The calls were brilliant, the passes were pinpoint and the
victory was dramatic and sweet. So as the San Francisco 49ers
clustered in the visitors' locker room after Sunday's game at
RFK Stadium, it seemed fitting that they give thanks to the man
upstairs. A postgame prayer or a tribute to Bill Walsh? You make
Walsh, the Niners' Hall of Fame coach turned offensive
consultant, may not be the supreme being on the organization's
depth chart, but his stint as a glorified gofer is history. On a
gray day during which Walsh literally looked over the shoulder
of 49ers offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, San Francisco
gutted out a 19-16 overtime victory over the Washington Redskins.
So emotional was the triumph that when it came time for the
49ers to pray, they weren't quite ready to assign the credit to
higher forces. In a spontaneous burst of backslapping that put a
new spin on the expression heaven can wait, the players spent
the next several minutes exchanging loud compliments. The bedlam
began when quarterback Steve Young, who had just put forth his
most significant effort since his MVP performance in Super Bowl
XXIX in January 1995, jumped from his seat and yelled, "The
defense won it for us! You held them throughout the game and
stopped them at the end when it counted." Enough "You the man!"
proclamations followed to satisfy a Tiger Woods gallery, and
soon it was a full-fledged strokefest, with defense praising
offense, both units lauding the game-saving fumble recovery by
Junior Bryant, and everyone thanking his agent, shoe company and
When reporters entered the locker room a few minutes later, the
coaching staff got into the act. Both Walsh and coach George
Seifert made sure to heap acclaim upon Trestman, who needs
support the way San Francisco mayor Willie Brown needs a muzzle.
But bruised egos are a secondary concern to the 49ers as the
playoffs near. With a 9-3 record--the best in the NFC along with
that of the Green Bay Packers--and an offense that looks ready
to break out, the Niners are committed to winning a record sixth
Super Bowl title even if that means turning their season into a
December 2, 1996
Call Sunday's show Young and the Genius or, if you prefer, The
Bill Walsh Puppet Theater. Told by Seifert two weeks earlier to
stop worrying about perceptions and become more involved in
planning the offense, Walsh made his presence felt throughout
RFK. He spent the first part of the game sitting in an upstairs
booth specifically set aside for him, complete with a headset
that allowed him to tune in to Trestman's play calls. Later he
entered the coaches' booth with a strategic suggestion for
Trestman and hovered behind him for a stretch. And as the 49ers
were expertly driving for the tying touchdown at the end of
regulation and for the game-winning field goal in overtime,
Walsh stood on the sideline a few feet from Seifert. When Jeff
Wilkins's 38-yard kick sailed through the uprights to drop the
NFC East-leading Redskins to 8-4, Walsh flashed the triumphant
grin that was as vital to 1980s culture as Ronald Reagan's wave
and Boy George's pout.
"Just doing my job," Walsh said, but clearly his job description
has changed in the past few weeks. Early in the season Walsh
described his essential game-day duty as fetching hot dogs for
team officials--and he was only half-joking. But in
mid-November, shortly before the Niners' 20-17 overtime loss to
Dallas, Seifert and team president Carmen Policy told Walsh that
instead of tiptoeing around, he should start to put his foot
down. According to Policy, "George told him, 'Hey, start earning
your money. Put some hours into it, and let's go. Don't worry
about people's feelings. If I can handle it, everyone else in
the organization can deal with it too.'"
If the 49ers proved anything on Sunday, it's that winning can
smooth over a whole lot of discomfort. Though Walsh, Trestman
and Seifert each conceded that their arrangement is awkward,
they left Washington feeling much better about the Niners'
championship potential. For all of the qualities that have made
Seifert the coach with the highest winning percentage in NFL
history, his signature skill remains his ability to sublimate
his ego for the good of the team. "Look, the hard part about
bringing Bill back is that nobody's ever done this before,"
Seifert said after Sunday's game. "Are there times when we've
bumped heads? Have there been nags and pains? Sure. But the
reason he was brought here was to help us win games, and we
can't lose sight of that. If there's tension, if people feel
threatened, you say, 'Screw it,' and just keep going."
For Walsh that is easier said than done. During the first half
of this season he went to great lengths to avoid giving the
impression that he was cramping anyone's style. Now, even though
he has been given a green light, his instincts tell him to
proceed with caution. "I'm suggesting more plays, or options of
the same types of play, all of which are already in the game
plan," he says. "I'm doing more, but I've still got to be very,
While the TV cameras had a field day with Walsh, the person
truly under the floodlights was the Niners' quarterback--the one
not called "a disgrace to humankind" by San Francisco's mayor
following the Dallas game. For Young, this game was a throwback
to the years he spent living in Joe Montana's shadow, when even
his smallest mistake was seen as a sign of weakness. After
suffering his second concussion in three weeks during the
Cowboys game and then watching his backup--and Brown's bashing
victim--Elvis Grbac, complete 26 of 31 passes in the following
week's victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the 35-year-old Young,
still hobbled by a pubic-bone fracture he suffered early in the
season, had plenty to prove to his coach.
