Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mondays with Murray (on Sunday night)

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, welcomed the class of 2010 earlier this month — Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little, John Randle, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith.
Here for your reading enjoyment is a piece the late Jim Murray wrote about Rice . . .


You Can't Burn Rice, But He Can Easily Burn You

Jerry Rice, like secondhand smoke, germ warfare and insider trading, should be banned. At least, that is the view of NFL defensive backs. He should carry a surgeon general's warning on his helmet.
  He's not really a player, is their view. He's a terrorist. He works undercover, so to speak. He's the NFL's Jackal.
  He's so invisible, you'd think he came on the field in disguise. Claude Rains gets the part. He just vanishes like a wraith, only to materialize under the ball. He's 6 feet 2, 200 pounds, but he's as difficult to find as Jimmy Hoffa.
  Is he even real? Defensive backs are not so sure. They think he just might be another E.T. They try to remember if they ever heard him, or it, talk.
  They can't prove anything because, first, they have to find him. They panic. You can almost hear them when the ball is snapped. "Anybody here see No. 80?" they'll call out in rising panic. "I thought I saw him over there a moment ago," someone will answer. "What's he look like? Anybody know what he looks like?"
  Hardly anybody does. He's the phantom of this opera. If you took three NFL defensive backs and had them make a police composite drawing, you would have three different pictures. No one gets close enough to tell what color his eyes are.
  Even the public is vague about how he looks. Rice goes through life the way he goes through zone defenses. Everybody in San Francisco could describe Joe Montana, right down to the dimple in his chin. They all know what Barry Bonds looks like. Ask them to describe Jerry Rice, you might get a blank look. He would make a world-class spy.
  Defenses track other wide receivers in the game. With Rice, they need radar. The only way to play Rice is to track the ball. Where it comes down, Rice will be. He's a size 46 long, but the 11-inch ball is easier to keep track of than the grain of Rice.
  He's Public Enemy No. 1 in pro football. He has a rap sheet longer than the Gambino family. He has caught 788 passes. He's an indefensible as a flood. Teams have tried zones, man-to-man, prayer, intimidation, fouls, trash talk, sobs, please — everything short of armed intervention. Rice merely races through it. He's got a rendezvous with the football.
  Candlestick Park is Rice's paddy. But he could catch balls on an ice floe if he had to, get open in a swamp.
  He's fast. But, then, so is almost everybody else in the league. There's hardly a secondary that doesn't have Olympic speed, or isn't capable of pressing a world-record relay team.
  Bill Cosby used to say of Gale Sayers that he split himself in two at the tackler and the part with the ball went on its way. Jerry Rice is somewhat this way. Except that when he catches the ball there are rarely tacklers. His uniform never gets dirty.
  He begs the question as to which is the most important position.
  It used to be the running back. The game belonged to the left halfback in the old days. Star players were known as Galloping Ghosts, Four Horsemen, Choo-Choos, Six-Yard Stitkos. Teams were built around George Gipp, Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Ernie Nevers. The quarterbacks just blocked. The T-formation changed all that. With its man-in-motion formations, its pass-oriented attack, it reduced the running backs' role to that of quasi-decoys. They were used to draw the defense in, not to win games. You won games up top. In the early days, a team that threw the ball 10 times a game was known as an "aerial circus." With the T, you threw the ball 10 times before the anthem died down.
  Instead of Galloping Something-Or-Others, the game was given over to Slinging Something-Or-Others or Springfield Rifles.
  The most famous pass receiver in history was Knute Rockne. He and quarterback Gus Dorais brought the little-used long pass into the game at West point in 1913, defeating the heavily favored Cadets, 30-13, with this new ploy. They completed an unheard-of 13 passes.
  That wouldn't be a good drive today but outstanding receivers always manifested themselves. Don Hutson was probably the most famous of these. Like many who came after him — Raymond Berry, Steve Largent, Tom Fears, Jim Phillips — he was known less for his speed than for his sure-handed elusiveness. "Possession receivers," the game called them.
  These were augmented by the "bomb squad" receivers — Cliff Branch, Crazylegs Hirsch, Lance Alworth, Bob Boyd, and Cloyce Box — who regularly ran 90-yard routes. They didn't get the ball much. They didn't need it much.
  Jerry Rice has it both ways. He can outrun you. Or he can outsmart you. Since his specialty is disappearing at the line of scrimmage, the defense doesn't know whether he's going long or doubling back.
  Wherever he goes, he inspires the dread of an epidemic. You can almost see the defensive backs trying to look over both shoulders at once, silently screaming, "Where'd he go? Anybody here see a guy with brown eyes and gold helmet, wearing No. 80? He's probably carrying a football." They're almost ready to call 911.
  He's an uncontrolled substance. He should be illegal anyway. He's probably responsible for more nervous breakdowns in the NFL than any receiver in the game. He has the most touchdowns of any receiver in the history of the game — 130 — and is third in yards gained with 12,885. It's easy to see why defenders in this league think he's from another planet. Probably arrives by saucer. From outer space.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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