PRIME TIME EXPOSURE With the arrival of Deion Sanders, the Niners all got a little bit looser

February 16, 1995

The rental car, one of those small foreign sedans that pass for a
midsize, pulled out of a parking lot at Anaheim Stadium last
September with a slightly nervous Deion Sanders folded into the front
passenger seat. He wasn't nervous about how he would play the next
day against the Los Angeles Rams in his first game as a Niner;
Sanders, who was riding back to the team hotel after the Saturday
walk-through practice, was concerned about being the new kid in
class.
''The thing I want to do is fit in,'' he said that hot,
late-summer day, adjusting the air-conditioner vent so it blew the
cool air toward him. ''I don't want to come in here and have all the
attention focused on me. That attention belongs to Jerry Rice and
Steve Young and Ricky Watters, the guys who've been here awhile. They
deserve it. I'm just here to help them win and try to get a ring. And
I have to prove myself all over again. I've been voted All-Pro, but I
have to show the guys on this team that I can help them get to the
Super Bowl.''
The next day, Sanders and the rest of the football world got some
clues about how he would fit in with the 49ers and what his impact
would be. Sanders played 28 snaps as the right cornerback in San
Francisco's nickel defense -- he hadn't been with the team long
enough yet to win a starting job -- and on all but a few plays, Ram
quarterbacks Chris Miller and Chris Chandler ignored the Sanders side
of the field. L.A. wideouts Flipper Anderson and Isaac Bruce were
blanketed by Sanders, who deflected two balls. And this was just the
beginning. As advertised, Sanders took great receivers off their game
all season. In the NFC Championship Game, Sanders lined up opposite
the Cowboys' big-play wideout Alvin Harper about 70% of the game.
Harper's final totals? One catch for 14 yards.
Maybe even more important to the 49er organization, Sanders meshed
comfortably with his new teammates and just tried to be one of the
guys. Niner president Carmen Policy had spoken to Rice before Sanders
was signed, asking the star receiver if team chemistry would be
disrupted if Prime Time came aboard. No, Rice told him, he knew
Sanders well enough to realize that he wouldn't demand special
treatment. Instead, Sanders was the one dishing out the special
treatment.
Against the Rams in Game 3, San Francisco was winning big when
Rice got stopped a yard short of the end zone in the fourth quarter
by Los Angeles cornerback Todd Lyght. Rice went to the bench
disgusted because Lyght, a 186- pounder, had kept him from scoring.
''Damn, Prime!'' Rice said to Sanders. ''I shouldn't have been
stopped!''
''Hey, if that had been me ((defending)), you definitely would
have scored,'' said Sanders. ''You'd have run right over me.''
That wasn't the first time Sanders had tried to put the team at
ease that day. In the second half, he got flagged by back judge Scott
Steenson for interference. Later, when Steenson went to the 49er
bench for something to drink during a timeout, Sanders gave him an
earful. ''You're taking money outta my pocket when you call 'em that
way, ref!'' Sanders said. ''You're not only taking money outta my
pocket, you're taking food outta my kids' mouths! You gotta let me
play!'' The teammates who heard him were laughing.
''There's no question about it,'' 49er coach George Seifert said
during Super Bowl week. ''Deion enhanced us as a team. I think there
was an immediate respect for him as a player, and beyond that, I
think he had the effect on this team of basically saying, 'O.K.
guys, loosen up,' which may have been something we needed.''
When history recounts this Super 49er season, Sanders will be
remembered as the perfect man at the perfect time for a near-perfect
team. Let us count the ways. Despite having signed as a free agent
two games into the season, Sanders was voted the league's Defensive
Player of the Year. He had six interceptions, including three that he
returned for touchdowns (74, 90 and 93 yards). When his teammates'
spirits flagged, Sanders boosted them. His opposite corner, Eric
Davis, had some poor games, but that didn't stop Sanders from
building up his confidence during the postseason by saying, ''Eric
Davis is the best cornerback I've ever played with.''
Late in the year, Young still hadn't shaken the ghost of Joe
Montana, so Sanders made sure to say, ''I don't know what people are
looking at. I think Steve Young's the best quarterback of all time.''
And the day before the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas
Cowboys, Sanders got his teammates to relax by teaching some of them
a new end-zone dance for touchdowns.
Deep down, Sanders yearned to return punts and kicks and play
part-time as a wide receiver. But he recognized that Dexter Carter, a
good running back, had been relegated to the kick-return team by
Seifert, and that a stellar receiver like John Taylor caught only 41
passes in '94. So Sanders made light of his desires. When the media
stood 10 deep around Sanders during Super Bowl week, one of the first
questions asked was about the possibility of his returning kicks
against the San Diego Chargers.
