The more things change, the more they stay the same, even in the NFL. Last Saturday in Canton, Ohio, the league inducted seven players into its Hall of Fame. They sat there baking in the sun, suspended in time, the collars and emotions curling up around their still sizable necks. Two of those honored (small-neck division) were Len Dawson, who became famous as the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs and leader of the "offense of the '70s," and John Henry Johnson, the bone-bruising fullback who broke in with the San Francisco 49ers in 1954 as part of the first and perhaps still the foremost "million dollar backfield."
Literally as these men were being honored, the current Chiefs and 49ers assembled in Fawcett Stadium. The 49ers proceeded to win the year's opening exhibition game 20-7, giving further credibility to the notion that the 49ers under Bill Walsh employ the offense of the '80s. Meanwhile, the Chiefs and their first-year coach, Flyin' Frank Gansz, look to a brand-new million-dollar back-field for hope somewhere down the road. There's irony there somewhere, though the 49ers gave the Chiefs no time to dwell on it.
Quarterback Joe Montana was 9 for 14 for 120 yards. Two passes were dropped, as was Montana, hard and more than once. While recovering from last season's back surgery, Montana has obviously paid some dues to conditioning. He is now his old self, which all but promises a return trip to Canton one day. As proof of Montana's comeback, 49er All-Pro defensive back Ronnie Lott observes that "Joe has been able to overthrow Jerry Rice in camp."
Rice is, at the moment, the finest receiver in the NFL. Though his wardrobe and hairstyle may have gone slightly Max Headroom, he can still go de-de-deep on the field. And he always gets open. Rice is coming off a year in which he set or tied five 49er team records. The Niners are expecting more of the same, and Rice, 24, seems poised to deliver. Headroom, yes. Big head, no. "Jerry's looking like Jerry," says Lott. "The workhorse with the great work ethic."
August 16, 1987
At Canton the 49ers scored first, on a Ray Wersching field goal with 1:35 left in the first quarter after Rice curled like a comma in the middle of the field and took Montana's strike 39 yards to the Chiefs' eight-yard line. Two plays later, however, Rice dropped a Montana pass in the left corner of the end zone. Even then he made a point: Though the play began on the seven, Rice ended up free by three yards in the corner. Rice was working against what may be the NFL's finest secondary, and it couldn't cover him with a single man on just 17 yards of turf. Make the field longer and...J-J-Jerry. Catch the wave. If you c-c-can.
Rice is only the fashionable tip of the iceberg. In terms of sheer numbers, it's hard to imagine an NFL team having had as many real, former and potential NFL starters and stars at wide receiver in one camp. Time doesn't permit naming them all, but a partial list would include: 1) Rice (No. 1 with a bullet); 2) Mike Wilson, 28, 6'3", superior hands, speed to get deep; 3) Johnny (Lam) Jones, 29, acquired from the Jets to stretch defenses, although so far he has stretched only his hamstring; 4) Dwight Clark, 30, great career, but currently stands in the way of...5) Paul Jokisch, 23, the 49ers' fourth pick, and at 6'7" and 230 pounds possibly a big Clark type; 6) Carl Monroe, 27, who caught the first touchdown pass in the 49ers' 1985 Super Bowl win; 7) Derrick Crawford, 26, All-USFL at Memphis; 8) Ken Margerum, 28, who caught two passes for the Bears in the '86 Super Bowl; 9) Tony Hill, 31, the ex-Cowboy and three-time Pro Bowler.
"It's unbelievable, just absolutely unbelievable," says backup quarterback Steve Young. "I've never seen anything like this receiver depth. Jerry's the best in the game, and once Tony gets in shape, and then all the other guys...."
John Taylor's name also belongs on that list, although Walsh plans to use the second-year player primarily as a punt returner. Taylor was in clover Saturday. He returned four punts for 134 yards. The first was a second-quarter 49-yarder to the K.C. 41, and that series culminated in a two-yard touchdown run by Joe Cribbs. Later in the period, Taylor smoothly brought another back 64 yards for a touchdown. "John's got the speed and the moves," Lott had said. "In fact, he reminds me of John Stall-worth. John just has to get his confidence. Take what he wants."
Which brings us to Tony Hill, who often took what he wanted during 10 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers picked up Hill after he was dropped by Dallas. He is not yet in top condition, but he's hardly an overweight lummox. "I'm 209 now," said Hill, poking at the little roll of fat around his upper abdomen. "I'll be down to 202 soon. The problem in Dallas? The offensive coordinator [Paul Hackett] and I didn't see eye to eye. I never had a problem with Coach Landry. He was always in my corner."
"Tony needs extensive conditioning," says Walsh. "That's all. I'm not too concerned at this point."
A man who has plenty of reason to be concerned and isn't is Gansz. If you are Gansz, there are no such things as problems, only missions. Gansz is a 48-year-old former Air Force fighter pilot from Altoona, Pa. In one tumultuous week last January, he went from being a special-teams coach who had resigned to a head coach with his own cult following. All this took place after the Chiefs lost to the Jets in the playoffs. The fact that K.C. was in the playoffs at all was a miracle wrought by the Chiefs' defense and Gansz's special teams and motivational ability. At least, this seemed to be the players' consensus, which isn't unreasonable when you consider that the Chiefs beat Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh 24-19 on the last weekend of the season even though they were outgained 515 yards to 171. K.C.'s special teams, which blocked or deflected 10 kicks during the year, scored all the Chiefs' points. When stirring speeches were needed, head coach John Mackovic called on Gansz. His way of speaking is rapid but reassuring, calm but urgent—a clear stream of common sense. In K.C. they say that Gansz could talk the Gipper into winning one for Lamar Hunt.
At Canton, as the Chiefs were warming up on the field, Gansz shook hands with each player. Gansz is known as a players' coach and a disciplinarian, an unusual combination. After Gansz resigned in January, and other coaches on the staff seemed ready to follow suit, a group of players, led by kicker Nick Lowery, petitioned Hunt, the Chiefs' owner. As a result, Mackovic was fired and replaced by Gansz. Supposedly the players had only wanted Hunt to retain Gansz as offensive coordinator, the position he was preparing to seek elsewhere. Instead, Hunt gave them the whole enchilada. Gansz got his wish—an offense that needs coordinating.
The Chiefs drafted Paul (Boo-Boo) Palmer of Temple in the first round and Christian (Choo-Choo) Okoye of Azusa Pacific in the second, getting the leading rushers in the NCAA and NAIA in one fell swoop. Palmer and Okoye, behind a line of first-round draft choices, carry the team's immediate future. "We were last or next-to-last in the NFL in rushing for the last four years," says tackle Irv Eatman. "Things have changed. I guarantee we won't be last or even close to it. The days of seeing the Chiefs at the bottom of anything are over."
"Christian and me and the Chiefs are a match made in heaven," says Palmer. "They needed backs. We needed jobs. We have the ingredients here. Now it's just a matter of mixing them right."
It's more complicated than that, of course. Okoye stunted a first-quarter drive when he hit the wrong hole and missed a handoff from quarterback Bill Kenney. A ball-control team cannot make mistakes. "Christian is football-young," says Palmer. "He's still learning. Some things are not instinctive to him yet. All he needs are repetitions and a certain belief."
Gansz will see to that.