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Ping-Pong Football

The Bills and the 49ers raced from end zone to end zone, with Buffalo finally proving it can win a matchup with an NFC powerhouse

Oh, my heavens, is this what the Super Bowl is going to be like? The 34-31 Buffalo Bill win over the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on Sunday was the kind of thing the Bills have promised twice and never delivered, the kind of thing that leaves football purists weeping, that has pencils flying all over the place as statisticians try to keep up with all the mad rushes up and down the field. Please, let me catch my breath, and I'll tell you about it.

First Buffalo and Jim Kelly: Down 24-13 at the half, with his team's defense falling all over itself trying to run down the 49er receivers, Kelly takes the Bills on two touchdown drives on their first two possessions of the third quarter. Down 31-27 in the fourth quarter, he takes them on another march to put the final points on the board. Can't win on grass, can't beat an NFC heavy on the road—Buffalo answered those charges with style.

Stay cool, it's only the second game of the year, the coaches in both locker rooms were saying during the week, but the players knew different. "Everyone's going to be watching this game to sec how we measure up," Steve Tasker, the Bills' Pro Bowl special-teamer and sometime wide-out, said last Thursday. "People want to know what we're made of. Will we take a dive against a great NFC team, or can we beat one? It's a reality check for us. It's not just the second game of the year."

Now the numbers: 1,086 total yards for both teams, with the Niners holding a 598-488 edge and setting a club record; 403 passing yards for Kelly and 449 for San Francisco's Steve Young, NFL highs for both; six catches and 159 yards, career bests, for wideout Mike Sherrard, who came in for the 49ers when Jerry Rice was knocked cold in the first series. Even Pete Metzelaars, Buffalo's tight end, a blocker by trade, got into the act with 113 receiving yards, one less than he got in the last two seasons combined.

There were no punts in the game. Zero. That had never happened before in the NFL. "Fans of the punting game got screwed," Buffalo center Ken Hull said.

And how about this one: There were 42 plays in the game that gained 10 yards or more. Adding-machine football. Put a stamp on the ball and mail it.

"Yeah, I guess the fans love it," said Buffalo general manager Bill Polian, "but for purists like me it causes heart attacks."

"Good for the fans, good for the TV ratings," Bill coach Marv Levy said. "Personally I thought our 10-7 win over Denver last season was a better game."

For Kelly and Young this was old stuff. "Seems that in the USFL we were always playing these 34-31 things," Young said. Kelly quarterbacked the run-and-shoot Houston Gamblers, Young the L.A. Express. It was Kelly who reminded Young after Sunday's game about those old days: "I said, 'Just like that time in L.A., huh?' " In 1985 Kelly and Young put on an 829-yard passing show, with the Gamblers winning 34-33 in front of 18,828 fans basking in the sun at the Coliseum. "The stands were so empty, we had to whisper in the huddle so the other guys wouldn't hear our plays," Young said.

Sunshine football—fling it up and have fun. But, hey, it isn't supposed to be that way now. This is serious: two Super Bowl-caliber teams with complicated defensive schemes and coaches situation-substituting like mad. In addition to forcing turnovers, which evened out at 3-3, you've got to stop the other guys and make them punt at least once, don't you? Don't you!

Didn't happen. The Bills opened in a dime alignment, with six defensive backs, the theory being that the 49ers are more dangerous through the air than on the ground. And to spice it up, Buffalo flopped All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith, who'd had a huge game in the Bills' season-opening rout of the Los Angeles Rams, to the weak side, away from the tight end, and moved linebackers Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett into unexpected spots. This package of exotica lasted exactly one series as Young marched the Niners smartly down the field into three-point range, where Mike Cofer blew a 33-yarder.

So thereafter Buffalo played it honest—and still spent most of the afternoon watching 49er receivers break out of arm tackles or shrug off defenders or simply sprint away from the coverage, turning little crossing routes and hooks into 50-yard gainers. Sherrard, who missed the 1987, '88 and '89 seasons when he broke the same leg twice, did it. So did John Taylor, the regular split end, and even Odessa Turner, the fourth wideout and a Plan B pickup from the New York Giants, who scored his first touchdown in three years on a neatly executed pick play. "At times it was just awful to watch," Hull said. "We preach, Run after the catch, but I've never seen anyone do it like those guys."

