EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — When you play wide receiver and the last name “RICE” is stitched across the back of your jersey, it’s hard to escape lofty expectations.
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Minnesota receiver Sidney Rice is no relation to Jerry, who is widely viewed as the best to ever play the position. And while Sidney can’t measure up to Jerry’s legacy on the field, or even the dance floor, he is finally starting to fulfill the potential the Vikings saw when they made him a second-round pick three years ago.
Rice is second in the NFC with 409 yards receiving and leads the Vikings with 23 receptions. He had six catches for a career-high 176 yards last weekend, including a 58-yarder late in the fourth quarter that set up the game-winning field goal to beat the Baltimore Ravens.
“It means a lot, a whole lot, and I just can’t get away from the small things that I have been doing during the season,” Rice said. “I have to continue to work hard throughout the season; do the extra things that I have been doing after practice — catching extra balls, running hills — just the small things to make me a more complete receiver.”
After a solid rookie season in Minnesota’s run-first offense, Rice injured his knee early last year and never looked quite right. He finished with just 15 catches for 141 yards in 13 games, but did manage to score four touchdowns.
In the offseason, he rededicated himself to his workouts, hoping to strengthen his knee and prepare for the rigors of an NFL season.
Rice worked with Arizona All-Pro –and Minneapolis native –Larry Fitzgerald at the University of Minnesota this summer. Former Vikings great Cris Carter and several other NFL receivers worked out there as well, pushing Rice harder than he had ever been pushed before.
“Working with those guys showed me the light,” Rice said.
Coach Brad Childress said he could see the difference when Rice showed up at training camp. He saw a bigger, stronger, more confident player after what the coach called “an exceptional offseason.”
“He’s a monster,” Fitzgerald said, high praise from perhaps the best receiver in the game today. But Fitzgerald has a point. Rice is a legit 6-foot-4 and can leap, making him an imposing threat on the outside.
That’s a big target for new quarterback Brett Favre, who has formed a chemistry with the former South Carolina Gamecock. That was never more evident than on Sunday, when Favre looked Rice’s way for several big plays.
First was a short slant that Rice turned into a 63-yard gain to setup up a field goal by Ryan Longwell in the third quarter.
Then, with the Vikings trailing for the first time in the game, Favre threw deep for Rice, who had cornerback Frank Walker draped all over him. Walker was tugging on Rice’s jersey for about 10 yards before the ball arrived, but even the pass interference couldn’t prevent Rice from making a leaping catch to set up Longwell’s game-winner.
“I’ve never had a guy like Sidney who can make those types of plays,” Favre said. “It’s a luxury.”
It’s all about confidence, according to Rice. He learned through those grueling summer workouts with Fitzgerald, Carter and other elite receivers that he has the talent to belong in the NFL. Now Rice is one of the last Vikings off the practice field each day, running extra routes and hitting the hill for conditioning work.
“All-around maturity is a big part of it, too,” Rice said. “It’s all about maturing and taking advantage of the opportunities you get.”
And it appears to be paying off.
“Sidney possesses all of the natural ability,” Fitzgerald said. “It definitely helps having Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson with him, but he’s so gifted. His potential is off the charts. It was just a matter of time until he has the confidence. He’s playing with a lot of confidence now — you see what he did (Sunday). And I’m happy to see it.”
AP Sports Writer Gregg Bell in Seattle contributed to this story.