Pro football's team of the '80s came into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium last weekend with a 4-0 record but trailing a lot of questions. Unbeaten, sure, but the San Francisco 49ers had played such perfect football through the playoffs and Super Bowl last season that anything less than perfection would not be accepted. They had made things tough on themselves.
They stole this year's opener, beating the Saints by a point in the final nine seconds at the Superdome. They beat Washington comfortably in Week 2, and then they took Atlanta by six points—and the Falcons had a shot to win at the end. Next they spotted Houston 14 points and came back to win by three. Not exactly dominating, but they were still undefeated.
"Let me ask you something," said Niner inside linebacker Matt Millen last Saturday. "How good are we really?"
"Don't you know?" someone asked.
"No one knows," said Millen.
"It's weird," said right guard Harris Barton. "There's been so much pressure that when we win and don't play all that well, everyone walks around like we've lost. Winning ugly, man—that's what we've been doing."
Now San Francisco was facing the Falcons again, and on the sideline at the 49er practice last Saturday, Roger Craig, the heart and soul of San Francisco's ground game, or what was left of it, was in sweats, taking laps around the field. Running alongside him was the team's orthopedist, Dr. Michael Dillingham, who was keeping his eyes on Craig's injured right knee. Craig had torn the posterior cruciate ligament six days earlier, against the Oilers. That's the kind of injury that could sideline a player for a season, but here he was, jogging with no sign of a limp. "I've done so much work on my legs," said Craig after cooling down, "that the muscles are strong enough to compensate for an injury like this."
"You're not really thinking about playing tomorrow, are you?" he was asked.
"If they need me," he said.
The Niners were coming into the game averaging a league-low 2.9 yards per rushing attempt. They had yet to crack 100 yards on the ground in a game. The Atlanta defense was allowing 2.7 yards per rush, best in the NFL. The 49ers wouldn't be running on Sunday. They knew it, the Falcons knew it, and no, Craig would not see action. Coaches have remarkably high thresholds for other people's pain, but San Francisco's George Seifert wasn't crazy.
So with the Niners' rushing attack stuffed, as it has been all season, and the Falcons' run defenders swarming and slapping high fives, and the third straight sellout crowd in Atlanta yelling like crazy (last year the Falcons couldn't attract flies), Joe Montana and Jerry Rice decided to have career days.
And it was over just like that, two plays into the fourth quarter, when Montana threw touchdown pass No. 6, TD pass No. 5 for Rice, to bring the Niners to 45 points in what would be a 45-35 victory. What you had was a perfect capsule of the game in the '90s: the sky filled with footballs, the ground swarming with struggling runners fighting for an extra yard.
The numbers were shocking, even for a team that can run it up like the Niners. Montana completed 32 of 49 passes for 476 yards and the six scores, with two interceptions. Sorry, no NFL records, but no 49er has ever thrown for more yards or TDs in a game. Rice wound up with a club-record 13 catches for 225 yards, and the five touchdowns tied the league mark for TD receptions in a game, set by a pair of tight ends, Bob Shaw of the old Chicago Cards in 1950 and Kellen Winslow of the San Diego Chargers in 1981.
The Niners were scary. If they hadn't pulled in their horns and played ball control after putting 45 points on the board, who knows what kind of numbers Montana could have had. Five hundred yards? Six hundred? Seven or eight TDs? All possible on that sunny day in Atlanta, where Montana had a perfect read on everything the Falcons threw at him—zone, man-to-man, blitz, blintz, made no difference—and rockets came from his arm.
"It was like practice," said Millen. "There was a point in the game when I said, 'Didn't we see this in practice Thursday in our seven-on-seven drill?' When we were walking into the locker room after the game, I told Jerry Rice, 'Better watch out. There are cops in there waiting to arrest you for child abuse.' "
In this case the child was Atlanta's left cornerback, Charles Dimry, 24, a third-year pro drafted in the fifth round out of Nevada-Las Vegas. Decent fella, kinda quiet. "Seemed like a nice guy," said Rice. "Didn't do a whole lot of talking and that kind of stuff."
Don't believe offensive coaches on teams like San Francisco when they tell you, "Oh, we'll just take what they give us." That inevitably means that they have found a pigeon they think they can work on. This time, like a dentist's drill finding the one sore tooth, they found Dimry, a logical target because Prime Time Deion Sanders works on the other side.
Real quick, here are Rice's five TD passes-each of which found him in perfect stride. First quarter, 24 yards down the seam in the slot on the left side. Same quarter, 25 yards on a post pattern, right, Montana releasing the ball just as he was nailed by blitzing free safety Scott Case. Second quarter, 19 yards, crossing pattern, right to left. No one could have stopped it. Montana had enough time to check out the first three rows of the stands. Third period, 13 yards, again on a right-to-left crossing route. Dimry received help from Case. Finally, fourth period, 15 yards on an in-and-out, post-corner route, right side. Dimry committed early and slipped to his knees.
"You get frustrated, you don't know what to do," Dimry said. "You try to jump on him quickly. Maybe I overcommitted. All I know is I'm never going to have another day like this one."
At times, Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville threw his famous eight-man Gritz Blitz at Montana, and that's how the Falcons got four sacks. But Case's blitz also cost Atlanta that 25-yard touchdown. "Joe just held it so long," said Case. "He let it go at exactly the last second. I knew something had to happen downfield."
Atlanta tried mixing in some zone defenses, but that really isn't Glanville's style. "Zones are like being unconscious," he has said. With time to throw, Montana will eat up any zone, as the Falcons found out in their 19-13 loss to San Francisco on Sept. 23, when Joe burned them for two TDs through busted zones.
