ONE MORE REASON
Offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren didn't like what he saw when he walked into the 49er training room one morning last week. "Oh, this is good," he said sarcastically. Quarterback Joe Montana was being treated for a sprained passing hand, running back Roger Craig and wide receiver John Taylor were having their bum right knees worked on, and Jerry Rice was...Jerry Rice! Holmgren stared anxiously at his wideout.
"Just visiting, Coach," Rice said.
In fact, a primary element in the Niners' recent run of greatness—they're 27-2 since Jan. 1, 1989—has been the extraordinary good health of their key players. Montana, Craig, Rice, fullback Tom Rathman, nosetackle Michael Carter, linebacker Charles Haley and safety Ronnie Lott have been the team's cornerstone players in recent years. From mid-1986 through Sunday, only one of them—Carter, with a broken foot, for six weeks late in '89—had spent time on injured reserve.
Now consider the injury record of three other good teams of the late '80s. Five key Giants (Mark Bavaro, Joe Morris, Lionel Manuel, Carl Banks and Leonard Marshall) have spent time on injured reserve since mid-1986, as have four of the most important Broncos (Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson, Karl Mecklenburg and Dennis Smith) and five of the Bears' cornerstone players (Jim Covert, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Otis Wilson and Jim McMahon).
Every team works hard on conditioning these days, so why do the 49er stars remain healthier than most other teams'? The theories: luck, practice habits and a tough-guy mentality.
While Niner conditioning coach Jerry Attaway admits that "luck's always a part of it," he points to the training habits of Rice and Craig, who work out like a couple of Evander Holyfields in the off-season, and of Montana, who seems determined to remain in peak condition so that he can play until he's old and gray. "One thing that's amazed me," says Attaway, "is that even though football is a short career, and you make your money in a short period, some people don't show up in peak condition to perform to their max so they can keep making that money."
Unlike most teams, the 49ers usually abstain from contact work during the regular season. Former coach Bill Walsh believed that hitting in practice increased chances that the body would break down. "We'd go for weeks at a time without putting on pads at all," Walsh says. "We had full-speed explosive movement in practice, but without pads, so there wasn't that continuous combat in practice."
Then there's that tough-guy mentality. "Joe, Jerry, me, a lot of guys, we're warriors," says Craig. "The superstars on our team set our standards high. We stay in shape, and we can overcome nagging injuries. I tore a posterior cruciate ligament in Week 5]. Most guys would be out four to six weeks, but I'll probably be back this week. The team watches us playing hurt or trying to play hurt, and that rubs off on the other players."
Rice, Craig, Rathman, Lott and Haley have played a combined 31½ NFL seasons without going on injured reserve. Rice says he wants his pro career to last 15 years, through 1999. If he avoids serious injury, he could set some monster records. Why, in only 5½ seasons, Rice has moved within 25 touchdown receptions of Steve Largent's NFL record of 100 (box).
The talent on the Niner roster is their greatest attribute, but the desire of those talented players to answer the bell is an added plus.
More on injuries: Which team figures to benefit most from having a bye on the schedule? The 3-4 Broncos. Because they had Sunday off, they could rest four injured starters—running back Bobby Humphrey, wideout Vance Johnson, cornerback Wymon Henderson and linebacker Marc Munford, all of whom will be ready for this week's game against the Vikings. "What's killed us," says Denver coach Dan Reeves, "is the injuries we've suffered during games, where we have to scrap a game plan because we don't have the people to play it."
Humphrey's return in particular is crucial to any chance the Broncos—AFC champions three of the past four seasons—have of qualifying for the playoffs. He was the league's leading rusher through the first six weeks of the season, despite missing a game after spraining his right ankle in Week 5. "The ankle's going to bother me all year," says Humphrey, who carried only three times for five yards against Indianapolis two weeks ago. "I've got to fight through the pain. The mental aspect is going to be important, because I can't be thinking about the ankle."
Humphrey doesn't think Denver is suffering from a post-Super Bowl funk. "It'll never totally go away," he says of the 55-10 loss to the 49ers in January. "But it's not why we're where we are."
