49ers Thriving On Rice Diet Explosive Wide Receiver Keeps Defensive Backs On Defensive

Posted: January 07, 1988

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — God has been good to Jerry Rice, very good indeed.

Good enough to make him tall and fast and graceful. Good enough to place him on a team that had the capability to wield him wisely.

Good enough to make him the son of a Mississippi bricklayer with large, soft hands.

"I used to help my father out in the summer," Rice said. "I'd catch the bricks. And it made me strong, catching those bricks. I wouldn't change anything about it.

"That's why I'm where I am today. Really."

And that has made him good enough to peer into the eyes of a defensive back and see fear staring back.

"When I see the cornerback backing up before the snap, that tells me something," Rice said, grinning at the thought.

"That tells me they're afraid of me going deep. When they do that, they're giving me the short routes, they're respecting me. Most of the guys are doing that this year."

So as Rice and his team, the San Francisco 49ers, prepare to host the Minnesota Vikings in a divisional playoff game Saturday, it is fairly clear that there is no more dangerous player in the NFL.

This year, the defensive backs who must defend him have had their obvious reasons for that omnipresent quick, nervous backpedal. And Rice knows that.

"I think Minnesota is going to try to take the deep post route away from me," Rice said during a break in the 49ers' preparations. "I've scored so many touchdowns on it, I think it's something they have to concentrate on. But that's OK, it'll just open something else up."

That is exactly what Rice has done for the 49ers, who struggled a bit early when Rice was banged up.

When the offense has faltered, and the game has been in danger of being lost, more often than not it has been Jerry Rice, the 6-2 kid out of some school (Mississippi Valley State) no one has ever heard of, to whom the 49ers have turned.

When Joe Montana was injured, and backup Steve Young was vaulted into the void, it was Jerry Rice who swallowed up seven touchdown passes and made the transition seem normal.

Some - including San Francisco native O.J. Simpson - have called Rice's season the most impressive performance ever by an offensive player.

Call it the Year of Jerry Rice: Rice broke two NFL records in a season shortened by the players' strike, and quite surely - almost independently - lifted the 49ers' offense to a higher, haughtier level.

"How much of our offensive success is attributable to Jerry? A lot, a whole lot," said Dennis Green, the 49ers' receivers coach and main offensive assistant to Bill Walsh.

"He puts points on the board, breaks off big plays, draws the defenses and

keeps things open underneath. What more can he do?"

What Rice did this year is catch 22 touchdown passes, smashing Mark Clayton's single-season NFL record of 19, in just 12 games, run for another and maintain an NFL record 13-game TD reception streak.

Altogether, Rice had 65 receptions for 1,078 yards, a 16.6-yard average.

"I have never seen a wide receiver who dominates a game as much as Jerry does," Green said. "Never. Quarterbacks or running backs, maybe, but never a receiver."

This is all part of what Rice has come to mean in San Francisco, for a team mostly known for a precision, short passing game run by Montana, a superstar by any measurement. The 49ers just happened to win two Super Bowls, and Montana two Super Bowl MVP trophies, that way.

But three years ago, Walsh moved up in the first round of the draft to snatch this skinny Mississippi kid, and the offense was never the same again.

"Some guys were put on earth to play football," Vikings coach Jerry Burns said. "And Rice, like A.C. (Vikings receiver Anthony Carter) is one of them."

It all evolved slowly at first. In his rookie season, Rice got open, as always, but dropped a whole slew of passes.

"That was incredibly irritating for me," he said, "and it made me work harder."

Then last year, Rice exploded: 86 catches for 1,570 yards and 15 touchdowns. Then, this year, the feast.

"This offense isn't based on just me," Rice said. "We've got so many weapons - Dwight Clark, Mike Wilson, Roger Craig, and of course, Joe. My job on this team is to get open and to score touchdowns."

"I think Jerry's seen every kind of combination, double coverage you could imagine," Green said, "and he can still make the big plays. That's what makes him so special."

But how? In a league chock full of superstars, athletes and brilliant minds, there has never been a player who has done what Rice has done, in this, just his third season.

What makes him different?

When he is asked, it is the son of the bricklayer who answers.

"People think it's all natural talent, that it comes easy," Rice said. ''But it's something I've worked on. I really prepare myself out there. And once you feel comfortable with your patterns, then you can add your own little things.

"I watch defensive backs carefully: watch their drop, how fast they backpedal, how low they get, how far you've got to go downfield to get them turned (with their backs to the line of scrimmage).

"Once you know that, you know how to work the defensive back, and it gives you an advantage."

Which, in turn, gives the 49ers an advantage.

"Sometimes when I sit up in the booth during the game and watch him go," Green said, "I see him drag so much of the defense's attention his way that everything else opens up."

Yes, God has been good to the 49ers. Good enough to give them a Mississippi bricklayer's son.

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