Will we ever learn?
Do you figure we'll ever get it through our craniums that every time we try to give Joe Montana the Polident Gift Set, he turns 22 again? That every time we try to give Bill Walsh the gold watch, he winds up cleaning someone's clock? That every time we start writing the obit on the San Francisco 49ers, they write one on the other guys?
Oh, we thought we had the Niners this time. There they were, up to their chin straps in chaos as they entered their New Year's Day NFC playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park. Was Walsh going to stay? Was Montana going gray? What about Steve Young, anyway? And when was Jerry Rice going to have his playoff day? And if the 49ers still ranked among the NFL's best teams, how come they had gone nose-to-the-canvas faster than Michael Spinks in their last three playoff appearances?
Montana, in fact, hadn't passed for a postseason touchdown since the Niners' Super Bowl win, over the Miami Dolphins, in January 1985. Rice hadn't sniffed a playoff touchdown in his life, and 1988's premier running back, Roger Craig, may have been Hummm Baby during the regular season, but he had been numb, baby (57 yards on 21 carries), in three playoff games since '85.
What's more, the 49ers were going to face the same outfit that had knocked them out of the playoffs last year. This season the young and sung Vikings boasted the best defense in the NFL, the top passing quarterback in the NFC and the baddest driving record in Minnesota.
With 11 Vikings having been arrested during the past two years, including seven for DWI, most people don't want to get on the same blacktop with them, never mind the same football field. And socially the Vikes aren't exactly Young Republicans either. Safety Joey Browner likes to play with a samurai sword in his spare time. Safety Darrell Fullington owns a submachine gun. Defensive tackle Keith Millard once warned a cop, "My arms are more powerful than your gun." Nosetackle Henry (Harley Hank) Thomas wears reptile-skin motorcycle jackets. Good thing that defensive coordinator Floyd Peters used to be a prison guard. The Vikings even briefly signed Mossy Cade, who had been convicted of sexual assault, which prompted one Viking player to ask, "Who are we going to sign next, Charles Manson?"
More important, the Yikes Vikes had more Pro Bowlers—nine—this season than any other team, and they were going against a 49er club that had a regular-season record that was worse than theirs (10-6 vs. 11-5), an unimpressive record at home (4-4) and a proclivity for getting playoff apples lodged in the throat. So you take the Vikings and get ready for Bears-Vikings III in the conference final, right? Wrong.
Old Blue Eyes, Montana, threw for three TDs, and he was so adept at eluding Minnesota's hairy rush that he was sacked only once. The forgotten Rice scored San Francisco's first three touchdowns and put so many spine-twisting moves on Viking cornerbacks that some chiropractor will have his hands full for a while. Craig ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which was an 80-yarder. In short, the 49ers made Minnesota's All-World defense look like so many human yield signs by rolling up 372 total yards.
Meanwhile, the Niner defense addled the Vikings with mysterious sets and seven-defensive-back curtains. San Francisco hit Minnesota so hard that the Vikings' families were dizzy. The 49ers sacked Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson six times. And they won a 34-9 chortler to set up a meeting with Chicago in the NFC enchilada game.
"This is sweet," said Montana afterward. The win was especially savory for him because in last year's loss to the Vikings he had been replaced by Young, his backup. That game marked the first time in his pro career that Montana had been benched, and it ignited a Young-Montana controversy that dogged the Niners in San Francisco for most of the season.
The victory was tasty for Walsh, as well. It was his 100th career win, which he admitted he never thought he would get this year. He used the occasion to make a point. In his postgame session with the press, someone asked him, "How were you able to keep the past three years in the past this week?" The questioner might as well have gone up to the podium and stuck his thumb in Walsh's eye. Walsh set his jaw.
"The last three years here have been glorious years," he said. "I don't know where you're from, but we've been in the playoffs every year, and not many teams can say that. We don't have any apologies to make to you or to anybody else." In fact, Walsh has made the playoffs for six consecutive years, and no other working coach can say that. He has kept a minidynasty going in an era when dynasties have gone the way of aerosol spray cans.
The word in San Francisco the last few weeks was that Walsh might not be the coach—win, lose or choke—after the playoffs. Was Walsh just doing the you-won't-have-me-to-kick-around-anymore routine, or was there something to the rumor? Niner owner Eddie DeBartolo, an emotional sort, said long before Sunday's game, "I'd love to have him back."