"Could he take a hit?" Seifert asked rhetorically. "Could he get
out of the pocket and run, and could he survive a sack? Could he
move the club at the end of the game? Could he be the guy?"
It was a game of 20 Questions, and Young had all the answers.
During one magical stretch from the final moments of the first
half until the last seconds of regulation, Young completed 20
consecutive passes, tying Ken Anderson's single-game NFL record
and falling just two short of the mark set over the course of
two games by--trumpet, please--Joe Montana. Young, who completed
33 of 41 for 295 yards with no interceptions, lost his streak on
an intentional-grounding throwaway on the final play of
"You should have called down and told me about the record,"
Young said to a reporter. "We were just killing the clock at the
end, and I could have kept it going." Alas, SI was virtually the
only entity not wired into the Niners' communication system. In
an attempt to spoof the attention paid to Walsh's wearing of a
headset during the game against the Ravens, Policy and Niners
vice president Dwight Clark, both of whom were sitting with
Walsh in the upstairs box at RFK, donned earphones during the
first quarter. "We did it for the TV cameras, just to mess with
people," Policy said. "We took the earphones from the charter."
These days Seifert listens not only to Walsh but to another Bay
Area coaching legend, Fox analyst John Madden. Four days before
the game, Seifert told reporters he had decided to start Young
over Grbac after hearing Madden say on a San Francisco radio
station that if doctors gave Young a clean bill of health, there
was no reason he shouldn't play.
Though Young ultimately made Seifert and Madden look good, there
were some dicey moments. He was sacked four times, and he
absorbed a jarring shoulder-to-shoulder hit from Redskins safety
Stanley Richard at the end of a 12-yard run in the second
quarter. The Niners' offense, in fact, didn't get rolling until
7:28 remained in the fourth quarter, after Washington had taken
a 16-9 lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Gus
Frerotte (18 of 26, 294 yards) to tight end Jamie Asher. And
even then San Francisco needed a stroke of luck. On the ensuing
kickoff, return man Dexter Carter fumbled, but Junior Bryant, a
defensive end, dived into a pile of Redskins and somehow
recovered the ball. It was one of six San Francisco fumbles on
the day--matching the team's total for the first 11 games--and
though the Niners lost only one, they clearly were not in sync.
"I'm going to have to look at the film, because something's
wrong, and I've got to find out what it is," Young said.
"Something is clogging us up and keeping us from hitting that
extra gear. We have to identify and fix it, because if we do, we
can be so good."
The Niners provided a glimpse of that potential on the two
drives that determined the game's outcome. Starting with a
third-and-five play from the San Francisco 32 with seven minutes
left in regulation, Young completed six consecutive passes to
five receivers. The last throw, a 21-yard strike over the middle
to tight end Brent Jones that set up first-and-goal from the
five, was the sweetest of all. Jones, a Pro Bowl player each of
the past four years and one of Young's favorite targets, was
slowed by injuries last season, and some teammates believed he
was through. Dinged again in the early part of '96--he missed
five games with a dislocated shoulder--Jones was an invisible
man until a couple of weeks ago, when Walsh urged Trestman to
make the deceptively quick tight end a bigger part of the
offense. "I think we've finally figured out that I'm not old and
washed up," said Jones, who had five catches through the first
10 games but added 11 in the past two weeks.
After winning the coin toss in overtime, the Niners needed only
three plays to get into field goal range. On second-and-10 Young
flipped a short pass to Jerry Rice, who juked two defenders en
route to a 14-yard gain. Then, with the Skins thinking pass, the
Niners sprung halfback Terry Kirby on an inside trap, and he ran
for 25 yards--his second-longest gain of the year--to the
"During those last two drives, Marc did a marvelous job," Walsh
said of Trestman. "There was variation in our play-calling, and
it just caught them completely off guard. It was beautiful to
watch. It was vintage 49ers."
That, to most people, means vintage Walsh, a fact not lost on
the man he was brought in to assist. When the 49ers announced
Walsh's return last January, Trestman offered to resign. He now
seems convinced that his second season in San Francisco will be
his last, even though Walsh has said he will not return in '97.
"I'm human," Trestman said. "It's a day-to-day thing, and I'm
working through it, trying to make the most of it."
Trestman was the last person to leave the Niners' locker room on
Sunday. As he walked through the end zone and into the dark
corridor that led to the team buses, he said, "Look, I've
realized there's nothing I can do that's ever going to be good
enough, because Bill could do it better. So why fight it?"
Trestman's only option is to follow Seifert's lead and try to
win a Super Bowl with a legend looking over his shoulder. It's a
pressure-packed assignment, but it makes for compelling theater.