The tradition of the plaques started in 1981, the year the San Francisco 49ers marched to the Super Bowl championship. Twenty-eight plaques, one for each NFL team, had been attached to the wall of the training room. Every time the Niners beat a team, its plaque was turned upside down. The idea was that in the end only one plaque would be right side up—the 49ers'. Of course, if they were a team like Houston, for instance, it might take a couple of decades to get the job done, but the 49ers have been moving right along. Going into Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, only nine plaques were right side up, and one represented the Eagles.
And now? Well, maybe they'll have to turn it sideways, because the 49ers' 21-9 victory over the Eagles was a gimme; it was a hands-up, don't shoot, we surrender—a gift. Philly receivers dropped passes. Ten, in all. They dropped bombs and little outlet passes, even a halfback option pass by Wilbert Montgomery. They dropped them in the end zone and in the shadow of the end zone. Mike Quick, the wide receiver who made it to the Pro Bowl last season on the strength of 69 receptions, dropped four. The rest were spread around fairly evenly.
The 49ers, sitting on top of the NFC West with a 4-0 record while the rest of the division is stuck at 2-2, were thankful survivors. They went into Philly's Veterans Stadium expecting the worst and just hoping to squeak one out somehow with their squad of backups and cripples. Quarterback Joe Montana was out with a severely bruised sternum. Their best defensive back, Ronnie Lott, was out with a strained tendon on the ball of his left foot. The other cornerback, Eric Wright, was barely functional, hobbling on a twisted knee. They were hoping to get by in this non-conference game with Matt Cavanaugh at quarterback and former Buffalo Bill Mario Clark at Lott's left cornerback spot—and then send it all in against Atlanta next Sunday. And if the Eagles beat them, well, it wouldn't be any great surprise.
Philly owner Leonard Tose certainly smelled a kill. At the Maxwell Club's football kick-off luncheon early in the week, Tose promised a victory. "I want to make a prediction, and this is serious," he said. "I promise you we'll beat the 49ers."
September 30, 1984
The writers pressed him. "Does that mean you guarantee it?" they asked, the Joe Namath "guaranteed" Super Bowl victory in the back of their minds.
"Is a promise the same as a guarantee?" Tose said. "I know it is. I'm not hedging. I really believe we'll win. I think this Eagle team is better than the one that went to the Super Bowl."
Then he threw open his arms and said, "All right, crucify me."
The "guarantee" quote went out over the wires. Naturally it got big play in the San Francisco papers. And naturally, the 49ers were asked about it. Would such brashness inspire them to maniacal fury? They smiled.
"Saying ain't is," one player said. "The owner is a general who never goes near the field," another added. The Philly fans weren't so good-natured about it. A dozen or so hung around the entrance to the Stadium Club after the game, waiting for Tose to emerge, so they could demand their money back.
"A guarantee means it's a money-back guarantee, right?" said Michael Pietromartire Jr., a newspaper mailer from northeast Philadelphia. "If you buy a TV set that comes with a guarantee and it's defective, you get your money back. Today the Eagles were defective."
Well, how much money back? The $15 ticket price, or the $15 plus incidentals, like parking and hot dogs?
"Tomorrow I'm going to discuss it with my attorney," Pietromartire said.
So while the 1-3 Eagles prepare for the legal battle, the 49ers are bandaging their wounded and getting ready for the Falcons. Despite its perfect record, San Francisco doesn't yet have the look of a force. With Cavanaugh at the controls, the 49er offense suffered a case of the shakes. Montana's ability to avoid the first and even the second emissary on the pass rush all by himself, to dodge and scramble and buy time, has been taken for granted. Cavanaugh doesn't have that talent. When the Eagles put the heat on he sprayed his passes. The idea was to clog the short lanes and force Cavanaugh to wait for his deep men to get clear, and hope the rush would get to him before he had time to load up.
For a while it worked, but Cavanaugh had the law of averages on his side. In August of 1983, Coach Bill Walsh gave the New England Patriots a seventh-round draft choice and two futures for Cavanaugh. The coach liked his ability to throw the high hard one.
"The most important thing for a backup quarterback is his ability to get the ball downfield," Walsh said. "All he has to do is hit two of 10 deep passes and he can survive. If the defense feels he's afraid to throw it long, that's when they'll close in on your running game."
According to the San Francisco press book, Cavanaugh spent the 1983 season "in residency" with the 49ers, a euphemism for did not play. But when Guy Benjamin underwent a knee injury during camp this summer, Cavanaugh became the No. 2 man, and when Montana banged up his chest against the Saints in this season's third game, Cavanaugh came in and rallied San Francisco to 13 fourth-quarter points and a 30-20 win.
