Jerry Rice told reporters at the Super Bowl that next season will be his last. The Raiders receiver sounded decisive. The 2004 season will be his 20th in the NFL.
After two decades of redefining his position, he longs for a rocking chair and a blanket for his lap.
At this same time several years ago, you may recall, ex-Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter called a news conference to announce that he was not retiring.
However, if you know anything about Jerry Rice, you know that he is a competition junkie. The competition he and many other elite athletes seek cannot be found on the celebrity golf circuit.
Rice will play the game as long as he is able to do so without insulting his pride. That’s why his statements, while no doubt reflecting his true feelings at the time, should not be considered his final say on the matter.
Whether Rice will play beyond next season won’t hinge on past comments so much as his performance on the field next season. If he remains productive, whether it be with the Raiders or some other team, you can bet he will return in 2005.
“I’m not going to be the guy to tell Jerry Rice he ain’t going to be here,” Norv Turner said during Monday’s news conference announcing him as the new Raiders coach.
Even at 41, Rice displays glimpses of his former greatness. There is still the occasional explosive burst we remember so well. He’s still capable of taking over a game in short stretches.
He may have even had more than 63 catches for 869 yards if the Raiders offense hadn’t been so dysfunctional as a unit this season. Those totals were both team highs, by the way. He also averaged 13.8 yards per catch, which led all Raiders regulars.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Rice remains a good fit for the Raiders, however. There are many variables.
It depends on whether Tim Brown returns next season. There’s no reason to keep both aging veterans when they play the same role. It depends on whether the Raiders want to get younger at the receiver position.
Do you want to keep an aging Jerry Rice or do you want to find the next Rice?
It also will depend on which way the Raiders decide to go in the draft. Last season’s futility will be rewarded with the No. 2 overall pick. The franchise is reportedly so cash-strapped that managing general partner Al Davis might consider trading down for a less expensive player.
If they remain at the second spot, they could be in position to draft Heisman Trophy runner-up Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh and pair him with Jerry Porter.
If the Raiders drafted Fitzgerald, a rare talent, Rice could be relegated to the team’s third receiver.
It would hardly be an insult at this stage of his career. In fact, it might be ideal for a player with diminishing skills. Still, it’s difficult to imagine Rice embracing a lesser role.
Rice will play next season, even if he admits that returning to the Raiders is not entirely up to him. He may decide to retire after next season or he may do what Roger Clemens has done and decide to come back for another year.
He’ll play as long as he’s productive. As long as he’s not damaging his legacy, the rocking chair will have to wait. Anything else you might hear, even if it comes from Rice’s own mouth, is just more pre-Super Bowl noise.