The towns south of San Francisco are strewn along the peninsula like postwar carpenters' fallout, to invent a disease, and the football team called the 49ers essentially belongs to this area, which, among other things, has contributed the "Mexicatessen" to neighborhood groceries. The 49ers live and train and hide out mostly around Redwood City, far from the culture, sophistication and intellectual debate of Nob Hill's hotel lobbies. So the real question posed by the resurgence of the team that once belonged to Kezar Stadium and Hugh McElhenny and Y. A. Tittle and John Brodie is whether the newest savior, Jim Plunkett, will be able to throw more touchdown passes than there are freeway exits in San Jose.
Last Saturday night at Candlestick Park, Plunkett had very few opportunities to do much in that direction because the 49ers got involved in a football game with the Atlanta Falcons that their general manager, Lou Spadia, described as "the kind of thing that will bring back peewee golf." Still, the 49ers won 15-0, which left this utterly surprising team with a glorious 6-1 record halfway through the season, not to mention the lead in the NFL's Western Division, which the Los Angeles Rams are supposed to own. It was also the first five-game victory streak for the 49ers in almost 20 years.
Most of the credit for the humiliation of Atlanta must go to the feisty members of the 49ers' defensive platoon that forced the Falcons to perpetrate every blunder known to football in the course of the evening. Tommy Hart and Cedrick Hardman, the 49er defensive ends, and Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb, the tackles, should have been arrested for trespassing; they spent more time in the Atlanta backfield than any of the Falcon runners.
The 49ers scored first when the Falcons went back to punt, and the center snap—well, by now, it may have come down somewhere near the Bay Bridge. Steve Mike-Mayer later kicked a 20-yard field goal, and the 49ers had a 5-0 lead at the half as the crowd of 50,240 was wondering why the baseball season had started so early. The San Francisco offense was not very offensive in the second half either, managing only Mike-Mayer's 27-yard field goal and Kermit Johnson's one-yard run for the game's lone touchdown. But luckily for the 49ers, Hart, Hardman and Co. played their usual ferocious game. Or, to put it another way, the 49ers didn't surrender a touchdown for the third straight week.
The 49er front four sacked Atlanta Quarterback Kim McQuilken six times, something that his Lehigh days had hardly prepared McQuilken for. They also got his replacement, Scott Hunter, twice as the Atlanta passing, ahem, attack finished the night with a net loss of 39 yards. The Falcons' running game managed to produce 83 yards, but as every second-grader in Palo Alto knows, 83 minus 39 means a total offense of 44 yards—or, as Spadia implied, an argument for peewee golf. "We were in a battle out there," McQuilken said later, "and we got the worst of it."
Rather than dwell on the atrocities, however, it will be far more interesting to discuss some of the things that have led to the instant recovery of the 49ers, all the while keeping in mind that their schedule thus far has been filled with a whole lot of Atlantas and Lehighs.
The opening victory over Green Bay found Plunkett throwing two touchdown passes to Willie McGee, and Delvin Williams rushing for 121 yards. The score was 26-14.
Although the score of the Chicago game insinuates that the 49ers were in it (they lost 19-12), they never actually were. The Bears, as much of a surprise in their own way as the 49ers, completely controlled the contest as Walter Payton sped through various portals of Candlestick for 148 yards, and a tough Bear defense made Plunkett appear as if his primary concern was to stay alive as he huddled for protection in the passing pocket.
In the season's third game, against Seattle, the 49ers benefited from getting off to a big lead, big enough to hang on for a 37-21 win over the Seahawks as Plunkett hit McGee for one touchdown and Gene Washington for two.
It was on the fourth weekend, against the New York Jets, that the defense started to do its thing. Hart and Hardman and the others were so murderously effective, with seven sacks, that Plunkett did not have to throw a touchdown pass. The 49ers won with ease, 17-6.
All of this was fine, but there was no need for the peninsula to get truly excited until that Monday night when the defense blanked the Los Angeles Rams and Plunkett generated enough offense to give the 49ers a 16-0 stunner on national television. The haughty Beverly Hills set tried to rationalize the whipping of its beloved Rams by saying that the Rams had taken the night off, feeling that the NFL's schedule was too long. Down on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, though, the thinking was that the 49ers had embarrassed and battered the hated Rams, and had forced them to quit playing about 50 minutes before the final gun.
In that game the 49ers sacked L.A. Quarterback James Harris a grand total of 10 times and, when it was over, Harris was back on the injured list with a bruised shoulder. Hart personally accounted for six of those sacks, while Hardman had two. Hart and Hardman so confused and overwhelmed the members of the Los Angeles offensive line that the Rams also were hit with four holding penalties. Suddenly, there was true joy in San Mateo.
The 49ers made it four in a row against the poor, disadvantaged Saints with Plunkett hurling two more touchdown passes. There were seven more sacks to accompany the offense, all in all a splendid performance by everyone in a 33-3 waltz, the only sour note being the broken leg McGee suffered when he fell on the concrete-like artificial turf at Candlestick. Plunkett was six out of 10 for 121 yards and the two sixes. On the other hand, New Orleans generally encourages splendid performances by its opponents, so there was still the nagging question of how good San Francisco really was.
