Last October, I read the most cruel example of sports journalism I hope I ever run across. Soon after the Seahawks acquired Jerry Rice from the Oakland Raiders, ESPN.com’s Skip Bayless took Rice to task for daring to have a desire to play in the NFL beyond the point at which Bayless himself decreed that Rice was done. Beyond the colossal arrogance it must take for a sports journalist who has never spent a moment between the lines to insist that one of the two or three greatest football players of all time should adhere to HIS expiration date, the article was riddled with inaccuracies (the number of consecutive games in which Rice caught a pass, the date on which Koren Robinson began his four-game, NFL-mandated substance abuse suspension) and left this reader with an enormously bad taste.
That bad taste was rendered moot when I read the most recent “Monday Morning Quarterback” by CNNSI’s Peter King, a far more eloquent and sympathetic voice. King related, verbatim, a fax that recently came into his possession. This fax was sent to all 32 NFL teams by Jim Steiner, Rice’s agent:
To: All NFL Clubs
From: Jim Steiner
Subject: The GOAT (Greatest of All-Time), Jerry Rice
Jerry would like to make 2005 his last year in the NFL. Any takers?? Please call if you think there might be a fit!''
It is one thing for an athlete and person of Jerry Rice’s quality to be upbraided by a pseudo-journalist of Bayless’ alleged “caliber”. But when the agent of a demigod is reduced to trolling for roster handouts…well, the world has turned at least one click in the wrong direction.
Nobody wants to see Rice reduced to a self-parody – it would be far to unseemly for him to suit up and fall flat on his face. We’ve seen too many fallen immortals throughout sports history – Babe Ruth with the Boston Braves, Willie Mays with the New York Mets, Johnny Unitas with the San Diego Chargers – and it hurts every time. But Rice is no broken-down, has-been cheeseburger junkie looking to fill a suit that would need serious tailoring. He’s one of the most ridiculously well-conditioned athletes of all time. He can still run the hills, and make some of the plays, that many players 15 years his junior can’t.
When he was released by Seattle on February 25 – at his request – Rice said that he still had some football left in him. Whether the NFL shares that view is up in the air. As Steiner told King, "He thinks if he was 31, he'd be in the league and have a good job. But because he's 42, he feels like, 'Nobody wants me.' It's an age thing.''
His 2004 season in Seattle made a decent argument that Jerry Rice’s age 42 is not normal. Playing in 13 games for the Seahawks, he caught 25 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns. On the surface, such incongruous numbers from the Ultimate Wide Receiver would seem to intimate that the rumblings regarding his NFL passing were accurate.
A look beyond the stats tells a very different story. Part of the reason that Rice was acquired by Seattle was to provide some sort of nebulous “mentorship” to erstwhile man-child Robinson, as well as valuable reserve reliability should Robinson’s life and season head South yet again. Which, of course, it did. Robinson was unavailable to the Seahawks from the November 21 st game against Miami (suspended by the team) through his four-game substance abuse suspension – playing next against the Cardinals on December 26 th, a game in which he caught no passes.
Through that six-game o-fer on Robinson’s part, Rice caught 21 passes for 332 yards and all three of his touchdowns. And when Robinson returned, only to be suspended by the team yet again before the regular-season finale against the Falcons for missing a New Year’s Day walkthrough, Rice was the forgotten man. In the last three games of the Seahawks’ season (including the first-round playoff loss to the Rams), Rice was essentially used as a decoy, and did not catch one pass. But again, this was not a player with nothing left in the tank - as King pointed out, his 14.5 yards-per-catch average in 2004 was his highest since 1995.
More than his own supposedly diminishing facilities, Rice was an unwitting – and unwilling - victim of Mike Holmgren’s inexplicable co-dependent relationship with Robinson. He proved capable of at least a position in the slot. He had demonstrated that he still had enough skill to help if he was utilized correctly.
Now, it seems as if no team knows what to do with Jerry Rice.
His first attempt at resuscitation was with the 49ers, the team with which he became the most prolific wideout in NFL history from 1985 through 2000. Once again, bad timing constrained his continuation. San Francisco was coming off a 2-14 record in 2004 and a complete shakeup in their front office. Had Rice come back when ex-coach Dennis Erickson was at the helm and owner John York was still conducting seminars in mismanagement, Rice’s return would have been a link to the team’s dynastic past, a welcome distraction and a sure attendance-booster. But with new coach Mike Nolan in charge and a renewed (and entirely valid) commitment to success through youth, Rice had no place in the Bay Area.
Earlier this month, Nolan reaffirmed his position on the subject. “I stand in the same place I’ve stood all along,” Nolan said. “Jerry Rice is the best receiver ever to play the game. Certainly the best 49er, best ever. That goes without saying. Right now, as a 49er, we’d love to have him retire as a 49er, but our focus is going to be on our young players and developing those guys, and we don’t want to do anything to take away from the guys we’ve got here on our roster.”
Nolan went on to say that if Rice wished to re-join the team for one day to retire as a 49er, this would be the only way he’d suit up in San Francisco again.
Since then, according to King’s article, Steiner and Rice have been in contact with two teams that may have some interest. One of those two teams apparently offered Rice the opportunity to come in and try to earn a spot as a third or fourth receiver. But the fax that Steiner sent out to every team speaks to the idea that his client is looking for more. "Jerry didn't ask me to do it,” Steiner said. “I'd never think about doing it, except in this case, where I know Jerry would like to play. I did it to put the clubs on notice that, under the right circumstances, Jerry would like to play this year. I did it to create awareness, for now and in the near future, that he's still thinking about playing.”
Steiner did say that Rice is conflicted about the idea of playing his last season in a new environment. “His reservation right now is that he'd have to put on a different uniform, which he is a bit twisted about. But his desire to play may drown that reservation.''
Wherever that desire takes him, it is this writer’s opinion that Jerry Rice has one more good season left. And he’s doing it for the purest reasons – he already has all the championships, records, money and acclaim that any athlete could dream of. Now, for him, it is the love of the game and another chance to trick Father Time that drives Jerry Rice.
Such singular motivation, combined with a talent that has not yet run dry, could help the team that takes a chance.
He knows he’s never going to set the pace again, but Jerry Rice deserves to close the door to one of the most amazing careers in the history of football on his own terms.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.