Joe Montana of the 49ers and Boomer Esiason of the Bengals have had hot hands this season, but a pair of defiant defenses will attempt to put the heat on them
January 23, 1989

When Vince Lombardi retired as coach of the Green Bay Packers after winning the 1968 Super Bowl, he said he had "nothing left to prove." San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, who is looking at a third Super Bowl victory, might take the same route. Walsh has been hinting that after Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, win or lose, he won't be back as coach.

On this uncertain note, Super Bowl XXIII is launched, with Walsh's 49ers a solid favorite over the Bengals, coached by Sam Wyche, who is happy just to be employed. When Cincinnati finished 4-11 last season. Wyche's job appeared to be in serious jeopardy, but he survived. He roomed offensive and defensive players together to foster a spirit of closeness. He got tougher on club discipline. His quarterback, Boomer Esiason, had his finest year as a pro. And a heavy-duty rookie runner, Ickey Woods, put some punch in the ground attack.

The Bengals went 12-4 to tie the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears for the best record in the league and won their two playoff games in convincing fashion. Nonetheless, few observers give Cincinnati much of a chance against the 49ers. who were even more impressive in their two playoff victories. The Niners are the hot team, and not even the uncertainty over Walsh's future has diminished their popular appeal.

The last time we went through a pre-Super Bowl period like this was in '68, when Lombardi spent the week stalling writers who asked him if the rumors that he was quitting as coach were true. Green Bay beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14, and Lombardi did quit—becoming exclusively a general manager. After a year he moved on to coach the Redskins. That scenario could be repeated.

After his 10 years with the 49ers, Walsh certainly has nothing more to prove, especially if he wins on Sunday. Winning three Super Bowls would be a feat matched only by Chuck No.11. His Niners have already become the winningest team of the 1980s. When he joined the Niners in 1979, they had just gone 2-14 and had traded their No. 1 draft choice. In his third year Walsh won a Super Bowl. He might now spend a year or two at the beach and then surface with, say, an expansion team.

"What I'd really like to do," he says, "is take a year off and go back to the roots of football and write three books: coaching at the high school level, at the college level and in the NFL. I'd like to go around the country visiting high schools and colleges. The books would not be money-makers; I'm not interested in one of those autobiographical things. These books would simply be my way of giving something back to the game. Anyway, that's what I'd like to do. What I'll actually do may be something different."

Niners owner Eddie DeBartolo says he would like Walsh to stay on in some capacity. But what capacity? Walsh has one year left on his contract, which pays him $1.3 million per season. That's a hell of a lot for an overseer. John McVay, San Francisco's vice-president-general manager, says Walsh could "keep doing the things he's doing now, apart from coaching." That could include remaining in charge of player personnel, which Walsh has said is "the only area that contributes to winning aside from coaching." And the Niners have been excellent in that department.

Unlike most NFL teams, the 49ers don't belong to a scouting combine. They have gone their own way in the draft, often bucking prevailing opinions about players. Quarterback Joe Montana, a third-round pick in 1979, was thought to be hard to coach and not to have the strongest of arms. Running back Roger Craig, a second-rounder in 1983, was unpopular with scouts because he had a subpar senior season at Nebraska. Won't play hurt, they said. These two maverick picks produced two future Hall of Famers.

Next case: wide receiver Jerry Rice, who came out in '85. The knock against Rice was that he couldn't really go deep, that he lacked blazing speed. Still, Walsh wanted him, but as the defending Super Bowl champs, the 49ers would draft last. So Walsh gave the New England Patriots a second-round choice to move up and get Rice as the 16th selection in the first round. Result: future Hall of Famer number 3.

The San Francisco roster is loaded with young players who have carried the team through three seasons that should have been a rebuilding phase. Eight starters came from the '86 draft. The top pick in '87, tackle Harris Barton, is a two-year starter. The '88 draft focused on defense, and the first three selections were bull's-eyes. Again, each of the players had a knock against him. End Danny Stubbs was supposedly only a pass rusher; at 26, tackle Pierce Holt was said to be too old—he was 22 by the time he went to college, at Angelo State, after having had a variety of jobs after high school—and linebacker Bill Romanowski was supposed to have an attitude problem. He liked to do things his way.

Trading up for their first two picks and drafting 25th on the third, the Niners found three guys who could help them immediately. Romanowski started on the outside for Keena Turner, who was sidelined for much of the season because of injuries. They'll share the work on Sunday, with the bigger (6'4", 231 pounds) Romanowski figuring to be a key man in attempting to stop the Bengals' power running game, which has been the best part of their offense.

