ranked wide receiver on the 49er roster. J.J. Stokes was also vocal last year about not getting his fair share of quality playing time.
“I only got 30 rocks (receptions) last year. I wasn’t happy about any game I played. I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t contributing to the team. I think this year will be different.”
Head Coach Steve Mariucci also tried to downplay the repercussions of Jerry’s departure and wanted the team to focus anew on the coming training camp in July. “We went right into what we are doing in this camp with these players, he said. “We got to hit it full speed ahead.”
There were still some players that seemed more sentimental about Jerry’s departure and those were offensive tackle Derrick Deese and defensive tackle Bryant Young. These two veterans have been instrumental in the last two years of the rebuilding process, coupled with Jerry Rice their presence in the lineup and out on the field have been critical.
“There will be a big void,” Deese said. “He basically ran this locker room. You can’t tell anybody about your work ethic. He’ll show you what work ethic is.”
Said Young, “I think what he accomplished around here and his presence in this locker room will be greatly missed.”
Since then Jerry Rice the new Oakland Raider has been arriving very early every day to work out and train at the Oakland training complex. He understands his role and what is expected of him as high hopes run throughout the organization that he still has some spectacular plays left inside him.
Even though the Seattle Seahawks were very much involved in the negotiations for his services, Rice and his agent chose Oakland with significant pay cut due to a number of reasons. Oakland Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen confirmed that Jerry Rice took less money to sign with Oakland over Seattle.
“He did take less,” Allen said. “Significantly less.” Rice obviously did not treasure the thought of traveling and possibly moving. Some believed he signed with the Raiders because the offense was similar to what the 49er’s were running while he was a 49er.
“Structurally,” head coach Jon Gruden said, “we are nothing like them. That’s what Jerry and Charlie Garner are telling me.”
What is even more intriguing is the fact that Jerry not only has to learn all new terminology for all the plays, he technically will be playing a new position. “He has been the flanker,” Gruden said. “Now he is the split end, which is different. The split end usually lines up on the weak (non-tight end) side of the formation, so he will be running away from the strength of the formation in certain situations.”
Jerry even though he is a versatile veteran of 16-years still has butterflies in his stomach about learning the new position. The adjustment may seem small to the average fan, but both Rice and Gruden say the change, plus the new playbook, have Rice a little nervous.
“And if I don’t get it figured out,” Rice said. “I may still go to Seattle.” The joking from Jerry Rice is just another example of his many emotional standpoints in his career, he has been in these situations before yet he takes them on with little hesitation and welcomes the challenges that go along with them. The learning process seems to go on even for a 16-year veteran like Jerry.
The one wide receiver that has been the talk as of lately has been the 49er’s Tai Streets, some people say he is the very one that made Jerry expendable to begin with, as his performance last season was very promising. Streets season came to an abrupt halt when on December 17th, 2000 he broke his right tibia in a win over the Chicago Bears.
“I’m very close to going full speed again,” Streets said. “I’ve been running for three or four weeks now, really running, not just jogging.”
Similar to what defensive tackle Bryant Young had to endure and live with, Tai Streets will have to run around this season with a stabilizing rod that was inserted into his leg December 19th.
“I don’t feel it,” Streets said of the rod. “They say in a year they can take it out. I don’t know if I want another surgery.” Streets was so impressive last year that he shared the number three-receiver slot with J.J. Stokes to his chagrin.
Head Coach Steve Mariucci made sure though that there is no question at who will be the designated number two receiver, taking Jerry Rice’s former position in the starting lineup. And that is J.J. Stokes. “J.J. is the incumbent, really. He’s been there before as a starter,” Mariucci said. “So Tai Streets is going to have to earn himself some stripes. He’s a capable guy, (but) he is coming off an injury. Right now we have Tai penciled in as the third receiver, but hopefully he will be healthy enough and capable enough to be the starter if need be, for any reason.”
Many thought that Streets clearly outperformed Stokes in competition last season, in their limited appearances that they both had. Some even called for Stokes to be traded and promote Streets to even the number two slot above Jerry Rice. Even though I observed some really positive playmaking abilities, I am convinced that Stokes is still the right choice.
