The San Francisco 49ers have won games that were so pretty you wanted to frame them and hang them on the wall. They've won games in which their offense was something out of a textbook, and their defense was like a cavalry charge with sabres drawn—quick-striking, slashing. In the last four seasons, they've won heart-stoppers and ho-hummers and two Super Bowls. And on Sunday they won one the way those guys in the silver and black used to, the guys who once shared the Bay Area with them. They won one that was mean and nasty.
It was only fitting that the team the 49ers beat 34-10 was the Los Angeles Raiders. They did it on the Raiders' own turf, the Los Angeles Coliseum, and a crowd of 87,006 watched them take the home team apart in a style reminiscent of Raider football. The old Raiders, you'll recall, didn't just beat a team, they left it in a shambles. Maybe the opponent's quarterback would survive, but he would be limping.
Jim Plunkett didn't survive the 49er game. With 10 minutes left and the contest already out of reach at 27-3, Jeff Stover, the 275-pound 49er defensive end, planted the Raider quarterback, and he went down on his left arm, with Stover's full weight on him. Plunkett tried to make it off the field but collapsed near the sideline, in great pain. His left shoulder was dislocated.
"I stripped it down and put it in place," said Dr. Robert Rosenfeld, the Raiders' orthopedist. "It popped out. I did it again, and it popped out again. If we can get it to stay in at the hospital, he'll probably miss four to six weeks. If not, then he'll undergo surgery, and he'll be through for the year."
A shambles. The Raiders' offensive line, a problem to begin with, had to adjust when Charley Hannah, the left guard, sprained his right knee in the second quarter. Bruce Davis, the left tackle, then moved to guard. Shelby Jordan, who has been limited to special teams action with a groin injury, took over Davis's spot.
For a while, things weren't so bad. The Raiders, with a very tenacious defense and a strange-looking offense, a dink offense—pick here, pick there, long drives but no points—were hanging in. But in the third quarter it got out of hand. The 49ers had just put together their nicest drive of the day and were up 20-3. Usually at this point in a game two things can happen. The team that's down can open the throttle and come sailing back, or it can get overrun by the pass rush.
"A late pass rush," 49er coach Bill Walsh likes to say, "is the key to NFL football."
The 49er rushers poured through. Plunkett was sacked on the Raiders' first play, the ball popped free, and Milt McColl, who was playing weak-side linebacker for the injured Keena Turner, raced 28 yards with the fumble for the score and a 27-3 lead. The next Raider series died when Plunkett, under pressure, pitched the ball low to Marcus Allen for an 11-yard loss, then got sacked two plays later. At the beginning of the next series he was sacked again, this time by Dwaine Board, who had four of the 49ers' nine—that's right, nine—sacks. Three minutes later Plunkett suffered his dislocated shoulder. Thus, a game that had been billed as a clash of titans, a meeting between the teams that had won four of the last five Super Bowls, ended as a quest for survival.
As always, the Raiders wouldn't die quietly. There was a bitter aftermath that carried into the corridor leading to the locker rooms, with L.A. defensive end Howie Long going after the 49ers' offensive line coach, Bobb McKittrick.
"Leg whips, they were leg whipping us all day," said Long. "I said to Keith Fahnhorst, the tackle playing against me, 'What the hell are you doing?' and he said, 'I'm doing what I was taught.' In the tunnel I asked someone to point out the line coach, and yeah, I guess I did go after him. That's our careers we're dealing with here."
"He wanted to fight me," said McKittrick, a wiry, bald-headed man who looks like a Marine DI. "He said, 'Put a helmet on, and let's go.' Thank God that they couldn't find one my size, 6‚Öû. It's not a leg whip, anyway. It's a reverse body block. All the great old single wing teams used to use it, and some of the not so great teams."
"We've been doing it for the last seven or eight years," Fahnhorst said. "We do it every day in practice, and we haven't lost a defensive lineman yet."
You can add the 49ers to the list of teams the Raiders will be gunning for.
"I had to actually kick that fat s.o.b. [Bubba Paris] playing against me," said defensive end Sean Jones, who's only a second-year Raider but one who learns fast. "I yelled to a ref, 'Did you see that leg whip?' But I guess they were watching something else. Yeah, I'll be looking for that guy next time. We'll see them again, somewhere, someplace."
