NFL legend Jerry Rice isn't a recent member of the 49ers hype train - he just might be the conductor. The Hall of Fame receiver went on record early last season as a full believer of San Francisco's ability to reach the Super Bowl. Fast forward several months later, the San Francisco 49ers were crowned NFC Champions and stood under seven minutes away from hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy in almost 25 years.
Joining the 49ers official Instagram account in a live discussion on Monday, Rice doubled down on his early beliefs in San Francisco's talent being at the top of the league in 2019 and optimistically, for the foreseeable future.
"I think it starts with Jimmy Garoppolo," Rice said. "Then, I was looking at the receiving (corps) with Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders. And then the running game. And then, on defense, with all those guys.
"I just felt like they had all the pieces in place. It was up to those players to go out and compete every ball game, and to build confidence, to build momentum, and you could see that momentum towards the end in what they were able to accomplish."
As many might recall, history hasn't been too kind to Super Bowl runner ups. Just eight teams in NFL history have returned to the Big Game a season following the loss (Dallas Cowboys - 1971, Miami Dolphins - 1972, Minnesota Vikings - 1973, Denver Broncos - 1987, Buffalo Bills - 1991-93 and the New England Patriots - 2018). Of the teams who returned to the Super Bowl, only three in NFL history ('71 Cowboys, '72 Dolphins and '18 Patriots) have managed to go on and win the title the following season.
Rice, who owns three Super Bowl titles himself and was named Super Bowl XXIII MVP, is aware that a return to the Championship game can be a daunting charge. He believes San Francisco's biggest hurdle in returning the Big Game in 2020 doesn't just rely on the 49ers current roster, instead, it's that now the rest of the league is officially on notice.
"I think you're a target now because every team is going to give you their best shot," Rice said. "Every game is going to be like a playoff game, and I have gone through this. It's hard the next year. You've got to battle through, but I feel like they have the players that can do that, and it starts with Jimmy Garoppolo. I think he had a great season last year. I think he's only going to get better.
"And you've got to have defense, also. You win championships with defense. So, everything is there, but they're going to have to fight hard this year because every game is going to be a physical game, and you better be ready to play because teams, they're going to come after you."
Fortunately for San Francisco, the 49ers managed to bring back several key starters from last season in what was regarded as one of the top rosters in 2019, while adding impactful talent and depth through the draft and free agency. Though a return to the Big Game might be an uphill climb for any team looking to return to dominance, Rice believes that championship window is still open for the 49ers and the right pieces are aligned to seize the opportunity in 2020.
"We came up a little short in the Super Bowl, but we had a great season last year and I feel like they still have all those pieces in place right now," Rice added. "The time is now for the San Francisco 49ers. It's right now. You can't be looking down the road. You've got everybody in place right now, so you need to get it done."