Late on Sunday, in the shadows of the south end zone in 3Com
Park, there was a brief summit of the old San Francisco 49ers
super powers. Future Hall of Fame wideout Jerry Rice was the
first one in place, and he waited patiently with open arms for
quarterback Steve Young to show up. A few seconds later Young,
despite a pulled groin muscle, hobbled in on a bootleg from the
15-yard line with the winning score. Finally fullback William
Floyd bounded in, scooping up Rice and Young in a bear hug as
the trio celebrated the Niners' 28-21 comeback win over the
"I got there last, but for a few seconds it was just the three
of us," said Floyd, "The three guys who put it together for the
 Super Bowl win were back together again. It's been a long
time coming, but, oh man, it felt great."
It must have indeed. Less than a year ago, in a game against the
New Orleans Saints, Floyd, then a second-year back out of
Florida State who had already established himself as the premier
fullback in the game, tore three of the four ligaments in his
right knee in a freak collision with a teammate. Floyd sat on
the turf that day, his mouth agape in pain and horror at the
sight of his mangled joint, desperately trying to squeeze his
kneecap back into place. It's an injury so severe that no NFL
player has even attempted to come back from it. "I always knew
I'd be back," Floyd says. "The hardest part was convincing
everyone else that if it was a one-in-a-million shot to come
back, I was that one guy who makes it--not over, but right
through the mountain."
And there he was on Sunday throwing a crushing block on his
first play and, later, scampering downfield for a 24-yard
reception in the second half. Right alongside him in the
inspiration department was Young. Gimping so badly that at times
he appeared to be skipping rather than running, Young came back,
after being benched in the second quarter, to throw for 224
yards and two touchdowns and rush for a team-high 45 yards
including the game-winner. Said an exuberant Floyd after the
game, "It was like the old days in San Francisco again."
October 28, 1996
Well, not exactly.
As stunning a victory as it was, this was supposed to be a
pushover game that would serve as San Francisco's 1996
coming-out party, marking as it did the first time that Young,
Rice and Floyd were together again in the lineup and ready to
begin their march to the Super Bowl. Instead, on their home
field, the Niners needed the second-biggest comeback in team
history just to beat the Bengals, and they succeeded in stirring
the pot a little more on a simmering quarterback controversy
that could prove disastrous in the long run.
"This was inspirational. This was 49ers football," said Niners
president Carmen Policy giddily afterward. "It was like Geronimo
leading the tribe against the Long Knives, against what appeared
to be insurmountable odds, and all he could think about doing
was charging forward."
Policy's remarks, however, rang rather hollow in light of the
fact that despite Sunday's heroics, Young, the 1994 NFL Player
of the Year, still may lose his job to backup Elvis Grbac. While
Young sat out the three weeks preceding the Bengals game, Grbac
played well, and the 49ers front office was frank in saying that
Young's days with the team were numbered. Young is 35 years old;
Grbac is 26 and can become a free agent after this season. In a
situation reminiscent of how Young supplanted Joe Montana in
1991, Policy risks losing Grbac if he doesn't give him some
assurance about becoming the Niners' starting quarterback soon.
The decision to start an obviously limping Young muddled the
picture even more. His first six plays went like this: a false
start, an interception, a sack, a fumble and a pair of rushes
that moved the ball 36 inches--the wrong way. Two series later
San Francisco was in a 21-0 hole, and Grbac was sent in to
replace Young. He promptly drove the 49ers 60 yards in seven
plays, hitting backup tight end Ted Popson over the middle for a
17-yard touchdown to cut the Bengals' lead to 21-7. But on San
Francisco's last first-half possession Grbac injured his left
shoulder rushing for a first down, and the 49ers had no choice
but to go back to Young.
Coach George Seifert, still feeling the heat from criticism that
he was too conservative in a 23-20 overtime loss at Green Bay on
the previous Monday, opened his halftime speech by hurling a
chair across the locker room. "Let me put it this way," said
Seifert, after getting his 100th win in only his 132nd game on
Sunday, the best mark of any coach in NFL history. "Knute Rockne
never said some of the things I said at halftime. O.K.?" Just
before taking the field for the third quarter, Floyd approached
Seifert, telling him, "I'm the spark plug, George. I'm the spark
plug, and you know it. Put me in."
Floyd played the entire second half. And on the Niners' opening
drive Young connected with Popson for a 39-yard score to put the
49ers within seven. Then with 2:08 left, another backup, rookie
wideout Terrell Owens, raced under a perfect rainbow pass from
Young for a 45-yard touchdown to tie the game at 21. Young may
be old and barely able to walk, but his arm is as good as ever.
