RICE IS REALLY COOKIN' : 49er Receiver Has Deceptive Speed, but His Abilities Are Perfectly Clear

Times Staff Writer

A man's reason is subverted by deceit as much as by violence.

--PLUTARCH, in "The Life of Solon."

Jerry Rice, the 49ers' high-scoring wide receiver, is a smiling, friendly, happy magician who, in his third season in the National Football League, is already within reach of two hallowed records.

They are:

--Most consecutive games, touchdown catches, 11.

If he scores with a 49er pass against the Chicago Bears here Monday night, Rice will also catch the two receivers who now share that record--Hall of Famer Elroy Hirsch of the Rams, 1950-51, and Buddy Dial of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 1959-60.

--Most touchdown catches, season, 18.

This has a can't-miss look for Rice, who, as one of the few 49er stars honoring the picket lines during the strike, has caught 15 for touchdowns in only 9 starts.

When Mark Clayton of Miami caught 18 in 1984, he broke a record set by Green Bay Hall of Famer Don Hutson, who scored with 17 passes in 1942. Hutson was later tied by Hirsch and two others.

Hirsch and Hutson. Fast company. But not, apparently, too fast for Rice, who is envied by offensive players as a great receiver and by defensive players as a great deceiver.

Deception makes him what he is, Rice said the other day--his deceptive speed and deceptive moves.

Running side by side with a defensive back, Rice, after moving his hips slightly, or maybe only his head, will suddenly burst into the end zone as the cornerback races toward the sideline.

Or, suddenly, Rice will shift into overdrive and leave the defensive back--a sprinter himself--three yards behind.

Rice calls it separation.

"You've got to separate yourself from the DB," he said, meaning the defensive back. "That's all it is.

"And I don't really know where the extra speed comes from that makes me do it. Watching myself (in the films), I keep surprising myself."

The scene has become familiar--Rice unexpectedly breaking away from a defensive player and making himself all alone on an otherwise crowded field as quarterback Joe Montana spins the ball into his hands.

Rice's acceleration after his final move, on any given pattern, is unique in football today.

"The thing that fools the DBs is that I'm taller than most receivers," said Rice, whose 200 pounds are spread over a frame of more than 6 feet 2 inches.

NFL receivers and defensive backs usually go 6 feet or less, and some of the best are about 5-10.

"Short persons have to take short steps," Rice said. "The cornerbacks think the receivers are moving fast--they look like they're moving fast--and the cornerbacks get used to that kind of speed.

"Then I come along, taking long steps, and it fools them. They think they have good position on me, the same position they'd have on a shorter guy, but suddenly I'm pulling away."

And because Montana is also having a big year, Rice has caught 50 passes thus far, for 855 yards, an average of 17.1.

The yardage he lost in the strike games will prevent him from matching last year's total, 1,570, which was the third-most in pro history.

It was, in fact, a champion's achievement if you exclude American Football League records. The leaders, Charley Hennigan of Houston, with 1,746 yards, and Hall of Famer Lance Alworth of San Diego, 1,602, both played in the old AFL.

Fast company. Whatever he does, Rice moves in fast company--as he has for most of his 25 years.

Born the son of a bricklayer in Crawford, Miss., Jerry was out in the country one day with a group of boyhood chums when they came across five or six horses standing quietly in a pasture.

Deciding to go for a ride, they climbed the fence and went after the horses.

"We chased them for an hour," Rice remembers. "When I caught one, I knew I was pretty fast. I celebrated by riding him the rest of the day."

Said teammate Ronnie Lott, the 49ers' Pro Bowl safety from USC: "Fifi has deceptive speed. He may be 4.6 on Tuesday and Wednesday, but he's 4.2 on Sundays."

Fifi?

That's one of Rice's nicknames. It honors his hairdo. He pushes his hair straight up--like Jim McMahon.

Or like a poodle, said Lott.

"Not that I really like this haircut, I just want to be different," Rice said. "That's my way. That's why I wore the Flash 80 towel for five games this year."

His uniform number is 80, and his favorite nickname is Flash, and that message, streaming out behind him on a white towel, insulted more than one of the defensive backs racing after him earlier in the season.

"I wasn't trying to show them up," he said. "It wasn't a reflection on opposing teams.

"The towel was me. I did it because the idea motivated me."

It did, that is, until the NFL told him to forget it--using the same uniform-rules interpretation that made McMahon get rid of the inscriptions on his headband two years ago.

"That's the NFL--but I still wear the sign," said Rice, lifting a leg and pointing to the bottom of his shoe. "See? Flash 80. It charges me up."

And as Rice charges away to still another touchdown, the defense can still see it. It still gets the message.

So cornerbacks call him a showboat. Teammates think of him as cocky. Rice himself admits to feelings of supreme confidence.

Although the license plate on his Porsche bears a modest inscription--Rice 80--the license plate on his Jaguar is more like him. It reads World 80. As in all-world.

"You've got to believe in yourself or no one else will," Rice said.

His coach believes. Bill Walsh has been a believer ever since he saw Rice on film at Mississippi Valley State.

Thus, it won't astonish the leader of the 49ers if his young receiver sets both of the records he covets.

