Rice never a treat for Bengals

9-9-03, 6:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Jerry Lee Rice was born just hours before the Cuban Missile Crisis and caught a team-high eight passes in his debut with the Raiders two days before 9/11.

He caught his first NFL pass when the Cosbys were America's family and had his greatest day as a pro against those Bengals the year the Berlin Wall fell. He became the first man to catch 1,000 passes the year of the Olympic Park bombing and had the best day of his 15th season against those Bengals the year Clinton got impeached and Riverfront Stadium closed for football.

Now the Bengals are preparing for him again and the crisis is in Iraq, America's family is the Osbornes, and a month shy of 41, Rice continues to jam like your no-commercial classic rock radio station. Welcome to the '80s at 8 after four catches for 43 yards Sunday night marked his 19th opening game.

Rice has had some of his most notorious games against the Bengals as a member of the 49ers. He may have caught 2,731 yards against Atlanta and scored 20 touchdowns against the Rams, but his average of 101.6 yards against the Bengals in five games is second best to his 116.1 average against the Chargers for eight. He has broken more hearts in Cincinnati than Bud Selig.

Were you alive in '85 for Rice's rookie season? Bengal cornerbacks Jeff Burris and Tory James were in junior high, free safety Mark Roman was in third grade, and strong safety Marquand Manuel was just starting school in Miami, Fla.

On Sunday, the Bengals play him for the first time as a Raider, and Eric Thomas has some advice.

"I watch these young corners try to guard this guy who has been around for 20 years," Thomas said Tuesday, "and they can't do it. That just blows me away. But that's what Jerry does. The other receivers are younger, stronger, faster, but they don't know the game like Jerry does. And that's something he came into the league with. If you timed him in the 40 back then, he was probably about 4.55. Now, it's probably 4.62.

"Don't try to trick him because he knows every trick in the book," Thomas said. "Be smart, because you know he's going to know the exact situation. It's not going to do you any good to disguise coverages because he'll know what the coverage is."

If anyone in the Cincinnati environs understands why Rice is playing and nearly everyone else his age is picking him for their fantasy team, it's Thomas, the former Bengals cornerback who went chinstrap-to-facemask with Rice in Super Bowl XXIII nearly 15 years ago.

That was the day Rice somehow wriggled his way his way for 215 yards and the MVP trophy despite some Pro Bowl coverage. Thomas went to Hawaii that season. So did strong safety David Fulcher. The late Lewis Billups, the other cornerback, wasn't far behind. Solomon Wilcots, a second-year free safety, brought range and smarts to a secondary immortalized in the S.W.A.T. team poster.

The three surviving S.W.A.T members were born less than a month apart in 1964. Thomas is the first to turn 39 this coming Thursday. Fulcher follows on Sept. 28, and then Wilcots on Oct. 3. They have all been out of the NFL at least eight seasons. And Rice makes them shake their heads.

"I can't fathom it," said Wilcots, a CBS-TV reporter and analyst who now covers Rice in other ways. "The guy just never has an offseason. The way he takes cares of his body, it's such a testimony to his work ethic and when you consider he blew his knee out, he is truly remarkable."

Fulcher is a marketing executive for the Summit Financial Group, as well as a part-time sports talk show host for WLW-AM in Cincinnati and the NFL's uniform policeman at Paul Brown Stadium on Game Day.

Thomas can be heard from 5 to 7 p.m. every weeknight on The Buzz as co-host with Box Miller of "The Prime Time Sports Show." He's also a personal trainer for Club Champions in Landon, Ohio.

They have gone on to other things. Rice is still going to Canton.

"I picked him up last year on my fantasy team," Fulcher said. "Nobody else picked him up. Nobody else wanted him. I couldn't believe that. I figured that Jerry Rice is going to put up numbers because he's Jerry Rice."

Rice justified the faith with the 11th 1,200-yard season of his career and seven touchdowns, making him the only man with 200 career touchdowns.

"He's not as fast now and Jerry was fast," Wilcots said. "That's how Jerry beat people. They didn't think he was fast. He probably ran about 4.6, but when the ball was in the air, he was 4.3.

