To his amazement Hearst saw one man closing in: teammate Dave (the Wave) Fiore, a 288-pound left tackle playing in his first NFL game. Fiore, an undrafted free agent from Hofstra who was released by the Jets a year ago after tearing up his left knee in training camp, kept up with Hearst until Owens relieved him for the final 50 yards. After Hearst flopped into the end zone, under pursuing linebacker Mo Lewis, Owens piled on top of them, followed by about 30 Niners. William Randolph Hearst couldn't have provoked more pandemonium. "Get the hell off me," Hearst told Owens. "I'm tired as hell."
"That was like the Immaculate Reception," Mariucci said. "It's going to go down as one of the biggest runs of all time."
Mariucci may have gotten a little carried away, but can you blame him? A year ago in Tampa, in his first game as an NFL coach, Mariucci watched in horror as Young sustained a career-threatening concussion and Rice went down with torn ligaments in his left knee. Rice responded by completing the fastest rehabilitation in league history. He returned for a Dec. 15 Monday-night victory over the Denver Broncos, catching his record 155th career touchdown—then broke his left kneecap when he was hit in the end zone by safety Steve Atwater.
Having been held out of the entire preseason by Mariucci, Rice was feeling fragile. Six days before the Jets game, he showed up for a final checkup at ActiveCare, the San Francisco clinic where he did the bulk of his rehab work. It was the anniversary of his knee injury in Tampa. "We should be popping champagne," physical therapist Lisa Giannone said, but Rice was far from bubbly. "Those guys are going to try to kill me," he said of the Jets defenders. "They're going to go for my knee, and I'm scared."
At practice that afternoon, hoping to test the knee, Rice asked 330-pound guard Kevin Gogan to tackle him. "No chance," Gogan replied. "I'm not going to be the guy who injures Jerry Rice." Later Rice told a reporter, "I'm looking forward to coming back, but if things don't go as planned, it will be so devastating."
The Jets weren't buying it. "I'm the one who should be scared," Glenn said from his Long Island town house last week. "Most receivers come at you a certain way, but Jerry changes his style for every defender, and mat's what makes him so dangerous."
Rice was tentative at times and never took the big hit he hoped would quell his fears. But mere were flashes of his old form, especially on the touchdown reception that got the Niners to within a point of the Jets late in the third quarter. Then San Francisco began to pay for its lack of offensive-line depth. Right tackle Derrick Deese had been forced from the game at halftime when anticramping medication upset his stomach. In came rookie Chris Ruhman, a third-round pick from Texas A&M, who was taken to school by linebacker Bryan Cox. The Niners' first two drives of the fourth quarter ended on sacks by Cox, who beat Ruhman to the outside both times.
The Jets also exposed San Francisco's defensive weaknesses, following a blueprint drawn by the Carolina Panthers in '96 and copied by the Green Bay Packers in last season's NFC title game. The Niners had the league's top defense last season and were ranked seventh in '96, but they've been vulnerable to offenses in which a quarterback takes three-step drops and hits his wideouts on quick slants. With cornerback Marquez Pope out with a back injury, San Francisco let the Jets' Glenn Foley complete 30 of 58 passes for 415 yards. New York's Keyshawn Johnson (nine receptions, 126 yards) caught two long scoring passes, both after coverage break-downs, and fellow wideouts Wayne Chrebet (six catches, 125 yards) and Dedric Ward (five catches, 96 yards) ran free most of the day. "Defending that kind of attack is a real weakness for us," said Niners defensive end Chris Doleman. "We've got to tighten up our coverages."
Until that happens, San Francisco will have a tough time overtaking the Packers, who held them without an offensive touchdown in winning last season's NFC title game 23-10. That game was especially painful for Hearst, who was rusty in his return from a collarbone break that occurred in a Nov. 30 defeat at Kansas City and was benched after gaining 12 yards on eight first-half carries. Having averaged a mere 2.2 yards per attempt during this year's exhibition season, Hearst and his linemen had something to prove against the Jets.
"We've heard so much s—about us not being able to run the ball," Hearst said. "I think our big boys got a little pissed off, and that's what made the last run so sweet."