The San Francisco 49ers were never very good at goodbyes, particularly when the farewell object happened to be a favorite son. The parting of the ways with Jerry Rice was no different, a painful separation full of awkwardness and veiled intentions that removes the Niners one formidable link further from the shimmering glory of their immediate past.
But let's get serious. Rice had to go. It has been a done deal since Bill Walsh reappeared and began cleaning house back in 1999. And not for all the reasons you might think, or the reasons the Niners would like to have you believe. The company line is Rice was a salary-cap casualty, that the $2.5 million the Niners saved under the cap by releasing him after June 1 was money essential to moving forward and signing the 2001 draft picks.
This is all true, of course, because San Francisco's salary-cap situation this season truly is an unmitigated mess.
When 53 men finally are brought together to compose the opening-day roster in September, the Niners likely will be paying them less than $50 million. The rest of their money underneath the NFL's $67.4 million salary cap will go to players who no longer are on the team, funds already earmarked for the reckless decisions and poor management of days not too long gone by.
Rice's old contract is a residue of that period. But, even with San Francisco's severe financial limitations, a deal could have been worked to bring legendary Jerry — a true 49ers icon — back for a final season or two. Or didn't you notice that the Niners were able to work deals to acquire free agents Dana Stubblefield and Derek Smith to fill holes in their rebuilding defense before Rice even was released? But that's the point.
The Niners need Stubblefield and Smith. They no longer need Jerry Rice. Or want Jerry Rice. The team never could find the fortitude to just come out and say this, and perhaps it's just as well. It was always a roundabout reference in suppressed tones, such as coach Steve Mariucci lauding the virtues of his "excellent young receiving corps," or new general manager Terry Donahue talking about having the players in place to "compensate" for Rice being gone. But Rice's agent, Jim Steiner, told it like it is when he said to a Sports Illustrated writer, "This was a personnel decision on the part of the 49ers. It was a decision to go with younger players versus the veteran. It's a philosophy. They have the right to have that philosophy, but I'm not going to let them off the hook by calling it a cap decision and letting them cloak it in that language.
They have younger receivers that they want to play." And that is as it should be. As much as we love and respect Jerry Rice as a man and a player — and make no mistake about it, the feeling here is he's the greatest ever — forcing Rice to leave and finish his career in a difficult-to-fathom imagery of silver and black is, quite simply, the best thing for the 49ers. It's sad to say, but Jerry was getting in the way. Not in the way of Terrell Owens, who in one season last year easily bounded over Rice as San Francisco's receiver of choice and go-to offensive weapon.
But Rice was in the way of J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets, promising receivers who need time on the field and consideration in the playbook to reach their potential and get the most from their abilities. Rice still can get free underneath coverage. He still can catch the ball. He'll no doubt do that plenty of times this season as a Raider. But Stokes presents the potential of breaking tackles and turning timing patterns into big gains. Streets presents the promise of streaking past defenders and pulling in deep passes for big gains.
There wasn't a lot of hope for Rice doing much of either at this stage. The speed to separate from defenders is gone, and how many times did you see him break even one tackle after a catch last season? Of course, as his skills visibly declined, Rice still talked about being in the best shape of his life, about having some of his best football left in him, about still possessing the ability to be "The Man."
In the month before his release, he was quoted in Bay Area newspapers regarding the unhappiness of his final seasons as a 49er, how he never developed "a chemistry (or) bond" with Mariucci, who joined the team in 1997, and how the memory of his final home game was "tainted" because he caught "only" seven passes while Owens caught a single-game NFL-record 20 in a December win over Chicago.
That's Rice. That's what made him the best.
That's also why it's OK, as far as the new-era Niners are concerned, that he no longer is around.