Rice vs. Woodson will be a grand finale

On the NFL

December 15, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

All it needs is the voice of the late John Facenda and some NFL Films music.

It's the matchup for the ages -- probably for the last time.

At Three Rivers Stadium today, Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers will go against Rod Woodson of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They are two of the three active players (Reggie White is the other) who were named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.

"He's the best receiver I ever played against," said Woodson, who will face Rice for only the third time because they are in difference conferences.

Their two meetings came in 1990 and 1993.

Rice caught three passes for 31 yards the first time and Woodson had an interception, although the 49ers won, 27-7.

In 1993, Rice caught eight passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns, both against cornerback D. J. Johnson, as the 49ers won, 24-13. Woodson intercepted two passes.

Woodson won't follow Rice all over the field, so cornerback Willie Williams may see as many or more plays against Rice today.

The matchup isn't what it once was because Woodson made the Pro Bowl primarily on reputation. He hasn't been the same since injuring a knee in last year's opener.

Rice, meanwhile, has caught 95 passes, but has averaged only 12 yards a catch, the lowest of his career. He's getting double- and triple-teamed because the 49ers don't have a good threat on the other side.

Said quarterback Steve Young: "The yards he's gotten, he's had to work for. Very rarely is he running down the middle of the field alone. We've had a few big plays with Jerry, but more and more teams are saying, 'Let's surround him, let's keep him bottled up.' But we believe in getting the ball to him regardless."

Rice believes in that, too, and has spent much of the year complaining he hasn't gotten the ball more.

He even went to visit team president Carmen Policy after last Sunday's 30-24 loss to Carolina, although neither would shed light on the conversation.

"That's between me and Carmen," Rice said.

Policy said: "It was about the game and his role. Anything beyond that would be strictly between me and Jerry."

The Steelers, though, will treat Rice as if he were still a top threat.

Steelers free safety Darren Perry, who figures to be involved in the double-teaming, said: "You see teams sending more than one guy after him. You don't see one guy left alone to make the tackle on Jerry Rice because normally he's going to make the first guy miss."

Still, Rice vs. Woodson is a marquee matchup, even if it isn't what it once was.

Controversy?

Jim Harbaugh, one of the good guys in the game, hasn't lost his sense of humor, even though he's been struggling with injuries.

He's expected to return to the starting lineup for the Indianapolis Colts today against Kansas City now that his knee is getting better, but he jokingly said the team should stick with Kerwin Bell, who went 5-for-5 in his NFL debut in relief of ailing Paul Justin against Philadelphia last week.

"How can you not start Kerwin Bell?" he said, tongue-in-cheek. "He's the best in the league, man. He's flawless. He's like the Don Larsen of professional football. You don't bench the best, and you can quote me on that. This team needs a little quarterback controversy."

Pride?

Don't tell coach Jimmy Johnson about playing for pride now that his Miami Dolphins appear to be out of the playoff race.

"Everything that we've worked so hard for has gone down the drain. [Don't tell me] that old saying that everybody says, you know, the pride and hold your head up and try to get to .500 and all that bull."

New faces

There could be a changing of the Super Bowl quarterback guard this year. Only three of the current starting quarterbacks -- Troy Aikman of Dallas, Young of San Francisco and Jeff Hostetler of the Oakland Raiders -- have won a Super Bowl. Two backups, Mark Rypien of Philadelphia and Jim McMahon of Green Bay, have done it.

Aikman and Young have combined to win the past four, but the odds are against them if they don't get first-round byes.

Since the NFL began issuing byes in 1978, 92 teams have played in the first round -- not counting the strike year -- and only three have made the Super Bowl. Only one, Oakland in 1980, has won it. The other two were the 1985 New England Patriots and the 1992 Buffalo Bills.

Ex-Cowboy speaks out

As if the Cowboys' image hasn't been tarnished enough, now a former player says he wasn't popular because he didn't join in the team's off-the-field carousing.

Linebacker Robert Jones of the St. Louis Rams said: "There were certain guys I couldn't get along with because of the way I carried myself as a husband and a father. The attitude with the Dallas Cowboys, and I hate to say it, is that if you can't do what the rest of those guys do off the field, it's not like you're included."

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