The 49 Steps
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The 49 Steps

Remembering when Jerry Rice Scored 23 Touchdowns in a Strike Year

Jerry Rice and mind-boggling statistics were always a perfect NFL marriage. He retired in 2005 and still owns every credible receiving record on the books. Yet of all his achievements, the league’s all-time receptions and receiving-yardage leader may be most proud of what he did back in 1987.

That was the year Rice scored 23 touchdowns. A good number in any season, but one scarcely believable during a strike year when he was limited to just 12 games with the San Francisco 49ers. Rice was entering his third season in the Bay Area, but there had already been hints of the greatness to come. He’d finished his sophomore campaign as the NFL’s receiving leader after hauling in 86 catches for 1,570 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Those numbers were proof positive of what Niners’ head coach Bill Walsh had seen in the relatively unheralded prospect from Mississippi Valley State. Walsh first cast an eye over Rice in 1984, ahead of a 1985 draft set to be loaded with gifted wideouts. Eddie Brown and Al Toon were considered the prized gets, with Rice creeping onto the radar of a few teams but still escaping the notice of most.

Serendipity had as much to do with Walsh going against the grain as intuition and a natural affinity for spotting talent:

Walsh was in his Houston hotel room the night before a 1984 game with the Oilers, fighting to stay awake. He might have lost that battle had he not heard a TV talking head promise some extraordinary highlights from a living legend named Jerry Rice. ‘That caught my attention and I sat up to take a look at this ‘living legend.’’ Walsh later wrote.

That fortuitous bit of late-night viewing has become the stuff of legend in NFL folklore. There were actually a few more steps between Walsh spotting something in Rice and the 49ers finally calling his name on draft day.

One of those steps involved pinning down the root cause for Rice’s prolific numbers at the collegiate level. To get the full skinny, the Niners went to Rice’s college coach, Archie Cooley. He’d run a “gimmicky, spread-the-field passing offense that often ran up the score” at MVS.

The research prompted Walsh to trade up from 28th to 16th to pick Rice. He paid a modest fee, a second-round pick and a third-round choice, to the New England Patriots. Scandalously, not only did the Pats give away the pick that eventually became Rice. They also forked over their own third-rounder, presumably just to be nice.

Walsh’s good fortune wasn’t over yet though. He got the ultimate lucky break when he decided to make his former offensive coordinator, Sam Wyche, then head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, an offer:

Brown’s stock slipped and he was still available when the Bengals were on the clock at 13. With 30 seconds left before the Bengals time ran out, Wyche got a call from Walsh about Brown and offered a trade involving the swapping of 1st-round picks. If Wyche had accepted it, it’s very possible Brown would have wound up a 49er and Rice would have ended up a Bengal.

(NFL Films, 2015).

Wyche explained the would-be deal on an episode of the brilliant series, Caught in the Draft. He also wanted a third-round pick from the 49ers before he’d sign off on swapping the firsts. Walsh would only offer a fifth, so the Bengals stayed put and chose Brown. Toon had already been taken 10th-overall by the New York Jets, leaving Walsh with only one choice. It was just a happy coincidence that choice was to pick the greatest wide receiver of all time.

The fates had conspired to give Walsh the perfect weapon for his West Coast offense. It was a scheme based on substituting running plays for short passes, primarily by turning those short passes into longer gains with yards after the catch. That was Rice’s forte because he had a knack for hitting the accelerator once the ball was in his hands. He was also a natural at running the slant pattern, possessing both the instant first step and forceful running power needed to win on inside routes.

Ironically, given how Rice would build his legend turning five-yard catches into 50-yard touchdowns, he was originally touted to gobble up those longer gains in one go. At least, according to Michael Janofsky of The New York Times:

Rice set 15 Division I-AA records and should enable the 49ers to ease out Renaldo Nehemiah as their prime deep threat.

Whatever the original intention for using Rice was, the 49ers weren’t instantly transformed by his arrival. He joined an ageing roster that had peaked during a Super Bowl-winning season in 1984. Now Walsh needed to replace stalwarts like Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon. Rice proved to be the answer, but he wasn’t enough to stop quarterback Joe Montana suddenly looking worryingly brittle.