Streets, who missed almost all of his rookie season with a torn right Achilles, says he should be at full strength by the time training camp starts on July 25th in Stockton. There is no question in my mind that Streets will clearly challenge Stokes for the number two slot, being in his third year as a 49er.
The 49er’s were clearly looking to trim their roster somewhere and with a wide receiving unit that deep and with that much talent it only made since to unload the veteran Jerry Rice with a cap savings of $2.5 million.
Tai Streets showed flashes in limited action last season, catching 19 passes for 287-yards (15.1 per catch). The 6-1 receiver from Michigan was the team’s biggest deep threat and clearly has more speed than either Rice or Stokes.
But the paramount question still comes around and that is he needs to stay healthy, something he continues to struggle with every year. Hopefully we will see the real Streets in a lot of action this season, both in the rotation and on special teams.
As Jerry was preparing to leave the 49er’s this year some real grumbling and grievances came to light that really astonished me as a 49er enthusiast and avid follower for so many years. Rice maintained that he would always have a tremendous relationship with the team he led to three Super Bowl victories while setting every individual receiving mark in the NFL records books. And whenever he does decide to retire, he plans to resign with the 49er’s first so he can retire as a 49er.
But over the course of the last two years, he has claimed to have suffered emotional and mental relapses. One being that he never developed a good rapport with Steve Mariucci, his head coach of the last four years. Second he never understood what role the coaches expected him to play alongside Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes once he returned from reconstructive knee surgery in 1998.
“I don’t know if they tried to make me a possession guy. No one told me, basically, what we want from you,” Rice said. “If someone had sat me down and said this is going to be your role right now, I don’t have a problem with that.” “But I didn’t know. I was going out there, I was working hard, but I never could get a feel for that.”
The fallout comments were so damaging to the psychological aspect of the coaching staff, especially head coach Steve Mariucci, who was floored, with the barrage of negative comments made by Jerry regarding their relationship.
“It’s nothing against Steve, but we never developed that relationship like Bill Walsh or George Seifert or some of the other coaches. I’m not saying it’s my fault, but it just didn’t click. That’s basically the thing I was really disappointed about, because I have always had that bond with the coaches. And for some reason he was a little elusive.”
The media was quick to jump on the harsh comments spoken by Jerry, and had a field day on turning the questioning towards head coach Steve Mariucci. I for one was shocked and at odds with Jerry’s comments, for I have witnessed countless times where Steve would mention Jerry’s accomplishments and presence in a positive light at all time.
The reaction was one of surprise by Steve and he continued to talk about Jerry and his fond memories of Jerry in a positive light. Reflecting on how wonderful it was to have been the coach of the legendary wide receiver and wishing the league would make some kind of mandate to keep it’s aging playmakers to the end of their careers on one team.
“As a head coach, maybe it’s difficult to be tight and close with every single player or all of your veterans in the same fashion,” Mariucci said. “And he felt that we weren’t as close as he had hoped, maybe there’s still rime to have a better relationship. But don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a pretty darn good one.”
Even as the press hounded and schemed the admiration Steve portrayed for Jerry was evident, as Steve would defend his honor and reaffirm his respect for Jerry over and over again.
“For the last four years, I think he was as productive as he possibly could’ve been. He’s done everything he could possibly do to be as good as he always was. He didn’t turn it down a notch, in practice, in the off-season or in games.”
The San Francisco 49er’s as a organization though realized that the day was soon coming for it to part with the great one, Steve Mariucci admitted that it only made football sense; not just salary cap sense; for the 49er’s to eventually part ways with Rice.
In hind sense it had been in the team’s plans for over a year now. Bill Walsh was brought in as general manager in 1998 with the specific mandate to pave the way for Rice’s eventual departure. And last season as early as Week three, Rice spoke about needing to play elsewhere if he wanted to continue his career.
