Earth to Sim. You there?

Published October 22, 2006

Back on his home planet, perhaps Simeon Rice is having a great year.

There among the fading stars, around the corner from Krypton and four planets down from Lovetron, beneath the orange sky, Rice remains a stellar defensive end.

Here on Earth, however, the guy is still lost in space.

He is a great athlete. We know this because Rice told us. He is a dominator. He told us that, too. He is the best player in the league and the standard for defensive ends and the guy who makes the Bucs’ engine go. When it comes to the subject of Rice, Rice always had a lot to say.

These days, it is only his play that is silent.

He has not been great.

He has not been good.

He has been, for the most part, a ghost.

Unless you count his moments of playing air guitar, we have seen little of Rice this season. There was a brief sighting during the second half against Carolina, but except for that, he has been invisible.

In five games, Rice has one sack. He has 11 solo tackles. For the most part, watching Rice has been like watching a stock car racer drive on cruise control.

Whether Rice is paying attention or not, the world is calling him out. Giants defensive end Michael Strahan had something to say about Rice last week. So did Panthers receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Last week, Jon Gruden mentioned his name.

More than anyone else, however, the Bucs called out Rice when they auctioned off Booger McFarland, the other half of the Vapor Twins. As warning signs go, that was a franchise shaking Rice’s lapels.

Big paycheck? Small production? Gee, Sim. Sound like anyone else you know?

“My thing is, how are you going to have a defensive player of the year award and I’m not even (considered)?’’— Simeon Rice, 2006

When things are going well, when a team is winning, Rice is a delightful side dish. When the defense is smothering opponents, when his sacks are coming with incredible frequency, it is easy to laugh at his runaway bluster and admire Rice’s ability.

At such times, Rice seems different, not odd. Reporters love Rice’s locker room because he hates cliches as badly as they do. He speaks in a singsong stream of consciousness, and when he is on a roll, the thumping of his own chest comes across as percussion. No one cares that Rice seems unable to pass a mirror without looking twice.

When a team is losing, however, when Rice has been reduced to a bystander, he turns from character to cartoon. In those times, Rice looks like a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher who observes while waiting for the game to get around to third and 11. He is the $6-million man, and the urge is to check his warranty.

An admission: Despite his getting sent home from San Francisco last year by the Bucs, despite being kicked out of the Pro Bowl by Andy Reid, I’m one of the guys who has been delighted by Rice. Once, I asked him if he considered himself a “me’’ guy.

“Yeah, I am,’’ he said. “There is a 'me’ in team, you know? There might not be an 'I,’ but there is a 'me.’ Without 'me,’ there is no team. There’s just a 't’ and an 'a.’’’

And then Rice said he wanted to be the best there ever was.

Sing your own song, eventually, fans are going to ask you to live up to the lyrics. Proclaim your greatness, and sure enough, the world is going to hold you to it.

That’s the reality here. The Bucs are 1-4 and tied for 28th in the NFL in sacks. If Rice really is the next Bruce Smith, the next Reggie White, right about now would be a good idea to remind everyone.

Look, I don’t know how many sacks Deacon Jones would have if he were playing for the Bucs right now. But I’m betting it would be a lot more than one.

And Jones is 67 years old.
 “It’s time for me to be one of the greatest who has ever played this game. I don’t play for money. I play for history. I’m playing for tradition. I’m playing for the legends who came before me.’’
— Simeon Rice, 2004

Even when he was playing well, Rice had his critics. He lacks passion, said some. He doesn’t play the run. He doesn’t care enough.

For Rice, the proper response has been to shrug and dismiss such talk as ignorance or jealousy. If Rice has ever had a bad day, no one was there to witness it, and a critic was never going to land a direct hit.

The more you talk to Rice, however, the easier it is to see that he is wounded when the great defensive ends are discussed and his name is not among the first ones mentioned. Even when the Bucs won the Super Bowl, Rice felt slighted that the Internet voting kept him from being named MVP.

You can imagine, then, how this season has felt for Rice.

First of all, his position coach, Rod Marinelli left. From the time the Bucs first signed Rice, the word was they did so because Marinelli could motivate Rice into playing hard all of the time. This year, Marinelli is gone. Much of the time, Rice is too.

Last week, Strahan attempted to block his own criticism by shielding himself with Rice.

“If you just want to pay attention to the other stuff and just run up the field, then you’re going to be a Simeon Rice,’’ Strahan told New York reporters. “You can get big numbers, but you don’t have the respect of the defensive ends.’’

If that weren’t enough, former teammate Johnson piled on in an article in the Charlotte Observer. “All Simeon Rice does is rush the passer. That’s it,’’ Johnson said. “If he doesn’t get to the quarterback, you can forget it. He ain’t making any other plays.’’

Carolina’s Julius Peppers this year has eight sacks, by the way. He faces some double-teams, too.
By all accounting, Rice has had a great career. You don’t get to 120 sacks without passion, and you don’t work out as fiercely as Rice if you don’t care.

But yes, it is time for Rice to realize that occasional greatness is not enough. The Bucs need him to be more. They need three or four game-defining plays from him.

It’s what great players do.

Afterward, they talk.

- Gary Shelton can be reached at gshelton@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8805.