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The NFL
Peter King
November 29, 1999
Sinking Fast Aging Jerry Rice is going down with the 49ers' once-proud ship
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November 29, 1999

The Nfl

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YEAR

ATL.

MADE

PCT.

1994

116

59

.509

1995

104

40

.385

1996

92

44

.478

1997

109

47

.431

1998

105

41

.390

1999

56

19

.339

TOTALS

582

250

.430

THE BEST

TEAM

ATT.

MADE

PCT.

1. Cardinals

15

15

.733

2. Vikings

25

16

.640

3. Panthers

11

7

.636

THE WORST

TEAM

ATT.

MADE

PCT.

1. Giants

14

3

.214

2. Jets

18

4

.222

3. Dolphins

34

9

.265

Sinking Fast
Aging Jerry Rice is going down with the 49ers' once-proud ship

The legend leaned forward in his chair in a 49ers meeting room last Friday and balled his fists up. He was edgy, anxious. What he said seemed so sad. So wrong. So unbelievable.

"Over the years," Jerry Rice said passionately, "I have always—always—been a factor. Now it's like I'm not there. Now maybe I get one ball in the first half, two or three in the second half. To not be a factor, that's the toughest thing."

Then the leading pass receiver in NFL history leaned back and smiled, apparently accepting his fate, his bald head moist from the 49ers' last practice of the week, the diamond stud in his left ear glistening in the soft light. That is what's so weird about the decline of Jerry Rice: He's impassioned about his future one minute, accepting the next. He is not the same man who has so consistently dripped intensity. "I always thought that when you started thinking about football as a job," Rice said, "it was time to get out."

"Is that what you're thinking?" he was asked.

"I am," he said, smiling ruefully. "Football's become a j-o-b."

No one imagined that the 49ers would sink to the bottom of the NFL and take the 37-year-old Rice with them, but it is happening before our eyes. He is Mickey Mantle with the Yankees in 1967, Wayne Gretzky with the Rangers last spring, maybe the greatest football player of his generation finishing badly, his team and his talent failing him.

On Sunday it came to this for Rice against the NFC West-leading Rams: single coverage the entire game, and loose coverage at that, by a third-year cornerback named Dexter McCleon. Of the 26 plays from scrimmage that the Niners ran in the first half, one pass came in Rice's direction, an eight-yard crossing route from Steve Stenstrom. The ball hit Rice in his tacky gloves. Instead of tucking the ball in, he juggled it, and McCleon knocked it away.

Early in the third quarter Rice caught a quick slant for 12 yards against McCleon, but he dropped another pass that hit him in his gut. In the fourth quarter, with San Francisco down 23-7 and well on the way to its sixth straight loss, he snagged a pair of garbage-time passes. All told, Stenstrom and the other inept Niners quarterback, Jeff Garcia, threw six balls in Rice's direction. Rice caught three, for 23 yards. He dropped two. The other was intercepted.

Afterward, McCleon, who against the Lions on Nov. 7 had cost his team a victory when he was torched for a 57-yard gain on fourth-and-26 in the last 90 seconds, said it felt good to have beaten Rice. "All respect to Jerry? McCleon said. "But if this is the last game of his great career that he plays against the Rams, I can always say I got the best of him."

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