Wednesday, January 22, 2003

At 40, Rice still looking ahead

By Greg Beacham
The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO - Jerry Rice sees no reason why his fourth trip to the Super Bowl should be his last. As long as Rice is fast enough to run away from defenders - and strong enough to get back up after they catch him - the Oakland Raiders' 40-year-old wonder will keep playing the game he loves.

"No, this is not my last game," Rice said Tuesday. "I'm not looking that far down the road. I still enjoy it, and if my body continues to hold up, I'm going to keep playing."

As Oakland prepares for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rice is at the culmination of his remarkable two-season comeback with the Raiders.

He set every significant NFL receiving record during 16 seasons with the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls and the 1989 MVP award in the game.

The Niners gave up on him, but Raiders owner Al Davis thought there was life in Rice's old legs. He was right.

"He's old, but he's still young - know what I mean?" Raiders receiver Jerry Porter said.

With 36-year-old Tim Brown and rising star Porter by his side, Rice caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards this season to earn his 13th trip to the Pro Bowl.

"Pretty much everybody had put me out to pasture," Rice said. "I don't want to say, 'I told you so,' but if you challenge me, watch out. This is just my second year in Oakland, and I'm back here already. I don't see myself slowing down at all."

He's still tough enough to be smiling and injury-free after a season of pounding. He was an integral part of the NFL's most potent offense, which is focused on Rice and his fellow receivers.

When Rice first joined the Raiders, many wondered if he and Brown - two of three most prolific receivers in NFL history - would get along. Those who wondered didn't bother to ask Brown, who encouraged the Raiders' brass to sign Rice.

"I knew that if Jerry was here, this was the kind of offense we could have," Brown said. "We're the best offense in the NFL now, and Jerry is a huge part of that. We feed off of each other, because we work together, not against each other.

"Before every game, we talk and make sure we're both ready. Sometimes he'll do all the talking, and sometimes we'll just look at each other and know."

But not even Rice imagined the responsibility he has taken in his two seasons with the Raiders.

Coach Jon Gruden made him a starter last season - and this fall, in the three-receiver sets favored by new coach Bill Callahan and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, he has been the most important threat in the league's most prolific passing offense.

"This is unique, because I've never played on a team where we almost had to throw the ball every down," Rice said. "In our first four games this season, Tim and I had to tell Bill, 'Run the ball, please!' We're a little tired from running downfield all the time."

When the Raiders face Tampa Bay's vaunted secondary on Sunday, all three Oakland receivers will face their toughest challenge of the playoffs. Trestman, who coached Rice during a short tenure as San Francisco's offensive coordinator, consults his two veteran receivers on game plans.

Trestman hasn't made a single concession based on Rice's age - simply because Rice is almost exactly the same player Trestman coached in San Francisco.

"I'm probably the luckiest person in the world," Trestman said. "You stand out there on the sideline for practice, and the first person who runs out there is Jerry Rice. He and Tim Brown are sitting in the front row when you're installing your offense. It's amazing to have that opportunity."

Rice seethed during his final seasons in San Francisco, when he felt the Niners tried to develop young players at the expense of a veteran who could still play. It's the same complaint voiced by Bill Romanowski, Rod Woodson and several of the Raiders' veterans who arrived in Oakland motivated by being rejected.

Rice credits his longevity to simplicity and devotion. He eats well, he gets proper rest, and he endures long summer conditioning sessions at Stanford Stadium near his home with a feverish work ethic he learned during his Mississippi childhood.

"When you get old, what you lose is the ability to recover," Rice said. "You can always get out there and run around, but when guys retire, it's usually because they can't take getting beat up. I'm blessed because I get really tired and beaten up, but I don't have trouble getting back up again."

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