Too Deep Zone: Jerry Rice, Rookie Bust
by Mike Tanier
Twenty-one years ago this week, Bill Walsh stood before the skeptical Bay Area media and defended a controversial decision. He told them that the 49ers' troubled rookie wide receiver would remain a starter despite several bad performances.
The rookie's name was Jerry Rice.
The 49ers, fresh off a victory in Super Bowl XIX, were 6-5 and fighting for their playoff lives. Joe Montana's passing numbers were off. Rice, the team's top draft pick, had 26 receptions in 11 games, but he also dropped 10 balls, some of them at the worst possible times. He was coming off a game in which he dropped two passes, fumbled once, and caught just one pass. Niners fans booed the rookie; local columnists made him the butt of jokes. Freddie Solomon, a respected veteran who caught touchdown passes in 10 straight games in 1984, had become the invisible man in the Niners offense while Montana and Rice played pitch 'n' drop.
But Walsh held his ground, supported Rice, and kept him in the weekly gameplan. "At some point, the boos will turn to cheers," predicted Walsh during a press conference on November 18th, 1985.
That point was only a few weeks away.
The Seductive Target
Legend has it that Walsh saw a television clip of Rice playing in a college game the day before a 1984 matchup between the 49ers and Oilers. Walsh was intrigued with what he saw. He began to scout the youngster from Mississippi Valley State, who was on his way to setting 18 NCAA records in Archie "Gunslinger" Cooley's spread offense. The Niners coach spoke at length with Cooley and became convinced that Rice was more than just a small-school, gadget-offense product. When Rice won the MVP award of the Blue-Gray game, Walsh's interest piqued. When the receiver was still on the board midway through the 1985 draft, Walsh traded three picks to move up and take him. A draftnik named Vinny DiTrani, writing for the Bergen Record at the time, gave the Niners a D+ for their draft efforts.
Rice was groomed as an immediate starter who would replace Solomon as soon as possible. He excelled in training camp. Facing perennial Pro Bowl corner Lester Hayes in a preseason game, Rice caught three passes for 49 yards, and he lost a 64-yard reception because he stepped out of bounds before the catch. Two weeks later, he caught five passes for 125 yards against the Chargers in another preseason game. In that game, the wise-beyond-his-years Rice noticed that cornerback Danny Walters was peeking into the backfield on the first two plays from scrimmage. Rice told quarterback Matt Cavanaugh to check off his primary receiver and look for him deep on the third play. The result was a 56-yard touchdown.
"When I was drafted out of Mississippi Valley State, the word was I had good hands, could get open and ran well when I got the ball," Rice said after the Chargers game. "But they also said I wasn't really a speed-burner. Today, though, I think I showed I can get down the field in a hurry."
Rice's scouting report appeared to be exactly wrong in the first weeks of the 1985 season. He averaged 18.2 yards per catch in his first three games, including a three-catch, 94-yard effort in a 34-10 win over the Raiders, demonstrating that he was a true deep threat despite his poor stopwatch speed. But against the Saints in Week 4, he dropped the only pass thrown to him. The Niners, 16-point favorites, lost to the lowly Saints 20-17 and fell to 2-2 (they also lost their season opener to the Vikings).
Rice was injured against the Saints; he separated his shoulder returning a kickoff. At the time, he was expected to miss two-to-four weeks. Some observers felt that the Niners would be able to return to their short-passing routes without the bomb-happy rookie in the lineup. Even assistant coach Paul Hackett felt that Montana was throwing too many long passes to his new receiver. "Rice is a seductive target for Joe," Hackett said after the Saints loss, noting that Montana was taking sacks while waiting for long passes to develop. "The most important thing for us is to play our game. If number one isn't open, and number two isn't open, let's hit number three, instead of thinking Jerry, Jerry, Jerry all the time."
Rice didn't miss any games. The next week, he caught three passes, including a 25-yard touchdown, in a win over the Falcons.
But Rice soon began to slump, dropping passes in losses to the Bears and Lions. He was often wide open when balls bounced off his hands. Walsh re-inserted Solomon as the starter, though Rice still played more snaps than the veteran. Rice's confidence began to wane. Rice dropped two passes and fumbled against the Chiefs in a game that the Niners won 31-3. The team coasted to a victory, but the rookie had what Walsh called "a personal crisis" on the sidelines. "We all had a visit with him," Walsh said, noting that veterans Dwight Clark and Solomon were doing their best to help Rice along. "He's a 21-year-old man going through a learning process."
Rice was learning, but the Niners were falling off the playoff chase. There was plenty of blame to go around. The aging defense wasn't mounting a pass rush. Halfback Wendell Tyler, who had beaten the fumbling habit in 1984, was back to his ball-dropping ways. Montana was at the center of unsubstantiated drug rumors. But the easiest guy to blame was the kid who cost the team several draft picks, the newcomer who replaced a productive veteran and dropped half the balls thrown to him.
