The San Francisco 49ers have served notice to any unbelievers who might conceivably remain. Give Joe Montana time to throw, and his performance will approach perfection.
One half was all the Niners needed to dispose of the Minnesota Vikings last Saturday and qualify for the NFC championship. The final score read 41-13, but the game was over by half-time. At that point, San Francisco led 27-3 and had treated the 64,585 fans at sold-out Candlestick Park to a remarkable show of offensive football.
There had never been anything like it at this level of competition and against this caliber of opponent—the No. 1-rated defensive team in football. The 49ers had six possessions in the first half, not counting a one-play kneel by Montana at the end, and they scored four touchdowns. The other two times, they drove to the nine and fumbled, and to the 14 and missed a field goal.
The halftime statistics looked like final stats. Montana completed 13 of 16 passes for 210 yards and four touchdowns, and the three incompletes came on two drops and a throwaway. Roger Craig rushed 95 yards on 11 carries. Jerry Rice made five catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns. The offense gained 10 yards a play and piled up 320 yards. The Vikings had held 13 regular-season opponents to less than that for an entire game. "Awesome, just awesome," said Minnesota defensive coordinator Floyd Peters. "We were in shock."
"What was your game plan?" he was asked.
"Sure didn't look like there was one, did it?" he said.
The odd thing was that, early on, the game had the look of an upset. After a 58-yard return on the opening kickoff from Terrence Flagler, San Francisco ran a four-play minidrive then coughed up that fumble on the nine. The Vikes responded by launching a seven-minute, painstaking field goal drive to go ahead 3-0. Then the fun started.
Second series: Montana to Rice, 72 yards for a score on a play that started as a five-yard hook pass. "The defense went into shock after that," said Peters. "Nobody stepped forward to make a big play. It was a total collapse."
Third series: 29-yard run by Craig down to the Minnesota 33, after Montana had connected with Rice on a 12-yard slant-in that was so perfectly timed, so quick and decisive, that the pass looked like a telephone wire stretched between quarterback and receiver. "One second, one and a half at most," Terry Bradshaw, who was doing the game for CBS-TV, said later. "No way in the world you can stop that pass when the timing is so perfect."
San Francisco's second scoring series ended with a touchdown pass to tight end Brent Jones in the same corner of the end zone where Dwight Clark had made his famous catch against the Dallas Cowboys in the '82 NFC Championship Game. The play was a near replica of Clark's game-winner: cut left, break right, Montana delivering the ball just as the receiver is being chased out of the end zone.
The Niners used everybody in that first half, from tight end Jamie Williams, a little-used Plan B free agent picked up from the Houston Oilers, to wide receiver Mike Sherrard, the former Dallas wideout who was activated just last week after having missed all of the 1987, '88 and '89 seasons recovering from a broken leg. "They're running so many people in and out," Giants director of pro personnel Tim Rooney said at halftime, "that Peters can't run his defense. They're so concerned about people they've never seen."
It was utter annihilation. The final stats made the game look close—403 yards for San Francisco, 385 for Minnesota—because the 49ers diddled around in the second half and because the Vikes piled up a lot of gimme yards. But here are the most revealing stats: Minnesota, which finished the regular season one sack short of the NFL record of 72, got no sacks; end Chris Doleman, tackle Keith Millard, tackle Henry Thomas and end Al Noga—the finest front four in the business—had a cumulative six tackles and three assists.
San Francisco's offensive line was the platform from which Montana launched " all those pretty, well-timed passes. It was magnificent. "We blocked them the way a field goal team would block," said " center Jesse Sapolu. "We blocked gaps instead of individual men. Each man was responsible for a gap, and we had to read the scheme together. We all had to be on the same page. If one guy broke down, the scheme wouldn't work.
"They're always stunting and looping. They stunt themselves into big plays. They're so quick, they get into those gaps and get their sacks and big losses on running plays. So we had to beat them to the gap."
Millard, Minnesota's quickest inside rusher, got most of the double-team treatment, though not all of it. Sapolu was responsible for making the line calls, such as which way the double-teams would shift—the first man fills the gap, the second zeros in on the defender. On pass plays, a call of "Minnesota" meant the line double-teamed left; "Viking" meant it double-teamed right. Then there were the run calls, and dummy calls to keep the Viking defenders guessing. Everything worked. The offensive line performed like a precision drill team.
The Niners got terrific performances from their tackles—Harris Barton, who handled Noga much of the day, and Bubba Paris, who, with relief help from Steve Wallace, contained Doleman, the league's sack leader. Going into the game, the Paris-Doleman matchup looked scary for San Francisco. Doleman is a speed rusher. Paris, shorn of the weight restriction former coach Bill Walsh had imposed on him, is high in the kilos department. One Niner who eavesdropped on a weigh-in swears that the needle stopped at 348 when Paris stepped on the scale early in the week.
"It's a personal challenge," said Paris last Thursday. "My job is to go out there and beat [Doleman] up, put a lot of weight on him, tire him out. Then Steve gets him and finishes him off."
When the Viking pass rushers crowded in with the Chicago Bears' old 46 alignment, Barton and Paris were supposed to collapse Doleman and Noga inside, to get them knocking into their teammates. And that's what happened. "One time Noga and Millard bumped into each other and bounced off," said Niner right guard Bruce Collie. "Harris and I were laughing in the huddle. He said, 'Look, it's Ping-Pong ball.' "
San Francisco added new wrinkles to its running game as well. For instance, Sapolu, a former guard and one of the team's fastest linemen, pulled to lead the sweeps. That was a switch. The 49ers had the right side of their line, Barton and Collie, pull left in front of a back on the old Washington Redskins counter-gap, a play the Niners hadn't shown much. Then, in the second quarter, they pulled left, but fullback Tom Rathman ran the other way, behind Craig. They picked up 10 yards. "A key-breaker," said Barton. "We hadn't shown that."
Offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick, who designed most of these schemes, rubbed his eyes in disbelief as he watched the carnage. "I mean, you expect some things to work," he said, "but never in my wildest dreams did I expect anything like this. During the week I'd be sitting in the hot tub and I'd be thinking, What if they line up this way, can my guys make an adjustment? And I'd jot something down. Then it would work."
"In all the years I've been here," said cornerback Eric Wright, who has played in all three of San Francisco's Super Bowls, "I've never seen a better half of football. I mean play selection, execution, everything."
Even the Niners' few potential disasters came up roses. On one play early in the second quarter, backup Viking defensive tackle Ken Clarke took a wide loop and came in clean on Montana. Throwing off his back foot, Montana flipped a perfect fade pass to split end John Taylor, who outleapt two defenders for a 30-yard gain. Score that one for individual talent.
"The way they played today," said Minnesota center Kirk Lowdermilk, "no one can touch them. They'll walk into the Super Bowl. I'll tell you what the real difference was between the two teams. We thought we could win. They knew they were going to win. That was the story."