Atlanta was in a zone in the second quarter on Sunday when Montana threw his longest scoring pass of the day, 43 yards to former Cowboy wideout Mike Sherrard, who split playing time with John Taylor. It was a swivel-head zone, everyone turning his head to watch as Sherrard ran through it like an express train speeding through local stops. After that, Atlanta bagged the zone.
But how about benching Dimry for a while to let him get himself together and replacing him with veteran Bobby Butler? How about moving Sanders, who gave up short stuff (seven completions, 81 yards) but nothing serious, into a straight player-versus-player alignment, Deion versus Rice, as the Redskins do with cornerback Darrell Green? Dimry on Rice was like watching someone trying to catch feathers.
"Everyone saw what was happening," Glanville said. "It wasn't one guy's fault. If there's one guy to take the blame, it's me for putting us in the defense we were in."
At times, Rice almost looked embarrassed by the game he was having. After he hauled in his fourth scoring pass, he turned to the fans and shrugged, as if to say, Don't blame me, I can't help it.
"I was kinda telling them, It's just one of those days when everything's going right," he said. "Look, I don't go into every game figuring I'm going to dominate, but when I've got a guy going, I've got to take advantage of him. Dimry's a good cornerback, but it's one on one out there, and the defensive backs don't know where I'm going."
The loss was especially tough on Glanville, who, in his first year in Atlanta, had turned the town on with his flamboyant style and 2-2 start. The Falcons had played hard for him, and they had a shot in both games they lost. "A week after he got here," said defensive end Tim Green on Thursday, "I told him, 'I hope they never get rid of you, because I want to play the rest of my career for this staff.' "
On Sunday, though, the Falcons were caught in that burst of rockets. "So darn hot, Joe was just so darn hot," said Sanders. "He was hitting everything. If you're not on your guy when he makes his break, you're not gonna get there."
For Montana, it was business as usual. "Talk to him," said his former Pro Bowl receiver, Dwight Clark, who's now a 49er executive, "and I'm sure he'll tell you about the two or three bad throws he made."
Talk to him. Yeah, good luck. You and about 50 writers and TV people with minicams, not to mention the security guys crowding around. Montana appeared briefly, standing on a chair in the midst of this mob, answering questions in that matter-of-fact, no-big-deal way of his. The play in which Case leveled him as he was throwing?
"Yeah, he hit me, but it didn't feel that hard," said Montana. "Jerry was in man-to-man in the middle. I just had to wait."
His day in general?
"Streaks, I was throwing in streaks," he said. "At times I was hitting; at times I was not hitting. They tried to play zone. That didn't work. They tried to play man. That didn't work, either."
Barton, a notorious worrier, wasn't happy. "The running game [50 yards on 24 attempts] isn't here," he said. "Special teams were a problem [two blocked punts, one for an Atlanta TD]. We have a lot of work to do."
Still buzzing were rumors of a trade for Los Angeles Raider running back Marcus Allen. Still puzzling is the death of the Niner running attack (chart, page 27). Some 49er observers say that Craig, even when he's healthy, has lost a step. Jeff Van Note, who played center for the Falcons from 1969 to '86 and now is the color commentator for Falcons' games on WSB in Atlanta, thinks San Francisco's offensive line is not the competent run-blocking unit it once was. But it does give Montana plenty of time to throw, except when the line is outnumbered by blitzers. The Niner coaches mention the lack of the one or two precise blocks—the springing blocks—the team used to get on sweeps.
One intriguing theory you hear is that a change in the 49ers' practice routine has created a problem. Under former coach Bill Walsh, much of the running proficiency came from a rather nasty blocking scheme that featured cut blocks—chop 'em off at the legs, get 'em when they're not looking, that kind of thing. These blocks were practiced during the week, much to the annoyance of the defensive coaches, who didn't want their people used as cannon fodder. Walsh was an offensive coach. Seifert's background is on defense. He has stopped the cutting against the defense in practice, and cut blocks have to be practiced to be effective. At least that is the theory.
But as Montana showed on Sunday, when he gets hot he can overcome just about anything—blocked punts, feeble ground game, you name it. You have to wonder, though, what will happen in bad weather, or if Montana has an off day. The Niners' greatest strength—and the reason they are still the best, or close to it—is that they win despite everything. For New Orleans and Atlanta, playing the 49ers was their Super Bowl. The San Francisco game was a biggie for Houston, too. For the Niners, those games were just four more stops on the schedule.
San Francisco's defense gave up almost 400 yards to the Falcons on Sunday, 365 on the passing of Chris Miller and Scott Campbell, who took over when Miller went down with a sprained right knee in the fourth quarter. The numbers, though, are misleading. This was shoot-out football, and the yards have a way of piling up.
Atlanta's rushing game—14 carries, 29 yards—was even feebler than San Francisco's, and at times the Niner pass rush, led by outside linebacker Charles Haley (whom the Raiders supposedly want for Allen), was formidable. The 49ers exerted pressure even when they rushed only three men toward the end and dropped everyone else back into coverage.
The dynasty remains strong. The schedule eases a bit with Pittsburgh and Cleveland at home, Green Bay and Dallas on the road and then Tampa Bay at home before back-to-back biggies at Candlestick Park—the Rams followed by the Giants on Monday night, Dec. 3. There's a good chance that both San Francisco and New York will be unbeaten when they meet.
Maybe the Niners will have found a running game by then. Maybe Montana will have cooled off. He couldn't get any hotter.
LIFE IN THE PASS LANE
The slats after five games hammer the point home: The 49ers have been far more dependent on passing than they were over the same span in each of the last two seasons-when they went on to win the Super Bowl.