The 49ers dominated the NFL this year, and they dominate our 11th All-Pro team. Three San Francisco players are on it, including Joe Montana, who is our Player of the Year. George Seifert, the Niners' rookie coach, is our Coach of the Year. There might be more sentimental choices for the latter honor—like Lindy Infante, who brought the Packers back from nowhere, or Marty Schottenheimer, who did an amazing job in his first season with the Chiefs—but if you always go with sentiment, the guys who take their teams to the top get overlooked. Seifert, stepping in for Bill Walsh, never lost a beat as the 49ers maintained their excellence.
Three running backs were serious candidates for the two All-Pro slots. The Lions' Barry Sanders, the leading rusher in the NFC and our Rookie of the Year, is the odd man out. I went with the Bills' Thurman Thomas and the Saints' Dalton Hilliard because they're outstanding pass catchers as well as top runners. Lack of receiving ability also eliminated Kansas City's Christian Okoye, the NFL's top ground-gainer.
What can you say about Montana's year except that no other quarterback has ever had one like it? He broke the single-season record for passer rating points (112.4) and had a 70.2 completion percentage, but those are just numbers. His real gift is the way he brings the 49ers back from apparently hopeless situations.
Our two wideouts, San Francisco's Jerry Rice and Green Bay's Sterling Sharpe, have a knack for turning short gainers into huge scoring plays. If I had a third choice, it would be Buffalo's Andre Reed, another guy who transforms short into long. The Bengals' Rodney Holman had a formidable season at tight end, as did the Eagles' Keith Jackson when he wasn't hurt. But neither blocks like Don Warren of the Redskins. Call this an award for long and meritorious service. Warren is the decade's most underrated player, and in '89 he was the steadiest blocking force in Washington's injury-riddled ground operation.
Chris Hinton of the Colts was the league's premier offensive tackle. Scouts watch him pull to lead Eric Dickerson on sweeps and say, "Wow, what a guard he'd make." But you can find guards. Gifted tackles are scarce these days. Cincinnati's Anthony Munoz may be on the downside of his career, but no one except Hinton was as productive this season.
Bruce Matthews repeats at guard. He was the solid man in the Oilers' offense, a serious run blocker who filled in at center. The one part of the Bears that remained blue-chip was the middle of their offensive line: left guard Mark Bortz, center Jay Hilgenberg and right guard Tom Thayer. They aren't gigantic, hog-type blockers; they're movers and thinkers, with old-style techniques. Bortz makes our team at guard, with Thayer close behind, and Hilgenberg is our center. Two comers at guard are Raider rookie Steve Wisniewski and the Dolphins' Harry Galbreath.
Eddie Murray of the Lions missed only one of 21 field goal attempts to tie the record he already shared with Mark Mosely for best field goal percentage in a season. Mike Lansford of the Rams is a terrific clutch kicker, and Pete Stoyanovich of the Dolphins and Chris Jacke of Green Bay are rookies who bear watching—but, hey, Murray missed only one kick. The Giants' Sean Landeta is the league's best at punting his team out of a hole. He consistently hangs high, spiraling, 4.4-second boots from his end zone. He was also the NFL leader in net yardage.
The defensive choices were tougher. Eagle end Reggie White had fewer sacks than last year, mainly because more folks were blocking him. But White is a complete player—against run, pass, you name it. The comeback player of 1989 is Raider end Howie Long, who missed much of the first six games with an ankle injury and then played like a maniac. Minnesota's Chris Doleman is the best sacker at the position, but he's not as strong against the run as White and Long are.
No doubt our choice at noseguard, Dan Saleaumua of the Chiefs, has you scratching your head. Picked up by Kansas City as a Plan B free agent, Saleaumua played behind Bill Maas for nine games. Maas broke his left forearm, Saleaumua moved in and bodies started flying. At 298 pounds, Saleaumua collapses the middle of the offense, and he also can drop back into coverage. The NFL is loaded with good defensive tackles (we pick four linemen and four linebackers), but the most talented penetrator and pass rusher of them all is Keith Millard of the Vikings.
The Packers' Tim Harris is back at outside linebacker. He would've made the Pro Bowl last season if he had learned to make a noise like an oyster, because offensive guys, who vote for defensive players, don't like to be yelled at. The next choice was agonizing: Lawrence Taylor had a terrific year for the Giants, but a young Lawrence Taylor is emerging in Kansas City, and his name is Derrick Thomas. The resemblance is striking—the burst, the explosion to the ball. Thomas needs to improve his power rush, but that will come.
My principal criterion for selecting inside linebackers was the ability to play in all situations; that eliminated such candidates as Green Bay's Brian Noble and Philly's Byron Evans, who were relieved on some passing downs. Vaughan Johnson is the glue that holds New Orleans's defense together. And Karl Mecklenburg, with the help of the bigger and tougher Denver defense around him, is back to his old dominant self.
Both cornerbacks, the Browns' Frank Minnifield and the Chiefs' Albert Lewis, are gifted pass defenders who can also handle the run. Carl Lee of the Vikings is close, and for the last half of the season, no other corner played as well as the Eagles' Eric Allen. Tim McDonald of the Cardinals was simply sensational at strong safety. He used to be just a hitter; now he has learned to break to the ball. San Francisco free safety Ronnie Lott gets another of those awards for long and meritorious service. Few safetymen hit as hard as Lott, and when things aren't going well for the 49er defense, he's the guy who elevates everyone's performance. If I could pick a combination free/strong safety, Dennis Smith of the Broncos would be the guy.
Finally, a special award—designated sacker—goes to Rufus Porter of Seattle, who lines up at end in the nickel and, at only 207 pounds, somehow exerts pressure on the quarterback. I don't know how he does it, but he's always there.
Sharpe, the league's leading receiver, turns short passes into big gains.
White had fewer sacks than in '88 but tied up more blockers.
THE '89 Z TEAM
Wide Receiver: Jerry Rice, 49ers
Tackle: Anthony Munoz, Bengals
Guard: Bruce Matthews, Oilers
Center: Jay Hilgenberg, Bears
Guard: Mark Bortz, Bears
Tackle: Chris Hinton, Colts
Tight End: Don Warren, Redskins
Quarterback: Joe Montana, 49ers
Running Back: Thurman Thomas, Bills
Running Back: Dalton Hilliard, Saints
Wide Receiver: Sterling Sharpe, Packers
Kicker: Eddie Murray, Lions
End: Reggie White, Eagles
Noseguard: Dan Saleaumua, Chiefs
Tackle: Keith Millard, Vikings
End: Howie Long, Raiders
Outside Linebacker: Derrick Thomas, Chiefs
Inside Linebacker: K. Mecklenburg, Broncos
Inside Linebacker: Vaughan Johnson, Saints
Outside Linebacker: Tim Harris, Packers
Cornerback: Frank Minnifield, Browns
Strong Safety: Tim McDonald, Cardinals
Free Safety: Ronnie Lott, 49ers
Cornerback: Albert Lewis, Chiefs
Designated Sacker: Rufus Porter, Seahawks
Punter: Sean Landeta, Giants
Player of the Year: Joe Montana, 49ers
Coach of the Year: George Seifert, 49ers
Rookie of the Year: Barry Sanders, Lions