The Judgment of History
Rice's rookie year was just two decades ago, but it's hard to picture the main characters in the drama as they were then. You just can't take those bronze busts off the wall and make them flesh-and-blood again.
Montana was a champion, and an All-Pro, but he was mortal, capable of bad games and slumps, vulnerable to newspaper speculation and talk-radio skepticism. Clark was just 28 and among the best receivers in the league. Roger Craig made his breakthrough that season, rushing and receiving for 1,000 yards each; for the first half of the season, though, he was the second option behind Tyler in the running game. Walsh was acknowledged as a top coach, but he still had to face the heat in press conferences after a loss, and his reputation as the NFL's great offensive innovator was not yet established. In fact, the term "West Coast Offense" wasn't used in San Francisco in 1985, though writers alluded to Walsh's short-passing system many times. The 49ers roster was filled with names like Fred Dean and Russ Francis. When they faced the Saints, the Niners defense had to stop an aging Earl Campbell.
And then there was the 21-year-old Rice. He spent so many years as the league's distinguished veteran that it's shocking to imagine him as a jittery rookie, one false move from the bench. It seems unfathomable that he was once Santonio Holmes or Chad Jackson. But in a San Francisco Chronicle article from late October of 1985, Tom FitzGerald compared Rice, unfavorably, to the other rookie wideouts from the class of 1985. Rice had 18 catches for 295 yards at that point. Eddie Brown of the Bengals had 29 catches for 469 yards. Gary Clark had 31 receptions, but he spent a year in the USFL. Rice only topped Al Toon, the first receiver taken in the draft, who had just eight catches at that point. "Rice may have to cook a little longer," FitzGerald concluded.
But while Rice was on the front burner, Solomon stewed. Solomon was a playoff hero in 1984, catching two postseason touchdown passes after hauling in 40 regular season passes. Just 10 months later, he was relegated to mop-up duty. He was a nominal starter, but Walsh would put Rice in the lineup after the first snap, using Solomon as a third wideout for the rest of the game. Solomon caught 10 passes in the Niners' first two games, then 10 more in their next nine. Columnists tittered that Rice's drop total was approaching Solomon's reception total.
There even seemed to be some dissension among the Niners coaches when Walsh stood before the media in that November press conference and defended his rookie wide receiver. Writer Charles Bricker quoted Hackett one day after the conference in the San Jose Mercury News: ''We thought initially that we could find the right balance between the use of Freddie and Jerry," he said. "But after the Raiders game, where Jerry did so well, we just thought he really had arrived. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way."
Hackett's statement contradicted Walsh's roundabout suggestion that Solomon was washed up. "I can only say so much about Freddie. It would be foolish if we weren't throwing him a lot of passes if he were open and catching them and running ... At some point, you don't play quite as well. You don't have quite the stamina you once had. You don't have quite the quickness you once had. We all have to face that. So, you have to take a stand squad-wise on those kinds of things."
Walsh saw the future; its name was Jerry Rice. But he also had the present to worry about, and his team was struggling to stay in playoff contention. "Walsh has made a lot of critical decisions in his seven years as coach of the 49ers -- some brilliant, some not so brilliant," Bricker wrote. "If the 49ers fail to make the playoffs this season after winning the Super Bowl, he might be severely judged by sports historians for his use of Solomon and Rice."
Footsteps and Gloves
For every pass that Jerry Rice dropped, there was another theory about why he dropped it.
In late October of 1985, the San Francisco Chronicle asked Archie Cooley about Rice's troubles. "The work habits in the pros have hurt him," Rice's college coach said. "He's a workaholic but they're not working him enough in practice ... Now, they just toss a few balls to him in practice and go in and look at films."
The same article quoted Walsh with a different theory: Rice was running for glory without securing the ball. "At Mississippi Valley, when he caught the ball, the next thing he'd be thinking of doing is spiking the ball (in the end zone), " Walsh said. In another interview, Walsh suggested that Rice was hearing footsteps.
And then there were the gloves. Rice was a bare-handed receiver in college, but Clark and Solomon wore gloves. "It made them look really distinctive," Rice said of his decision to emulate the successful veterans. Rice's gloves became the most scrutinized clothing items in the Bay Area for weeks, as Rice hemmed and hawed about keeping them. Finally, after the Chiefs game, the gloves came off. "I had to get back to my hands. My hands got me here."
The bare hands didn't help immediately. Just days after his head coach defended him, Rice had his worst game as a pro. In front of 57,000 fans in a Monday night game at Candlestick, Rice dropped three more passes. The Niners won, 19-6, thanks in part to a 27-yard touchdown catch by Solomon.
