They are dancing their way to the height of ecstasy, high-fiving and high-stepping and stomping their foes into the turf. The San Francisco 49er Party Shuttle has been in business since early October and is gaining altitude by the week. On Sunday the San Diego Chargers were merely parties to the party. While the Chargers stood by like a bunch of baggage handlers, it was left to a pair of yahoos at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium to ground, albeit temporarily, pro football's highest-flying team.
Moments after punctuating the 49ers' 38-15 victory with a 90-yard touchdown jaunt that was half interception return and half Soul Train revival, Deion Sanders removed his helmet and jogged toward the tunnel that leads to the visitors' locker room. As he approached the darkness, Sanders was showered with whoops, cheers, taunts and autograph requests...and an incoming cup of warm beer. Sanders turned to confront his attacker, but teammate Rod Milstead, a guard who happens to outweigh Neon Deion by 105 pounds, argued successfully in favor of restraint. Friends know when to say when.
The incident would have faded into the background, but as Sanders turned back toward the tunnel, another airborne beverage met him head-on, this time an ice-cold soda. Now Sanders was back in full view of the stands, jabbing a finger and threatening to jump into the crowd. The NFL's most buoyant player had been transformed into a junkyard dog, overcome by a disgust that lingered well into the evening. The splashings hadn't been quite as repugnant as one suggested by a PEE ON DEION banner draped over a wall, but they were of the same tribe.
The dousing of Sanders was idiotic, but it was also prophetic. The Niners have a built-in mechanism that guards against exuberance, and they usually don't need a flying beverage to restore sobriety. With a nine-game winning streak, a league-best 12-2 record and a chance to wrap up home field advantage in the NFC playoffs against the Denver Broncos this Saturday, San Francisco might feel entitled to do a little strutting. On this day all it took to stop the 49ers in their tracks was a cola bath and a short speech from quarterback Steve Young.
If anyone in the football world has reason to strut, Young is the man. Young has entered a comfort zone that would make David Letterman envious. The Niners have scored at least 30 points in all but one of their last eight games—and that was their 21-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 13 in which Young outplayed his counterpart, Troy Aikman. Over the nine-game winning streak, Young has thrown 22 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Two of those TDs came on Sunday, as Young put together a typically stress-free and brilliant performance, completing 25 of 32 passes for 304 yards.
So why was Young so dissatisfied? Because the 49ers had failed to put away a team to which they were clearly superior. Because he felt a 21-3 halftime lead should have been 35-0. Following coach George Seifert's perfunctory postgame address, Young stood up and told his teammates to knock off the grins. "We have to tighten it up," Young warned them. "We have work to do in all phases of our game. We're not where we want to be yet, and this is no time to get lax."
Players nodded in agreement. In his third season as the Niners' undisputed starter, Young is still emerging as a locker room force, and his words came as a pleasant surprise. Even wide receiver John Taylor, a man known in the world of sports journalism as the Human No Comment, felt compelled to offer his overt support. Taylor, who cradled a four-yard dart from Young in the second quarter for the 49ers' second touchdown, spoke glowingly of the postgame speech. "He had to say it," Taylor concluded. "That's important, because things are getting real lax around here. And when things get lax, that's when bad things start to happen."
This striving for perfection is not what the Niners' rivals in Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Minneapolis or Dallas want to hear, but that's the way San Francisco operates. As fun-loving as they have become since Sanders's arrival in mid-September, the 49ers, at heart, still reside in the staid, corporate house that former coach Bill Walsh built. Having lost three of the last four NFC championship games by increasingly wide margins, the Niners take nothing for granted, even though their victory, combined with the Cowboys' surprising loss to the Cleveland Browns last Saturday, left them a game away from clinching home field advantage through the playoffs. It also made them the team that will generate the most Super Bowl hype. "We're not going to fall for that bull——," swears wideout Jerry Rice.
