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How can you forget to pass to Jerry Rice?

Few can argue that he is the most accomplished and decorated player in the history of the NFL. Production and Jerry Rice, who holds 13 NFL records, have become synonymous.

So it was a stunner to the NFL and its fans last weekend when the veteran of 20 seasons played a game in which he did not make a catch.

Not one single catch.

It ended a streak of 274 consecutive games with at least one reception and sent ripples across the league.

"I almost cried on set," former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said on his weekly NFL Radio show. "It hurt me that bad. And I know Jerry a little bit. But to see his look, to see his body, and his expression, that hurt me because the guy has gone almost 20 years catching (at least) a pass."

Colts coach Tony Dungy was surprised and wondered how the Raiders could not have realized the streak was in jeopardy.

"I would think you would (throw him a pass to continue his streak)," Dungy said. "Obviously, you're trying to win ballgames, and that's the most important thing, but it's hard for me to fathom how you have Jerry Rice and you don't have some type of plan to get him the ball. I just think you're getting him the ball to try to win games.

"I guess maybe (Raiders coach) Norv (Turner) doesn't believe in that script. I can tell you one thing, I know in all those West Coast teams, somewhere in that 15-page script is a pass to Jerry Rice. I'm sure of it. To see it end that way _ I guess it has to come to an end sometime, but I was a little surprised at that myself."

The streak began Dec. 9, 1985, in San Francisco against the Rams. The second highest is 183 straight games by Art Monk, and next in line is former teammate and new Buccaneer Tim Brown, who enters tonight's game with a catch in 174 consecutive games.

"I just hate hearing these guys saying they didn't know," Brown said. "Nobody knew? Nobody was aware? I mean that's Jerry Rice on your team. If you are aware Jerry Rice is on your team, you have to be aware his streak is there. I understand too that everybody is struggling with that offense. "I am sure they are thinking about a lot of things right now other than trying to get Jerry the ball. It is unfortunate. The guy works his butt off to be in position, to be on the field. If you are going to have him out there starting, get him the ball in some kind of way. I am glad to see Jerry has handled the situation very classy."

Sharpe said Rice had earned the right to expect his streak to be kept alive.

"You can debate every other position, about who was the greatest to play the game," Sharpe said. "But the only lock in the NFL, in the history of the game, 85 years, is Jerry Rice. You can debate running back: Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders; quarterback: John Elway, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino; lineman with Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene, you can debate all that. But when you talk about the wide receiver position, it starts and ends with the guy from Mississippi."

_ ROGER MILLS, Times staff writer