This is pro football of the '80s: lots of scoring, lots of passing, a major problem with contracts. It's wild and unpredictable, it follows no script and on Sunday in Anaheim the San Francisco 49ers learned all about it.
Three days before, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams, both 5-2, were to play for first place in the NFC West, the 49ers had a free safety named Dwight Hicks. His resume read two straight Pro Bowl years, four seasons of leading the team in interceptions, 55 consecutive starts. Two days before the game, they had no free safety. Hicks had walked off the team, claiming a contract problem. In this era of big money and the USFL, it seems as if every club has one of those. In Hicks's wake came turmoil.
Ronnie Lott, the Niners' All-Pro cornerback, was chosen to take Hicks's place. He had a Friday and a Saturday practice to learn a brand-new position. Be great, kid. Learn quickly.
It would be nice to report that Lott went out and performed brilliantly against the Rams, turning the game around, but unfortunately the NFL scripts are not written by the Brothers Grimm, and Ram Quarterback Vince Ferragamo, noting the unsettled nature of the 49er secondary, calmly threw for five touchdowns. Eric Dickerson caught two of those TD passes, racing through a forest of blown coverages and missed tackles, and added 144 yards on the ground. LA. scored 35 points and collected 441 yards, both high-water marks under new Coach John Robinson.
And did they win the game? Well, no. This is football of the '80s, remember? Shoot-out football. The 49ers outscored the Rams 45-35, and actually won the game on a sack—that rarest of all sacks, the touchdown sack. The sacker was Defensive End Dwaine Board. The sackee was Ferragamo, who had the ball torn out of his hands in the end zone. The play came with 6:40 left in the game, with the Rams sitting on a 35-31 lead and facing a third-and-eight from their own 10-yard line. What was Ferragamo doing throwing from so deep in his own territory with a four-point lead? Hey, get with it. This is the modern era. You throw from anywhere, anytime. You don't give up the ball, especially to a quarterback like San Francisco's Joe Montana, who had gotten the Niners on the board in five of their last six possessions (not counting a one-play clock-killer at the end of the first half).
The touchdown sack happened so quickly that few people really understood what had taken place. Board came in
from the right side. Jeff Stover, a defensive tackle, flushed Ferragamo to his left, into Board's path. Board didn't go for the sack, he went for the ball. "All I saw were blue jerseys," he said. 'Actually, a sack is a subconscious type of thing; you attack the quarterback, and the next thing you do is go for the ball. I got a good grip on it and it came out."
Referee Red Cashion hesitated before making a call. Was Ferragamo in the tackler's grasp, was his progress halted before the ball was stripped? "I saw the ref looking around," Robinson said. "I don't think anybody saw what happened. Then the ref must have looked at Board and figured, 'Oh, you're a 49er and you've got the ball in the end zone, so it must be a touchdown.' Which it probably was."
"Even I was waiting for the ref," Board said. "Then I saw him put his hands up and I said, 'Oh, touchdown.' " For Board, it was the first touchdown in his five NFL seasons.
Then an old-time 49er was heard from: 33-year-old Linebacker Willie Harper. The teams had traded punts after the Board play, and the Rams, trailing 38-35 with two minutes left, had a first down on their own 30. Harper found himself racing down the field with Wide Receiver Gordon Jones. "Tim Collier [Lott's replacement at left corner-back] had the deep coverage," Harper said. "I was underneath. I think Ferragamo felt he could get the ball over my head. He almost did."
Harper picked off the pass on the Ram 44 and returned it to the seven. Three plays later Bill Ring ran four yards for a San Francisco TD, and it was over.
In the locker room, Lott slowly peeled off his uniform and breathed a huge sigh of relief. "It's been a rough weekend," he said. "Plus a rough afternoon." He had blown a coverage and given James McDonald, a third tight end, in as a designated blocker, a one-yard TD catch in the second quarter. "A mishap," Lott said. He was one of the four 49ers who grabbed air when Dickerson caught a little slip pass over the middle late in the same period and turned it into a 37-yard touchdown. In the third quarter the Rams moved to a 28-17 lead when Lott safety blitzed, and Ferragamo dumped the ball off to Dickerson on the left side, leaving Defensive End Fred Dean to chase him 10 yards, into the end zone.
