Those words stung Rice. It's a confusing time for him. He railed at his young teammates in the locker room after a 24-6 loss in New Orleans on Nov. 14, saying they lacked passion. "I won't go out like this!" he yelled. He seems to be leaning hard toward retirement—in part because of the 49ers' woes, in part because of a nagging injury to his right kneecap, in part because age and infirmity have robbed him of his quickness off the line, in part because football has become a j-o-b. But he doesn't want to be pushed out of the game. He wants retirement to be his decision.
The more he talked after the loss to the Rams, the more his frustration poured out. "I think I've done enough around here in 15 years to see more opportunities than I saw today," he said. "I'm baffled. I realize the team is changing, but I mean, throw me a bone. It's hard to establish a rhythm when you have to wait so long to get a ball thrown to you. I have stressed to the coaches that I need to get a ball or two early to get in sync, but they don't look at me in the first quarter. If that's the game plan, let me know. After 15 years, I deserve that."
This season he has caught 39 passes for a paltry 350 yards, a pace that will leave him far short of the 1,000-yard mark he has reached routinely ever since his rookie year in 1985. Last week, for the first time, Rice spoke publicly about the possibility of finishing his career with another team. "I don't want to turn this into the Jerry Rice soap opera," he said. "But would I go somewhere else?" He paused for five seconds before answering, "If the right opportunity is mere."
If Rice wants to play next year, he may have no choice but to go somewhere else. Shown a copy of the San Francisco salary-cap sheet for 2000 last Friday, Rice shook his head in disbelief. The 49ers, who had to make huge cuts and do major restructuring of contracts last year to get under the league's $57-3 million cap limit, are $24,385,112 over the projected 2000 number. Rice's cap number next year is $7.69 million. Even if he doesn't play in San Francisco, he will cost the 49ers $5.95 million against the cap because once a player is traded or waived or retires, the prorated portion of his signing bonus comes due on the cap immediately.
"Man," Rice said, scanning the sheets, "we're $24 million over the cap, and it's not even the off-season yet. I always thought it was the right thing to get new guys in here year after year to help us win Super Bowls. Now I guess it's time to pay the piper."
San Francisco's cap troubles figure into Rice's decision-making. Who will be on this godforsaken team to play with him next year? The 49ers face hard decisions on underachieving defensive end Gabe Wilkins (2000 cap number: $5.10 million), center Chris Dalman ($4.77 million), guard Ray Brown ($3.49 million), safety Tim McDonald ($3.04 million) and linebacker Ken Norton Jr. ($2.97 million). Then there's the status of quarterback Steve Young, who despite a series of concussions has told the team he wants to play. His cap number next year is $8.1 million. If Young retires or the club cuts him, he'll still count $6.9 million against the cap. This team's cap was bloated beyond any reasonable limit by departed president Carmen Policy, following orders from former owner Eddie DeBartolo, who adopted a win-now philosophy when the cap was instituted in the early '90s. New general manager Bill Walsh gets an assist for reaching to sign fading stars like defensive end Charles Haley, whom the 49ers will almost certainly have to waive after the season. Haley's 2000 cap cost: $900,000. "The credit card bills are coming in," admits San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, "and it's time to pay them, unfortunately."
Everyone in Ninerland knows Rice may be among those on their way out. He has 1,178 catches (238 more than Art Monk, who's second on the alltime list), 17,962 receiving yards (3,958 more than No. 2 James Lofton) and 177 touchdowns (32 more than runners-up Marcus Allen and Emmitt Smith). "Retiring will be my decision," Rice said. "My surgically repaired knee is fine. The right knee [the one with cartilage damage behind the kneecap that doctors say they can't repair] is just not there, but it's improving. I'm at least 90 percent in the right knee. If I can't regain my form, it's time. If I can and if the fire's still there, I'll probably play."
On an off day a few weeks ago Rice was preparing for a round of golf at a Bay Area course when he felt a tap on the shoulder. "How's it going, old man?" Joe Montana said. The two laughed. Walking off the field in the twilight on Sunday, Rice wasn't laughing.
"I just don't know anymore," he said glumly. "I just don't know?'
Coaches Should Study the Clock