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What if the 49ers had not drafted Jerry Rice?

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This is a strange alternate reality

Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.

Jerry Rice. The GOAT. When you thought of the 49ers in the 80s and 90s, you thought of the quarterback play and the Jerry Rice Show. One of the many fascinating things of Jerry Rice’s career is how him coming to San Francisco went down. It was a trade engineered by Bill Walsh with the New England Patriots that almost didn’t happen.

As the story goes, the San Francisco 49ers had come off winning their second Super Bowl title in 1984. In the 1985 offseason, they were looking for a new wide receiver. Walsh caught wind of Rice while staying in a hotel, getting the 49ers prepared to play the Houston Oilers. After getting a look at the highlights of Rice with the Mississippi Valley State football team on the news, Walsh was intrigued and started drawing up plays for Rice without having even drafted him.

The strategy for the 1985 Draft was not to accumulate players but pool resources into specific players. According to former 49ers executive Carmen Policy, the 49ers had three wide receivers they were eyeing: Al Toon, Eddie Brown, and Rice.

A small school player, some well-respected scouts were giving Rice a sixth-round grade. Regardless, Walsh knew all of those above-mentioned receivers, including Rice would be gone by the time the 49ers were on the clock with the 28th pick. The pool of wide receiver choices shrunk with the 10th pick when the New York Jets selected Toon.

There was also another problem: there were reports that the Dallas Cowboys were eyeing Rice with the 17th overall pick.

With Brown and Rice available, the 49ers engineered a trade with the New England Patriots. The 49ers got the 16th overall and third rounder (75). The Patriots got a haul with the 28th overall selection, a second rounder (56) and a third rounder (84).

The 49ers weren’t done. After executing the New England trade, Walsh then tried to negotiate with the Cincinnati Bengals at 13th. The Bengals wanted a third rounder in exchange to move up three spots. The 49ers were allegedly trying to get in there to get Brown, but the Bengals wanted him as well and the trade never materialized. Brown went to the Bengals at 13th, Rice was the only wide receiver left.

At 16th, the 49ers selected Rice, and you know what happened after that. Hall of Fame career and the legend of the GOAT is told at dinner tables.

So what happens if that trade doesn’t go through? The Patriots or— ugh, even worse—the Cowboys would have gotten the services of Rice. He’d be catching passes from Troy Aikman. 49ers fans would still watch him in the Super Bowl but in Cowboys colors (ewwww). This strange alternate reality would have put Michael Irvin elsewhere (San Diego maybe?). Would the 49ers have won Super Bowl XXIX in this strange alternate reality? Who knows.

So what if the 49ers managed the trade with Cincinnati and got Eddie Brown instead? That would send Rice to the Bengals. Brown did win offensive rookie of the year in 1985, but in 1989 he was in Super Bowl XXIII where the 49ers made things nigh-unfair with Jerry Rice and Joe Montana also engineered that epic game-winning drive to seal the deal. Would the 49ers have won that game with Brown instead of Rice? Well, Brown only had 32 receiving yards vs Jerry Rice’s 215. And both teams ran very similar offenses.

It’s an alternate reality that’s scary to think about. There were a lot of variables in the 49ers not selecting Rice. Given the outcome to Rice’s career, it worked out for him and the 49ers in the end.