"The consecutive-game record is probably the toughest," Walsh said. "The odds are against touchdowns in 10, 11 or 12 straight games unless a team makes a determined effort to get the ball to a guy.

"Nothing Jerry does really surprises me, but I wouldn't count on any receiver scoring in a lot of games consecutively."

Even Rice.

But it could happen, Walsh concedes and Rice predicts.

If nobody else is, the confident young receiver and most of his family are counting on it.

The group includes his wife, Jackie, and baby daughter, Jaqui, plus two sisters, five brothers, his mother, Eddie, and his father, Joe, most of whom have been watching him play football in Mississippi and California since the day after he ran away from school as a high school sophomore.

He intended, in any case, to run away for at least the day.

"I was playing hooky," he confessed. "I remember that I was wearing a red blazer as I headed out the door."

There, the school principal caught up and tapped him on the shoulder.

"I was so surprised to see him that I took off at top speed," Rice said. "So the only thing the man saw was this red flash streaking down the street."

The principal, a sprinter himself, was also surprised.

"He reported me to the football coach," Rice said. "I got a whipping."

In addition, the sophomore had finally gotten the coach's attention.

"He made me go out for the team, and that's how I started playing this game," Rice said. "Until the day I played hooky, I had no intention of playing football."

After starting as a defensive back, he became a wide receiver at Mississippi Valley State.

"You know about the run 'n' shoot offense," Rice said. "We played the run 'n' gone. At Mississippi Valley, we threw the ball on almost every play.

"I caught so many passes and scored so many touchdowns that they even heard about me up in the NFL."

Specifically, Walsh heard about him. In 1985, after the New York Jets had made another big receiver, Al Toon, the day's 10th pick, and after the Cincinnati Bengals had chosen a typical little flash, Eddie Brown, 13th, Walsh traded up to get Rice as the 16th draftee in the first round.

Asked how he could evaluate a small-school receiver that high--when Rice had played on a team with a strange offense that featured passes on almost every down--Walsh said:

"Jerry's movements were spectacular for a pass receiver, no matter the level. Even a casual fan looking at him on that team would have asked, 'Who is that?'

"We also knew about the long exposure he'd had as a receiver. He'd been catching 100 passes year after year. We felt that if they'd throw to him that much, and if he'd catch that many, he must have the basic instincts for the job."

The basic instincts. Throughout his career, Walsh has been looking for a receiver with Rice's basic instincts.

To begin with, as a new NFL coach, Walsh made UCLA running back James Owens his first draft choice and tried to convert him into a big-play receiver.

When that failed, Walsh tried the same thing with hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah.

And when that failed, he tried to do it with one of the little receivers who dominate the league today, Freddie Solomon, who stands 5-11 and weighs 188.

Solomon didn't fail--he played well on two Super Bowl winners for Walsh--but he wasn't big enough for the job.

Rice is. And it's a commentary on Walsh's coaching that he knew exactly what he needed and kept going for it--from Owens and Nehemiah to Solomon and Rice--until just the right receiver gave it to him.

At first, however, drafting Rice seemed to be another 49er blunder. When he dropped a record 15 passes as a rookie, the fans got on him, the press got after him, and even a 49er assistant, Paul Hackett, publicly indicated his displeasure.

That frosted Walsh. "Most rookies start slowly," he said icily. "Wait. Please wait."

It also frosted Rice.

"I knew I was a great receiver," he said, looking back to his disappointing NFL start. "See these hands? They're the biggest hands you'll ever see on a person my size.

"They're soft hands, too. When I was working for my father as a bricklayer's helper, they were very rough hands. But bricklaying made them stronger, and in time they got softer.

"And I knew I could catch a football. I'd done it long enough that I was positive--but I couldn't understand all those drops, either.

"Then one day I figured it out. If I was a good receiver, the problem had to be with something else. It had to be with the 49er pass offense."

And it proved to be just that.

"This is a very complex offense," Rice said. "When I mastered it, and quit thinking about it, I quit dropping passes."

Instead of dropping them, he started carrying them into the end zone.

"My goal is to be the best receiver to ever play pro ball," he said. "And that means you have to score a lot.

"I love to score touchdowns. There's nothing like the feeling you get in the end zone.

"When you score a touchdown, it feels like winning $6 million in the lottery."

JERRY RICE: GAME BY GAME IN 1987

Date Opponent Rec. Yards Avg. TD Length Sept. 13 at Pittsburgh 8 106 13.3 1 3 yards Sept. 20 at Cincinnati 4 86 21.5 2 34, 25 yards Oct. 25 at New Orleans 6 89 14.8 1 8 yards Nov. 1 at Rams 3 70 23.3 1 51 yards Nov. 8 Houston 7 77 11.0 1 1 yard Nov. 15 New Orleans 4 108 27.0 2 46, 50 yards Nov. 22 at Tampa Bay 7 103 14.7 3 21, 42, 3 yards Nov. 29 Cleveland 7 126 18.0 3 2, 30, 29 yards Dec. 6 at Green Bay 4 90 22.5 1 57 yards Totals (Nine Games) 50 855 17.1 15 26.8 Avg. Per TD

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