But Walsh didn't change his stance. Rice remained the starter. He took extra practice reps after the Seahawks game. Teammates stood by him. "Freddie Solomon helped me a lot," Rice said. "My teammates kept their confidence in me." Walsh and Hackett started looking for ways to get him the ball. Against the Redskins the next week, Rice took a reverse handoff and ran 77 yards for a touchdown. Unfortunately, the play was negated by a holding penalty. Rice didn't have a spectacular game, but the Niners won 35-8 and found themselves back in the playoff race.
Better than Anyone Else
Week 14 found the Niners facing the Rams in a game that would decide the NFC West. It was a huge game between two of the best teams in the conference. There would even be halftime entertainment: the rock band Starship performed their hit "We Built This City." Despite this, fan excitement was high.
Walsh and Hackett's pre-game script called for a healthy dose of Jerry Rice. Hackett later said that the game plan included "three or four specific plays," for Rice among the first 25. The first play couldn't be any more specific: the Niners opened the game with the same reverse that Rice ran the week before. Rice gained 44 yards this time. And again the gain was wiped out by a penalty. But three short receptions netted five, three, and 15 yards, and the five-yarder should have been much longer: Rice broke a tackle, but a referee signaled that his forward progress was stopped.
"After that, he got a hot hand," Hackett said after the game. "We kept using him because he was doing it better than everybody else." The Niners led 7-3 at halftime, but the Rams started the third quarter with a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. Later in the quarter, Montana, facing a heavy rush, rolled out of the pocket and saw Rice isolated against safety Nolan Cromwell. Cromwell was a Pro Bowl player, but it was still a mismatch. Rice hauled in a 66-yard touchdown to take the lead. Later in the game, Montana saw Rice singled-up on a cornerback and threw a 52-yard strike that led to a one-yard touchdown by Craig.
By the end of the game, Rice had 10 catches for 241 yards and a touchdown. The 241 yards broke a team record. Ironically, the Niners lost the game, but Rams defenders knew what Walsh knew: Rice was special. "I think the nickname that man's got, 'All-World' or whatever, is deserved," said Rams free safety Johnny Johnson after the game. "The man's got unbelievable speed and a great burst." Local writers who advocated for Rice's benching suddenly changed their attitudes. "Somebody say 'I told you so,' and get it over with," Kristin Huckshorn wrote in the Mercury News.
Rice had a big game, but could he repeat it? The rookie himself was sure he could. "I feel very comfortable and can go out there and just play my type of ball now," he said. "Everything just seems to be falling into place."
The following week, Rice gained 82 receiving yards against the Saints. In the season finale, he caught seven passes for 115 yards against the Cowboys. He even scored on a reverse that wasn't called back for a holding penalty. The touchdown padded a Niners lead that allowed them to clinch a Wild Card berth. By Christmas, Rice the disappointment had become Rice the viable Rookie of the Year candidate. Fellow receiver Eddie Brown took the AP honors, but Rice was named the NFC Rookie of the Year by UPI.
The Niners were bounced out of the playoffs early; Rice caught four passes for 45 yards in a 17-3 loss to the Giants. But they wouldn't be away from the Super Bowl for long.
A Forgotten Footnote
Twenty-one years and two days after Walsh stared down his critics and second-guessers and stuck with his troubled rookie, the 49ers will honor Jerry Rice, their greatest player ever, perhaps the greatest player ever.
The struggles of 1985 aren't even a distant memory. They are a forgotten footnote for most fans. Rice's season-ending numbers -- 49 catches, 927 yards -- obscure all evidence of a troubled rookie season. Only diehard fans, and perhaps Rice himself, truly remember that for a few months, his name was synonymous with dropped passes.
We can't judge Rice's critics too harshly. Most of the things that were said about Rice at the time were true. There were times when he hurt the team. The 49ers might even have won one or two more midseason games if Solomon had a larger role in the offense.
But no one was beating the Bears that year, and Walsh knew there was no reason to slow Rice's development so he could rent Solomon for a few more weeks. Walsh was swapping out the Clark-Dean-Francis Niners for the Rice-Craig-Charles Haley-Tom Rathman-Brent Jones Niners, rebuilding around Montana. By 1986, they were division champs again, despite an injury to Montana. In 1987, they were 13-2, winning their final three games 124-7. They were Super Bowl champs after the 1988 season, with Rice catching 11 passes in the victory over the Bengals.
Now, Rice is retired, Walsh is battling leukemia, and the Niners are preparing to move to the suburbs. It's a fitting time to remember the glory days. But we must always remember them as they really were. Rice didn't start his career with one foot in Canton. He really had one foot on a banana peel for most of his rookie season. The next immortal, the player we'll be writing about in 20 years, is probably battling for his job right now, dropping passes or fumbling and having personal crises on the bench. Jerry Rice remembers. And we remember.