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.


40 comments, Last at 31 Jul 2007, 7:37pm

#1 by throughthelook… (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 4:00pm

First! excellent article.

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#2 by NewsToTom (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 4:11pm

"Marconi plays the mamba / listen to the radio"

Good piece, Mike, thanks. My impression has been that the Randy Moss Experience dramatically increased the expectations for rookie WRs, but judging from Rice's critics, this doesn't seem to be the case. Does anybody have the same impression I did? Is there/should there be conventional wisdom that says WRs aren't good before their second year in the NFL/pros?

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#3 by DGL (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 4:16pm

So first I have Farrar insinuating the Bangles into my head every Monday morning, and now Tanier sticks a gratuitous Starship reference into an otherwise excellent article. Damn you, Outsiders! Bring back Aaron's throwaway references to obscure late 80's alt-rock bands before I drive nails into my scalp to get these songs out of my head!

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#4 by RecoveringPackerFan (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 4:30pm

2: I've always heard that year three is supposed to be the breakout year for receivers.

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#5 by Dr. I Like Sta… (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 4:34pm

Wow. Great article; gives this Steelers fan a little more hope in Santonio Holmes.

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#6 by Marko (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 4:47pm

Excellent article. I remember first reading about Jerry Rice while he was in college, where he teamed with QB Willie "Satellite" Totten in one of the most explosive QB-receiver combinations in college history. I also remember reading about how scouts questioned his speed before the draft. Those scouts turned out to be so wrong; I can't really recall anyone running him down from behind. He was one of those players who played a lot faster than his mediocre 40 times would indicate.

I lived in the Bay Area in 1985 and (as a Bears fan) remember feeling that the Niners got a steal in moving up to draft Rice. That trade to get Rice was one of the great draft day moves and certainly helped cement Walsh's reputation as a genius, not just in calling plays but also in wheeling and dealing in the draft and seemingly always having great drafts.

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#7 by Pacifist Viking (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:02pm

Troy Williamson: future "Greatest WR ever"

(curling up in a ball in my office)

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#8 by Joseph (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:13pm

As a Saints fan, makes me wonder what the ceiling is for Marques Colston. BTW, Aaron noted in Quick Reads that Colston leads all receivers in DPAR. The big reason why--noted somewhere in is the fact that Colston leads all receivers with 20! conversions on 3rd/4th down. Nobody else has more than 16. (Hope Bengals don't learn this till after Sunday)

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#9 by Independent George (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:17pm

So, you're saying that Jerry Rice had deceptive speed?

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#10 by The Ninjalectual (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:18pm

The 49ers might even have won one or two more midseason games if Solomon had a larger role in the offense.

I always wonder which potential Jerry Rices don't get that vote of confidence from a coach who is himself battling to keep his job. What if the Saints held on to Stallworth and Colston never got in the game? We're lucky Mangini decided to let Cotchery start in NY and keep the veteran McCairens in the slot. And as a Redskins fan, I've been dreading the day Parcells finally lets Crayton play.

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#11 by DavidH (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:19pm

There would even be halftime entertainment: the rock band Starship performed their hit “We Built This City.� Despite this, fan excitement was high.

I hope this was intentional, because it cracked me up.

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#12 by Yaguar (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:20pm

4: There's nothing really that magical about the third year. Receivers just tend to reach their top level around then, give or take a year or two. A second-year breakout is just as common.

Some second-year guys, off the top of my head: Torry Holt, Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Chad Johnson, Plaxico Burress. The most incredible second year breakout ever belongs to Isaac Bruce, who had 272 yards and 3 touchdowns in his first season, and 1781 yards, 13 touchdowns in his second.

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#13 by Becephalus (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:23pm


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#14 by underthebus (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:38pm

#7 lol
Great article. It read like a Beyond The Glory, kudos!

It reminds me of that old saying, the more things change the more they stay the same. It's interesting how quickly the critics came out against Rice and how similar it is to today. So even 20 years ago there was an 'Instant History'. You know, the media view of whatever took place yesterday in sports is generally the most important thing to ever happen. I've always thought that was a more recent development in the sports media (and general media) due to the proliferation of information from the internet.

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#15 by throughthelook… (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 5:42pm

And he's a fan favorite!

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#16 by Kal (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 6:24pm

There would even be halftime entertainment: the rock band Starship performed their hit “We Built This City.� Despite this, fan excitement was high.

Heh, heh, heh.

Great article.

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#17 by Kellerman (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 6:25pm

When talking about great rookie WR seasons don't forget Cris Collinsworth 1981 67-1009, 8 TD then 5-107 in SB XVI.

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#18 by Tighthead (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 6:54pm

I remember JJ Stokes being lauded as a rookie.

Cowboys fans would put Jimmy Smith in the "didn't get that boost from the coach" category.

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#19 by Dave (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 7:28pm

Very good article. This is just another example of how sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed. And the real test of a person or player is how they handle that failure. Its safe to say that Rice handled it as well as he could have.