The Chargers know all about misplaced hype. Five weeks ago coach Bobby Ross's team seemed like a thriving entity incapable of rapid destruction. Then again, so did Orange County. Now the Chargers are in danger of completing a colossal collapse. Having begun the season 7-1, San Diego is now 9-5, with two blown chances at nailing down the AFC West title and with two tough games remaining—in New York against the Jets and at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Back in October, The Bolt Is Back was the town's favorite slogan, and the Charger bandwagon was more lively than a Lollapalooza tour bus. Now, says San Diego cornerback Darrien Gordon, "there's nobody on it. We're barely on it ourselves."
A major reason for the Chargers' collapse is an injury to their best player, All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who played Sunday with a pinched nerve in his neck that severely curtailed the use of his left arm. Even Harris Barton, the 49ers' standout right tackle, told Seau, "Look, buddy, you've got to take yourself out. There's a lot of football ahead."
The Bolt is back? Fans were bolting for the exits with 8:20 left in the game. And with good reason. The Chargers had forced a punt on the game's first series and then allowed the 49ers deep into their territory on each of San Francisco's remaining eight possessions. One Niner drive ended when San Diego stopped San Francisco on fourth-and-one at the Charger six, and another was terminated by defensive end Leslie O'Neal, who knocked the ball out of Young's hand and pounced on the fumble at the Charger 23. The play was all the more impressive because O'Neal had beaten left tackle Steve Wallace, who has been burned by only two other pass rushers this season, Kansas City Chief Derrick Thomas and Washington Redskin Ken Harvey.
The 49ers looked as though they could score at will. Their first touchdown came with 1:31 left in the first quarter, as Young flicked the ball to tight end Brent Jones at the 10-yard line. Jones rumbled down the left sideline to about the two before two blue-clad blurs interrupted his progress. After a hard shot from cornerback Dwayne Harper, Jones landed in the end zone—on his head. "I knew I scored," a still-groggy Jones said later, "and that was about it."
Speaking of heads-up plays, the 49ers got one from rookie kicker Doug Brien, who saved a touchdown when he tripped San Diego's Andre Coleman after he broke into the clear with the second-half kickoff. The Chargers reached the end zone anyway, cutting the San Francisco lead to 21-9 on a 12-yard rumble by Natrone Means. But the Niners scored on their next two drives, leaving it to Sanders to provide the grand finale.
For the 49ers, garbage time is Prime Time. After Charger quarterback Stan Humphries connected with Tony Martin on a 54-yard heave with 53 seconds left, he came right back with a pass toward Johnnie Barnes that Sanders jumped on like it was a big-money shoe contract. Sanders corralled it at the Niner 10 and was gone before anyone exhaled. At the five he launched into a shake-and-bake routine that undoubtedly met the approval of his good buddy Hammer. The name of the dance wasn't immediately clear, because Sanders was jarred enough by his dousing to beg off all interview requests.
In their morose locker room the Chargers weren't saying much either. Things were so grim that backup quarterback Gale Gilbert, who took only one snap, while holding for a field goal, had an ice pack on his throwing arm. You could hear the water from the shower drip as defensive tackle Reuben Davis conceded that he had been so taken by the 49ers' offensive excellence that there were moments when he was an awestruck observer. "I just checked it out a couple of times," he said. "They're in such a rhythm that sometimes [Young] doesn't even look. He just throws."
Indeed, Young likens his recent play to driving a car while lost in thought and then reaching a destination and asking, "How did I get here?" Some of his actions, he says, "are happening on a subconscious level. Sometimes you watch the film and say, 'I don't know why I did that.' " But the 49ers are not content to marvel at their achievements. Their outbreaks of festivity, it seems, are always tempered by the somberness of unfulfilled aspirations.
Neon Deion left the locker room wearing a burnt-red suit with brass buttons and a grimace that bordered on dejection. Sanders is much more straitlaced and sensitive than people know, and his postgame shower had not washed away the bath he took near the tunnel entrance. As Sanders reached the dusky daylight of the parking lot, a young security guard extended his hand. "Prime, I got him," the guard said. "I got that guy." Sanders nodded, thanked the guard and continued on his unmerry way. No reason to get lax, not when the most important dances are still to come.
PETER READ MILLER
Upended at the San Diego two, Jones didn't touch down until he had put the Niners up by six.
PETER READ MILLER
Even when the Chargers got a hand on him, Young, who threw for two touchdowns, was nearly flawless.