Rice Envisions Future Beyond San Francisco

It’s hard to imagine Jerry Rice wearing any uniform but the one in which he set every significant NFL receiving record and won three Super Bowls.

Rice, however, can imagine it.

Rice doesn’t plan to retire after this season, and his desire to give the San Francisco 49ers’ young receivers freedom to develop means he is likely to play elsewhere next year.

Best Catcher to Play the Game

“I wanted to finish my career here, but the way it’s going now, it looks like it isn’t going to happen,” Rice said Monday.

Rice holds 14 NFL records and is generally considered the best pass-catcher ever to play the game. At the 49ers’ practice facility after San Francisco returned home from a 41-24 loss to St. Louis, Rice said he won’t retire after this, his 16th season with the 49ers.

“J.J. (Stokes), Terrell (Owens), Tai Streets, those guys deserve the opportunity I had,” Rice said. “I’m not going to retire, because I still feel like I can play football, but I don’t want to hold those guys back. … This organization has been good to me.”

Rice was an integral part of three championship-winning teams in San Francisco, catching passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young as the 49ers’ dynasty reached its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

After catching three passes for 44 yards against the Rams, Rice has 1,217 career receptions for 18,567 yards and 168 touchdowns.

Rice agreed to a restructured, incentive-laden five-year, $31 million contract in June that keeps him under contract to San Francisco through 2004. At the time, Rice said the opportunity to stay with the 49ers was “the most important thing. This is where I wanted to finish my career.”

Rice, who turns 38 next month, said he has spoken to his agent, Jim Steiner, about playing for another team next season. Steiner did not return a phone call Monday.

From Star to Support

Rice gradually has taken on a supporting role in recent years, and he has stayed in San Francisco while most of the integral parts of the 49ers’ dynasty departed. The 12-time Pro Bowl selection’s 67 catches last season led the 49ers but were his fewest in a full season since 1988.

Young, who threw an NFL-record 85 TD passes to Rice, retired in June and Rice is one of just three players on the Niners’ roster — linebacker Ken Norton Jr. and lineman Ray Brown being the others — with more than 10 years of service.

With 11 catches for 125 yards, he is San Francisco’s third-leading receiver this season behind Owens and running back Charlie Garner. The rebuilding version of the 49ers has lost 14 of its last 15 games, surely another factor in Rice’s plans to leave town.

“It’s hard, but football is something that I still love,” Rice said. “It’s frustrating. I wish I could do more, play a bigger role, but this team has to think about the future. I want these guys to get opportunities just like I had.

“I still feel like I’m capable of playing good football, but it’s important for these guys to get their chances to develop.”

Though they give Rice credit for mentoring them and hold no animosity toward the veteran, his young teammates seem to agree with his assessment.

Making it Easier for Others

In particular, Stokes has been nearly frozen out of the 49ers’ offensive plans this year. After catching 63 passes in 1998, he has just six receptions this year — five in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to Carolina — and he has complained to the team’s coaching staff about his lack of involvement.

“It’s rough on everybody,” Stokes said. “You’ve got four guys that are scraping and scrounging to get a ball, just to get in [the game].”

Owens, a fifth-year player, said he likely would be further along in his development if the 49ers didn’t have so many quality receivers.

“I shouldn’t have to go to a coach and say, ‘Throw me the ball,“‘ Owens said. “It’s not a question of Jerry holding us back. It’s almost like the coach holding us back.”