Stubbs and Holt are regulars in the nickel defense, lining up next to each other. They've been active pass rushers, and they've also been effective against the run. The Niners' nickel package has been one of the most solid in the NFL; in the playoffs both Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson and Chicago's Jim McMahon had big problems with it. The Vikings were four for 16 on third-down conversions, the Bears four for 14.

But Wyche, who learned his football from Walsh as both a player (in Cincinnati) and as an assistant (in San Francisco), has a unique way of handling nickel defenses. His hurry-up, no-huddle offense has been raising hell with the league office. The current ruling seems to be that Cincinnati can use it.

"There's no question that the hurry-up might gain some advantage for them," says San Francisco defensive coordinator George Seifert. "If you try to match them at running people in and out quickly, you're in a losing battle and you lose concentration. We're better off using a set defense for a situation and sticking with it, no matter who they put on the field."

This means that the 49ers could be caught in one of two unfavorable situations. They could end up with their base 3-4 defense—really a 4-3, because linebacker Charles Haley plays more like a pass-rushing end—against a three-or four-wideout offense. That means linebackers instead of nickelbacks would have to jam and cover the extra receiver in the short zone, though downfield the coverage would basically be the same. Or the Niners could bring in their nickel package on, say, second-and-eight or third-and-six, and find themselves staring at Cincinnati's basic offense—Ickey and the big boys. That would put pressure on San Francisco's "tweener" backs—216-pound strong safety Jeff Fuller and 223-pound rookie safety Greg Cox, who are bigger than defensive backs but smaller than linebackers—to hang in tough as run-stopping linebackers.

If Cincinnati winds up in long-yardage situations, it will be in trouble. During the playoffs the Bengals went back to fundamentals, running for an average of 214.5 yards a game against the Seattle Seahawks and the Bills. There's nothing subtle about the Bengals' ground attack—just three good backs, Woods, Stanley Wilson and James Brooks, banging away behind a massive, zone-blocking line that averages 281 pounds tackle to tackle. "Mushing it" is the term Cincinnati's offensive line coach, Jim McNally, likes to use.

The 49ers' Pro Bowl noseguard, Michael Carter, will get a lot of heat on first downs. Carter is a 40% player; he's seldom on the field on passing downs. The idea is to keep him fresh. He also changed his style when the Niners went to a four-man front with Haley in a down position. Earlier in the season he had played a reading-and-reacting type of game. Now he has been turned loose to take off and go. He should have a better game against 275-pound Bengal center Bruce Kozerski than he did against the Bears' Jay Hilgenberg, who used agility and quickness to control him.

Cincinnati will try to run at the 230-pound Haley, who usually lines up on the weak side, away from the tight end. Teams went at him all year, but what they ran into was Michael Walter, the weak side inside linebacker. Walter's ability to fill quickly against the run has been the key to the Niners' 3-4 defense. He's one of the two or three best inside linebackers in football.

As the drive-blocking skills of the Bengal linemen improved, their pass-blocking slipped, and Esiason didn't get the protection he enjoyed earlier in the year. Cincinnati's long-passing game has disappeared. Eddie Brown, the most feared wideout in football the first half of the season, was invisible during the playoffs; he made one catch for 23 yards. Cold weather could have been a factor, and maybe Boomer and the offense will open things up in Miami.

The San Francisco offense, on the other hand, was hotter in the playoffs than it had been all year, regardless of the weather. Montana is playing the way he did when he was MVP of Super Bowls XVI and XIX. Rice, who had a bad ankle for much of the season, is also at his peak, making those dazzling cuts that turn 10-yard gains into 30-yarders. The offensive linemen are 12 pounds per man lighter than Cincinnati's. They're trappers and pullers, nicely attuned to the slashing thrusts of Craig.

The 49ers will face a Bengal defense that features three good pass-rushing linemen—ends Jim Skow and Jason Buck and a surprisingly powerful rookie tackle, 277-pound David Grant—as well as the NFL's best run-stopping noseguard, Tim Krumrie, and a secondary blessed with more athletic talent than any other in the league. Cornerback Eric Thomas is Pro Bowl caliber; the other corner, Lewis Billups, isn't far behind; and the strong safety, 228-pound David Fulcher, is an All-Pro. In their nickel, the Bengals can draw on four natural cornerbacks—Ray Horton, Barney Bussey, Rickey Dixon, their No. 1 draft pick in '88, and Daryl Smith—who all run in the 4.35-4.45 range.

It's difficult to get anything done downfield against this group. The key man is Horton, who plays the "spy" position; he pops up in odd areas in the zones or simply goes to the ball. The Niners' counterspy in the nickel package is free safety Ronnie Lott (page 44). The quarterbacks had better be aware of where Horton and Lott are at all times.

The pick here is a vote for the Niner defense. Call it 24-10 San Francisco.


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