Ping-Pong Football The Bills and the 49ers raced from end zone to end zone, with Buffalo finally proving it can win a matchup with an NFC powerhouse
OH, MY HEAVENS, IS THIS WHAT the Super Bowl is going to be like?
The 34-31 Buffalo Bill win over the San Francisco 49ers at
Candlestick Park on Sunday was the kind of thing the Bills have
promised twice and never delivered, the kind of thing that leaves
football purists weeping, that has pencils flying all over the place
as statisticians try to keep up with all the mad rushes up and down
the field. Please, let me catch my breath, and I'll tell you about
First Buffalo and Jim Kelly: Down 24-13 at the half, with his
team's defense falling all over itself trying to run down the 49er
receivers, Kelly takes the Bills on two touchdown drives on their
first two possessions of the third quarter. Down 31-27 in the fourth
quarter, he takes them on another march to put the final points on
the board. Can't win on grass, can't beat an NFC heavy on the road --
Buffalo answered those charges with style.
Stay cool, it's only the second game of the year, the coaches in
both locker rooms were saying during the week, but the players knew
different. ''Everyone's going to be watching this game to see how we
measure up,'' Steve Tasker, the Bills' Pro Bowl special-teamer and
sometime wideout, said last Thursday. ''People want to know what
we're made of. Will we take a dive against a great NFC team, or can
we beat one? It's a reality check for us. It's not just the second
game of the year.''
Now the numbers: 1,086 total yards for both teams, with the Niners
holding a 598-488 edge and setting a club record; 403 passing yards
for Kelly and 449 for San Francisco's Steve Young, NFL highs for
both; six catches and 159 yards, career bests, for wideout Mike
Sherrard, who came in for the 49ers when Jerry Rice was knocked cold
in the first series. Even Pete Metzelaars, Buffalo's tight end, a
blocker by trade, got into the act with 113 receiving yards, one less
than he got in the last two seasons combined.
There were no punts in the game. Zero. That had never happened
before in the NFL. ''Fans of the punting game got screwed,'' Buffalo
center Ken Hull said.
And how about this one: There were 42 plays in the game that
gained 10 yards or more. Adding-machine football. Put a stamp on the
ball and mail it.
''Yeah, I guess the fans love it,'' said Buffalo general manager
Bill Polian, ''but for purists like me it causes heart attacks.''
''Good for the fans, good for the TV ratings,'' Bill coach Marv
Levy said. ''Personally I thought our 10-7 win over Denver last
season was a better game.''
For Kelly and Young this was old stuff. ''Seems that in the USFL
we were always playing these 34-31 things,'' Young said. Kelly
quarterbacked the run- and-shoot Houston Gamblers, Young the L.A.
Express. It was Kelly who reminded Young after Sunday's game about
those old days: ''I said, 'Just like that time in L.A., huh?' '' In
1985 Kelly and Young put on an 829-yard passing show, with the
Gamblers winning 34-33 in front of 18,828 fans basking in the sun at
the Coliseum. ''The stands were so empty, we had to whisper in the
huddle so the other guys wouldn't hear our plays,'' Young said.
Sunshine football -- fling it up and have fun. But, hey, it isn't
supposed to be that way now. This is serious: two Super Bowl-caliber
teams with complicated defensive schemes and coaches
situation-substituting like mad. In addition to forcing turnovers,
which evened out at 3-3, you've got to stop the other guys and make
them punt at least once, don't you? Don't you!
Didn't happen. The Bills opened in a dime alignment, with six
defensive backs, the theory being that the 49ers are more dangerous
through the air than on the ground. And to spice it up, Buffalo
flopped All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith, who'd had a huge game in
the Bills' season-opening rout of the Los Angeles Rams, to the weak
side, away from the tight end, and moved linebackers Darryl Talley
and Cornelius Bennett into unexpected spots. This package of exotica
lasted exactly one series as Young marched the Niners smartly down
the field into three-point range, where Mike Cofer blew a 33-yarder.
So thereafter Buffalo played it honest -- and still spent most of
the afternoon watching 49er receivers break out of arm tackles or
shrug off defenders or simply sprint away from the coverage, turning
little crossing routes and hooks into 50-yard gainers. Sherrard, who
missed the 1987, '88 and '89 seasons when he broke the same leg
twice, did it. So did John Taylor, the regular split end, and even
Odessa Turner, the fourth wideout and a Plan B pickup from the New
York Giants, who scored his first touchdown in three years on a
neatly executed pick play. ''At times it was just awful to watch,''
Hull said. ''We preach, Run after the catch, but I've never seen
anyone do it like those guys.''
