We are sailing in uncharted waters with these San Francisco 49ers. We are seeing them put up numbers that we've rarely seen. We are seeing power football, defensive brilliance, and execution so precise it's scary. That's what the Los Angeles Rams got a taste of in the Niners' 30-3 victory in the NFC title game at Candlestick Park on Sunday, and now it's the Denver Broncos' turn in Super Bowl XXIV on Jan. 28. The question we must ask is: Have we seen it all? Is this the complete 49er package?
The frightening answer is: not really. Waiting in the shadows, like an assassin behind the door, is the long passing game. The Niners have yet to show it in these playoffs. In their crushing wins over the Minnesota Vikings (41-13) and now the Rams, they didn't need it. Everything else worked too well.
Especially on Sunday. Here are some numbers: Joe Montana completed 26 of 30 passes for 262 yards. The San Francisco offense rolled up 442 yards, while the defense allowed 156—and only 26 on the ground. The 49ers ran 76 plays to L.A.'s 47, and their time of possession (39:48) was almost double that of the Rams.
But things didn't start out that way. The Niners were stopped on their first series. They fumbled in Los Angeles territory on their second. Then came the deluge. Their next three possessions in the first half produced three touchdowns. Their first four possessions in the second half: three field goals and one that missed. While all this was going on, the Rams failed to crack the San Francisco 40. In fact, only once all day did they get inside the 40, and that was on their first possession.
January 22, 1990
The game, for all practical purposes, ended with the 49ers' last drive of the first half, an 87-yard, 13-play touchdown march that made the score 21-3. At the two-minute warning the Niners were on their own 18. With nine seconds left they had the touchdown—an 18-yard bullet from Montana to wideout John Taylor. Eleven plays in 111 seconds, an average of 10 seconds per play. San Francisco ran crosses and picks and hooks and quick cuts, and on the TD pass, the line gave Montana so much time that he could wait for Taylor to put three moves—fake in, fake out, break inside—on poor LeRoy Irvin, the Rams' right cornerback.
"That drive sent us reefing," said Irvin afterward. "It turned the tide. We were on our heels the rest of the game. They dropped an overhand right on us."
"The last drive of the first half? I can't even remember it, there were so many drives," said Los Angeles linebacker Mel Owens. "It was about as devastating as the first one."
"We were overwhelmed," said John Robinson, the Rams' coach. "Clearly dominated." And on and on—one depressing, slightly stunned quote after another from a team that had been thoroughly whipped.
The second half brought out the bully in the 49ers. They turned their attack to the ground against a tired and injured L.A. defense. The Rams were against the ropes, getting hammered, with no referee to stop the fight. They had come into the game short-handed in the secondary—free safety Vince Newsome was sidelined with a sprained ankle—but their troubles up front were even worse. When the Rams lost linebacker-lineman Mark Messner because of a sprained knee in the first quarter and starting end Mike Piel with a dislocated elbow in the second, they were down to three linemen, total.
By the third quarter the Rams were fighting for air, their jerseys black with mud and sweat. The 49ers kept pounding them with running backs Roger Craig and Tom Rathman—between the tackles, especially with the Washington Redskins' old counter-gap play in which the offside guard and tackle pull, and outside on sweeps, with wide receiver Jerry Rice doing some heavy-duty blocking. On one 12-yard counter-gap run by Craig in the third quarter, 280-pound right tackle Harris Barton pulled and found a corner so soft that he had no one to block. "A finesse team?" said Irvin. "Oh no, not today they weren't. Today they were a physical team."
"We lobbied for a running game all week," said 49er right guard Bruce Collie. "We'd seen what the Giants did to the Rams [the previous week]. We felt that the Giants might have won that game if they hadn't thrown a single pass. At the meetings we'd drop hints—'How about running the ball?' 'Don't forget the running game'—stuff like that."
Montana had different ideas. The 49ers and the Rams had met twice in the regular season. San Francisco lost the game it should have won (a 13-12 defeat in Week 4 on a last-second field goal) and won the one it should have lost (thanks to two long touchdowns by Taylor off short completions in Week 14). "The cornerbacks like to sit on the receivers," Montana said last week. "They'll be conscious of clamping down on the short stuff. I think our receivers can double-clutch 'em, give them a short move and break deep. I really think I can get something going up top."
