Breaking down Jerry Rice’s greatness

I made a guest appearance on a radio show in Miami today to talk about Jerry Rice’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. The segment was short, so I’m going to foist all my well-rehearsed lines on you. Four things I’ll always remember about Jerry Rice:

I was a young editor/writer working for NFL Publishing sometime around 1990 when I first got to see Rice in person. It was at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu, where I had the plum assignment of interviewing several players for future GameDay magazine stories in between sips of daiquiri.

Yes, Rice’s legendary work ethic was on display as I watched practice from the Aloha Stadium sidelines. The general mood among the players there ranged from mild excitement to utter lack of interest, but Rice, the superstar, went hard every play. It wasn’t just the sweat, though. It was the childlike exuberance with which he played the game.

I’ll never forget the sight of Jerry Rice breaking into a wide grin, or even a laugh, as he hauled in a pass in the end zone. Repeatedly. It was like he just couldn’t contain his happiness.

In the spring of 1997, a few months before Rice blew out his knee, I did a story on him and Cris Carter for an NFL preseason publication. After a couple weeks of serious chasing, I finally caught up to him at the San Francisco fitness club where he was training with famed exercise maven Lisa Giannone.

Rice was fun and courteous during the interview. But what I really remember is talking to cornerbacks like Eric Davis and Tim McKyer. The point they hammered home was that what made Rice great wasn’t his athletic ability or his hands (which were superb) or even his endurance (which was unparalleled). It was his deception.

Rice might have been running a down-and-out, an in, a post or a curl. Within the first six to eight yards off the line of scrimmage, they all looked exactly the same. Every other wide receiver would tip off his route, at least subtly – a body lean, a stutter-step. Not Rice. He ran them all the same way, and it gave him the element of surprise.

Rice was generally sweet-natured, but he could explode on reporters from time to time. And while his work ethic made him a great teammate, don’t be fooled – he had (has?) a huge ego.

It was 2004, and I was covering Rice with the Raiders. The team had fallen from the Super Bowl to a 4-12 disaster the year before, and was desperately trying to find its winning touch again. After losing their season opener at Pittsburgh, the Raiders returned home and put together a gritty 13-10 victory over Buffalo under new coach Norv Turner.

It was a nice moment for the Raiders, and the mood at the Oakland Coliseum was jubilant. Except for Jerry Rice, who saw his record-setting streak of consecutive games with a reception come to an end. While his teammates celebrated, Rice came off the field and angrily threw his helmet at the bench.

It was a petulant moment, but it demonstrated the fire that drove this guy.

You can’t measure a football player on numbers alone, though we in the media are constantly trying to do so. But just look at the gap separating Rice from other NFL receivers.

The GOAT finished his career with 1,549 catches for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. All of them, of course, are NFL records. Marvin Harrison is second in receptions, with 1,102. Isaac Bruce is second in yardage, with 15,208. And Randy Moss is second in TDs, with 148. The difference, then: 447 catches for 7,687 yards and 49 touchdowns.

Those are big numbers. How big? They’re very close to the career statistics of Haven Moses, Anthony Carter or Reggie Rucker. Take Carter, a dangerous speed receiver who personally destroyed the 49ers in a 1987 playoff game. He retired with 486 receptions for 7,763 yards and 55 touchdowns, not far from the Rice Differential.

So look at it this way: Take Jerry Rice’s career and compare it to a composite of three of the most productive receivers ever – and you still have to add Anthony Carter to make it even. That’s why Rice promises to steal the show at Canton tomorrow.

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