''I don't know,'' Sanders said. ''Hold on a minute.'' He looked
toward Seifert, standing about 20 yards away, and hollered, ''Hey,
George! Am I returning kicks Sunday? They all want to know!'' Seifert
just smiled.
All season, Sanders had in fact returned only one kickoff, late in
the NFC title game. ''Interesting story,'' Seifert said. ''Dexter
(Carter) actually came to me late in that game and said, 'I think
it's time we do this. Give Deion a chance.' To have a successful
team, you have to have unselfish players.''
San Francisco center Bart Oates played on some closely knit teams
with the New York Giants and is one of the wisest owls in the league.
He admits, as do many of the 49ers, that he didn't understand Deion
before Sanders arrived in San Francisco: ''Where people go wrong
about Deion -- and this is something | you'd never figure until you
play with him -- is that they equate his being flamboyant with his
not being a team player. But he's a great team player. He doesn't
walk around aloof because he's a star. He talks to the practice-squad
players as much as he talks to Jerry Rice or Steve Young.''
Said Sanders, ''This team is filled with great players, and I
don't have to do the things I had to do in Atlanta to fill the seats.
Plus, I don't need the exposure. I'm household now.''
Linebacker Gary Plummer was one of the Niners who, back in the
summer, felt that the team would be hurt by Sanders and his
distractions. But that opinion has changed entirely. In fact, on the
Monday night before the Super Bowl, Sanders and linebacker Rickey
Jackson took Plummer out on the town. Said Sanders afterward, ''We
took Gary to places he never imagined existed. We took Gary to our
places.''
However important it was that Sanders fit in with his teammates,
his biggest contribution was on the field, where he changed the way
offenses played against San Francisco. He became the starter at right
cornerback before Game 4, and offenses immediately began playing more
toward the 49ers' left side. At times Sanders got almost no action at
all. Against Chicago in the divisional playoffs, Bear quarterbacks
Steve Walsh and Erik Kramer threw the ball 47 times, but not once
toward Sanders's side of the field.
But he still found his way to the ball on occasion, usually in
spectacular fashion. With 32 seconds left in Game 4 against New
Orleans and with the 49ers clinging to a 17-13 lead, Saint
quarterback Jim Everett fired a pass that Sanders intercepted and
returned 74 yards for the game-clinching score. In Game 7 at Atlanta,
Sanders put the finishing touches on a 42-3 San Francisco win by
swiping a Jeff George pass and high-stepping 93 yards for a TD. In
the closing moments of Game 11 against the Rams, Sanders tipped away
what would have been the game-winning pass to Anderson in the end
zone.
The battle between a cornerback and a receiver is as much mental
as it is physical. The corner tries to guess what move the wideout
will make immediately off the line. The wideout tries to figure if
the corner will bump him at the line or let him go free, and then how
big a cushion there will be once the bumping stops. Sanders puts some
of those mind games to rest. He's the most aggressive cornerback in
the league, and on most downs he gets inches from the receiver's
face before the ball is snapped. If the receiver somehow $ eludes the
bump, Sanders doesn't worry. With 4.3 speed in the 40, he knows he
can catch up. And unless the pass is lofted perfectly -- or is
drilled into the gut at the precise moment the receiver makes his cut
-- offenses aren't going to beat Sanders often.
His reputation is such that he intimidates many of the young
receivers he faces. ''When I lined up on him in the regular season,''
said the Chargers' 25-year-old Shawn Jefferson during Super Bowl
week, ''the first thing I said to myself was, 'Don't panic. Stay
focused on your job.' But he comes up right in your face, and you get
jitters. You're thinking, This is the best guy in the NFL right in my
face.''

Free agency in the NFL can be a blessing or a curse. For the '94
Niners, Sanders was a blessing, a player who made less money --
$1.884 million, including a $750,000 bonus for the 49ers' making the
Super Bowl -- than he could have elsewhere because he wanted a shot
at a championship ring. But now Sanders is a free agent again, and
it's beginning to sound a lot like his San Francisco gig was a
temporary job. ''Miami looks pretty good,'' he said of his future
options during Super Bowl week. ''This is where my mom wants me to
come.'' A spat in Miami with Rice a few days before the game
regarding curfews -- Sanders's first real failure in the team
relations department -- may serve to hasten his departure.
But the 49ers got what they wanted out of Sanders; he got what he
wanted out of them. ''You can say whatever you want about me, and
people have been doing that for years,'' he says. ''I've had enough
press for 10 lifetimes. But you get me out on that field, between the
white lines, and I'm convinced I'm a very bad boy. You can take that
any way you want to.''
In 1994, the 49ers took that all the way to the championship of
the world.

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