On the television screen in 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s box high atop San Francisco's Candlestick Park, the green figures and the white figures were kicking up dust on a baseball infield. Half a dozen or so guests in the crowded room were clustered around the television, trying to root home the greens, who were the New York Jets, against the whites, who were San Francisco's divisional rivals, the Los Angeles Rams. The television viewers had just seen the 49ers come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-20, and this was the after-dinner mint, the Jets and Rams in OT on TV.
Forty-Niner Coach Bill Walsh stood in a corner of the room, near the TV set but unable to see its picture, and every so often someone would rush over to him with up-to-date battle reports. "The Jets just intercepted," a guy said.
"That's nice," Walsh said.
"Now they're trying a field goal," someone else told him, waiting for Walsh to holler or elbow his way over to the television.
"Hope he makes it," Walsh said, nodding but not budging.
"The Jets win!" someone suddenly yelled over to Walsh. "You're leading the division!"
"Yes, I know," Walsh said, turning to find his wife.
The 49ers are 3-1 and all alone in first place in the NFC West. The rest of the division is 2-2. Break out some more champagne. Let's have a fresh plate of shrimp. Why is that coach so calm?
"Two months from now is when I'll start looking at the standings," Walsh said. "This thing is just getting started."
But, hey, the 49ers are on top. They won as many games in September as they did in the dismal, strike-torn 3-6 season of '82, when they fell from their lofty perch as defending Super Bowl champs. Last year in Candlestick the Falcons brutalized the Niners, beating them up physically and sending a lot of people limping off the field—"a clear case of child abuse," 49er Guard Randy Cross says. This time San Francisco matched the Falcons power for power, sacking Steve Bartkowski eight times and putting it to them on the ground at the end, when it counted. Atlanta's rookie coach, Dan Henning, treated the game as if it were his Super Bowl. He gave the 49ers the whole package—an unbalanced line on offense, a resurrected defense he'd all but scrapped in training camp, a flanker option pass and a buck-and-wing (pass and lateral). The works. And, ultimately, San Francisco had overcome.
"We're back, we're back," the fans chanted, but Walsh knows different. To him, "back" means back to Super Bowl level and Walsh knows they're not back at all. "We've got the best offensive team I've ever been associated with," he says, "but we're still flawed, and flawed teams usually don't wind up in the Super Bowl."
The difference Sunday was the difference between two quarterbacks. Their passing stats were pretty close. The Falcons' Steve Bartkowski completed 19 of 23 for 243 yards, Joe Montana was 27 of 32 for 261. Here's the difference: Bartkowski was sacked those eight times, Montana zero. Granted, Montana had excellent protection, but more significant, the few times a rusher got near him he was able to nimble-foot away from the defender. Bartkowski isn't gifted in that way. His toes do not twinkle.
Can you say a team making eight sacks didn't have that good a pass rush? It's tough, but that's the truth. Five of the sacks were on blitzes, one by a safety-man. Fred Dean made the Niners' final sack on the Falcons' last play of the game. It was a vintage Dean maneuver, a quick inside move on Tackle Mike Kenn and then the snuff. Dean, a lot more banged up than he was as the designated rusher in the Super Bowl season, has only a few all-out rushes per game left in him.
The 49er defensive line has some sturdy chaps, but no consistent rushers. Keena Turner is terrific at right linebacker, and on the left side, Willie Harper is strong against the run, but inside the 49ers have shortcomings. Jack Reynolds is rusty after missing the first three games with a pulled groin muscle. He started on Sunday but had trouble fighting through traffic to get to the ballcarrier. Meanwhile, the secondary, unnerved by the lack of a steady pass rush, fell apart at times. Cornerback Ronnie Lott got called for a couple of muggings downfield, and Bartkowski burned Lott and Free Safety Dwight Hicks on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Wide Receiver Floyd Hodge in the third quarter. Atlanta converted 12 of 17 third-down tries. Henning knew he could move the ball against San Francisco's defense, but feared a steady diet of blitzes against his less than mobile quarterback. So he came out in his unbalanced line, essentially to foul up the 49er blitzing scheme.
Kenn moved to the right side, lining up outside Warren Bryant, the right tackle, and down the field Atlanta came, banging away behind that loaded right side, from its 21 to the San Francisco 12, where the 49ers stiffened and held. "We knew what they were doing," 49er Linebacker Coach Norb Hecker said, "but until the drive was over we didn't have a chance to get together on the sidelines and diagram our defense against it."
When the 49ers got the ball, Henning brought Trick No. 2 out of the bag, a 3-4 defense he'd junked in favor of a 4-3. The 49ers ate it up, and the 3-4 soon gave way to a 4-3, except in a few spots.
On San Francisco's first drive, Wendell Tyler, the running back who had come to the 49ers from the Rams in an off-season trade and who had had back-to-back 100-yard games the previous two weeks, went down with a dislocated left shoulder. Two to three weeks' recovery time is predicted. So Walsh turned to the old guard—Dwight Clark caught two touchdown passes; Freddie Solomon, who was supposed to back up Renaldo Nehemiah this year but is light-years ahead of him as a receiver, had six catches for 103 yards. On the ground, Jeff Moore and Bill Ring, the remnants of last year's running attack that ranked 28th in the league, and newcomer Roger Craig, the No. 2 draft out of Nebraska, somehow scraped together 124 of San Francisco's 157 rushing yards.
It was the rushing attack that carried the 49ers on a 71-yard, 10-play touchdown march that gave them the win early in the fourth quarter, and it was the ground game that held the ball for the final 3:54, keeping the Falcons' offense off the field. "Can you rush the passer in the fourth quarter? Can you run the ball to protect a lead?" Walsh says. "Those are the keys to winning in the NFL."
On Sunday the 49ers did both. Their offense is a thing of beauty. Their defense is shaky but at least it's healthy. Tyler will return, and in December the 49ers should be right where they are now—in the middle of a four-way fight for the division crown. Any more than that is wishful thinking.