But the Niner defense was having its problems too. The heat,
officially announced as 75 degrees but at least 15 degrees hotter on
the field, and the Bills' no-huddle offense were having their effect.
So was the Buffalo offensive scheme, which occasionally lined up
tailback Thurman Thomas on the wing or in the slot.
The Bills got their first touchdown on a pass to Thomas on a
corner route after he had lined up wide. On another score they put
three wideouts on the field and Thomas in the slot, creating a
four-receiver look, and then slipped Metzelaars into the clear on a
crossing route through a vacated zone. And that was after the 6 ft. 7
in., 250-pound Metzelaars had broken a 53-yarder for a TD, the
longest of his career, on a matchup that had him getting man coverage
from 6 ft. 2 in., 206-pound free safety Dana Hall. He simply
shrugged Hall off -- ''kind of like a tree blowing in the wind,''
''They gave us weird formations,'' 49er linebacker Mike Walter
said. ''They needed five yards, they got it; they needed 10, they got
it. It starts rolling on you. You don't have time to make your calls,
with the speed of the no- huddle.''
''Communication, that's the toughest thing,'' Niner linebacker
Bill Romanowski said. ''Your cornerback's out there getting ready to
play a coverage. Then they come out in an 'empty' formation -- that's
when Thomas is flanked and there's no one in the backfield -- and
it's hard to get the call out to the corner. Sometimes we did,
sometimes we didn't.''
''Ping-Pong football,'' Hull said. And it finally came down to the
Bills' last drive, when they were behind by four and Kelly was facing
a third-and-16 on the San Francisco 32. Kelly got 12 yards on a
crossing pattern to Andre Reed, who made his 10th catch of the day,
and nine more on a square-out to James Lofton. Then Thomas banged it
in from the 11, and the score was 34-31 with 3:04 left.
The 49ers had one more shot. Young had done a terrific job with a
shorthanded offense that had lost Rice and then tight end Brent Jones
(hamstring). He had been accurate on his reads, nifty on his
scrambles (seven for 50 yards). ''If I were running their offense,
I'd just have Young roll out every play until they scored,'' Hull
said. ''I mean, the guy runs a 4.5 40, and our defense was tired.''
It hasn't been easy for Young. There's pressure from above, from
Joe Montana and the uncertainty of where Young will fit in when
Montana comes back from injured reserve after his right elbow heals,
and pressure from below, from Steve Bono, who runs the offense with
precision but less flair.
''Sure there's been pressure on Steve,'' coach George Seifert said
earlier in the week. ''There's pressure on everybody. That's
professional sports. You want to play, you want to coach, then you
can't be consumed by pressure. Sometimes it can toughen you, and
Steve Young has become a damn good quarterback.''
And in eight plays on the final drive, including one bootleg for a
first down, Young advanced the Niners to the Buffalo 29. But on
third-and-nine Mike Lodish, a backup noseguard, slipped through the
49er protection and pressured Young into throwing incomplete. It was
up to Cofer, who, in addition to missing the 33-yarder at the outset,
had barely made a 24-yarder when the ball caromed in off the left
upright. This time his 47-yarder went wide right, just as Scott
Norwood's had in the Bills' one-point loss to the Giants two Super
Bowls ago. Poetic justice of a much lesser sort.
''Today the defense should have apologized to Steve Young,''
Who were the heroes of this Buffalo victory? Well, Kelly, of
course, and an offensive line that held off the rush and gave him
time to go to his second and third reads, to watch his wideouts break
their crossing patterns and shed the coverage -- to do, in fact,
pretty much what he wanted to, a luxury denied him in the last Super
Bowl, in which the Washington Redskin pass rushers poured in on him.
The best pass rusher the 49ers had, Charles Haley, is in Dallas
now, traded before the season began because he was just too hard to
handle, the coaches said. His replacement is former Packer Tim
Harris, a sturdy chap but nowhere near the force coming around the
corner that Haley was. The Niners could have used another cover guy
on Sunday. Merton Hanks, a second-year pro, had to take Reed, lined
up in the slot, and it was a mismatch. San Francisco needed Darryl
Pollard, a cornerback who was coming back from a broken ankle and
having a pretty good camp before he got cut because he wouldn't
accept a $200,000 pay reduction. He's in Tampa Bay now.
Budget-trimming, fiscal responsibility -- these are new things in
San Francisco, and they will stand 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo in
better stead with the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation in Youngstown,
Ohio. But on this frantic afternoon they didn't work too well.