But the Niner defense was having its problems too. The heat, officially announced as 75° but at least 15 degrees hotter on the field, and the Bills' no-huddle offense were having their effect. So was the Buffalo offensive scheme, which occasionally lined up tailback Thurman Thomas on the wing or in the slot.

The Bills got their first touchdown on a pass to Thomas on a corner route after he had lined up wide. On another score they put three wideouts on the field and Thomas in the slot, creating a four-receiver look, and then slipped Metzelaars into the clear on a crossing route through a vacated zone. And that was after the 6'7", 250-pound Metzelaars had broken a 53-yarder for a TD, the longest of his career, on a matchup that had him getting man coverage from 6'2", 206-pound free safety Dana Hall. He simply shrugged Hall off—"kind of like a tree blowing in the wind," Metzelaars said.

"They gave us weird formations," 49er linebacker Mike Walter said. "They needed five yards, they got it; they needed 10, they got it. It starts rolling on you. You don't have time to make your calls, with the speed of the no-huddle."

"Communication, that's the toughest thing," Niner linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "Your cornerback's out there getting ready to play a coverage. Then they come out in an 'empty' formation—that's when Thomas is flanked and there's no one in the backfield—and it's hard to get the call out to the corner. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn't."

"Ping-Pong football," Hull said. And it finally came down to the Bills' last drive, when they were behind by four and Kelly was facing a third-and-16 on the San Francisco 32. Kelly got 12 yards on a crossing pattern to Andre Reed, who made his 10th catch of the day, and nine more on a square-out to James Lofton. Then Thomas banged it in from the 11, and the score was 34-31 with 3:04 left.

The 49ers had one more shot. Young had done a terrific job with a shorthanded offense that had lost Rice and then tight end Brent Jones (hamstring). He had been accurate on his reads, nifty on his scrambles (seven for 50 yards). "If I were running their offense, I'd just have Young roll out every play until they scored," Hull said. "I mean, the guy runs a 4.5 40, and our defense was tired."

It hasn't been easy for Young. There's pressure from above, from Joe Montana and the uncertainty of where Young will fit in when Montana comes back from injured reserve after his right elbow heals, and pressure from below, from Steve Bono, who runs the offense with precision but less flair.

"Sure there's been pressure on Steve," coach George Seifert said earlier in the week. "There's pressure on everybody. That's professional sports. You want to play, you want to coach, then you can't be consumed by pressure. Sometimes it can toughen you, and Steve Young has become a damn good quarterback."

And in eight plays on the final drive, including one bootleg for a first down, Young advanced the Niners to the Buffalo 29. But on third-and-nine Mike Lodish, a backup noseguard, slipped through the 49er protection and pressured Young into throwing incomplete. It was up to Cofer, who, in addition to missing the 33-yarder at the outset, had barely made a 24-yarder when the ball caromed in off the left upright. This time his 47-yarder went wide right, just as Scott Norwood's had in the Bills' one-point loss to the Giants two Super Bowls ago. Poetic justice of a much lesser sort.

"Today the defense should have apologized to Steve Young," Walter said.

Who were the heroes of this Buffalo victory? Well, Kelly, of course, and an offensive line that held off the rush and gave him time to go to his second and third reads, to watch his wideouts break their crossing patterns and shed the coverage—to do, in fact, pretty much what he wanted to, a luxury denied him in the last Super Bowl, in which the Washington Redskin pass rushers poured in on him.

The best pass rusher the 49ers had, Charles Haley, is in Dallas now, traded before the season began because he was just too hard to handle, the coaches said. His replacement is former Packer Tim Harris, a sturdy chap but nowhere near the force coming around the corner that Haley was. The Niners could have used another cover guy on Sunday. Merton Hanks, a second-year pro, had to take Reed, lined up in the slot, and it was a mismatch. San Francisco needed Darryl Pollard, a cornerback who was coming back from a broken ankle and having a pretty good camp before he got cut because he wouldn't accept a $200,000 pay reduction. He's in Tampa Bay now.

Budget-trimming, fiscal responsibility—these are new things in San Francisco, and they will stand 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo in better stead with the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation in Youngstown, Ohio. But on this frantic afternoon they didn't work too well.



Kelly (12) was in the 49ers' face all day, completing 22 of 33 passes—including 10 to Reed (right)—for 403 yards and three touchdowns.



Young, who passed for 449 yards and three TDs, even threw from a fall-back position.