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#20 by cowfez (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 7:47pm

Who else sees Brees seemingly throwing the same passes to Colston that he used to throw to Gates? Looks like the same plays to me, although I've pretty much only seen the highlights.

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#21 by Noble (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 8:06pm

Great article.

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#22 by BillWallace (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 8:39pm

Cool, I didn't know any of this stuff, as I didn't really start watching NFL until 87-88 when Rice was already unstoppable.

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#23 by paytonrules (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 9:22pm

This is an awesome article. It's funny how despite the lessons of history we keep doing the same things over and over again - has anybody written off Reggie Bush yet?

Does this mean David Terrell is good? :)

Reminds me of a certain other slow starting rookie - 0 yards on 8 carries.

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#24 by Pat (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 10:46pm

Is there/should there be conventional wisdom that says WRs aren’t good before their second year in the NFL/pros?

Absolutely. Weirdly, though, rookie WRs only tend to perform well in their first year in a few areas in the draft: middle (10-20) first and second round draft picks.

It's because there's one other problem with rookie WRs: high (in their round) draft picks are on bad teams, and low (ditto) are on teams that are good enough that they probably don't need them, nor will they likely be happy with the production that a rookie gives, and will likely replace him with a veteran (see Chad Jackson this year, for instance) given that they're on a run for the playoffs.

In other words, rookie WRs sometimes perform badly simply because they're never really given the opportunity.

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#25 by Brian (not verified) // Nov 17, 2006 - 10:49pm

Shows you just how rare a breakout first season is for WRs. Any team that drafts a reciever #1 needs to wait at least 3 years before calling him a bust. Unfortunately, the pressure on GMs won't let that happen anymore. I wonder how many future Jerry Rices we're missing out for it?

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#26 by DrewTS (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 12:42am

Screw the lot of you. We built this city on rock and roll, and if you don't like it, you can go back to Russia.

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#27 by socalmikey (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 1:24am

Very nice article Mike. Some comments from an old fart. As Georgia and her henchman John Shaw had already screwed the Rams enough that I could no longer be a Rams fan anymore I had changed my faves to the Walsh/Montana 49s. When the 49's moved up 3 slots (1 above the Boy's)to draft Rice I was elated at the time with his future potential (and the fact he wasn't a 'boy). I don't recall the 85 season very much (likely due to the darn aging process all of us are in for) except for the Bears, McMahon and the Fridge (picked 6 picks later) so thanks again for this article to remind me that even hall of famers can have suckypoo rookie seasons.

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#28 by Bobman (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 1:32am

9, 15 Does Jerry Rice know he's white?!

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#29 by NY expat (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 1:41am

Nice article. So any chance of a next step where you compare some metric like percentage of balls thrown to the receiver that get caught (in college) to DPAR in the pros?

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#30 by Marko (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 2:14am

"When the 49’s moved up 3 slots (1 above the Boy’s)to draft Rice I was elated at the time with his future potential (and the fact he wasn’t a ‘boy)."

They didn't move up 3 slots - they moved up 12 slots, from 28 to 16. (Maybe you were confused by the part of the article saying they traded 3 picks to move up and take him.)

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#31 by D (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 2:59am

This article raises a very important question; how is that a band as cool as Jefferson Airplane could devolve into a band that wrote some of the most aweful songs of all time?

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#32 by princeton73 (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 9:51am

how is that a band as cool as Jefferson Airplane could devolve into a band that wrote some of the most aweful songs of all time?

they stopped doing drugs

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#33 by DrewTS (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 11:34am

Re 30

Oh, cut him a break. He just admitted to having a faulty memory.

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#34 by Podge (not verified) // Nov 18, 2006 - 1:34pm

RE #24.

Yes, and some are drafted by the Jaguars.

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#35 by hector (not verified) // Nov 20, 2006 - 11:46am

I hear you, 32. Kids, "drugs are very, very bad" unless you're a rock band, say like Aerosmith. Then drugs are very, very good.

Is Gregg Williams still guaranteed the post-Gibbs head coaching job even when his defense stinks?

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#36 by Mike B. (not verified) // Nov 20, 2006 - 1:44pm

#35 -

It's Snyder. No one is guaranteed anything, but having Williams as his coach would be a suitable reward...

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#37 by Spielman (not verified) // Nov 24, 2006 - 3:37pm

This article raises a very important question; how is that a band as cool as Jefferson Airplane could devolve into a band that wrote some of the most aweful songs of all time?

They didn't write the particular song in question; Bernie Taupin did. Of course that fact merely spawns another very similar question...

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#38 by Ashley Tate (not verified) // Jul 31, 2007 - 11:50am

#14, File under "things that never change":

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.
- Thomas Jefferson

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#39 by Nathan S (not verified) // Jul 31, 2007 - 4:14pm

Excellent article! Really provides some perspective on historical perception versus current point of view.

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#40 by Nathan (not verified) // Jul 31, 2007 - 7:37pm

just as good as the first time, this is why i come here.

Points: 0

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