John Brodie sat on an equipment trunk in the San Francisco 49er locker room last Friday and considered how he felt about having to sit on the bench the next day. He has been the 'Niners No. 1 quarterback for more than a decade, but since an ankle injury in October young Steve Spurrier had led the club—and led it back into contention.
"Would you like to play tomorrow against the Vikings?" Brodie was asked.
He took a sip of a soft drink and thought long before he answered. "No," said John Brodie at last.
He is an insouciant man, with a quirky sense of humor and a good, relaxed and happy face. But now Brodie was dead serious. "If I go in tomorrow," he said, "it will probably be because we are behind. I like to play, but I like to win more. Steve has been doing a good job, and I want to win."
As it turned out, San Francisco got behind, and Brodie did go in—and the team won because of that. It may be that John never played more masterfully in his life than he did in his brief but melodramatic appearance against Minnesota Saturday at Candlestick Park. He was not called into action until near the end of the third quarter, when San Francisco was almost finished. The 49ers were down 17-6, and though it did take Brodie a while to get untracked he brought San Francisco home, 20-17, with two late touchdown passes.
The exciting, if not so stylish, victory gave the 49ers the championship of the Western Division of the National Football Conference. They finished with a record of 8-5-1, the worst of any playoff team this year, but in the NFC West that was good enough to beat out Atlanta and Los Angeles, neither of which showed any taste for a stretch fight. Although San Francisco has the poorest record of any qualifier, league policy gives the 49ers the right to open the playoffs this Saturday at home. Their opponent will be Dallas, a team they whipped 31-10 on Thanksgiving Day.
That was Spurrier's most glamorous performance, one he did not live up to against the Vikings Saturday. He made some egregious mistakes. For example, on one important play in the third quarter, given excellent protection, he took a full five seconds and then threw a long pass down the middle into the teeth of the Minnesota zone. This violated a cardinal rule: never throw late long down the middle against a zone, because all the deep coverage will congregate there. In this case three Vikings had a better shot at the ball than the intended receiver, Gene Washington. Paul Krause made the interception.
On another occasion Spurrier tried to force a pass into the same deep zone and had two Viking defenders bat it away. He was lucky that one was not picked off. In a shoddy first half, the 49ers gave the ball away four times. It took a series of small miracles by a superb San Francisco defense to keep the home team close—trailing 7-6 at halftime.
The Viking touchdown had come after one of San Francisco's seven turnovers (no playoff team in the league this year has made that many in a game and still won). The scoring play was an 18-yard pass from Fran Tarkenton to rookie Running Back Ed Marinaro, who was wandering around in the San Francisco secondary as Tarkenton tried to avoid a thundering 49er rush. All San Francisco could then manage was two field goals by Bruce Gossett, one of them a last-minute Viking gift.
The 49ers, though unpredictable all season, have tended to be effective in the second half—as they were in the big win at Dallas. But what hopes they had for their third straight Western title seemed to disappear in the third quarter, when the Vikings added 10 more points.
The touchdown that made the score 17-6 was a 31-yard pass from Tarkenton to John Gilliam. The Vikings had tested the San Francisco pass defense severely throughout the game. Tarkenton threw 18 times—often long—and while he completed 11, several of those were short passes that the 49ers allowed him when he needed considerable yardage. Two of his passes were intercepted, and four times he was dumped, for a total of 48 yards in losses. By contrast, Spurrier was only dropped twice, and Brodie not at all.
For the last three years the 49ers have been adept at keeping tacklers away from their passer, although this is partly because the passer for most of this time was Brodie. He has a quick set-up, a quick release and the ability to unload the ball into wide-open spaces when his receivers are covered. Spurrier, though he shows promise, cannot yet do all of those things with aplomb.
The San Francisco offensive line set a league record in 1970 when it kept Brodie on his feet and throwing all but eight times during the season. In 1971 it led the league in protecting the passer by saving Brodie all but 11 times. This year pass rushers have gotten to the San Francisco quarterbacks 22 times, but this is not due to any massive breakdown in the line. The difficulty is that Spurrier is a freer soul than Brodie.
As Cas Banaszek, the five-year pro who plays right offensive tackle, says, "Blocking for Brodie is easier than blocking for Spurrier. John is very consistent. He'll drop back nine yards, then step up two and throw the ball. Always. So I know where he's going to be and where I have to keep my man away from. Steve may move around a bit. If he drops deep and stays deep, the defensive end opposite me may take an outside rush and get around me, and Steve may be there and get tackled. John, though, would have moved up inside and could still have gotten the ball away."
Normally, corporate nicknames are fashionable only for defensive lines (Fearsome Foursome, Purple People Eaters), but in San Francisco it is the offensive line which enjoys that affectionate recognition: The Protectors. The 49er interior line has played together as a unit for three years. It is anchored by Forrest Blue, the incumbent All-Pro center. The guards are Randy Beisler and Woody Peoples, and the tackles are Banaszek and Len Rohde, who is in his 13th season and has now played in 180 straight games. Tight End Ted Kwalick, another All-Pro, is an associate member of The Protectors.
