Bill Walsh stood placidly on the sideline Saturday afternoon as his San Francisco 49er offense ran its first three plays against the New York Giants. The week before, the Giants' defense had swarmed over the Los Angeles Rams to get New York to this NFC semifinal, but now the 49ers were ready to turn those same defenders into a captive audience. An old-fashioned flea-flicker from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark to Freddie Solomon gained 13 yards on the very first play. Roger Craig then powered a pitch right for nine yards. And Wendell Tyler slithered left for 13 more. The 49ers swept like surf to the shore and scored on a 21-yard pass from Montana to Clark. Walsh propped his right elbow on his left arm, tapping his temple with his rolled-up sheet of sequential plays—the maestro and his baton. By the look on his face, he might very well have been listening to his favorite piece of music.
"I sometimes wish it was music," Walsh said after San Francisco had stopped the Giants 21-10 at Candlestick Park. The 49ers' offense is music of a sort. Big-band music. Walsh's team is two deep at all the running and receiving positions. Throw in Montana and a veteran offensive line and you have harmony any conductor could enjoy.
San Francisco's first touchdown was set up nicely when Clark went in motion and followed Earl Cooper's footsteps to a point at the five-yard line where the two receivers diverged into the wings of a perfect Y, Cooper to the corner, Clark to the post. Cooper went uncovered, but Montana made an exceptional throw to Clark, who was semisurrounded by three Giants. Though Montana was 25 of 39 for 309 yards and three touchdowns, the pass to Clark was by far his best throw of the day.
The 49er drum roll didn't end there. On the Giants' first series, cornerback Ronnie Lott picked off a twice-deflected Phil Simms pass and returned it 38 yards to the New York 12. Two plays later Montana found tight end Russ Francis for a 14-0 lead—and the game was only eight minutes old. Then, abruptly, the music went flat. More than 60,000 fans were primed for a crescendo that never came. Indeed, the Giants outscored the 49ers 10-7 in the final 43 minutes.
"We believe the 49ers have the most potent offense in the league," said Giant linebacker Harry Carson, who intercepted a Montana pass and, with a nifty cutback, returned it 14 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. "The key is to hold your composure," added Carson, who helped hold the 49ers to 180 net yards in the second half. "The 49ers are a first-half team. They're great, but they throw all their stuff in the first quarter-and-a-half. They start early and tail off." Giant running back Rob Carpenter said, "Without Walsh, they wouldn't have been 15-1."
If the 49er offense wasn't as explosive as usual, the 49er defense more than made up for it, allowing the Giants only Ali Haji-Sheikh's second-quarter, 46-yard field goal. The 49ers haven't given up 20 points since Oct. 21, so when Montana found Solomon for 29 yards and a 21-10 lead with 4:09 left to halftime, the issue was all but decided. Although Montana's throw was short, Solomon had escaped cornerback Perry Williams with so adroit a corner-post move that it didn't matter. Solomon was in the end zone again in the third quarter, but Montana, still recovering from his own 53-yard run two plays before, underthrew, and line-backer Gary Reasons intercepted. In the fourth quarter, the Giants' Elvis Patterson blocked a Ray Wersching field goal try from 39 yards. Said Walsh, "These things are not always as artistic as you'd like them to be."
Despite the Niners' offensive lassitude, the game served to show why they are the chalk Super Bowl pick: If the offense doesn't get you, the defense will. Linebacker Keena Turner covered tight end Zeke Mowatt 40 yards downfield to break up a well-thrown Simms pass. Linebacker Riki Ellison intercepted another. Linebacker Milt McColl had one sack, defensive end Fred Dean had two. Simms found nothing deep. And the Giants rushed for only 87 yards.
These 49ers are better than San Francisco's 1981 Super Bowl champions. Bigger. Faster. Stronger. "We lost [nose tackle Pete] Kugler [to the USFL]," Walsh said. "But Russ Francis is a better blocker than Charle Young. We certainly like [receiver Renaldo] Nehemiah more than Mike Shumann." Improved in every phase? "Maybe we were comparable in some areas on defense," says Walsh.
The Niners have talent motivated by talent; no wonder Walsh seems at peace. "At this point, I can relax," he had said the day before the game. After the offense sputtered Saturday, Walsh gave credit to the Giants' defense, and said, "We have to score next week. I think we will. I know we will."
Lott seemed to put the 49ers' victory into perspective. "I don't care how it looks," he said. "Like the Raiders say—just win."