"How do you stop Young?" Bengals defensive end Artie Smith said
after the game. "Cut his legs off. And you might want to take
his arms too."
Young's and Floyd's performances, along with Seifert's little
chat, seemed to wake up the Niners' sleepwalking defense. After
spotting Cincinnati those three early touchdowns, San
Francisco's D forced eight straight punts. With less than two
minutes to go, 49ers free safety Dedrick Dodge picked off a Jeff
Blake pass to set up Seifert's gutsy--and unconservative--call
for Young's naked bootleg, and the subsequent celebration that
grew to include Popson on one side and Owens on top with Floyd
supporting the entire cast with his bionic knee.
"This team is beginning to arrive," said Floyd. "And let me tell
you, if Green Bay is the best the NFL has to offer, then we will
be Super Bowl champs this year. But one win means nothing. When
we win the Super Bowl, that's when I'll say I'm truly back."
Those are bold words for the Niners, who haven't beaten a team
with more than two wins yet this season, but in Floyd they have
proof that nothing's impossible.
PANTHERS AT EAGLES
Anthony Johnson and Ricky Watters, who played in the same
backfield at Notre Dame, square off. The Eagles' Watters, who
had a career-high 173 yards on Sunday against Miami, should win
this duel in a battle between two surprising 5-2 teams.
49ERS AT OILERS
Houston coach Jeff Fisher has his team headed in the right
direction, and we don't mean Nashville. After disposing of the
Steelers, the Oilers welcome San Francisco, which has a 7-6
record in its last 13 dome games and could muster only 80
rushing yards against the Bengals.
COWBOYS AT DOLPHINS
Forget the hoopla about Jimmy Johnson versus Jerry Jones. The
matchup to watch in this battle of 4-3 teams is Dan Marino, back
at the helm after missing three games, against Deion Sanders.
CHIEFS AT BRONCOS
Denver averages just under 33 points a game at Mile High
Stadium, where it is 4-0. To win, K.C. must stop tight end
Shannon Sharpe, who has caught more than twice as many passes
(48) as the Chiefs' tight-end trio of Keith Cash, Reggie Johnson
and Derrick Walker.
BILLS AT PATRIOTS
In Week 2 at Rich Stadium, New England outrushed and outpassed
Buffalo. The Pats did everything but win because they were 0 for
4 in the red zone. But in their last 10 possessions inside the
20, the Pats have scored nine times, which could spell doom for
With the addition in the last few seasons of players such as
Oilers guard Hicham El-Mashtoub, who grew up in Lebanon, and
Vikings guard David Dixon, who hails from New Zealand, the NFL
has truly gone global. Thirty-nine players (not including the
sons of U.S. military personnel) who were born on foreign soil
or come from overseas U.S. territories currently appear on
league rosters. For many of them, the road to the NFL has been
strange indeed. Take 49ers rookie linebacker Israel Ifeanyi.
Four years ago he emigrated from his native Lagos, Nigeria, with
the intention of becoming, as he calls it, "a football warrior"
in the NFL. "My father acquired a tape of a Bengals-Dolphins
game," says Ifeanyi, a 25-year-old rookie out of USC, "and I
watched it over and over and over. I didn't realize how many
more teams there were until I got here." Here's a look at the
international flavor of the NFL.
Darren Bennett, P, Chargers
Jocelyn Borgella, CB, Lions
Robert Bailey, CB, Dolphins
Roman Oben, OT, Giants
Mitch Berger, P, Vikings Ian Beckles, G, Buccaneers Steve
Christie, K, Bills Tony Mandarich, OT, Colts Mark Montreuil, CB,
Chargers Ed Philion, DT, Panthers Tim Tindale, RB, Bills Klaus
Wilmsmeyer, P, Saints Glen Young, LB, Chargers
Morten Andersen, K, Falcons
John Jurkovic, DT, Jaguars
Shar Pourdanesh, OT, Redskins
Mark Campbell, DE, Broncos Sean Jones, DE, Packers Devon
McDonald, LB, Cardinals Ricardo McDonald, LB, Bengals
Hicham El-Mashtoub, G, Oilers
Romeo Bandison, DT, Redskins Harald Hasselbach, DE, Broncos
David Dixon, G, Vikings
Israel Ifeanyi, DE, 49ers Iheanyi Uwaezuoke, WR, 49ers
Jason Maniecki, DT, Buccaneers
Pio Sagapolutele, DT, Patriots Don Sasa, DT, Chargers
Richard Brown, LB, Vikings Jesse Sapolu, C, 49ers
Gary Anderson, K, Eagles
Siupeli Malamala, G, Jets Alfred Pupunu, TE, Chargers
Joe Aska, RB, Raiders Quentin Coryatt, LB, Colts Jeff Faulkner,
DT, Jets Renaldo Turnbull, DE, Saints
T. Biakabutuka, RB, Panthers
THE CASE FOR THE DEFENSE
Behind the brilliant play of Brett Favre the Packers have scored
more points (227) than any other team in the NFL this season
while establishing themselves as the team to beat in '96. But an
improved defense is at least as responsible as Favre for Green
Bay's 6-1 start. Here are perhaps the two most illuminating
statistics about this year's Packers defense: 1) Green Bay,
which finished last in the NFL in takeaways last season with 16,
leads that category this year with 27 (20 interceptions and
seven fumble recoveries); and 2) the Pack is allowing opponents
to complete only 46.7% of their passes (including sacks), a
dramatic improvement over its performance a year ago (chart).
