The San Francisco 49ers have made three NFC Championship appearances, advancing to one Super Bowl, in the last four seasons. Last year, injuries hampered the Niners' chances, but NFL legend and Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice believes this year’s team – from the top down – is the complete package.
Rice, 60, told Fox News Digital in an interview that he expects San Francisco to have an “exceptional season” this year and predicts that the NFL’s newly approved emergency third quarterback rule will greatly benefit the team that ultimately inspired the change.
“You know that was something that we had back in the day, and we could've used that last year during that championship game,” Rice said. “To see Brock (Purdy) go down, then see our backup go down and not have a quarterback, it was very frustrating. But I think it's going to be helpful with three quarterbacks now.”
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Purdy, the final draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, became San Francisco’s unsuspecting savior.
After being named the third-stringer behind Jimmy Garoppolo, who led the 49ers to Super Bowl LIV in his first full season as a starter, and Trey Lance, who was named the 2022 starting quarterback after a big investment from the organization, Purdy was called into action after both players were ruled out with season-ending injuries.
He took over the starting role with ease in Week 14 and led the Niners to five straight regular-season victories. Two more wins in the playoffs led to an appearance in the conference championship, but Purdy tore his UCL early on against the Philadelphia Eagles. He was replaced by backup Josh Johnson who would later go down with a concussion, forcing the 49ers to rely on running back Christian McCaffrey.
Following surgery in March, Purdy will be ready to start this season and Rice believes the 49ers have all the components necessary to be a Super Bowl-caliber team.
“Brock Purdy is ready to go. [Backup] Sam Darnold is ready to go. And then we got our third [emergency quarterback]. So, I expect the Niners to come out and have an exceptional season. They have it on offense, they have it on defense. You know, they got a quarterback that came in and that took over and won seven games in a row. So, it's time to go in and get that trophy.”
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Rice also praised San Francisco’s dynamic offense, which includes McCaffrey in his first full season for the 49ers, and predicted that fourth-year wideout Brandon Aiyuk will have his best season yet.
“I think Brandon Aiyuk is going to have a breakout season. He's one of the best route runners, and you notice this explosion downfield – along with Deebo Samuel, McCaffrey and George Kittle and with Brock coming back – I think he's going to be exceptional.”
Aiyuk, 25, led the team in receiving yards (1,015) and receptions (78) last season.
For Rice, injuries to the quarterback position is the only real threat standing in the way of San Francisco winning its first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.
“I don't want to try to jinx that or anything like that, but it's like he's the most important component right now,” Rice said. “But if you lose your quarterback, your main guy, it's going to be difficult.”
On the bright side, Rice believes this Niners roster embodies the “next man up” mentality.
“You're always going to have injuries and the next guy in line is going to have to elevate his game and do whatever it takes to help the team to win. And I think we have that with today's 49ers. I think [head coach] Kyle Shanahan, [general manager] John Lynch, they are doing an exceptional job, and now it's just up to the players to take over this team and say, ‘Hey, look, let's go win it.'”
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Rice’s praise of the 49ers’ front office follows the organization's decision to trade highly drafted Trey Lance to the Dallas Cowboys last month. He sees it as a mutually beneficial situation, one that allows Lance to have a “legitimate shot.”
“I just think that it worked out for both sides,” he said.
“Things just didn't really pan out. I don't know. It was one of those things where when he got his opportunity, then he got hurt. He started showing flashes, then he got hurt. Being that third [string quarterback], I didn't see that happening. I think it just worked better for both sides that he went on to the Dallas Cowboys. He's going to have a legitimate shot now.”
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Rice played the majority of his 20-year NFL career in San Francisco. He recorded 1,000 receiving yards or more across 14 seasons, including 11 straight with the 49ers and still holds virtually every significant NFL receiving record, including career receptions, receiving touchdowns, receiving yards and career touchdowns.
But fans will have the opportunity to see the three-time Super Bowl champion suit up again alongside other NFL legends this season when he debuts in PepsiCo’s 2023 NFL Kickoff campaign, “Unretirement.”
“It felt so good,” Rice said of wearing his uniform again for the commercial, which will premiere on Sunday. “I put it on and everything, it was just like when I played back in the day.”
“Well, I have to admit, they didn't taper the jersey enough because, you know, I work out really hard like this crazy guy. So, I would always have my jersey nice and fitted, but, you know, otherwise it felt good,” he added with a smile.
San Francisco will open the season on Sept. 10 at the Pittsburgh Steelers.