Coach Dick Nolan was a defensive back as a player, and then studied as an assistant coach under the Cowboys' Tom Landry, a renowned defensive scholar. Not surprisingly, Nolan devotes most of his time to the defense, leaving the prime offensive responsibility to an assistant, Jim Shofner. When Spurrier is the quarterback, Shofner sends in the plays (using messenger running backs, Larry Schreiber, Ken Willard and Jimmy Thomas). It is noteworthy that some other playoff teams do the same this season. Of the eight postseason qualifiers, three have starting quarterbacks who get their orders from the bench. Besides Spurrier, Craig Morton at Dallas and Scott Hunter at Green Bay always get their calls from the sidelines, and Cleveland's Mike Phipps has often suffered that assistance.
Brodie, who has been around for 16 years, has the honor of calling his own plays. But no matter who is making the 49er decisions, the crunch comes down to The Protectors. To win the championship, they had to perform with some distinction against the Vikings' famous front four. The Minnesota defense was ranked tops in the conference, having allowed an average of only 255.2 yards per game. San Francisco gained 383 yards overall, including 154 on the ground, which is impressive since the 'Niners have no gang-busting runner and the Vikings have held other opponents with better backs to an average of 142.2 yards per game rushing.
Ultimately, it was the ability of The Protectors to keep Brodie safe down the stretch that made San Francisco a winner. To cite one case, although Carl Eller beat Banaszek on several occasions during the game, Banaszek handled him on the big plays that turned the contest around. "I'm glad I had to block Claude Humphrey last week," Banaszek said afterward, speaking of the All-Pro defensive end of the Atlanta Falcons. "I thought I did pretty well against Humphrey, and since he plays a lot like Eller that meant that I had a good rehearsal for this game."
The sternest test for what may be the best offensive line in the NFL came late in the day. A Viking punt had been batted out of bounds on the San Francisco one-yard line. The 'Niners were still down 17-6, and there were only nine minutes left in the season. Brodie had to get two touchdowns in the brief time remaining.
Coolly, from his own end zone, he started out by throwing a difficult 12-yard sideline pass to John Isenbarger, a second-string wide receiver. The offensive line gave Brodie the time, and he purchased some operating room with the gain. He then called for Schreiber to go off tackle, but Alan Page rolled off a block by Beisler to stop Schreiber after two yards.
Back to the air. With The Protectors chicken-fighting that formidable Viking pass rush, Brodie threw deep downfield to Gene Washington, who made a spectacular catch and run for a 53-yard gain. A pass to Vic Washington added eight yards. On the next play Kwalick was covered closely, so Brodie lofted the ball over the sideline and out of danger. Then he came back up the middle to Gene Washington for 24 yards and a touchdown. Now it was 17-13.
When San Francisco got the ball back again, there was only a minute and a half left. This time it was 66 yards to go for the touchdown. Again the offensive line blunted the charge of the Purple People Eaters, and again Brodie, imperturbable and daring, marched his team downfield.
Mixing passes with a draw play—and a trick play that failed—Brodie moved San Francisco to the Minnesota 20, where he used up his last time-out with a minute to go. He next hit Vic Washington, who was tackled on the two. Two passes fell incomplete and then, with only 25 seconds remaining, Brodie rolled out to his right, looking for all the world like he was going to try to run the ball in himself. Instead, he drilled a pass in the end zone to Dick Witcher, a reserve who had come in as a second tight end to reinforce the impression that the 49ers were going to run.
Witcher caught the ball—his first touchdown of the year—and was immediately descended upon by delirious teammates who buried him more effectively than a whole defense could. San Francisco, old John Brodie and The Protectors were in the playoffs together again.
In each of the last two years, the 49ers have lost to the Cowboys in the playoffs, but both of these teams are inconsistent, and in this confused season of creeping mediocrity there are no certainties. In the beginning, remember, almost everyone thought that the Vikings, with Tarkenton souping up their offense, would run away with the title, but the Vikings could not even make the playoffs and, indeed, just made .500.
In any event, the odds would suggest that the winner of the 49er-Cowboys game will emerge as the NFC's Super Bowl entrant. Green Bay meets Washington in the other match, and while the Redskins have already demonstrated that they can beat the Packers, neither the Cowboys nor the 49ers should lose to the Over The Hill Gang this late in the long, arduous season.
In the AFC, Pittsburgh, a very young and ambitious team, finally won a championship, but despite the fact that runner-up Cleveland also qualifies for the playoffs, the Central is a weak division. The East appears to be weaker still, and while it is to Miami's great credit that it went undefeated, the feat is merely academic. The Dolphins played such a cream-puff schedule that not one of their opponents made the playoffs, and only two of them barely scraped by over .500. No, the real class of the AFC now would appear to be the Oakland Raiders, who have won their last six games.
No world championship has ever come to San Francisco, and it would be ironic if the honor were denied it this time by its rival in the less glamorous city across the bay.