49ers' Rice slow to catch on as a fan of Young

January 15, 1993|By Bob Glauber | Bob Glauber,Newsday

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As far as Jerry Rice is concerned, there's only one problem with Steve Young: His name isn't Joe Montana.

Other than that, Rice holds nothing against the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who must fight not only the legend of the greatest passer of all time, but also of that passer's favorite receiver.

To wit:

As he unwrapped tape from his wrist after practice one day this week, Rice was asked if he believes this finally is Young's team. "Well, he's the starter," was Rice's lukewarm reply.

Now the receiver was asked if he has adapted to life without Montana after nearly two full seasons with Young. "I have to say to myself, 'Well, Joe's not going to be back there to make my job a little easier,' " Rice said.

Not exactly the ringing endorsement you might expect of Young, the NFL's consensus Most Valuable Player in 1992.

At best, there is this grudging sense of respect Rice offers Young: "With Steve, he's so competitive, he feels like he has to make a big play to help the team win," Rice said. "He puts a lot of pressure on himself, but that's the kind of guy you really want to lead this team."

But Rice is quick to concede he continues to miss Montana, and that the adaptation to Young has been slow and is in fact still incomplete. Gone is the unspoken familiarity he and Montana once enjoyed.

In its place is an often erratic relationship. Where Montana once dropped back and knew he would find Rice on a quick slant or a deep out, Young is just as likely to take off scrambling and force Rice into the uncomfortable and uncustomary role of downfield blocker.

"Joe and I had a chemistry going, and it's going to take some time before I really start to feel comfortable with Steve," Rice said. "The thing I want to do now is try to make some plays and make things easier for him."

And therein lies part of the problem. Rice, you see, wants to make more than just some of the plays. He wants to make most of the plays, and thereby make things easier for both Young and himself.

Just one problem, though. Coach George Seifert likes his offense this way, with Young spraying the ball around among Rice and wideouts John Taylor and Mike Sherrard, running backs Ricky Watters and Tom Rathman, and tight end Brent Jones.

"I think that's the beauty of our offense," Seifert said. "It's not one-dimensional. We've got a lot of different options, and I think that's one of the great advantages we have."

Unfortunately for Rice, the system works to his detriment, or so he perceives. Rice had 84 receptions this season, nearly twice that of Jones (45) and Rathman (44). But still, he thirsts for more -- even if his frequent displays of frustration don't seem to make sense, given the team's success this season.

Take last Sept. 27 as an example. In front of a national television audience, Young led the 49ers to a 16-10 road win over the New Orleans Saints. While most of Young's teammates offered glowing accounts of the quarterback's leadership qualities, Rice didn't join in. After catching only two passes for 5 yards and watching two of Young's passes sail over his head, Rice was asked if he still missed Montana.

"It's a bad time to ask me about that," he said. "There's always tomorrow. But it's going to be a long year. I know that."

Fast forward to Nov. 9, when the 49ers blew away the Falcons, 41-3, in a Monday night game in Atlanta. Rice caught his 98th career touchdown pass, yet expressed frustration about his seemingly reduced role in the offense.

"I don't have any comment," he said.

Asked what he thought was happening to his role, Rice said:

"I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine."

Evidently, Rice thought he could have produced two more touchdown catches to tie Steve Largent for the most scoring receptions in NFL history. "That's why I don't have anything to say," he said.

But Rice said plenty to Young in the huddle.

"After every play, he'd say, 'Get me the ball,' " Young said. "Hey, they were playing four [defensive backs] across him."

Oddly enough, Young actually likes that kind of reaction from Rice. And the quarterback hardly flinches when he hears about other frustrations Rice has with the offense.

"I love it, because he wants the ball," Young said. "That's him. That's why he's going to the Hall of Fame. And that's why this is such a great offense to play in. You've got guys who want the ball, and the challenge is to spread it around so you try to keep everyone happy. You'll never keep everyone totally happy, but that's the challenge of it."

At this point, only two things would seem to make Rice happy. Putting Montana back in as the starter, and throwing the ball his way more often. Considering the alternatives, the only plausible solution is the latter. But considering Seifert's love affair with the 49ers' multi-dimensional attack, Rice may never be entirely satisfied.

"It's a different offense now," Rice said. "It's not based around three or four guys. The entire team is in on the offense."

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