"Yeah, that was my coverage, too," Lott said. "He was supposed to be my man. I've got a long way to go at that position. It was like my first NFL game at cornerback. At the beginning I was tripping and falling and getting run over. I wasn't used to seeing guys coming at me from all different directions. In the fourth quarter I started seeing things better."
Of Hicks's sudden walkout, Coach Bill Walsh said, "It caught us completely by surprise. I just feel terrible for him, for his judgment in this thing. He's a nice kid, everybody likes him. He was having a great year. Our defensive backfield coach, Ray Rhodes, went to see him. He got me on the phone with Dwight. I said, 'Hello, hello.' Then Dwight hung up. He told Ray, 'I'm doing what I've got to do.' And that was it. The difference in money amounts to about $40,000, and you have to figure the government gets almost half of that."
Hicks's contract runs through 1984. It was upgraded from $70,000 to $100,000 in 1982. His base pay this year is $125,000, with incentives 49er General Manager John McVay says are "easily obtainable." They would boost Hicks to the $140,000 range. The club also gave him $1,000 a month in the off-season to come in and grade films for a couple of hours a day.
Hick's lawyer, David Perrine of San Diego, says, "His performance is in the 90th percentile of the top 40 safeties in the NFL; his pay is in the 27th percentile. I know no one's going to believe this, but the fact that the Rams game was coming up was not a factor in his decision to leave the team Friday."
The 49ers kept the news quiet until Saturday evening, until after the Rams had held their final practice. "I think if I knew a team would have a free safetyman who'd never played the position," Walsh said, "I'd put something into my Saturday practice to take advantage of that."
Robinson, who found out about Hicks's defection late Saturday night, said it wouldn't have affected his preparation, although he admitted that he started the game throwing the ball instead of pounding away with Dickerson. "I coached Lott at USC," he said. "To me he's the best run defender of any defensive back in the league. We threw early to keep him from attacking our running game from the weak side."
"I've got to be ready for anything," Lott had said before the game. "He'll probably figure I'll be overly aggressive, and he'll run some play action at me and throw deep over the middle. What really scares me, though, is that at free safety I've got to make the calls for the secondary. At cornerback I was just listening."
Miscues held the score to 0-0 in the first quarter. An interception in the end zone by 49er Cornerback Eric Wright off a pass bobbled by Preston Dennard and a high snap on a field-goal try nullified the Ram threats. The 49ers countered with a Wendell Tyler fumble, his first of two. For a while the game looked like a repeat of the 10-7 Ram win in San Francisco three weeks ago.
In the second period, though, the Rams scored TDs on three straight possessions, revealing an offense Walsh called "brilliantly conceived and executed." Under Robinson, the Rams truly seem to be operating on a different plane, and it was never more evident than in that second quarter. Tight End Mike Barber, a Houston tradee, was running over people, on his way to an eight-catch afternoon. Dickerson was dazzling as he headed for his fourth 100-yard-plus day. Even Gordon Jones, a Tampa Bay cast-off, drew gasps as he put together three spin moves on a 24-yard reception that set up touchdown No. 2.
But the 49ers, fighting back from an 11-point deficit in the third quarter and another 11-point deficit in the fourth, are a proud team this year, and they had guns of their own. In the third quarter Freddie Solomon made the catch of the day, a diving one-hander, good for 43 yards. "I pulled a muscle running under the pass," he said. "It was like electricity running through my leg. It hit, and then it hit again." In for Solomon came Renaldo Nehemiah, whose two-year career has been long on promise, short on fulfillment. He turned in some very professional-looking catches, and his output for the day was five receptions, 65 yards and one TD. "I had something to prove," he said. "I hope this is the beginning of a long career for me."
Montana, who started slowly, put together one of his All-Pro afternoons—25 for 39 for 358 yards, with no interceptions and no sacks—and when it was over the 49ers had a win that, Walsh said, "leaves me speechless. I'm in awe of the way this team fought back against a lot of misfortune."