Although Montana missed all last season because he was recovering from elbow surgery, Rice still had 80 receptions and caught a league-high 14 TD passes. But then Rice has been startlingly productive for a decade, beginning with his three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (1982 through '84) at Mississippi Valley State, where he played in Division I-AA obscurity. Then one Saturday in October 1984, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh flipped on the TV to watch college football, saw Rice on the highlights and took notice. "The hands, the body, the speed," Walsh recalls. "What an absolutely majestic football player."
Most scouts wrote off Rice because his achievements came mostly against overmatched competition. Walsh, however, drafted him in the first round in 1985. As Rice enters his eighth season, he is universally regarded as the best wideout in the game. "They call Michael Jordan, Jesus in tennis shoes," says Irvin. "Jerry Rice is Jesus in cleats."
The deification of Rice became complete in January 1989, when he tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches against the Cincinnati Bengals and broke the mark for receiving yards, with 215. That performance, which earned Rice the game's MVP award, put wideouts over the top in terms of their ability to dominate a game. And his new $7.8 million, three-year contract, a deal reached only after he held out from the Niner training camp until Aug. 25, confirmed his place among the game's most valued players. He is now the highest-salaried nonquarterback in pro football history.
Other wideouts who followed Rice's lead in passing up most or all of camp in a bid to cash in on their newfound worth included Irvin, Rison, Curtis Duncan of the Oilers, Brian Blades of the Seattle Seahawks and Webster Slaughter of the Cleveland Browns. But back in June, when he was replaying the Redskin game tape, Irvin set aside thoughts of his earning potential and instead delivered a poignant reaction to one of the best games of his life. By nature a quote machine when he's around the press, Irvin has been known to boast about his talents. But he'd been watching himself on tape for 90 minutes, and the bragging had given way to a nuts-and-bolts commentary.
"It's tough to cover any wideout now," Irvin said, as he looked at his image freeze-framed on the screen. "I'm not fast by any means, but I know where I'm going, and I know how to use my body, and Darrell has to adjust to me. If the ball's thrown well, and I'm on anybody in single coverage, I'm going to catch it. So will most receivers.
"But we're getting more passes now. Every team's got that one serious, serious pass-rushing linebacker, and most offenses are using their tight end to try to help the line block him. And the running backs who used to catch a lot of passes have to stay in on third down to keep up with the blitzes and the stunts. Most times they don't even get to run routes out of the backfield. Teams are loading up to stop the run, too. They're using these eight-man fronts, with linebackers and safeties clogging the line. They rush guys, like [Lion nosetackle] Jerry Ball, who are as strong as an ox. You've got to have help blocking them. If you don't take care of these things, you're going to get your quarterback killed.
"You've got all these things happening around the ball," said Irvin in summary, "and if the quarterback wants to pass, he has to look upfield in a hurry. He has to go to his wideouts more."
So the receivers are good, and they're critical to the success of the offense. Nice marriage—and a necessary one. The receivers have to be exceptional because the overall quality at quarterback has stagnated. The five premier signal-callers in the game are Montana, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Warren Moon and Dan Marino. Their average age is 33, and none is younger than 30. Where are the promising young ones? Aikman, Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles and Chris Miller of the Falcons might represent the next generation of superior signal-callers, but they all have histories of injuries, and they have a combined total of one playoff win in 15 seasons. That outstanding new quarterbacks aren't coming along and that so many teams are continually on the lookout for even a good one make today's wideouts seem all the more skilled at catching the ball.
This shift to the Receivers Game began 15 years ago when offenses in the NFL went into an alltime snooze. In 1977 only two of the 28 teams averaged three touchdowns a game. The leading passer, Roger Staubach of Dallas, threw for only 2,620 yards. The average score for a Falcon game was 13-9. So after the season the owners made two significant rule changes to unchain offenses: 1) Linemen would be allowed to use their hands to fend off onrushing defenders. 2) Defensive players would be able to bump receivers only within five yards of the line of scrimmage. "The rule changes," says Tampa Bay Buccaneer defensive coordinator Floyd Peters, "brought the little guys back into football. There was a place for the little guy because, except at the line, he couldn't get beat up anymore. For the secondary, the game became like basketball on grass. Quickness became everything."
Wide receivers benefited immediately. And coaches who had the personnel to take advantage of the liberalized blocking and coverage rules—Walsh, Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tom Flores of the Los Angeles Raiders—built passing games that became the centerpieces of championship offenses. Before long, defensive coaches devised alignments to counter these wide-open attacks. Chicago Bear coordinator Buddy Ryan drew up the 46 defense, the object of which was to pummel quarterbacks with a lightning-quick rush. College teams saw this, and they started moving big, quick players like Cornelius Bennett and Mike Croel to outside linebacker and defensive end so that these players could chase the new breed of mobile quarterback. Soon, NFL teams were seeking budding Lawrence Taylors to turn loose on quarterbacks.