Before the Atlanta game—which, as it developed, hardly provided any answers—Coach Monte Clark laughed when he was asked where the 49ers were going to be headquartered at the Super Bowl. Clark, happily, has a subtle wit. He also has a smile that starts on Wednesday and gets there sometime Friday, as when he said of the Chicago loss, "We put it all together that day—in a negative sense."
If Clark, who replaced the fired Dick Nolan last winter, had any plans to redecorate the coach's office in the 49ers' modest headquarters near burgeoning downtown Redwood City, he must have mislaid them. Nothing adorns the walls but a portrait of Tony Morabito, the man who brought to San Francisco in 1946 "the oldest original major league professional football franchise west of the Mississippi" and a slogan on a plaque. Most coaches have more inspirational slogans around their offices than X's and O's, but Clark has just one. It says: "Success equals peace of mind which comes from the self-satisfaction of knowing you have done your best."
Clark said he did not know who said it, or where he found it, but that he believes it.
He said he also believes in Don Shula. Clark reminds people of Shula. Well, he would if Shula stood on a stepladder and put on about 40 pounds. What they mean is that Clark's mannerisms and attitudes compare favorably with Shula's. Of course, that seems only natural, since Clark worked six years for Shula in Miami and has been given much of the credit for assembling the offensive line that helped the Dolphins win their Super Bowls.
"I've tried to learn from everybody I've ever been around," said Clark, who was with the 49ers, Cowboys and Browns during his playing career, and at 39 is the NFL's youngest head coach. "When I was playing, I was always asking guys in other positions why they did this and that. Here, I'll tell you how much I'm like Shula." With that, Clark opened two large notebooks on his desk, books filled with plays, diagrams, work schedules, etc. One was San Francisco's. The other was Miami's. Leafing through both of them, he paused frequently to show how many of the pages were identical.
When Clark arrived in San Francisco last January, he looked around to see what could be changed. New coaches like to change things to create a new atmosphere. The first thing Clark did was move the training camp from Santa Barbara to San Jose. "About 65% of our following, maybe even more, comes from the peninsula, and I felt it would create interest if our camp was in the middle of that," he said. Clark's other momentous decision was to institute the wearing of white jerseys for home games, something the 49ers had never done in all of the years that they have not been winning the NFL championship. "I guess Dallas did it first so that all the visiting teams would have a different look," Clark said. "I did it for that reason, too, but also so I could change something."
Plunkett was acquired from the Patriots—and at great expense—to help bring the good times back. Success in San Francisco has always been measured in what they call "exciting teams" rather than championships. Old 49er sufferers gaze back with fondness on the team of the "Million Dollar Backfield," that of Y. A. Tittle, Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson, and the days of the "Alphabet Backfield," which was Y. A. Tittle, J. D. Smith, R. C. Owens and C. R. Roberts. They think of the early Frankie Albert-Leo Nomellini days, and they are more than aware of how close they came to a championship under Dick Nolan when John Brodie reached his antique prime in the early '70s.
One obvious thing Plunkett has in common with some of those fun days is that he rose out of Stanford, as did both Albert and Brodie. This Stanford syndrome is partly the reason why the 49ers have always been a peninsula team, and it is also part of the reason why Plunkett wanted to come home. He had never stopped living in San Jose during the five years he played for New England. Ht said he would have gone to the Rams or Denver if it could have been worked out—anywhere in the West—but Spadia brought him home by giving the Patriots three first-round draft choices and a second and the sometime 49er quarter back, Tom Owen.
The fact that New England let Plunkett go at any price raised some questions about his ability. Admittedly, Plunkett had not done the things he though he could do for the Patriots—the thing; Steve Grogan has been doing for then this season—and he had been banged around, suffering several shoulder and knee injuries.
"I thought I was capable of anything when I first went there," Plunkett says. "Before it was over, I was questioning my own ability."
There were some NFL coaches who whispered that Plunkett maybe was finished, because of his injuries, and the• questioned his play-calling ability, ever his zest for the game.
"Injuries will make you look timid sometimes in the pocket," Plunkett says. "I was a little cautious at first this year. I said earlier that one of the reasons I was happy to be in San Francisco was because Coach Clark promised I wouldn't have to run any keepers." Plunkett has run the ball only 12 times in seven games.
While the game against Atlanta did little to help anyone assess the real strength of the 49ers, it was helpful in showing that Plunkett could take some licks. He took more than a few from Atlanta's rush, and when he was forced to scramble, he did so with tenacity. He did not throw a touchdown pass, but he did have one that Kenny Harrison probably should have caught.
So now comes the hard part, the part that will furnish the answers about the 49ers. It is almost as if the season is finally starting, for in the second half they will be confronted by St. Louis, Washington, Minnesota and the Rams again Even San Diego, another of the year's pleasant mysteries, could mean trouble
For the moment, however, the 49ers have a five-game win streak, and when they see it in print, the people along the peninsula prefer not to concern themselves with the fact that it was mostly accomplished against Donald Duck and Goofy and their intimate friends.