Jerry Rice darted across the middle, caught a pass from Rich Gannon and raced into the open field, thrilling a charged-up crowd at San Francisco's 3Com Park on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Everyone was cheering—Raiders fans, 49ers fans, pregame honorees Brandi Chastain and her Bay Area CyberRays teammates—as the 38-year-old Rice enlivened the Battle of the Bay with a 23-yard reminder of his excellence.
Then Rice, preparing for his first season in Oakland after 16 glorious years in San Francisco, got hit, and the mood in the stadium turned from Hail Jerry to Hail Mary. One Niners defensive back, Pierson Prioleau, attacked Rice from the front, while another, Anthony Parker, smashed him from behind. There it was, a scary snapshot that summed up the queasy feeling shared by those who dare to watch preseason football: the greatest wide receiver in history at the mercy of two guys desperately trying to make a team.
Rice emerged no worse for wear, but fans who attend these excruciating exhibitions can't always say the same. Preseason games not only are the biggest rip-off in sports—NFL teams typically include them in season-ticket packages, at regular-season prices—but also are nerve-racking exercises. If you're a football fan, watching your team play in the preseason is like buying a new sports car and then letting your 16-year-old drive it home on the freeway in rush-hour traffic.
One big hit or one bad cut in one of these meaningless games, and a fan's hopes can be shredded. Remember Giants corner-back Jason Sehorn crumpling to the turf, done for the year, after tearing up his right knee while experimenting as a kick returner in a 1998 exhibition outing? Or Rams quarterback Trent Green taking a knockout shot to the knee in '99? It's no wonder that Ravens coach Brian Billick, already jittery after the training-camp knee injury that will sideline halfback Jamal Lewis for the season, endorsed the cancellation of Baltimore's Aug. 13 preseason game against the Eagles because he believed the turf at Veterans Stadium was unsafe. Embarrassing as that was to the league, at least the game provided one of August's more memorable moments, when HBO's cameras captured Billick complaining of a faulty headset and telling a stadium official, "I want to have somebody's ass in my briefcase when I leave here."
A sizable number of NFL junkies embrace these exhibitions as entertainment, apparently tantalized by the rush of seeing no-namers scramble for roster spots. The preseason is also, supposedly, an opportunity for fans to gauge a team's prospects for success in real games, though that's a dubious proposition. True, last year's Ravens went 4-0 in exhibition games before launching their Super Bowl drive, but so did the Chargers, who finished 1-15. On the flip side, the 1998 Cowboys followed an 0-5 preseason with an NFC East championship.
More bluntly, does anyone remember the unquestioned individual success story of the 2000 preseason? If you answered Ryan Leaf, go ahead and treat yourself to a trip to Mexico City—where Rice and the Raiders take on the Cowboys in another phony war next Monday.