49ers legend Jerry Rice will be honored in his hometown community of Crawford, Miss. as part of a special program called “Hometown Hall of Famers” presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate. Rice took the time to speak with 49ers lead columnist Dylan DeSimone of Bleacher Report about the state of his former team.
Diagnosing what’s wrong with Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers is becoming quite the popular pastime in 2013. Three very uncharacteristic losses and the 32nd-ranked passing offense have been cause for concern, and now everybody is trying to find an answer to what isn't working.
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer didn’t hesitate. He pointed to the quarterback, saying if you take away Colin Kaepernick’s first read, “he becomes a remedial passer.” This is merely conjecture about San Francisco’s franchise quarterback and probably isn’t warranted in a year where there are 101 variables affecting the situation.
His thesis brazenly disregards a lot of the moving parts on this team. As only a Harbaugh protege would, Kap responded to this criticism accordingly:
Colin Kaepernick's response to Trent Dilfer's critique: "You should ask him if he knows my progression first before he says that." #49ers— Mindi Bach (@MBachCSN) November 13, 2013
Not all the criticism has fallen on Kap, though.
After reviewing the film again, CBS Sports analyst Pete Prisco seemed to believe it is a scheme and talent-related issue more than anything, rather than the quarterback and the quarterback alone. Receivers need to be in rhythm with the QB. In San Francisco, they clearly aren’t.
Local 49ers beat writer Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News shifted the blame toward offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh, particularly when it comes to the weekly play calling. And to be frank, that’s where a lot of the responsibility belongs.
Many agree with Kawakami’s assessment, including yours truly.
Yet one more viewpoint that has yet to be heard comes from Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice—otherwise known as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time). Since this conundrum has so much to do with the offense, particularly the wide receiver position, there is perhaps none better to offer insight on this little drama in the Bay Area.
This week, the former 49ers wideout was able to provide his take on the state of the franchise, speaking exclusively with Bleacher Report leading up to a pivotal game versus the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Here is what he had to say.
Why Is Colin Kaepernick Struggling?
When Rice, now an analyst at ESPN, was asked why 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was not having the all-world season that was expected of him, the three-time Super Bowl champ said, “I think he doesn’t have the guys outside.”
“Vernon Davis being taken away pretty much cost them last ball game, having to go out with a concussion,” Rice mentioned. "The receivers have been pretty much depleted with injuries.” To him, it is a matter of cause and effect rather than a regression in a single player. There's not a passing game without receivers.
But at the root of it, you have the quarterback, who is also the first to be held accountable. He winds up taking all of the heat. However, unlike most, Rice never diminished Colin Kaepernick as a player, not once. There wasn’t even a notion that he felt there was anything terribly wrong with his game.
Rice was far more interested in looking at the offense as a whole. This is no surprise, seeing as how he hails from the Bill Walsh school of thought where everything is interconnected. “Even though Frank Gore is going to be that workhorse they hand the ball off to, you’ve still got to have guys outside to strike fear into opposing teams and to be able to defeat bump-and-run,” said Rice.
“I think a lot of defenses are saying ‘Hey, look, until you prove that you can beat bump-and-run, that’s what we’re going to bring.’ And when you have bump-and-run in your face all the time like that, all of a sudden your quarterback has to hold the ball a little bit longer,” he added.
“In that last ball game [vs. Carolina Panthers], he got sacked like six times.”
This is also interesting because it adds a layer to the query regarding the 49ers offensive line, which suddenly seems exposed, though it is arguably the best collection of blockers in the league. In 2012, Pro Football Focus rated it No. 1, head and shoulders above all other fronts.
So, again, cause and effect is hurting the offensive line's performance as well.
Rice also pointed to Kap’s stat line in Week 10, which read 11-of-22 for 91 yards and one interception. “He was 0-for-6 throwing the ball deep downfield. So, he was getting pressured,” he added. In short, it has been a chain reaction, starting from the wide receivers on out.
This coincides with Prisco’s theory about talent and scheme, as well as Kawakami’s, in the sense that the coaching staff has not adjusted the offense to cater to what is clearly a deficient corps of wide receivers. It is also the antithesis of Dilfer’s theory, which, in hindsight, makes him seem like he has tunnel vision.
Is There A Silver Lining?
San Francisco is desperate for help at wide receiver, still awaiting reinforcements in fifth-year pro Michael Crabtree (Achilles) and rookie go-getter Quinton Patton (foot). Last week was Mario Manningham’s first game back, coming off the PUP list after tearing his ACL and PCL last December versus the Seattle Seahawks.
