In the brief span of 36 seconds the hagridden San Francisco 49ers recapitulated the long and frustrating history of their sorrows as a professional football team. It was in the third period and the San Franciscans were cheerfully trying to protect or amplify a 14-3 lead over the not-too-potent Washington Redskins. The 49ers themselves had not looked overpowering in the first half, but they seemed to be playing crisp, competent football and to have the Redskins well under control. San Francisco, however, is a team that has lived a long time as the stepchild of disaster, and this afternoon was to be no different from a dozen or two others in the 21 years that the club has been looking for a division championship.
Washington kicked off to open the second half. John Brodie, the 49ers' million-dollar quarterback, sent Ken Willard rumbling through a sizable crack in the Redskin defensive line. The big fullback gained an impressive eight yards before fortune gave San Francisco its first jolt. Willard fumbled, and Ed Breding, substituting for Sam Huff as a Redskin middle linebacker, picked the ball off and returned it three yards to the San Francisco 26-yard line. From there Sonny Jurgensen worked it down to the two and then passed to End Jerry Smith for the touchdown.
Well, it was still 14-10 and, aside from this particular series, the Redskins had not looked formidable. Gene Mingo, a refugee from the American Football League, kicked off. The ball was fielded by Doug Cunningham, a rookie from the University of Mississippi, who returned it with style and speed to the San Francisco 29-yard line, and that is where jolt No. 2 occurred. Hit hard, Cunningham fumbled the ball to Mingo, who accepted it with surprise.
Not many seconds later Washington scored again, and suddenly San Francisco was behind 17-14. While the 49ers rallied to take the lead twice more before the game ended, it was this sudden reversal of fortune that ended their hopes on Sunday.
Not that fate was any kinder later in the game. Things like this happen to San Francisco: Mingo, who may be the wildest field-goal kicker in pro football today, had missed a couple of early attempts from the 33- and 34-yard lines by half the width of the football field. Late in the third period, after the dogged 49ers had gone ahead again 21-17, no one took it very seriously when Mingo lined up to try a field goal for the Redskins from 49 yards out.
But Mingo outdid himself. He not only missed the goalposts, he missed the entire end zone as well, and the attempted field goal went out of bounds on the San Francisco three-yard line. This unlooked-for contretemps put the San Franciscans deep in a hole they could not climb out of. On Washington's next set of downs, Jurgensen passed the Redskins right back into the lead. The game ended with Washington ahead 31-28 as Brodie tried a short pass to Willard. Unaware that he was the intended receiver, Willard never looked around.
So, in this game, as in so many games and seasons in the past, San Francisco began with hopes, strong performance and some élan and wound up defeated. The loss puts the 49ers at five wins and four losses and practically eliminates them from any chance of winning their division, since the Baltimore Colts won their seventh game without a loss and now lead San Francisco by a full three games with five to go.
Frustration is not a new emotion for the 49ers. Only Pittsburgh in the National Football League has known a longer period without a championship of any kind, but at least the Steelers have had no pretensions to grandeur for most of the years of their despair.
The 49ers were organized in 1946 by Tony Morabito, an excitable man who made a fortune hauling lumber and who for a long time seemed on the verge of losing it supporting his football team. For the four years that the old All-America Conference survived, the 49ers were second best. When they joined the NFL in 1950, they were considerably worse than that before they built up to the first of their many letdowns.
In 1957, with one of the finest backfields in NFL history—Y. A. Tittle at quarterback, Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson as the running backs—San Francisco finished the regular season tied with the Detroit Lions for first place in the West. In the playoff game that followed, the 49ers built up a 27-7 lead, and the long-suffering San Francisco fans were noisily exuberant. They were premature. San Francisco lost 31-27.
That was 10 years ago. Time and again since their near miss the 49ers have seemed ready to make a strong move. After John Brodie replaced Tittle and Red Hickey took over as head coach, they shocked the football world with the shotgun formation, operated by three quarterbacks—Brodie, Bill Kilmer and Bobby Waters. The shotgun exploded for 49 points against Detroit, but Clark Shaughnessy, then the coach of the Chicago Bear defense, found and exploited the weaknesses in that offense.
Until 1965, when the nucleus of the current team came to San Francisco, the club floundered. Then Willard and John David Crow combined to give Brodie unaccustomedly strong running to balance his passing and the 49ers finished fourth at 7-6-1. Last year only a loss on the final day of the season kept them out of second place.
So long a history of mischance has no clear-cut explanation. The San Francisco players, by and large, have been as good as any in the league. The coaching has more often than not been better than average, and the San Francisco management has been paternalistic in the good sense of that word. They have carried one of the highest payrolls in the league ever since the club was formed.
One veteran, looking back over the tantalizing years he has spent with the team, shook his head when he was asked to explain the unfailing failure of the team. "I've tried to figure it out," he said. "We've had lots of injuries over the years, but that's part of the game. I think the real trouble is that we're not a mentally tough club. I hate to say that, but I think that may be it."
San Francisco itself is a sophisticated city with none of the raw enthusiasms and drives of such places as Green Bay, Chicago, Los Angeles or Baltimore. Most football teams are considered to reflect the personality of the coach, but with the 49ers it may be the city. They have remained unruffled by defeat even under the whiplash contempt of Hickey, who quit the club in 1963 after he had found it impossible to create in the players his own fierce desire to win.
This year the 49ers have had more than their usual share of injuries. Willard has had bad feet; Dave Parks, the All-Pro end, has had a series of nagging illnesses and injuries. John Thomas, an all-league offensive guard, tore ligaments in both knees on the same play in Philadelphia, and last week Monty Stickles, the veteran tight end, broke his arm. Although there have been rumors that as many as six members of the team are playing out their options, in fact only two—injured substitute Quarterback George Mira and Parks—have not signed new contracts.
Sitting relaxed in the dressing room before Sunday's game, Brodie seemed cheerful. He has not had a sparkling season, but some of his difficulties may have come from the multiplicity of receivers he has had to throw to.
"We have to have help from someone else," he said. "But you know this league. Anyone can win. All you need is luck. We lost a couple of games we shouldn't have, and those put us deep in trouble. We should have beaten the Rams last week, but we had the ball for 13 minutes and 20 seconds in the first quarter, 20 plays to the Rams' three, and we got only seven points. Then we should not have let Detroit beat us. Our only bad game was at Baltimore."
Jack Christiansen, the tall, quiet head coach of the team, has—like previous 49er coaches—learned to live with adversity, although not comfortably. "The Detroit game really hurt us," he said. "They have Jim David coaching defense for them now and Jim was with us a long time. He knows just where the weaknesses are, and Detroit blitzed through those weaknesses. Still, we were in the game until the last period. Maybe we'll get some breaks now."
The breaks were conspicuously absent in Washington. Next week San Francisco plays at Green Bay, then comes Baltimore again, and Dallas, and it will take a lot of breaks to pull the 49ers through those games. Not long ago, to keep overzealous fans out of the players' hair, the 49ers put up a six-foot cyclone fence around the field in Kezar Stadium. They may have to make it taller if the spectators decide to take out their frustrations on the team.