When he's comfortable in the pocket he can stand and deliver, and against the Eagles he got enough time on three occasions to give the Niners all the points they needed—a 35-yard TD bomb to fullback Roger Craig in the first quarter, a 20-yarder to Dwight Clark in the second that carried to the two-yard line and set up a shortie TD flip to Freddie Solomon and a 51-yarder to Clark in the fourth period that clinched it. Cavanaugh's stats: 17 of 34 for 252 yards, four sacks, no intercepts and three TDs, certainly better numbers than those of poor Ron Jaworski of the Eagles, who officially connected on only 16 of 40 for 187 yards.
In helping themselves, the 49ers put together a big-league running game (177 yards, 113 by Wendell Tyler) that was built mostly on sweeps, but when you talk about defense, the San Francisco picture gets a bit foggy. With Fred Dean still holding out, there is no pass rush. Washington exposed that deficiency in the second game of the season, a Monday-nighter in which the Redskins came storming back from a 27-3 halftime deficit before losing 37-31. And on Sunday Jaworski had plenty of time to watch his receivers get open—and then drop the ball.
"Where's your pass rush?" Lott was asked after the game.
"Where's Fred Dean?" he said. "Right now we're getting by. We're well prepared. We don't make that many mistakes. But when it comes down to the stretch, we're going to need him."
The prospects aren't good. "It looks like he just doesn't want to play football," 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo says. "His agent, David Perrine, is asking for an annuity that's going to guarantee him $100,000 a year for life. O.K., say that even that's possible. Say you could set one up that would start paying off 10 years down the road. They're still asking for a contract that's guaranteed for three years, whether he plays or doesn't play, plus that annuity. He's 32, and he's been in the league nine years. Would you make a deal like that?"
"It's tough," Lott says. "It's a tough situation all around. But something's got to give."
There were other aspects to the 49ers' performance on Sunday that weren't exactly encouraging. They committed 141 yards' worth of penalties, 27 off their 13-year-old club record. Some of them were unfair, such as the 25-yarder for interference on Mario Clark; he had perfect position on Kenny Jackson and slowed down for the ball. Some were merited. And one was out of the pages of Ripley, a 15-yarder handed out to punter Max Runager for pretending to be roughed and flopping.
"I heard Max ask the referee, Ben Dreith, 'What did I do?' " right guard Randy Cross said. "And he told him, 'Nobody was near you, and you dropped like a Mack truck hit you.' "
The 49ers benefited from some big plays. Inside linebacker Jim Fahnhorst, who was George Allen's middle backer for two years in the USFL, cut off a fourth-quarter Eagle threat in 49er territory with a one-handed interception.
"My left hand, that's the one I always do it in practice with," said Fahnhorst, who'd been a tight end for one year at the University of Minnesota. "My right hand, no. Impossible. I broke my right wrist in college, and it's never been the same."
Keena Turner, an outside linebacker, was flying around the field all afternoon, almost singlehandedly trying to shore up the faltering pass defense, and he made the defensive play of the first half, knocking the ball loose from tight end John Spagnola just outside the Niner goal line. And then there was Clark, who made the most memorable play in 49er history three years ago when he caught the TD pass that beat Dallas in the NFC Championship game.
His 20-yard catch against the Eagles was vintage Clark, a sideline leap to pluck the ball out of the sky. His 51-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter was a good read. He got himself down-field in perfect position between the strong safety (Ray Ellis) and the corner-back (Herman Edwards) in zone coverage, and then got by Ellis for the score. The catches represent two more large steps in Clark's psychological rehabilitation after his return from the serious knee injury he suffered against Dallas in that last regular-season game of 1983.
"I feel like I'm close to getting where I used to be," he said. "I'm concentrating on the ball now instead of my knees. When I got hurt in the Dallas game I was in tight, just blocking, and the play was over when I got hit by the pile. My foot was stuck and my knee got hit. The medial collateral ligament was torn in three places. I heard it pop all three times. They sewed the ligament back together, and it was a good, clean job, but the mental part of my game still was way off.
"In the preseason I kept feeling the pile coming at me every time I blocked. Now I'm feeling a lot better about things. I'm sure the injury is still in the back of my mind, but every game I keep feeling better."
So where do the 49ers fit into the big picture? Right now the NFC West isn't a healthy division. Ram quarterback Vince Ferragamo is out for at least a month. Atlanta has lost its offensive cornerstone, fullback William Andrews; New Orleans still isn't sure about its quarterback. And the Niners? Well, they'll probably have Montana and Lott back this Sunday in Candlestick Park.
"We're existing from day to day," Walsh says, "from practice to practice, from game to game. We're not an overpowering team. We have to play at our best every week. At some point we're going to put our best team on the field."
At least they don't have an owner who guarantees victories—or contracts.