For a good duration of the season, the belief was that this trio would provide a tremendous boost down the stretch, instantly curing what ails them offensively.
That being the case, San Francisco held off from engaging in any trades before the deadline, indicating that they are truly counting on these guys to make an impact. So far there has been no earth-shattering change with Manningham back in the lineup, though it’s early.
It goes without saying that if that instant impact is going to happen with any one of the three aforementioned players, it is going to be with Crabtree—and not just because he is the team’s reigning 1,000-yard receiver. It is because of his bond with the franchise quarterback.
As we talked about at B/R, the chemistry between Kaepernick and Crabtree was the best asset that would be brought back upon his return. Their on-field relationship was a perfect mesh, like a yin and a yang. If the 'Niners were ever going to get a spark, since it wasn’t Vance McDonald or LaMichael James, this would be it.
And it was largely based on an intangible element.
Now, if anybody knows a thing or two about chemistry between players—and the quarterback-wide receiver relationship in particular—it’s Jerry Rice. Not once, but twice the Hall of Famer molded superb on-field relationships with his quarterback, and did so with two completely different style passers.
The best way to describe the connections would be to emphasize the fluidity and effortlessness of them.
The seamless aura and productivity made two of the more magical pairings in NFL history; especially knowing that no matter what happened, that ball was almost always going to get from point A to point B. It gave the respective duos a very unique appearance, like a glossy finish on a brand new hot rod.
“The chemistry between a quarterback and a receiver is almost like a dance,” Rice said, describing the partnership.
“You do it repetition-wise more and more in practice. You spend time in the study room, you spend time after practice, and you run through your route-tree over and over again, until the situation where you don’t even have to think about it,” he said. “It’s automatic.”
In addition to their out-of-this-world third-down numbers, Kaepernick targeting Crabtree 55 times more than Vernon Davis in 2012 would certainly suggest a comfort level. As a result of that trust, this could lead to quicker releases from Kap, as well as improved production when it comes to situational football.
While the talent level of each individual is high, it’s all about chemistry.
“I had that with Joe Montana, I had that with Steve Young. And I see it with [Colin] Kaepernick and also [Michael] Crabtree,” said Rice. “It had developed, and you could see it on the football field."
Needless to say, this is high praise from the G.O.A.T., and perhaps San Francisco’s ticket to a resurgent second half in 2013.
That could be the catalyst that brings the entire offense back together, from a scheme and momentum standpoint.
“I think you have that in Colin Kaepernick and also Michael Crabtree. It’s hard to explain because it’s so special when you see it,” he added. “And these two individuals, they know exactly what each one is thinking in different scenarios and different situations.”
“[For them], it’s just a reaction out on the football field,” Rice concluded.
Did get a chance to ask Crabtree if his good #'s lately are due to chemistry with Kaepernick. "Yeah," Crabtree said. "I mean, you see it."— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) January 9, 2013
One underlying issue that could really throw a monkey wrench into San Francisco’s master plan heading into a potential playoff run is the health of Michael Crabtree and where he is at mentally. While he is expected back, it is unknown how effective he’ll be until we see him on the field.
From a medical standpoint, he should be healthy and ready to go. And we’ve seen players like Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs and Tampa Bay defensive end Da'Quan Bowers all come back from this same injury and be productive. It is not abnormal.
This week, No. 80 was able to touch back on his worst career injury, which happened on opening day in 1997 when Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp yanked Rice down by the facemask, causing the 49ers wide receiver to tear two ligaments in his left knee.
“When I tore my ACL, MCL, it took me about two years before I really felt comfortable with my knee. Feeling where I could be just as explosive and come out of cuts, not worrying about it or anything like that,” Rice said. That is a long-lasting effect, even after rehabilitation is complete.
While he said he did not feel 100 percent again until the 1999-2000 season, Rice did come back that following year and post 82 grabs for 1,157 yards and nine touchdowns, earning his 12th Pro Bowl nod. And this was over a decade ago.
Medical technology is far more advanced, and the NFL acts as a constant reminder of how far we’ve come in the field.
But obviously there is concern, especially for a player like Crabtree and this Achilles injury. He is a player who, stylistically, depends on his ability to pivot and shake defenders loose before and after the catch. He is not a straight-line speed receiver, so he must be able to trust the strength of that tendon.
But if he’s healthy and as aggressive as ever, look out.
