A tip-off on how high the expectations of San Francisco 49ers fans have become is that the Niners can—as they did last year—go 14-2, hold the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants to no touchdowns in two meetings, come within a whisker of the big banana themselves, and people around the Bay Area still shake their heads and say, "We're in trouble." Trouble? You don't know what trouble is, friends. New England, now that's trouble.
O.K., Joe Montana has a torn tendon in his right elbow, so September may be a washout for him. But Steve Young can play, and he proved it again with a sensational preseason.
The offensive line is in trouble, I hear, with people shifting positions all over the place. Let me tell you something about San Francisco's line. When the 49ers won their last two Super Bowls, in '89 and '90, the line was supposed to be in trouble. I've been hearing that since the days of Bruno Banducci and Visco Grgich. The linemen switch and bitch, and that's tough on guys like Harris Barton, who has gone from tackle to center to guard and back to tackle again, never settling long enough in one spot to collect his much-deserved Pro Bowl recognition. But these guys get the job done.
No running game, I hear, and that's a more realistic complaint. Roger Craig took with him to the Raiders what little of it San Francisco had. Dexter Carter is too small, second-round pick Ricky Watters is hurt, and now the Niners are putting all their hopes on third-year man Keith Henderson, who can't stay healthy. O.K., I'll give you that one.
Montana was not the same quarterback last year, mainly because he was under safety-first orders—take no chances, dump it off quickly if nothing is available, or throw it away if you have to. He was off 23.4 rating points from the season before, when he led San Francisco to a fourth Super Bowl win, and the Giants shut him down twice. Maybe stifling your quarterback isn't such a good idea after all.
Still, I like the Niners—even if Young takes some starts for Montana and even if the running game is nowhere. The reason is defense. It just keeps getting better and better. Pierce Holt and Kevin Fagan are textbook 3-4 ends. Charles Haley is a serious pass rusher. Don Griffin is coming on as a cornerback. And the first-round draft pick is a 300-pound monster, nosetackle Ted Washington, who carried an under-achiever's rap out of Louisville. The 49ers, though, have a way of getting outstanding production out of guys like him.
Yes, the Niners will be in the hunt this year. The defense will make sure of that.
On defense the Los Angeles Rams looked lethargic and often confused in 1990. On offense, quarterback Jim Everett's techniques eroded to the point where at times he looked as if he were just heaving the ball. The Rams were a rudderless ship, and they fell from Super Bowl contention in 1989 to 5-11 Before the '90 season, when Kansas City and L.A. practiced together before their exhibition in Berlin, a few Chiefs said you could see the decline coming. They said the Rams looked as though they didn't give a damn.
Heavy stuff. Coach John Robinson surveyed the wreckage in the off-season and decided that it was time to give his guys something to be excited about. So he brought in a new defensive coach, Jeff Fisher, from the Eagles; he toughened up practices; and he didn't yell "No! No! No!" when a fight broke out. Fisher, out of Buddy Ryan's go-for-the-throat system, installed a 4-3 to replace the zone-oriented 3-4 and said, "We will attack."
Sounds good, but you've got to have the people. Kevin Greene moves from linebacker to end. All right, there's one good player. Tackle Mike Piel? Maybe. How about new outside linebackers Brett Faryniarz and rookie Roman Phifer? Well, Faryniarz can get in there, but Phifer is more of a cover guy, and pretty good at it. Then there's a big rookie lineman, 6'6", 273-pound Robert Young, who was raising hell in camp.
Fisher's system calls for the corner-backs to play a lot of man-to-man, and Jerry Gray is certainly gifted in that area. But a lot depends on how quickly Todd Lyght, the fifth player taken in the draft, comes on after his long holdout.
The offense, the Rams say, will fall into place once everyone is on the same page, and Everett admits, "There were times when I felt the pressure was on and I came outside the limits of what I could do." A good thumping running game with Cleveland Gary and Marcus Dupree—if he stays healthy—will help.
I hear it everywhere: "Hey, watch those Atlanta Falcons. They're the sleeper." Watch them do what? They showed some life last season under Jerry Glanville, who was in his first year as coach, but are they ready to make a big jump? Not yet.
One thing about Glanville. When he taps a player on the shoulder and says "You're my guy," Glanville has made a friend for life. Last season, eighth-round pick Tory Epps came from nowhere to become a fine noseguard. When Glanville got a look at Tim Green, he immediately installed Green at defensive end, even though he was undersized at 245 pounds.
Others haven't bought Glanville's act. Lineman Tony Casillas, running back John Settle and receiver Shawn Collins were all in the doghouse last season. Casillas and Settle are gone, and Collins is trade bait. Deion Sanders, the gifted and enigmatic right cornerback? Who knows? His potential is immense, and tight coverage at the corners is the key to Glanville's pressure defensive system. Which is why he got Tim McKyer from Miami, and why he made Bruce Pickens of Nebraska the third pick in the draft.
If the Chris Miller—June Jones connection works out, the Falcons should score plenty of points. Miller is a talented quarterback, and Jones is his third offensive coach in five years. But Jones, a run-and-shoot specialist from the Lions, is tight with the kid. He has said that Miller is at the crossroads year of his career. Remember the New Orleans Saints' Monday-night opener at home against the 49ers last year? The Saints defenders played like maniacs, sacking Montana six times and running down everything in sight. New Orleans was at its best and still lost 13-12, because quarterback John Fourcade came up short at the end. Back home in Mandeville, La., Bobby Hebert, who should have been the quarterback, watched and shook his head. Unable to come to terms with the Saints, he had chosen to sit out the year.
Fourcade was eventually benched after Steve Walsh arrived from the Cowboys three weeks into last season. New Orleans gave up three high draft choices to get Walsh. The passing offense finished 26th in the league. Now Hebert is signed, and it looks as if he'll again be the Saints' starting quarterback.
Now, no one is telling general manager Jim Finks how to handle contracts—he couldn't sign Robert Massey, a talented cornerback, or wideout Brett Perriman this year, so both were traded—but if you're a guy busting his hump on defense, say a Rickey Jackson or a Sam Mills, what kind of message does this give you?
The Saints get back a first-rate little tailback, Dalton Hilliard, who missed most of last season with a torn ligament in his right knee, and maybe they'll get some serious production again from 260-pound running back Ironhead Heyward. But the key to success in the NFL is new talent, and the Saints don't have much of that this season.
DR. Z's POSTSEASON FORECAST
Division champions: Buffalo (13-3), Houston (10-6), L.A. Raiders (10-6)
Wild-card teams: Miami (10-6), Kansas City (9-7), Pittsburgh (9-7)
First-round playoffs: Pittsburgh beats Miami, Raiders beat Kansas City
Second-round playoffs: Buffalo beats Pittsburgh, Houston beats Raiders
AFC championship: Buffalo beats Houston
Division champions: Washington (11-5), Chicago (10-6), San Francisco (11-5)
Wild-card teams: N.Y. Giants (11-5), Dallas (8-8), L.A. Rams (8-8)
First-round playoffs: Giants beat Rams, Chicago beats Dallas
Second-round playoffs: Washington beats Chicago, San Francisco beats Giants
NFC championship: Washington beats San Francisco
Super Bowl XXVI: Buffalo 20, Washington 17
NFC WEST FORECAST