The Rams thought so too. "They'll want to go deep on us early," said their defensive coordinator, Fritz Shurmur, last Thursday. "They'll be in for a surprise." So Los Angeles worked on the deep stuff and effectively took it away, and Montana shrugged and smiled and cut the Rams to pieces underneath. The offensive line gave him plenty of time to wield that surgeon's knife of his. "You know, when we were preparing for Minnesota and looking at the films of their front four, we were horror-struck," said Barton on Friday. "It was like getting ready for Charles Manson, Freddy Krueger and Norman Bates. But this time it's like getting ready to face an entire scheme. I hope we don't get lulled into being complacent."
The only time San Francisco seemed complacent was during the Rams' first possession, on which they marched 44 yards and kicked a field goal. "It's happened to us all year," said 49er outside linebacker Keena Turner. "It happened against the Vikings on their first possession. It's like we're saying, 'O.K., let's get that first drive out of the way, then we can play football.' "
The Niners' biggest and most spectacular play of the game came on the Rams' second drive. Los Angeles was leading 3-0, with a second and three on the San Francisco 40. Flipper Anderson, the Rams' best deep receiver, fed cornerback Darryl Pollard a hitch-and-go and raced free down the right sideline. Inside help from strong safety Chet Brooks failed to materialize. Jim Everett's pass hung in the air forever, a banana, and free safety Ronnie Lott sprinted over from centerfield and knocked the ball away at the last moment. "I didn't know if I could get there in time," said Lott, "but the ball hung so long."
"He came out of nowhere," Anderson said.
"An unbelievable play," said the Rams' offensive coordinator, Ernie Zampese. "The way he sat back there, the break to the ball—he might be the greatest weak safety ever to play the game." Without Lott's play, the score would have been 10-0. Would the Rams, spurred on by this gift, have gone on to victory? Or would the final count merely have read 30-10—or worse? San Francisco certainly didn't have any defensive lapses thereafter.
The 49ers had put in a new wrinkle called the Lark Special, which was designed to neutralize the most dangerous part of the L.A. attack—the deep routes to Anderson and split end Henry Ellard. Turner would jam one wideout, usually Ellard, and cornerback Don Griffin would pick him up deep. On the other side, Pollard would play the wideout short, and Brooks would get him down-field. The result was double-coverage on both wide receivers. The strength of the scheme was Turner's speed and agility, which enabled him to cut off a wideout in the short zones. The weakness was in the intermediate and underneath coverage—weak inside linebacker Mike Walter running across the field with Ram tight end Damone Johnson or the second tight end, Pete Holohan, and strong inside linebacker Matt Millen covering a running back.
"The deep game is Everett's strength," said 49er defensive coordinator Bill McPherson. "Our idea was nothing deep, nothing cheap. He's not the type of quarterback who picks you apart underneath. So we said, 'Let's go with our scheme until they get us out of it.' The key was the push of our defensive line. Everett didn't have time to wait."
In the second quarter Everett looked for Ellard down the right side and threw into double coverage. Griffin deflected the pass, and nickelback Tim McKyer intercepted it. The turnover set up a 27-yard TD drive that made the score 14-3. Turner got a second-quarter interception of his own off a short pass intended for Ellard, and when Everett tried to go to Holohan on a post pattern in the third period, noseguard Jim Burt broke in and forced Everett's hand, and Lott intercepted.
"I kept noticing Holohan when he'd go to the huddle," said Lott. "He'd keep motioning to Everett, 'Hey, I'm open over the middle.' I knew eventually he'd go to him."
Everett had a long day, completing 16 of 36 passes for 141 yards. The Ram running attack was history after the half, gaining only six yards in the final 30 minutes.
So what must coach George Seifert fear as his Niners head to New Orleans for their date with Denver? Complacency? A false sense of invincibility? Arrogance? Greed? All the evils the rich and powerful are heir to? He'll take them, as long as he can keep Montana on his side. "Joe's been phenomenal all year," said Seifert on Sunday, "but it seems that he's elevated his performance for the playoffs. His concentration, his 'into-it-ness'—it's mind-boggling. He hasn't had a flat spot.
"You look at him from the sidelines, and you're almost in awe. You find yourself watching like a fan would. You fight to get out of a mode like that. In this game if you let your guard down, pretty soon you're fighting for your life. But today, in the heat of battle, I couldn't help saying, 'Damn, we're pretty good.' "