The New York Giants beat seven shades out of Montana to cap the 1985 and ’86 seasons with humbling playoff defeats at the Meadowlands. They were both 10-win campaigns for Walsh, but nobody was mistaking those 49ers for champions elect. Things would be different when Rice broke out in 1987.

He began the season in fine fettle, unlike the 49ers, who slipped to a 30–17 defeat on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite Rice making eight catches for 106 yards and a score. His brilliance provided the winning edge a week later when Montana connected with №80 from 25 yards out with 0:02 to break Wyche’s heart in Cincinnati.

That score was Rice’s second during a 27–26 win. Then the air went out of football.

Players wanted to force league commissioner Pete Rozelle to remove his own rule and pave the way for true free agency. The “Rozelle Rule” meant if a player switched teams his former club would get draft picks or even a few veterans in return. Having to give up future currency or present-day value naturally deterred teams from allowing player movement.

The response from the NLFPA was to follow the same playbook as in 1982, when strike action eliminated seven games from the schedule. Those taking to the picket lines rolled the dice that television networks wouldn’t show so-called “scab” football. It backfired.

Rozelle cancelled Week 3 but soon had replacement players lined up to shoulder the burden. It lasted three weeks, during which time several star names (including Montana) crossed those picket lines and re-suited up for their employers.

The strike didn’t achieve its aim, although it likely forced the league to adopt Plan B, sort of like free agency with training wheels. This arrangement allowed teams to leave 10 veterans unprotected and therefore free to find new homes. It usually meant only the dregs of a roster were available, but there were some notable departures in Plan B, including when Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig left Rice and the Niners to join the Oakland Raiders ahead of the 1991 season.

Back in ’87, though, all anybody cared about was returning to football with most of the season still salvageable. For Rice, that meant picking up where he’d left off, even though he didn’t really begin to zero in on history until Week 10.

Rice scored touchdowns covering 46 and 50 yards during a home defeat to then-NFC West rival the New Orleans Saints. It was the beginning of a monster five-week scoring binge.

Three more touchdown catches followed against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before Rice grabbed another hat-trick to beat the Cleveland Browns. He was quieter when the 49ers went to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers, but Rice still turned one of his four catches for 90 yards into a 57-yard touchdown.

Three more trips to the end zone were Rice’s highlights amid a 41–0 beatdown of the Chicago Bears. Those scores gave Rice a piece of history that lasted nearly three decades.

https://twitter.com/RLiuCBS/status/678727283365007362

There was more history, as noted by Ken Thomas in his American Football Book 6 for Channel 4:

His total of 18 touchdown receptions in a single season now matched that of Miami’s Mark Clayton (1984), and by catching at least one touchdown pass in eleven consecutive games he equalled the record shared by Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch (1950–51) and Buddy Dial (1959–60).

Something else was significant about those scores vs. the Bears. Specifically, who had thrown the passes Rice’s way. Not Montana, but his anything-but-patient understudy, Steve Young.

Walsh had traded second and fourth-round picks to encourage the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to give Young away. In doing so, Walsh devilishly lit the fuse for a fiery and bitter quarterback controversy that defined the 49ers for the next six years.

The ’87 season was the birth of that controversy when Young “was insanely efficient on 69 pass attempts and three starts. How efficient? Despite playing in 1987, Young posted what remains today as the single-greatest ANY/A average of the modern era, among players with at least 50 pass attempts.”

Young and Rice instantly formed an on-field rapport that would ultimately define the careers of both men. Rice caught more TD passes from Young than any other quarterback. Fittingly, Young was on deck when Rice set a new record one week after trouncing the Bears.

