Late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, coach Bill Walsh stood on the sideline in Giants Stadium, watching his San Francisco 49ers' offense come apart. The New York Giants had stuffed San Francisco on its last two series and had taken a 17-13 lead. The 49ers' last four possessions had produced no points. Wide-out Jerry Rice had dropped two passes, including one on the goal line. Quarterback Joe Montana, who replaced Steve Young at the start of the second half, was having problems with New York's swarming defense, and the Niners' only serious weapon of the day, halfback Roger Craig, was getting beaten up every time he touched the ball.
With 1:21 to go San Francisco looked ready to launch another disastrous drive, this time from its own 23-yard line. On the first play, Rice dropped yet another pass, a little slant-in. The second play was a botched snap, with center Randy Cross falling on the ball for a one-yard loss. On third-and-11, the 49ers lined up with four wideouts across the field. Rice was wide right with Mike Wilson slotted inside, and Wes Chandler was wide left with Calvin Nicholas in the slot.
This is San Francisco's version of the desperation play, the old fling-it-up Big Ben, which places three wide receivers on one side of the ball and which Walsh has called "the ugliest play in football." That's not really the Niners' style. Picks, crosses, sweeps, that's their game. In the previous three seasons they had pulled out only one game in the waning moments on the strength of Montana's arm, and that was on a 25-yarder against the Cincinnati Bengals in 1987.
But this time the Giants did something unusual. They covered the four San Francisco wideouts with four defensive backs, period. They didn't bring in any extra defensive backs—no nickel, no dime, no loose change of any kind. They had all four linebackers in the game and three down linemen. Rice, the only player who had a realistic chance of breaking free for the winning touchdown, was the property of cornerback Mark Collins, New York's best cover man. Best against best—that's what football is all about, isn't it?
Montana had tried only one deep pass all day (to Rice) and it was overthrown. But what happened on Sunday will be on Reel 1 of the 49ers' 1988 highlights film. Walsh sent in a play called 76 All Go, which is just what it sounds like. "You say a prayer and leave the huddle," said Walsh after the game. Montana threw a bomb and Rice, streaking down the right side, got a step on Collins. Strong safety Kenny Hill, who had broken off his coverage of Wilson, arrived late and collided with Collins just as the ball settled in Rice's hands. Sayonara. Touchdown Niners with 42 seconds left. The final score read 20-17.
Deep silence descended on the stadium. Then the grumbling began. Four defensive backs against four wideouts? Geez, that ain't modern football. You have got to cover Rice with two guys, don't you? "It's our regular coverage," said New York's secondary coach, Les Fontes. "It's what we call Cover Four. My cornerback's very reliable. Kenny Hill's very reliable. The best player won on that play."
Giants head coach Bill Parcells said that nickelbacks wouldn't have helped, because they would have had the short zones to keep Craig from running free underneath. Said Collins, "I felt I had him, but it was just a perfectly thrown ball. He [Rice] didn't make a play all day, then he makes the last one."
Said Hill, "I have to get a read on the quarterback, and if he opens up, then I get over on the outside receiver. I might not get the ball, but I have to knock the stuffings out of him. Unfortunately, I got more of Mark than Rice."
Thus, with one fling of a 32-year-old quarterback's arm, the aura of invincibility that had briefly surrounded New York's defense was shattered. The week before, the Giants had risen with a fury in the second half to beat Washington 27-20. Now we know they are human.
And when the 49ers are through savoring the victory that places them with the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams as one of only three undefeated teams in the NFC, they'll have some questions of their own. First, what's with Rice? For 59 minutes he was Rice the rookie—three drops, three catches for minimal yardage. Then on one 78-yard pass he was Rice the two-year All-Pro. What gives? On Friday night the Niners had watched a motivational film that featured nasty hits the Giants had inflicted on Rice in previous meetings.
"I've matured," said Rice after the game. "When I dropped those three balls I didn't get down on myself, the way I did as a rookie. On the short drops I tensed up. I tried to do too much. The one on the goal line? My coach told me I had the ball, but I didn't watch it in. If I'd have dropped that last one, well, I may have just stayed in New York. I couldn't have gone back on the plane."
Try this theory. Young's a lefty, which means his passes have a different rotation than Montana's. They also have a different trajectory and velocity. Then the righthanded Montana comes in, and the receivers have to adjust. "Yeah, the rotation is different," Rice said, "but you work with both of them in practice, so you should be able to catch both guys' passes."
"Different spins," said Craig, who was magnificent on Sunday, rushing for 110 yards on 18 carries and making nine receptions for 69 yards. "You really have to concentrate."
