The game was tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter. The 49ers broke the huddle and Joe Montana walked over to line up behind center. He would go to the well again.
The San Francisco 49ers, reigning Super Bowl champions, were a little off in 1985. Here they were at home with an 8-5 record, one game behind their division rivals, the Los Angeles Rams, on a cool December Monday night in front of their peers and the nation. There were just three games left to determine the NFC West champion, including this one.
But could Montana rely on his rookie wide receiver at this critical juncture of the game? There was a lot of talk about the wideout before the season. He was an All-American standout at Mississippi Valley State University, where he set the NCAA record for career touchdown receptions at the time. The Niners traded up to draft him with a first-round pick that year, hoping he could help bring another ring to San Francisco. Montana wasn’t sure yet. Neither were the fans and the organization.
Twenty-three year old Jerry Rice’s rookie year was so far a mixed bag of weak performances and dropped balls, sprinkled with an occasional glimpse of what could be. In the 13 games he played up until that Monday evening, he had pulled in two TDs, and in his top four games caught for 94, 70, 67 and 67 yards. Outside of that, though, there wasn’t much to talk about, including a few games without a catch and others with yardage in the teens. Still, not bad for a rookie, no matter the predictions.
But no one had foreseen this.
Montana shouted the play at the line. It was 2nd-and-11; they were on their own 46. The ball was going to Rice, who already had snagged nine receptions for nearly 190 yards and a score. Center Fred Quillan hiked the ball and Montana dropped back, reading the blitz. Rice darted and pulled away from Ram cornerback Jerry Gray. Montana launched a 50-yard bomb that pierced the air and landed in Rice’s hands for his 10th haul. Rice finished the night with 241 yards.
Forgive the cliché, but truly, a legend was born.
The 49ers would score on that drive to take the lead, but wound up losing that game and would be bounced out of the wild-card playoff round by the New York Giants later in the month. But Rice would fulfill San Francisco’s hopes and help bring three more rings to the city, two with Montana in 1988 and 1989, and one more with Steve Young in 1994. Not only that, he is considered by many, and may be revealed tonight, as the No.1 NFL player ever.
NFL Network has been running an engrossing tour through NFL history on Thursdays. They are counting down the top 100 NFL players of all time, and are set to reveal the top ten this evening. Joe Montana will be there, as well.
But who are the other eight?
Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Johnny Unitas, for sure.
Reggie White and Peyton Manning, probably.
Then it gets weird. If the other two are not in the top 10, then they’re not in the top 100 either.
Where do Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and their stats and four Super Bowl appearances appear?
There are no kickers on the list. Would Jan Stenerud be there? Crazy. Vinatieri? C’mon, stop.
Terrell Owens? Yes, no rings, but, he’s going to wind up not far from, and right behind, Rice in a lot of categories.
Where’s Butkus, or Csonka? How about Howie Long? Is he good enough to be in the top 100? Warren Moon? Curtis Martin? Franco Harris? Cris Carter? Maybe there should be a top 200.
Seriously, what about Don Hutson, who invented the wide receiver position?
And we haven’t even gotten to ranking the top 10. Is Rice No.1?
So who are the top 10, then, and how do they rank? We’ll see tonight. What do you think?
The NFL Network list (100-11) is here. The broadcast begins at 8PM ET tonight, Thursday Nov 4.
Here are some thought-provoking articles on the top NFL players from my colleagues at Bleacher Report:
Bryn Swartz's excellent (though I disagree) Why Jerry Rice is NOT the Greatest Wide Receiver in NFL History
Zach Bolen's The NFL's Top 25 Quarterbacks of All Time
Lloyd Vance's Top 10 NFL Running Backs of All Time
Dan Mori's really cool slide show NFL Power Rankings: Top 50 Greatest Defensive Players in NFL History
And you can check out my sports blog if you'd like, here.