The reversal in turnover fortunes is especially eye-popping. In
winning the NFC Central last season, the Packers' 16
takeaways--three fumble recoveries and 13 interceptions--was the
lowest total since the league went to a 16-game schedule in
1978. This year's defensive unit, with three new starters, is on
pace to force 62 turnovers, four short of the league record set
by the San Diego Chargers in the old AFL, in 1961.
Here are a few of the reasons cited for Green Bay's improved D.
--Greater Team Speed: Coach Mike Holmgren credits new defensive
tackle Santana Dotson, acquired as a free agent from the Bucs,
with much of the defense's improvement. Dotson gives the Pack a
force up the middle to go with the heavy outside pressure from
defensive ends Sean Jones and Reggie White. Many of Green Bay's
interceptions this year began as passes made under duress. Also,
Brian Williams, a second-year Packer who looked like a bust a
year ago, now starts at outside linebacker and has played well
enough to allow George Koonce to move to middle linebacker,
where he's more effective. Koonce has three interceptions this
season, two more than he made in his first four seasons combined.
--Good Health: All 11 starters have played every game.
--Better Hands: The savvy of safety Eugene Robinson, an 11-year
veteran picked up in a trade with Seattle, has enabled strong
safety Leroy Butler to play much more aggressively, and Butler
leads the league in picks, with five. Early in training camp
Robinson started catching passes fired at point-blank range from
a pass-throwing machine, and his teammates soon joined him.
Packers coaches say they have a film reel of 17 or 18 catchable
interceptions that weren't caught a year ago. Now those drops
are becoming interceptions.
--Better Eyes: Cornerback Craig Newsome was fitted for contact
lenses in August and liked what he was suddenly able to see.
After dropping two interceptions in a preseason game, Butler
visited Newsome's optometrist. Butler might just as well be
speaking of Green Bay's turnover turnabout as his improved
vision when he says, "It's a whole different world." --J.W.
Despite the fact that Dallas entered Sunday's game with the
league's top-rated defense, the winless Falcons scored on all
five of their first-half possessions against the Cowboys and
more than doubled Dallas's time of possession (41:22 to 18:38).
Atlanta still found a way to lose, 32-28....Jaguars wide
receiver Keenan McCardell had 16 receptions in Jacksonville's
17-14 loss to the Rams, a total that has been bettered only
twice in NFL history. The Rams' Tom Fears had 18 catches on Dec.
3, 1950, and Jets running back Clark Gaines had 17 on Sept. 21,
1980. In the same game Rams cornerback Anthony Parker scored his
seventh defensive touchdown in as many seasons, returning a Mark
Brunell pass 92 yards for a score. Ken Houston, the former
Oilers and Redskins safety, holds the career record for
defensive TDs, with 10....Of the last 154 receptions made by
Redskins wide receiver Henry Ellard, 144 have resulted in first
downs....Mark Carrier, who had a team-leading 66 receptions for
the Panthers in '95, has caught just five passes in Carolina's
last three games. He has altered the nametag above his locker to
read mark casper....The Steelers, who squandered a 13-9
fourth-quarter lead at Houston and lost 23-13, have yet to
produce an offensive touchdown in the fourth quarter this
season.... The Ravens, who are short on healthy defensive
linemen, surprised the Broncos on Sunday by playing a 3-4
defense for the first time this year. So much for the element of
surprise: Denver gained a franchise-record 548 yards in a 45-34
win. --John Walters
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"He's going to burn anybody. I think if Jerry Rice was in front
of Jerry Rice, he'd burn Jerry Rice."
--Bengals cornerback Jimmy Spencer on the 49ers receiver, who
reached the 50-catch mark for a record 11th straight season on