For Joe Montana the question is: Will he remember the great NFL strike of 1982 for the $140,000 in salary that he lost, or for his 408 yards on 26-for-39 passing against St. Louis in the 49ers' first game after the walkout ended? Those figures not only made this the most productive game of Montana's four-year career, but also broke the 49er single-game record of 371 yards passing set by Y.A. Tittle in 1953.
Strike? What strike? In beating the Cardinals 31-20 in St. Louis Sunday, the 49ers, once they got fired up, looked more as if they'd just returned from a 57-day health retreat at Silverado than from a protracted labor dispute. How else can one explain San Francisco's elegant performance on a day when the quality of play was expected to be only slightly above Pop Warner League level? One could almost remember way back to the last Super Bowl, which these same 49ers—who were 0-2 before the strike and are now struggling for a playoff berth in this truncated season—actually won.
When he bade them farewell on Sept. 20, Coach Bill Walsh reminded his players of that game—still rather fresh in memory at the time—and of their recent losses to the L.A. Raiders and the Denver Broncos. Having invoked the Super Bowl, Walsh heaved a sigh of relief as his corps of injured defending champions hobbled off into the sunset.
The injury plague had begun on Memorial Day when All-Pro Offensive Right Guard Randy Cross fell from a rope he was swinging on at a charity function and broke his left ankle and tore ligaments in it. Cross was back—miraculously—when the season opened but was not his old self against either the Raiders or the Broncos. Left Guard John Ayers missed the Denver game because of viral meningitis. Charle Young, the old tight end, and Russ Francis, the new old tight end, had a sore leg and a sore back, respectively, and Linebacker Willie Harper had yet to play after arthroscopic knee surgery during the summer. Right Cornerback Eric Wright pulled a hamstring against the Raiders, and Fred Dean, the designated pass-rusher and the NFL's 1981 Defensive Lineman of the Year, had been suffering from a chronic groin injury. A dozen other 49ers were afflicted with assorted infirmities of varying severity. The constant position-switching had turned San Francisco into a second-division NFL team just as abruptly as it had become a champion a year earlier.
"Of course, none of us expected that the strike would last so long," Walsh said last week. "But the people who were out were not going to return the next week to play Chicago, or the week after that to play Tampa Bay. They were out. Had the season continued, we might well have been 0-5 before we even began to get healthy again. We might have been playing for a draft choice rather than the Super Bowl. We talked about how we would try to take advantage of the strike—by getting well."
And so they did—with two major exceptions. Bubba Paris, the 6'6", 293-pound rookie from Michigan who was handed the starting left offensive tackle job the day he was drafted last spring, was out for the year after a knee injury in preseason. And Defensive End Dwaine Board became a knee victim in the Raider game. Board's loss is especially painful; in games he has started over the past three seasons, the 49ers are 17-5. Without him they're 5-18.
There were other problems as well, not the least of them being the pressure to defend the championship, plus the erosion of confidence that came with the 0-2 start. And there had been personnel changes, antedating the strike, that were galling to some of the 49ers. One was the acquisition of Francis, who spent last season in retirement, and another was the arrival of Renaldo Nehemiah, the out-of-this-world hurdler signed by the 49ers as an untried wide receiver with much fanfare and a guaranteed contract to boot. "Who was it who won the Super Bowl anyway?" said one 49er. "Not those two." Said Young, "Suppose you drive a car and it runs beautifully with Champion spark plugs. Now, if you replace a couple of those Champions with Brand X, do you think the car will run as smoothly?"
"We just about have to win every game," said Montana on Friday. "The strike had to help us."
And it appeared that it had, even if Nehemiah, who had begun training to resume his hurdling career when his U.S. eligibility was reinstated during the stoppage, observed on Thursday that in his judgment, "Three-quarters of the guys are out of shape." Freddie Solomon, the veteran wide receiver whom Nehemiah plays behind, was one of them, with a slightly pulled muscle. Before the game, Solomon sidled over to Nehemiah and said, "Your time is coming, Nehemiah. Sooner than you think." That didn't particularly excite Renaldo who, though he had caught just three passes in the first two games, has never lacked confidence. "O.K. Freddie," he said. "I'll be ready then."
On Sunday, Nehemiah caught three passes for 93 yards, once receiving the ball and hits from two Cardinal defenders the same moment, yet hanging on. He lit up Busch Stadium in the third period, by which time Solomon had, as predicted, relinquished his job, at least for the day. Montana had just lost a fumble and thrown an interception to enable the Cardinals to go ahead 13-10, and the 49ers were showing rust around the edges. Split left, Nehemiah sped toward the post from his own 24, sucking two St. Louis defenders along with him. Montana just let the ball fly and Nehemiah accelerated, leaving Cardinal Corner-back Carl Allen as though he were standing still. Once free, Nehemiah had to slow up to wait for the pass, which he caught 55 yards downfield. Free Safety Benny Perrin was lucky to get a hand on Nehemiah's ankle to save a touchdown. To save it, that is, for Francis, who scored a moment later on his very first reception as a 49er.
From then on, Montana was on his mettle, throwing his next touchdown pass—a 33-yarder—after picking up a St. Louis blitz and calling an audible, for a quick post route for Dwight Clark. "That was the best-executed play we've run in my four years here," said Walsh.
It was a fairly remarkable performance all around, considering how little preparation the 49ers, like everyone else in the league, had had. After the breakup eight weeks ago, the team hung together, working out religiously the first week, a little less religiously the second. By week three, church was out for most of the players. "Guys got kind of tired of it," said Montana. Particularly the linemen. "There just wasn't anybody you could hit," said Dean.
A few got back in time for walkthroughs in the rain on Wednesday. And on Thursday, Hacksaw Reynolds went out early to help squeegee the practice field. But an unrelenting deluge sent the 49ers into a hangar at nearby Moffett Naval Air Station, where they ran on the concrete floor, avoiding several parked airplanes and pieces of automotive equipment. They had another desultory trot-around on a spongy field Friday and finally a brief workout on Saturday morning before flying to St. Louis. There hadn't been a lick of full-speed contact until game time.
Then the 49ers handled the Cardinals, who had beaten New Orleans and lost to Dallas before the strike, practically as if San Francisco had never been out at all. Montana, though, laughed at the suggestion that it might have been his best game ever. "I made a lot of mistakes. Two big, dumb ones right in a row," he said, referring to the third-quarter fumble and interception, before he caught fire.
"Was I surprised at how we played?" said Walsh. "No. Not at all. As I remember, we played this well a few times last season."