Bill Walsh realized what dirty work was all about, and no one could handle it better or more businesslike than Walsh himself. He felt that he was the man to bring Jerry in, than he should be the man to see Jerry to the door. It was not a scenario he cherished or looked forward to, for he to was very fond of Jerry and was not only his coach but his friend as well.
“It’s just the way it is,” Mariucci said. “It’s not an either or situation as much as it is a necessity that we have three other capable receivers (Owens, Stokes and Streets). Two of them who are earning real good paychecks and it would be very difficult to have all four again and to have one or two sitting on the bench during most of the game. Economically, that might not be the smartest thing to do when there’s money needed at so many other positions.”
Jerry knew over the course of last season that the position at wide receiver on the team was becoming overcrowded, and acknowledged that other capable receivers were waiting in the wings to be granted their rightful playing time. He even began to mention that he needed to allow that to happen, as the receivers in Stokes and Streets needed time on the field to develop to there fullest.
With the candle still burning inside Jerry was asked what else did he have left to prove? And his reaction was genuine Jerry Rice as usual. “Man, I have a lot,” he said. “I have a lot to prove. I think for the last four years, due to the system, due to the direction the team was going, I didn’t get a chance to really showcase some of the things that I have done over the years.” “ I’m coming back very competitive this year. If you doubt me. I’m going to do everything possible to prove you wrong. I’ve been challenged, now it’s time to go. And I want to see how I’m going to respond to this.”
No one can with reasonable mind blame Jerry for wanting to play again and again, it is what Jerry is all about, his mind and body are as sharp as they have ever been and they are both tested on a daily basis because Jerry chooses for that to happen.
You have to respect such an athlete that has the will and undisputed determination to go out and start all over again, with a brand new organization to show the world that you still have something left. And if anyone can ring the bell on that resolution it will be Jerry Rice.
In still a spit of utter frustration Jerry again lashed out at those in the 49er franchise that meant the world to him, one day after being waived by the 49er’s. Jerry signed on as the new Oakland Raider.
Bill Walsh had angered Rice and his wife, Jackie over his disclosure that Jerry would sign as an Oakland Raider on Monday one day before his initial signing. Rice, had hoped to make the announcement on his terms, mockingly referred to Walsh as a “genius.” Jerry’s wife even suggested that Walsh was on a power trip, making one last attempt to dictate Rice’s future.
Bill Walsh just as surprised, as Steve Mariucci did not understand what all the chaos was about, because Rice’s choice of the Raiders over his other primary suitor, the Seattle Seahawks, became apparent Monday.
“Really, it was a process that went smoothly,” said Walsh, who remains with the 49er’s as a consultant. “But you can’t let something like that go very long. Mike Holmgren says Seattle’s out of it. Jerry says he’s interested in the Raiders. What am I to do? Say, “No comment? I tried to be as gracious as I could.”
This was yet just another indication of what Jerry was feeling at the time; knowing and dealing with the finality of being a 49er and realizing that the end was really here. He unknowingly or inadvertently hurt the very people that cherished and loved him the most, and in a way disappointed the very fans that cheered for him for over 16-years.
Rice’s agent Jim Steiner was another that did not want to press the issue: “If that’s the worst thing he does, that’s OK with me. Bill deserves the respect that I think we all give him. Although we would have preferred that it went the other way, it all worked out.”
Bill after receiving the harsh reality of comments from both parties, said the remarks were undeserved yet still understandable.
“He needed something to vent against. He needed tom vent because this was a loss to him.” Walsh said. “So, if he said something in my direction, well, he knows our relationship will never change. I’ll watch every game I can and I hope he does well. I want him to have that record forever.”
If ever there was a kinder and gentler way of saying something more genuine and honest I can not come up with it. This was the coach and friend that was speaking about Jerry Rice. This was the very man that saw something undeniably special about this one individual found in an unknown little town out in Mississippi.
Bill Walsh brought him into the San Francisco 49er’s and into the limelight of the National Football League, and helped build him into the champion that he was and still is today. Even with all the frustration and bitterness he vented and fumed over deep down he knows where his bread was buttered. San Francisco will always be his home, we’ll leave the light on for you Jerry.