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RICE IS REALLY COOKIN' : 49er Receiver Has Deceptive Speed, but His Abilities Are Perfectly Clear

December 13, 1987|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A man's reason is subverted by deceit as much as by violence.

--PLUTARCH, in "The Life of Solon."

Jerry Rice, the 49ers' high-scoring wide receiver, is a smiling, friendly, happy magician who, in his third season in the National Football League, is already within reach of two hallowed records.

They are:

--Most consecutive games, touchdown catches, 11.

If he scores with a 49er pass against the Chicago Bears here Monday night, Rice will also catch the two receivers who now share that record--Hall of Famer Elroy Hirsch of the Rams, 1950-51, and Buddy Dial of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 1959-60.

--Most touchdown catches, season, 18.

This has a can't-miss look for Rice, who, as one of the few 49er stars honoring the picket lines during the strike, has caught 15 for touchdowns in only 9 starts.

When Mark Clayton of Miami caught 18 in 1984, he broke a record set by Green Bay Hall of Famer Don Hutson, who scored with 17 passes in 1942. Hutson was later tied by Hirsch and two others.

Hirsch and Hutson. Fast company. But not, apparently, too fast for Rice, who is envied by offensive players as a great receiver and by defensive players as a great deceiver.

Deception makes him what he is, Rice said the other day--his deceptive speed and deceptive moves.

Running side by side with a defensive back, Rice, after moving his hips slightly, or maybe only his head, will suddenly burst into the end zone as the cornerback races toward the sideline.

Or, suddenly, Rice will shift into overdrive and leave the defensive back--a sprinter himself--three yards behind.

Rice calls it separation.

"You've got to separate yourself from the DB," he said, meaning the defensive back. "That's all it is.

"And I don't really know where the extra speed comes from that makes me do it. Watching myself (in the films), I keep surprising myself."

The scene has become familiar--Rice unexpectedly breaking away from a defensive player and making himself all alone on an otherwise crowded field as quarterback Joe Montana spins the ball into his hands.

Rice's acceleration after his final move, on any given pattern, is unique in football today.

"The thing that fools the DBs is that I'm taller than most receivers," said Rice, whose 200 pounds are spread over a frame of more than 6 feet 2 inches.

NFL receivers and defensive backs usually go 6 feet or less, and some of the best are about 5-10.

"Short persons have to take short steps," Rice said. "The cornerbacks think the receivers are moving fast--they look like they're moving fast--and the cornerbacks get used to that kind of speed.

"Then I come along, taking long steps, and it fools them. They think they have good position on me, the same position they'd have on a shorter guy, but suddenly I'm pulling away."

And because Montana is also having a big year, Rice has caught 50 passes thus far, for 855 yards, an average of 17.1.

The yardage he lost in the strike games will prevent him from matching last year's total, 1,570, which was the third-most in pro history.

It was, in fact, a champion's achievement if you exclude American Football League records. The leaders, Charley Hennigan of Houston, with 1,746 yards, and Hall of Famer Lance Alworth of San Diego, 1,602, both played in the old AFL.

Fast company. Whatever he does, Rice moves in fast company--as he has for most of his 25 years.

Born the son of a bricklayer in Crawford, Miss., Jerry was out in the country one day with a group of boyhood chums when they came across five or six horses standing quietly in a pasture.

Deciding to go for a ride, they climbed the fence and went after the horses.

"We chased them for an hour," Rice remembers. "When I caught one, I knew I was pretty fast. I celebrated by riding him the rest of the day."

Said teammate Ronnie Lott, the 49ers' Pro Bowl safety from USC: "Fifi has deceptive speed. He may be 4.6 on Tuesday and Wednesday, but he's 4.2 on Sundays."

Fifi?

That's one of Rice's nicknames. It honors his hairdo. He pushes his hair straight up--like Jim McMahon.

Or like a poodle, said Lott.

"Not that I really like this haircut, I just want to be different," Rice said. "That's my way. That's why I wore the Flash 80 towel for five games this year."

His uniform number is 80, and his favorite nickname is Flash, and that message, streaming out behind him on a white towel, insulted more than one of the defensive backs racing after him earlier in the season.

"I wasn't trying to show them up," he said. "It wasn't a reflection on opposing teams.

"The towel was me. I did it because the idea motivated me."

It did, that is, until the NFL told him to forget it--using the same uniform-rules interpretation that made McMahon get rid of the inscriptions on his headband two years ago.

"That's the NFL--but I still wear the sign," said Rice, lifting a leg and pointing to the bottom of his shoe. "See? Flash 80. It charges me up."

And as Rice charges away to still another touchdown, the defense can still see it. It still gets the message.

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