Is T.O. a better receiver than Jerry Rice?

With Terrell Owens showing signs this summer that he has taken his game to yet another level above, a great debate is raging in the San Francisco Bay Area: Could Owens actually be a better receiver than Jerry Rice, his legendary predecessor with the 49ers? It may sound like blasphemy to some, but <EM>SFI</EM> has the answer: Owens already is.

Don't roll over in front of your computer. We're not saying Terrell Owens has attained the greatness of Jerry Rice. He hasn't. And he might not ever.

But today, as he enters the prime of his career at age 28, Owens is a better receiver than Rice was at a comparable stage. And by then, Rice already was on his way to the Hall of Fame.

T.O. still has to string together a few more great seasons before the same can be said of him, but that's only because Rice still was in record-smashing form when Owens joined the Niners in 1996. Owens was the third receiver back then behind Rice and J.J. Stokes and had to wait three seasons before he began pushing Rice out of the way as the team's top receiving threat.

But he did it, and that's why Rice still isn't catching passes for the Niners today. T.O. made Jerry Rice - the greatest receiver in NFL history - expendable. Rice still is making plays with the Oakland Raiders as he nears age 40. But now Owens is in a world all his own as the best receiver in the NFL.

The Owens you will see in 2002 is not the first-team All-Pro Owens you saw in 2000 or the first-team All-Pro Owens you saw in 2001. He is better. We have watched Owens closely this summer, and - as hard as it might be to believe - he is bigger and stronger. And, most significantly, he is faster.

The latter factor is key in the Rice-Owens debate. Owens now has the speed to break away from defenders - Jerry Rice speed. Rice always could put it into another gear with the football in his hands. Owens has that now. And, of course, he has the supernatural body and the power that Rice never had. That nobody has.

You might read this and shake your head. Owens is unlikely to ever win four Super Bowls, like Rice did. But keep this in mind: Rice was surrounded by greatness with the Niners. He played his entire career with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He entered into a dynasty, became a major force within it and key factor for it, but the Niners were so good then that opponents hardly could concern themselves only with stopping Rice.

That isn't the case now. The Niners are getting closer to that level, but Owens still makes his magic mostly on his own. He carries the offense. Take Rice out of the offense, and the Niners still go to the NFC Championship Game in 1997. Take Owens out today, and the Niners suddenly would become a team that would have to rely on its defense to go anywhere.

When Rice and Owens take the field Saturday as opponents in the neighborhood exhibition clash between the 49ers and Raiders, nobody will question that Owens is the better receiver today. And here's what you're likely to see in 2002: He's the better receiver, period. And, if Owens plays 10 more seasons in the Niners' system, like Rice did, you might just see him approaching Rice's mind-boggling receiving records. You think there still will be any argument then?

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