Dan Bunz, who is both an acquisition of former San Francisco General Manager Joe Thomas and a free spirit with a tendency to pop off—not boons to job security on the 49ers—could've been almost anywhere but in the Pontiac Silverdome Sunday. The Niners had shopped him around before the season, but there were no takers, and he spent much of his time as a not-so-happy reserve linebacker and special-teamer. The deal-not-made will be remembered for a long time, because Bunz played a central role in the third-quarter goal-line stand that was crucial to San Francisco's victory.
So did (a) a player Defensive Coordinator Chuck Studley didn't even want in the preseason, and (b) an offensive guard. But the most unlikely hero was Bunz, one of four remaining draft picks from the reign of Thomas, who was replaced by Bill Walsh after the '78 season, Bunz's rookie year.
It's late in the third quarter, Cincinnati ball, first down and goal-to-go at the San Francisco three-yard line, Niners leading 20-7. It doesn't look good for the 49ers, who had had only 10 men on the field for the previous play, a two-yard run for the first down by Fullback Pete Johnson.
Quarterback Ken Anderson sends the 249-pound Johnson into the line. John Choma grabs Johnson around his huge thighs, slides down to his ankles and drags him to the field at the one with an assist from Bunz. A seldom-used offensive guard, Choma was as surprised as anyone when he was put on the goal-line defense in the third game of the year, against Chicago. But Choma made a touchdown-saving tackle on Walter Payton, and he has been a goal-liner ever since.
Second-and-one from the one. Johnson hits the left side, probably the Bengals' surest ground play, since it not only goes over their strength—Tackle Anthony Munoz and Guard Dave Lapham—but also behind a lead block by Running Back Charles Alexander, a 226-pounder. But Bunz stuffs Alexander in the hole, enabling Reserve Tackle John Harty to trap Johnson low and Linebacker Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds to deliver a crushing blow high. Because the powerful Johnson isn't supposed to be stopped dead on short-yardage situations, Reynolds' hit sets the tone for the goal-line stand.
Anderson, in fact, had called a blocking audible at the line of scrimmage. David Verser, the Bengals' wide receiver on the left side, was to go in motion, cut up in the hole and chop Reynolds. But Verser couldn't hear the audible and no one touched Reynolds.
The 34-year-old Reynolds has been the spiritual leader of the 49ers all season, and his presence is one of the reasons why Walsh is refered to as a genius. Over the objections of Studley, Walsh signed him as a free agent in late June after Reynolds couldn't come to terms with the Rams.
"For the life of me I couldn't see what Bill wanted with a 34-year-old guy who, as far as I could see, would do nothing but take the place of a younger player," said Studley. "I was wrong. Once I saw him in training camp, I knew he was the man we needed."
Third-and-one from the one. The Bengals now realize that Johnson might not be an automatic yard. Anderson rolls right and throws to Alexander on a simple pattern in the right flat. Alexander catches the ball at the one and is slammed to the carpet immediately, locked in the bear hug of Bunz. It was probably the defensive play of the game. Bunz was keying on Alexander—that was his assignment on all the goal-line plays—but it's another matter to stay with the pattern all the way and keep a strong runner like Alexander out of the end zone.
"Actually, I was a little mad," said Bunz. "We had run that play in practice earlier in the week and I had knocked the pass down."
Studley saw it differently. "Twenty times out of 20 that play's a touchdown," he said. "It's an unbelievable play for a linebacker to make. You've got to hit the guy with your hat right down through his spinal column."
Fourth-and-one from the one. Time-out Bengals. Bunz and others go to the sidelines for instructions. "They told me to watch out for the boot [Anderson on a bootleg] and to watch out for the inside trap and to watch out for about 10 other things," said Bunz. "Man, when I got back to the huddle I was just trying to sort it all out."
But the most likely play was the one Cincinnati ran—Johnson following Alexander into the hole. This time it went to the right side. No matter. Bunz stuffed Alexander in the hole, Johnson backed up behind his blocker, and half a dozen 49ers hit him, led by the ubiquitous Reynolds.
The stand didn't win the game for the 49ers. What it did was temporarily stop Cincinnati's momentum and buy some time for San Francisco. And, possibly, it bought some job security for Dan Bunz.