As Walsh tries to work out a system to accommodate both quarterbacks, the mystery deepens. He says Montana will be his starter against Atlanta this week. Montana started against New Orleans in the opener. In that game he had a good first quarter, a bad second quarter and an excellent third quarter with three TD passes before retiring with a big knot on his right elbow. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week the 26-year-old Young worked with the first unit in practice, and Montana sulked.
"I felt that I could have thrown both those days," said Montana on Friday, "but it was obvious who they were going to go with. You can't get ready when you only throw the ball six times a day in practice. They were going to yank me last week against the Saints, but the game got tight and they didn't want to make a change unless they had to. Sure it's tough. It's like someone's waiting for you to screw up. You're afraid of having a bad series.
"All I read in the off-season is that Steve Young is the quarterback of the future. It would be different if I'd had a bad year last season, but it was only one game—the playoff game against the Vikings—and lots of things went wrong that day."
"Look," said Walsh on Friday, "you don't go in with a patched-up quarterback, not against a team like the Giants and not with 14 games still left after that one. If we were in a must-win situation late in the season or playing a lesser team, it would be different. And it would be different if we didn't have someone as talented as Steve backing up Joe.
"But when you've got a Steve Young to fall back on, you'd better use him. He does things no other quarterback can do. He's utterly spontaneous. But Joe is our quarterback. Steve could have a great game against the Giants, but Joe will start the next one. Joe has helped develop a certain character and personality in the team, and when you're at championship level, that character and personality may well be the crux of it."
Young's and Montana's passing statistics were pretty close on Sunday. Young completed 11 of 18 throws for 115 yards, while Montana converted 10 of 18 for 148. Neither was intercepted, but Young fumbled twice—and scrambled for 48 yards. Montana lost no fumbles and had no scrambles. The team gained 211 yards and scored 10 points under Young, 219 yards and 10 points under Montana. At times the complexities of New York's defense gave Young problems, but he had the legs to carry him out of trouble. Montana was more skilled on his reads, but when he felt heat he had to throw the ball away. He couldn't escape.
Young's passes had more zip, especially when he worked the sidelines, but Montana's were more in sync with his receivers. As for the deep stuff, Young didn't try anything serious except a 25-yard crossing pattern to Chandler; the pass was behind him. Montana's 78-yard game-winner to Rice should answer the Bay Area critics who've been moaning he no longer can throw deep.
And the switch from Young to Montana? "In the first half it seemed natural to go with Steve," said Walsh. "Then it seemed natural to go with Joe."
What's unusual about the 49ers is that they're in transition, yet they remain a championship-level team. With free safety Ronnie Lott sidelined because of a pulled hamstring, only three of Sunday's starters had been in the starting lineup for the 1985 Super Bowl—Cross and Craig on offense, inside linebacker Riki Ellison on defense. Only Cross started in the '82 Super Bowl.
The Niners are looking for a possession receiver to do what Dwight Clark used to do for them. Chandler, the former Charger who's nearing the end of an 11-year career, is not the answer. John Frank, who caught two TD passes against the Saints, appears to be on the verge of a big season, but he missed the Giants game because of severely bruised ribs. So Craig had to carry the offense, and he was at his best, following fullback Tom Rathman's precise blocks. Craig, however, traditionally wears down under a season of pounding.
"I'm trying to get as much rest as I can and take care of my body," he says. "I've even hired a masseur. I know it's going to be tough to do this every week."
As for the Giants, who are in the toughest part of their season, defending against desperation passes isn't their only problem. Right tackle Karl Nelson went down with a severe ankle sprain. His replacement, 305-pound rookie John Elliott, played all right against the 49ers' power rushers, but speed rushers like linebacker-defensive end Charles Haley gave him big problems. The other tackle, No. 1 draft pick Eric Moore, was supposed to compete with William Roberts for the first-string job, but Moore wasn't even on the active roster.
The Giants' offense, which was under constant pressure from San Francisco's outside rushers, is still herky-jerk, and the defense has given up 816 yards in two weeks. Lawrence Taylor's 30-day drug suspension will sideline him for another two games. The Giants' other All-Pro outside linebacker, Carl Banks, is still struggling. Walsh, whose game plan is largely predicated on working over a defensive weak spot, aimed much of his firepower at New York's strong side—i.e., Banks. Few teams dared do that in '87. Right now the Giants' best defender is inside linebacker Pepper Johnson.
But the season is young, and just about the time Taylor and Banks are getting their legs under them, the Giants will be heading into the Detroit-Atlanta phase of their campaign. New York and San Francisco have met seven times in the last five seasons, including three times in the playoffs. You get the feeling that their next encounter will take place in the postseason. "It was a great game," said Walsh on Sunday, "a real NFL championship-level football game."