Four days after scoring the memorable touchdown that beat New England, Sidney Rice played a game in San Francisco he’d just as soon forget.
The wide receiver regarded as the Seattle Seahawks’ version of a deep threat caught two inconsequential passes and made one throw Thursday night.
The throw wasn’t recorded on the stat sheet but still got noticed by a national cable-television audience, which had reason to believe: Sidney Rice is not impressed right now with the decision-making skills of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson, whose third-quarter pass in the general direction of a teammate was intercepted by safety Dashon Goldson – among the three 49ers swarming intended receiver Braylon Edwards – didn’t notice Rice open on the other side of the field. This apparently frustrated Rice to the point he removed his mouth guard and heaved it.
After the 13-6 defeat, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Rice’s anger was directed not at the quarterback but at the officials. They didn’t call defensive holding, Carroll explained, so that’s why Rice was upset.
Uh, OK. Defensive holding. Got it.
Rice didn’t make himself available to reporters to clarify that version of the play, and Wilson’s take was typically coated in vanilla.
“Sidney and I are close,” insisted the ever-diplomatic quarterback, who could find the nice in an observation about termite infestation, sour milk and the cancellation of the last flight home on Christmas Eve. “He’s a guy who loves to compete at the highest level, and obviously I want to get the ball to Sidney as much as I can.”
My hunch? Rice’s frustration had nothing to do with defensive holding and everything to do with the kid who didn’t see him. I make this case because, for one, receivers who’ve been held tend to confront the nearest official – Rice didn’t – and, for two, he isn’t getting the ball as much as he should.
In a league where rules have been amended to favor explosive offenses, the Sea-hawks are a Bic lighter, one flick from empty. Marshawn Lynch might run with the same insatiable appetite for contact that distinguished the late and very great Walter Payton, but the roll call of Hawks who can move the first-down chains in 20 and 30-yard increments pretty much begins, and ends, with Sidney Rice.
Rice was targeted once in the first half Thursday. He caught a 27-yard pass midway through the second quarter that put the Seahawks in position to attempt a 50-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka. It missed.
Before he identified Rice as a target, Wilson threw passes aimed at a fullback (Michael Robinson), a slot receiver (Doug Baldwin), a running back (Lynch), a backup running back (Robert Turbin), a backup tight end (Evan Moore), a backup wide receiver (Ben Obomanu) and another backup wide receiver (Edwards).
Each of these players has a role. Each has virtues Carroll deemed significant enough to compete against the 49ers. None of these players came to Seattle as a $41 million free agent, with $18 million guaranteed, the way Rice did.
While I’m calloused to the enormous numbers of pro-sports contracts – hey, it’s not my money – I’ve got this stodgy, old-fashioned way of looking at a contract guaranteeing $18 million to an NFL wide receiver such as Sidney Rice.
Find him. Lean on him. Make him a playbook priority instead of the eighth receiving target in a pivotal game against the defending NFC West champions.
It’s easy to see why the Wilson-to-Rice connection remains a work in progress: Wilson is a rookie, and Rice, who spent the offseason recovering from surgeries on both shoulders, wasn’t granted clearance to go full speed, full contact until the third exhibition game. Chemistry between a passer and a receiver – that seemingly telepathic sense of when to throw and where the ball will go – can’t be developed overnight.
And yet, in the season opener at Arizona, Wilson threw nine passes to Rice. It was as if the quarterback, in his pro football debut, craved a veteran, go-to receiver he could depend on.
Or maybe not. The following week, Rice was targeted a mere five times against Dallas. The week after that, against Green Bay, he had one pass thrown his way.
Rice is averaging about three receptions a game, on five target attempts. He’s scored two touchdowns. These modest stats scream with the same ferocity Rice used to throw his mouth guard: He’s under-performing only because he’s underutilized.
The knock on Rice is that he’s brittle, and that’s fair criticism. Since his 2007 rookie season at Minnesota, he’s been able to start 10 or more games only once, in 2009, when he caught 83 passes from Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.
That was the season Rice, in a game against Detroit, torched the Lions for 201 yards on seven receptions. He was 23 and healthy then, and he’s 26 and healthy now.
Rice is not Superman. But every once in a while, when the stars are aligned, he plays the part on TV.
The Seahawks face the Lions on Sunday in Detroit. If Wilson lobs passes to his fullback and running back and reserve tight end and backup wideout before he gets around to looking for a genuine playmaker, Sidney Rice’s frustration will be shared from three time zones away.