Walsh said he would certainly be back, but he didn't say in what capacity—general manager, president, scout, consultant, paperweight. "I need Eddie and Eddie needs me," Walsh said.
Nineteen eighty-nine may be, like so many others in the '80s, Walsh's year. We got the first omen of that when Sunday's public-address announcer revealed the game-time temperature, 49°. That turned out to be the perfect temperature for heating up Rice. All three of his touchdown catches came in the first half, and all were Rice peel-offs, in which he performed grade-school run-down-fake-in-go-out patterns. The plays covered two, four and 11 yards, the last coming with 38 seconds to go before intermission.
The only person who gave Minnesota more trouble than Rice was referee Jerry Markbreit, who was dropping cloth like Carol Doda. Markbreit nailed Wilson for 31 yards in intentional grounding calls in the first half. One of those "groundings" almost hit Viking running back Allen Rice. Either Markbreit blew the call or he was making a disparaging comment about Allen's hands.
Earlier, Markbreit had made the dreaded in-the-grasp call—the most boneheaded, stultifying, boredom-enhancing rule in sports—at a most inopportune juncture for Minnesota. The Vikings were up 3-0 when San Francisco defensive end Larry Roberts grazed Wilson's shoelaces with his knuckles as Wilson set up to pass. Wilson, who was unbothered, as a man is unbothered by a gnat in his toe hairs, flipped a little flare pass to running back Rick Fenney, who was headed for a first down. However, Markbreit's call wiped out the play, and Minnesota had to punt. Knowing a gift when he saw one, Montana took the Niners 44 yards the other way for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
"That was a wrong call," Wilson said later. "The rule is grasp and control. I certainly wasn't controlled." He wasn't even grasped. Clearly, not all the fog was in Chicago.
Still, the game was lost not then, but with about three minutes to go in the third quarter, after the Vikings had narrowed the 49er lead to 21-9 with a five-yard scoring pass from Wilson to wide-out Hassan Jones (the extra-point attempt failed). From his own 43 Montana winged a pass toward Jerry Rice, who had run a sideline pattern. Vike corner-back Reggie Rutland stepped in front of Rice for a sure interception and a sure touchdown and a whole new game. Except that Rutland jussssst missed making the grab. Rice didn't. He ran 28 yards with the ball, San Francisco scored six plays later, and everybody in Minnesota began thinking Twins again.
The only curse left to lift was the one on Craig. He dispelled it entirely and put a little whipped cream on his remarkable year with his 80-yard touchdown gallop. The run was the longest ever from scrimmage in postseason play. Show-off.
Far less showy was the performance of Minnesota's best player, wideout Anthony Carter, who lit up Candlestick a year ago with a playoff-record 227 yards in pass receptions. This time AC, who had the flu all week, didn't have a pass thrown his way until the third quarter.
Oh, the Vikings will be all right. They are young and improving. "It would help us a little to get a running game," said Wilson afterward. San Francisco held Minnesota to 54 yards on the ground. A decent running game would mean that teams like the Niners couldn't take out all their linebackers and use seven defensive backs to cover Carter.
So the Vikings go back to wearing down their couch springs, and the 49ers go to Chicago for an appointment with frostbite. "Time to bust out the long Johns," said San Francisco defensive end Daniel Stubbs. If the Niners bust out some long yardage against the Bears, they'll take their third trip to the Super Bowl in this decade. And Montana could win his third Super Bowl MVP. Nobody else has done that.
"The thing that counts now," said Craig, "is how bad your heart wants it." Montana's heart wants it so badly that he got up after giving the game ball to Walsh and made a rare speech to his teammates. He told them that too many teams have gone on after a big win to suffer a big loss. "We can't allow it to happen to us," said Montana.
The Vikings didn't think it could happen to them, after their big season. "This screws me up real bad," said Minnesota's 32-year-old defensive end Bubba Baker, one of the more seasoned players among the Vikings. "I didn't make any plans based on our losing."
Baker will learn. The callow Vikings may become the team of the 1990s, but we're still in the '80s, and the team of this decade is the irrepressible 49ers.