"Now he relies mainly on getting in position," Wilcots said. "But he's still a great route runner. He has tremendous ability to catch the ball in traffic. He's almost like a basketball player now jumping to get a rebound. He has a way of getting his body on you. But guess what? He can still get deep behind you."

Rice rarely got behind the Bengals' secondary in the Super Bowl. His longest catch was a 44-yarder, and, as Wilcots recalled, Rice beat Billups on an out route for a 14-yard touchdown. And it was John Taylor who caught the winning touchdown pass from Joe Montana with 34 seconds left.

But it was Rice who denied Paul Brown the Vince Lombardi Trophy in that 11-play, 92-yard death march on one play. On second-and-20 from the Bengals 45, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau matched the right call for the right moment for the right play.

"One Dig Dog was the call and we had it nailed," Thomas said. "The worst-case scenario was Jerry catches it and it's third-and-eight."

Wilcots: "It was double coverage and Ray Horton took away the inside. He jumped the route and it should have been intercepted. Montana threw it right at him. At the very least, Ray should have knocked Jerry Rice into next week when he caught it. But Ray blew up the play when he collided with David and Eric. It wasn't so much Jerry. It was a lack of execution on our part."

But, like Thomas says. Rice just has the uncanny ability to make plays and that was a 27-yard backbreaker.

"We went at him one-on-one some and I think I only let him catch one ball on me," said Thomas of a secondary that didn't flop sides when the receivers lined up. "He was quick, he could get your hands off him and then get by you."

The Bengals mixed it up with man and zone coverage, but Wilcots saw early in the game why trying to disguise a zone was useless. He was late coming over the top on Rice and he got there only to push him out of bounds.

"I came back and told our guys just to play it straight. Play him straight up because you can't disguise it to guys like Montana and Rice," he said.

Thomas says playing Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon will be a lot like playing Montana because of his smarts and experience with the Raider offense. And Thomas knows what Rice can do in a steel-belted scheme.

It was Rice, of course, who gave the Bengals their most stunning loss next to the Super Bowl. In 1987, when Thomas was a rookie, Rice got behind him for a game-winning touchdown as the clock expired, 27-26.

"I still see that play and I wonder why I played it like I did," Thomas said. "I just didn't play the ball, but give (Niners coach) Bill Walsh credit it, too. I'm sure they schemed that because they threw at me all day. They put three receivers to the other side and just Jerry lined up against me on one side, and somehow they worked it so the linebacker in front of me went away and left me alone. But, the guy always seems to make the play."

It was seven years later when Thomas saw why. As a member of the Broncos in the 1994 preseason, Thomas played in the Tokyo Bowl against the Niners. They spent a day there practicing against San Francisco.

"What you see on TV is what you see from him in practice," Thomas said. "That day, he practiced at game speed. He'd catch the ball, turn up field, take six, seven, eight hard steps, and sprint almost all the way to the end zone every time. And it was hot over there. Two plays and guys were struggling to get through it. But he just kept running."

If Fulcher kept in shape the way Rice kept in shape, he figures he could have played 12 to 15 years. If he had to do it over again, he would do it like Jerry Rice.

"I think there are guys out there who can play a lot longer, but maybe don't get the chance," Fulcher said. "The thing with Jerry Rice is that he's such a great guy for head coaches and owners to have around to show young players and young receivers how to do it. If you're a young receiver in this league, what better guy to watch than Rice? The way he runs routes and his work ethic is truly professional.

"I think he's probably one of the first guys to make off-season conditioning all year-round," Fulcher said. "Back then, '86, '88, it just wasn't. Nowadays, you miss a day in the offseason and you're behind. I think he's one of the first and look at him."

Rice tore his anterior cruciate ligament at age 35 and underwent reconstructive knee surgery. Thomas did the same thing at 25, "and I can tell you I was never the same after that. And he came back and has been as good ever. I train people for a living and I can tell you that is absolutely phenomenal to come back from that injury at that age."

The Bengals are 1-4 in games Rice has played against them, the only win coming in 1999 when he went for a season-high 157 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-30 win over the Niners. Can he beat them in three different decades?

"Be smart," Thomas repeated. "If he needs six yards, he knows how to get seven."

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