You don’t measure Jerry Rice’s greatness just by his number of touchdown catches, but by the number of pass defenses designed to prevent them.
Man-to-man. Double coverage. Bump-and-run. Ten-yard cushions. Rotating zones. Shadowing. You name it and Rice, the best thing to hit San Francisco since the cable car, has seen it. And beaten it.
How many X’s and O’s can be scribbled on a chalkboard in a week’s time? How often do you think a defensive coordinator, his eyes bleary from watching reel after reel of Rice highlights, has emerged from his office convinced that he has found the answer--the absolute, guaranteed-to-work way to stop the 49er receiver? How many times do you think Rice has sent another answer to its file-cabinet grave, never to be seen or heard of again? Try lots.
“You can’t afford to relax on him, not for one moment,” Ram safety Johnnie Johnson said. “He has to have your full attention the full 60 minutes. If not, he’s going to beat you.”
Johnson would know. He watched in horror during a Ram victory one Monday night in 1985 as Rice, then a rookie, weaved through the Ram defense for 10 catches, 241 yards and 2 touchdowns, 1 on a run.
“I recall that one,” Rice said. “That one game, I would say, started my career.”
In 1986, Rice collected 9 receptions, 228 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 games against the Rams. And in the 2 meetings between the teams last season, Rice caught just 6 passes but scored on 3 of them. No wonder Johnson dishes out compliments in reverential tones and Ram defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur is left trying to find the right adjective--and solution--for Rice, the Ram wrecker.
“Big play . . . home run . . . touchdown pass . . . ultimate weapon . . . big-play weapon in the league, probably,” Shurmur said. “You’ve always got to be conscious that no matter where he is on the field, he’s a deep-ball threat.”
Rice has few peers at his position. Mike Quick of the Philadelphia Eagles was one of the elite, but then he was injured. Anthony Carter of the Minnesota Vikings? Probably. Al Toon of the New York Jets? Nomination accepted. But after that, the list tends to thin out faster than Jay Schroeder’s hairline.
“At this time, (Rice) is probably the top receiver in football,” Johnson said.
Players such as Rice come along only so often, and when they do, they’re usually not from Mississippi Valley State. But here is Rice, the owner of the 1987 Bert Bell Trophy--presented to the league’s most valuable player--after just 3 seasons in the pros. You have to go back 22 years to find the last wide receiver who won the prestigious award. So Pete Retzlaff of the 1965 Eagles, meet Jerry Rice of the 49ers.
But like all players who reach such heights, Rice has learned that opposing teams will try just about anything to lower the pedestal a level or two. He is nobody’s best-kept secret anymore. For many defenses these days, Rice is the starting point for stopping the 49ers.
“With the way defenses are playing me now--they’re giving me different looks, they’re disguising everything. I would say I’m just a little pushy this year because of the double coverage,” Rice said. “I think I just need to settle down, relax and just have fun.”
By 49er Coach Bill Walsh’s count, Rice should have 10 or 12 more receptions than the 25 he has going into Sunday’s game against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium. Out of those 10 or so missed opportunities, who knows how many could have been touchdowns?
Even Rice, a tough critic when it comes to his own efforts, said he expected better.
“I feel like I can contribute to the team a little more,” he said. “I don’t think I’m as sharp as I was last year.”
Then again, after 65 receptions, 1,078 yards and a league-leading 22 touchdowns in 1987, who could be?
At least part of the reason for Rice’s struggle to catch more passes, Walsh said, is the 49ers’ tendency to run the ball more this season. They lead the league in rushing, but not in scoring, which is what Rice does best.
In his 50-game career--just 37 starts--Rice has 48 touchdowns, an amazing statistic for a wide receiver. Now you know why the Fritz Shurmurs of the world are staying up late, thinking of new pass defenses.
The Detroit Lions tried double coverage and occasionally assigned just one defender to Rice earlier this year. Last week, the Denver Broncos tried to disguise their defenses, giving the appearance of single coverage, but then switching to two men on Rice shortly after the snap of the ball.
“It’s been like that all year long,” Rice said.
Now come the Rams and their much-ballyhooed Eagle defense. The Eagle specializes in the pass rush but often leaves cornerbacks and safeties in man-to-man coverage. Thus, the dilemma: Go for sacks or watch the 49ers go for broke.
Rice casts his vote for the Eagle and all the risks that go with it.
“I would love to see man-to-man,” he said. “It would really make my day for me. But I don’t think they’re going to play man-to-man. But who knows, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Walsh also recommends the Eagle or the pass rush that goes with it. Coverages, schmoverages, he said, the pass rush will make the difference.
“That, in itself, is probably the best way to stop Jerry--to get to the quarterback,” he said.
Are the Rams that brazen? Is Rice that talented?
Ram Coach John Robinson tries to keep the talents of Rice in perspective. Yes, the Rams are aware of his numerous skills, he said. Yes, the Rams have tinkered with and adjusted their pass defenses. No, the Rams aren’t in awe.
“I think maybe you change your coverages up, but you don’t all of a sudden pull all of your guys over to one side of the field or anything,” he said.
It’s a thought, though, especially considering what Rice has done to the Rams. He has scorched them for 27 catches, 646 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns. Not only that, but Rice said he owes the Rams thanks for giving him some much-needed confidence his rookie year.
“After that game (his 241-yard Monday night performance), I felt I could do the job,” he said.
Now the Rams would like to trade favors and do a job on Rice.