Wasn't there something a little ignoble about the San Francisco 49ers' celebration after they beat the Detroit Lions 24-23 last Saturday? They fell down in ecstasy all over Candlestick Park, raised index fingers to the sky and exchanged leaping high fives—all because of a missed field goal. Thanks, Eddie Murray. We sure as heck couldn't have won it without you. Murray's misfire on a 43-yard field goal with five seconds to play preserved the 49ers' NFC playoff victory over the Lions, and it was an appropriate end to the game. Murray had also missed a 43-yarder 10 minutes earlier, so he got the goat horns, but dozens of them could've been distributed. The game was a three-hour misery that earned lukewarm reviews only as a result of the exciting climax.
Murray's last-gasp misfire followed the only true piece of 49er heroics produced all game. Trailing 23-17 with 4:54 remaining—die-hard 49er fans no doubt remembered that the clock showed 4:54 when San Francisco launched its memorable drive to beat Dallas in the 1981 NFC championship game—the Niners marched 70 yards on nine well-executed plays, plays that didn't even belong in this game. Quarterback Joe Montana scrambled for three yards, ran Wendell Tyler twice for 16 yards and threw to backs Tyler, Roger Craig and Jeff Moore four times for 24 yards as San Francisco advanced to the Detroit 27 at the two-minute warning.
On the next play Montana intended to pass deep to Craig but got heavy pressure from Lion end Curtis Green. While back-pedaling, Montana threw to a secondary receiver, tight end Russ Francis, running a pattern across the middle. The pass was low but Francis went to his knees, made the catch and lunged a few more yards to get a first down at the 14. Immediately after the catch, Francis' thoughts turned to a guy named Sunshine Fukunaga, who had been his Little League coach in Hawaii. One day after young shortstop Francis let a ground ball go through his legs, Fukunaga yanked Francis' new glove right off his hand, threw it to the ground and stomped on it. " 'Get down on the ball when it's low,' he told me," said Francis. "I never forgot that message."
Upstairs, 49er quarterback coach Paul Hackett was thinking not of Little League, but of time-out. He urged head coach Bill Walsh to call one, but Walsh's instincts told him that his team had too much momentum going. "He has a great feel for that sort of thing," said Hackett, "and, obviously, he was right." With a first down at the 14 and 1:34 on the clock. Walsh sent in "Fox-2 audible," a post route for wide receiver Freddie Solomon. "As soon as I saw their defense," said Hackett, "I thought, 'Omigod, he's going to score.' " With all the crowd noise, Solomon wasn't certain that he had heard the play correctly but he assumed it was the post route. The 49ers caught the Lions in a two-deep zone with a wide-open middle, and Solomon was completely free once he gave a little shoulder fake to safety William Graham. "Joe and I had talked about the pattern," said Solomon, who was a forgotten man this year until Dwight Clark tore knee ligaments in the last game of the season against Dallas. "He was going to throw it a little quicker if I could catch the defender in the backpedal, and that's exactly what happened."
Ray Wersching kicked the extra point to give the 49ers a 24-23 lead with 1:23 remaining, but the Lions weren't dead yet. Quarterback Gary Danielson. who was making his first start of the season—No. 1 Lion quarterback Eric Hippie had sprained the ligaments in his left knee—had already thrown five interceptions and hardly seemed like the person to call on when you needed a fantastic finish, but he quickly drove the Lions to the 49er 25-yard line with 11 seconds left. San Francisco's strength is the aggressiveness of its defensive secondary, but the Niners were overcautious as Danielson completed four passes—genuine down-the-field aerials, not dumpoffs—to wide receivers Freddie Scott, Leonard Thompson and Jeff Chadwick.
Hello, Eddie Murray. A four-year veteran from Tulane, Murray had already kicked an NFL playoff-record 54-yard field goal on the last play of the first half, as well as two others of 37 and 21 yards, but perhaps that 43-yard miss just 10 minutes earlier, a kick that would've given Detroit a 19-17 lead, was preying on his mind. Also, though Murray had made three of four field goals of 50 yards or better during the season, his record from 40 to 49 yards had only been three of seven.
The snap and hold were perfect, but the kick sailed right.
"If I had had a hara-kiri knife, I would've committed it right there," said Murray.
"You could see right away it was going to be a foot-and-a-half right," said Danielson, the holder. "That's the way my whole career's been: a foot-and-a-half right."
Or a foot-and-a-half short. Almost every time Danielson threw over the middle in the first half, he was that short. Midway through the first quarter, with the Lions leading 3-0, cornerback Ronnie Lott intercepted a Danielson pass intended for Chadwick at the 49er 15. Montana then moved San Francisco 85 yards, Craig going over from the one for a 7-3 Niner lead. On the first play of the next series, Danielson threw over the middle to tight end Ulysses Norris, but 49er rookie linebacker Riki Ellison stepped in front of Norris and made his first NFL interception at the Detroit 28. Ellison was supposed to blitz on the play, but he changed his mind. "I thought I had seen something in their formation that would've made me stay back," he said. "Later I found out I was wrong." Four plays later Tyler scored from the two-yard line to make it 14-3.
Next series, next interception. This time Danielson threw behind Norris and free safety Dwight Hicks came up with the ball on a deflection. Montana and the 49ers then got into the spirit of things by moving to the Detroit 14 but ended up empty-handed. Late in the half, linebacker Keena Turner made San Francisco's fourth interception, at the Detroit 27. The Niners failed to do anything with it. Midway through the third period Ellison intercepted Danielson yet again, and Wersching then kicked a 19-yard field goal for a 17-9 lead. Before the game Danielson had written himself this inspirational note: "Be positive! Be positive! Even if I throw five interceptions we're going to win." Well, at least he was half right.
Even Billy Sims, he of the two quick feet and the two signed contracts, couldn't lift this game from the pits. His first six carries produced zero, zero, three, two, three and zero yards. On his seventh he exploded over the right side for 56 yards but was tackled by corner-back Eric Wright at the 49er four-yard line. "Billy's a great back, but if a guy's got any speed, he'll catch him on those long runs," said Wright. Need it be said that the Lions couldn't get six from there, settling, instead, for Murray's 21-yard field goal?
The game might've been Sims's last in a Detroit uniform. On Jan. 25 the courts will decide whether he'll stay in Detroit or go to Houston to play for the USFL Gamblers. Murray, though, knew just where he was heading: to a cabin in Northern Michigan, far, far away from the replays.