The Saints play in Cincinnati this Sunday, and New Orleans general manager Jim Finks looks with disdain on Bengal coach Sam Wyche's hurry-up techniques on offense. "Cincinnati may not intimidate the officials, but it comes close with all its gimmicks," says Finks of the Bengals' no-huddle offense and quick snaps, which could cross up an official as well as an opposing defense....
Phoenix players donated $16,000 to the Arizona group that is trying to establish Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a state holiday. If voters turn down the initiative on Nov. 6, Phoenix could lose the 1993 Super Bowl....
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs on high-scoring football: "I think we've lost our appreciation for some real battles. It's a shame, because you're missing some of the best things in football, the great hard-hitting games that may only be 13-7. It seems we'd rather have 36-35 [games], and everybody plays as sloppy as he can."
THE END ZONE
This is what a 5-1 start can do for a guy: Bears' coach Mike Ditka spent a couple of hours during Chicago's week off to film a commercial for a rustproofing company. This wasn't just any commercial. Ditka was sitting on a horse. At Soldier Field. In a full suit of armor. Is there anyone else in sports who's enough of a middle-age hunk to hawk his own men's cologne in department stores in June, and enough of a human battleship to ride, clad in armor, across TV sets in October?
ONE OF A KIND
In his 5½ years as an NFL wide receiver, Jerry Rice of the 49ers has set himself apart as few other pro athletes have. Since entering the league in 1985, Rice has caught 75 touchdown passes, 30 more than the No. 2 player in that department over the same span, the Dolphins' Mark Clayton. Who else comes close to this kind of dominance in a team sport? Maybe only Wayne Gretzky, who had 677 goals from 1979-80, his first season in the NHL, through last season. Jari Kurri was next with 474. On Sunday, when he caught six passes for 67 yards and one touchdown in San Francisco's 20-17 victory over the Browns, Rice was 28 years, 15 days old. Here's how the league's alltime leading receivers at age 28 compare with Rice.
STAT OF THE WEEK
•Frank Gilford said that the Bengals had "a dominant defense" before they met the Seahawks on Monday night, Oct. 1, and since then they've given up 32.2 points and 379 yards a game and surrendered 4.8 yards per rushing attempt.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Raiders at Chiefs. Bo knows the way to Arrowhead Stadium. It's right across the street from his baseball home, Royals Stadium. One bit of friction here, though: The folks at Nike called the Chiefs during the baseball season and asked to use Arrowhead for a commercial. The Chiefs get a couple of Bo-related requests a year, and they've accommodated every one—except this one. Seems that Nike wanted to shoot Bo running into one of Arrowhead's end zones—wearing a Raider uniform. "We're more than happy to do things with Bo," says Chiefs public relations director Bob Moore. "We'll be cooperative, but we won't embarrass our franchise in the process." For the record, here are Bo's stats in two games at Arrowhead: 24 carries for 71 yards.
Bills at Browns. Ten months ago, on a wintry day on the Cleveland Stadium tundra, Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly was on the brink of leading the Bills into the AFC Championship Game. He had picked apart the Browns' defense all afternoon, and here he was with the ball on the Cleveland 11, trailing 34-30 with nine seconds left. Kelly had four receivers out, but right away he focused on running back Thurman Thomas, who was being covered in the right flank by lumbering linebacker Clay Matthews. Thomas head-faked Matthews to the right and then cut across the middle toward the goal line. Matthews, sprinting to catch up with Thomas, looked back toward the line of scrimmage. "And there was a perfect spiral, about 15 feet away, coming straight at me," says Matthews. "I didn't have time to think. I just had time to catch it." He did, and the Browns advanced to the AFC Championship Game instead of the Bills. That was Cleveland's last meaningful victory.
JERRY RICE, 49ers
LANCE ALWORTH, Chargers
BOB HAYES, Cowboys
ART POWELL, Jets-Raiders
MARK CLAYTON, Dolphins