"Michael Crabtree can be a very explosive player that can catch the ball, and he has the speed where he can run away from guys and get to the end zone. And on the outside, he can also run by you where you got that spread offense back."
But there is the potential hazard of overworking Crabtree early, which Rice is hoping the 49ers avoid.
“I’m hoping that he can come back and try to work his way back into the game plan and not have to push himself so hard at first. You don’t want to reinjure that injury or something like that,” he said.
This will be an internal challenge the 'Niners' staff faces because once he’s active, they’ll need him making plays on the field.
And more than likely, Kaepernick is going to look his way.
Bleacher Report: If you could re-sign one to a mega deal—Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith or Mike Iupati—who do you bring back and why?
Jerry Rice: You got to bring Michael Crabtree back, to be honest with you. Like I said, the year before his injury, you saw a player that was being explosive. A guy that makes plays, that strikes fear into opposing teams. And also, character-wise, you have to factor that in.
And more organizations are going to have to look at that with different players because what you do off the football field is also going to be important. And how do you be that role model for the organization, so I would have to say Michael Crabtree.
B/R: In your opinion, how was Jim Harbaugh able to instantly spark a culture change in San Francisco and what similarities, if any, do you see to Bill Walsh?
Rice: Oh, goodness, that’s a good one. It’s hard to compare someone to Bill Walsh. To be honest with you, I think Jim Harbaugh is more of a player’s coach. And also, you look at Jim, you throw in the khakis, you throw in the sweater, and that’s it. And you look at the players today, they’re the same way—they’re very casual.
Back in the day, Bill Walsh, on road trips, we had to wear suits. Or you had to be a little bit dressier, and it’s totally different now.
I think Jim Harbaugh gets the job done and the players, they like him, and they want to get out there and play for him. And it was the same way with Bill Walsh. You wanted to win for Bill Walsh and knowing that he was that coach that could be your best friend, but then could be your worst enemy.
I think both guys know how to get their players to buy into the system and want to go out there and win football games.
B/R: What doubts, if any, do you have about this team’s ability to win a Super Bowl in 2013?
Rice: I think they’ve been missing a lot of components. I think they’re starting to get some of those guys back, but will it be too late? This team is 6-3 right now and they have to go up to New Orleans and face a team that is working on all cylinders right now, with the Saints and Drew Brees, spreading the ball around to the running backs, the tight ends, the receivers.
It’s like, who are you going to take away?
Somehow they’re going to have to muster up something and go there and get a win, because they can be 6-4. And with Seattle, they’re 9-1 right now. And they’re not playing exceptional football, but they’re winning ugly and you have to take a win as a win. So I think there is still hope but that door is starting to close a little bit.
I think opposing teams are seeing where the 49ers are vulnerable a little bit, like getting to Kaepernick, sacking him six times. Trying to rattle him, playing the receivers with bump-and-run outside.
And defense-wise, you’ve got guys on that defense that can make plays, with the cornerbacks and with Justin Smith, with Aldon Smith and all those guys.
And who are you going to cover this weekend with the New Orleans Saints? Who are going to try to take away? It’ll be on that defensive coordinator this weekend to find a way to get that done. This is a must-win for the 'Niners. They have to go in there and win that football game.
B/R: As an offensive player for one of the most storied franchises in history, one that housed the greatest quarterback and the greatest receiver to ever play the game, what can you say about Frank Gore’s career?
Rice: I think he’s already on the list for the 'Niners right now as a running back. The guy is a workaholic. He runs hard, he wants to impact the game, and he’s willing to do whatever, even if he has to make a block or something like that. I really commend him for what he is doing on the football field.
And if they have a balanced attack where they’re feeding him the ball and he’s touching the ball 25 times or more, they have a good chance of winning.
B/R: If he wins a ring, does he deserve Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration?
Rice: Well, there is more football to come from Frank Gore.
There is much, much more football to come from him. I still see him having productive years. The only thing is it’s hard when you look at certain individuals as going and being a part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame or being selected.
Right now, he has to continue to develop on the football field, and hopefully down the road his body of work will warrant him getting voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
B/R: San Francisco has had problems at very few positions, the main one being the wide receiver position. Johnnie Morton is a great position coach, but would you be open to the idea of mentoring or coaching the 49ers WR group?
Rice: Maybe mentoring, but I feel I like I sacrificed so much of my career to the game of football. I played for over 20 years and there is a lot of work that goes into that. Maybe as a mentor, though, being able to work with those receivers would be something I don’t mind doing.