He caught two touchdowns and ran for another as the Niners thumped the Atlanta Falcons 35–7. It meant Rice had scored 21 touchdowns, obliterating the previous record mark of 18 set by Clayton, one half of the ‘Marks Brothers,’ during Dan Marino’s phenomenal second season with the Miami Dolphins.

https://twitter.com/80sFootballCard/status/1285266500828499968

Catching two more of Young’s passes in the end zone during a 48–0 shutout of the Los Angeles Rams in the regular-season finale gave Rice 23 touchdowns. The circumstances in which he wracked up those points still make this the most impressive scoring season of all time.

https://twitter.com/NFLonCBS/status/1393600309285597185

Perhaps the best way to measure Rice’s astonishing achievements 34 years ago is to put his 138 points into their historical context:

He was the first nonkicker to win the scoring title since the Raiders’ Marcus Allen in 1982, and the first pure receiver to do it since the 1951 exploits of Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch. Rice set another record by scoring at least one touchdown in 13 consecutive games.For perspective, consider that New Orleans Saints kicker Morten Andersen kicked 28 of 36 field goals and converted all 37 of his point-after attempts and still placed second with 121 points. The nearest nonkickers? New York Jets running back Johnny Hector, Philadelphia wide receiver Mike Quick, and the Rams’ Charles White, with 66 points.

(75 Seasons — The Complete Story of the National Football League, 1920–1995, page 275)

Hirsch’s proximity to the all-time numbers is appropriate. Crazylegs helped the Los Angeles Rams develop the three-receiver set in 1949 and become a point-scoring juggernaut in the early ‘50s.

Both Hirsch and Rice benefited from working with a true innovator. For Hirsch, it was Clark Shaughnessy, while Rice enjoyed Walsh’s mercurial brain. Both Hirsch and Rice got to catch passes from outstanding quarterbacks. Bob Waterfield and Roman Gabriel threw to Crazylegs, Montana and Young hurled the ball into Rice’s hands. Both Hirsch and Rice were surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast. Tom Fears and Bob Shaw drew coverage away from Hirsch, Craig and Tom Rathman did the same for Rice.

Hirsch set marks all subsequent receivers, including Rice, wanted to break. Today’s wideouts are still trying to emulate what Rice did in ‘87.

https://twitter.com/ESPNStatsInfo/status/1338211628832215051

In a startling quirk of history, Rice wasn’t even the league’s leading receiver in 1987. He made 65 catches for 1078 yards but was upstaged by J.T. Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals. Smith crossed the picket line almost immediately to start 15 games instead of 12, using the extra playing time to amass 91 receptions for 1117 yards and eight touchdowns.

Missing out on the receiving crown wouldn’t have hurt Rice as much as falling short of winning a Super Bowl. San Francisco should have won a third Lombardi Trophy after ending the season in dominant form. That 41–0 beatdown of the Bears was even more emphatic than the 21–0 drubbing meted out to the same opposition in the ’84 NFC Championship Game. Somehow, though, these Niners didn’t make it as far.

Things came unstuck against the unheralded Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round. Rice was upstaged by Anthony Carter, who caught 10 passes for 227 yards, while a swarming pass rush made Montana look frail and average. Young’s late heroics couldn’t prevent a 36–24 defeat that almost cost Walsh his job:

The playoff loss to the Vikings in ’87 was probably my most traumatic experience I’ve had in sports. Coming off the field, I was so embarrassed, so hurt, so humiliated. Our owner (Eddie DeBartolo Jr.) was beside himself, very, very angry, and hurt. In private conversations, Eddie was so frustrated, that he probably stated to other people that he’d like to fire me.

Rice made things right a year later when he set a Super Bowl record for receiving yards. In a cruel twist of fate, Wyche was once again the fall guy.

https://twitter.com/NFLGameDay/status/1087773548112822272

Rice did enough during the strike-shortened 1987 season, as well as in Super Bowl XXIII, to cement a legacy. Anything that came after was gravy. And boy, there was a lot of gravy.

Originally published at http://playactionpast.wordpress.com on August 26, 2021.

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James Dudko

James Dudko

Films, Footie and Gridiron, with the emphasis on Arsenal, NFL history and analysis of cinema from years past.