Well, there's only one place the two teams can meet again this season, and that's New Orleans, in the Super Bowl. The 2-1 49ers still look like the class of the NFC, but it doesn't look as if the 1-2 Raiders are going to make it this trip. Not without a quarterback.
At one time Marc Wilson, who finished Sunday's game for the Raiders and hit the turf three times, looked like Plunkett's heir apparent, but Wilson had a miserable preseason. The sixth-year man from BYU seems to have regressed. There had never been any doubt this year that the job was Plunkett's, and the Raider players, who usually take sides in such matters, had no complaints. There's already a groundswell of support for Rusty Hilger, the 6'4" rookie from Oklahoma State. He can gun the ball long and he can run, and let's face it, the immobile quarterback is an endangered species these days. At least twice on Sunday Plunkett suffered pursuit sacks because the linemen chasing him were simply faster than he was.
The 49ers came into the game with their share of problems, too. They had lost their opener to Minnesota 28-21, on five lost fumbles. Last year they surrendered only 12 fumbles all season. The next week in San Francisco, Atlanta had the 49ers down 10-0 at the half, and the fans booed their team off the field. San Francisco eventually won 35-16.
"Negative, negative, only negatives," quarterback Joe Montana said. "Even during our 18-1 year [in 1984] we got ripped in the papers when we didn't win big enough. I just got sick of it."
Going into the Raiders game Walsh was troubled. "We've fumbled, we've made mistakes," he said. "We've done things we're not used to doing. And I can't say we've seen the end of it.
But the complexion of the 49ers had changed during those first two games. They were running the ball—better than anyone else in the NFL. Their ground attack averaged six yards a crack, with fullback Roger Craig leading the way with a gaudy 7.7-yard average.
"He's the hottest back in the league right now," said Raider inside linebacker Matt Millen, who specializes in stuffing enemy runners. "He's our biggest concern. He's always at top speed."
"Oh, we'll run at them a little, just to show it," Walsh said, "but we're not going to beat them by running early. Maybe later, when they're stirring a bit, but it's just nonsensical to run at that defense right away. Let Millen go all out against a conventional run, and he'll stop it."
The first 49er drive, beginning on the Raider 48 after a short punt, went just four plays, and only one was a conventional run—two yards by Wendell Tyler. The payoff came on a slant-in pass from Montana to Craig that carried 20 yards after the Raider linebackers misjudged Craig's speed and took the wrong angle. Then it was the Raiders' turn, and back they came, putting together their longest drive of the day, from their own eight to the 49er seven, where Chris Bahr kicked a field goal. It gave the Raiders hope and fortified their new concept of offensive football: Flood the zones, throw to people underneath, pick away and take what you're given—a switch from their old drop-back-and-wait style of longer routes and quicker strikes.
The Raiders went long when the defense invited them to. The 49ers have been toying with Buddy Ryan's Chicago Bear 46-Defense this year: Come hard with eight men in close, and leave your cornerbacks unprotected. Three times they tried it, and on each occasion the Raiders went deep on them. The results were two long completions to rookie wideout Jessie Hester and a ball that Jim Smith dropped in the end zone. A TD would have tied the score at 10-10 late in the first half. Instead, the 49ers drove back for a field goal, and when the second half opened L.A. was down 13-3, playing catch-up with a banged up offensive line.
Late in the third quarter the 49ers put together one of their classic drives—nine plays for 80 yards. Their running game had gone nowhere, but with the Raider defense sagging slightly, it suddenly picked up. The 14-yard touchdown was scored by Dwight Clark, who has been almost a forgotten man in the 49er offense this year. It was patented Montana-to-Clark, a sight adjustment in which Clark, the wide man in a double-wideout slot formation, fought his way through traffic, ducked inside and got a perfect shot from his quarterback.
So the 49ers are back on the beam, while deep gloom has settled over the Raider camp. Their dink offense was effective in piling up stats (Plunkett was 23 for 34 for 258 yards) and time of possession. But it hasn't produced points.
"If you're going to dink the ball around like that," 49er cornerback Ronnie Lott said, "you'd better dink it to guys who are going to do something."
Now the Raiders don't even know which quarterback will be doing the dinking.