Skip to main content
Original Issue

What If...

...San Diego were to control the ball and Steve Young. Then, shades of Super Bowl III, they could upset the mighty 49ers

You say it won't be a game? You're telling us that the San Francisco 49ers will cover the 19-point Super Bowl spread—or 20 or 21, or whatever it is by kickoff Sunday—before the first quarter is over? We've heard it all before. In the same place, too: Miami, 26 years ago.

In January 1969 the New York Jets were in Fort Lauderdale, the same town in which the San Diego Chargers are billeted this year. The opening line on Super Bowl III had the Baltimore Colts favored by 17. By kickoff, after people had gotten a good look at the Jets—at the chaos surrounding their practices, at Joe Namath and his "The Jets will win.... I guarantee it" boast—the line was up to 19½.

And wasn't it fun watching all the experts take a big bite of humble pie as the Jets took the Colts apart? It's the same format this time.

"Pity the Chargers in the Super Bowl" was a line in the New York Daily News the day after the Niners had beaten the Dallas Cowboys and the Chargers had fooled everyone by eliminating the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I feel, honestly, that this was the Super Bowl," said San Francisco cornerback Deion Sanders. "I don't mean to take anything away from...whoever won that damn other game."

O.K., all you front-runners, keep yapping, but San Diego does have a shot at the ring. It won't be easy; the Niners are awesome—breathtaking on offense and much sounder defensively than the Colts were going into Super Bowl III. You're wondering how the Chargers can pull it off? Let's break it down.


Go back four years, to Super Bowl XXV. The New York Giants, a typical NFC East power team, versus the Buffalo Bills, who came into the game after a frenzy of 95 points and 995 yards of offense in their two playoff victories. The Giants had had to slug their way into the Super Bowl with a very tough win over San Francisco, and the Bills had already beaten New York in the regular season. The oddsmakers made New York a seven-point underdog.

So, what happened? The Giants played a regular two-deep zone, kept three linebackers on the field, assaulted the Bill wideouts, didn't let anyone get open deep and wore down Buffalo. In the second half New York's offense put together two time-consuming drives, and when the game was over, the Giants had a 20-19 victory and their coach, Bill Parcells, was telling people, "Power wins in the NFL."

San Diego is an NFC East—style team, a power outfit assembled by general manager Bobby Beathard in the image of his Washington Redskin Super Bowl champions of 1983 and '88. The Chargers have massive guards and tackles surrounding Courtney Hall, a smaller center. Beathard's Redskin teams had the same setup around center Jeff Bostic. San Diego deploys two or sometimes three tight ends on first and second downs, and they are primarily blockers. The Skins had Donny Warren, a first-rate blocking tight end; the Chargers have Duane Young and Alfred Pupunu. The San Diego tailback is 245-pound Natrone Means; in '82 Washington handed the ball to 240-pound John Riggins. On defense, 320-pound tackle Reuben Davis is the Chargers' version of former Redskin Dave Butz.

At the same time, the 49ers are as close to an AFC-style team as the NFC can offer. The Niners control the ball with the pass, using it to set up a running game keyed to the mobility of their line. San Francisco's attack is a rapier thrust rather than a sledgehammer.

And how will the Chargers slow down this machine? For starters, by using a zone similar to the one employed by New York against Buffalo, San Diego will treat San Francisco wideouts Jerry Rice and John Taylor to a diet of linebackers. "Zone is the only way to go against the 49ers," says former Niner coach Bill Walsh. "You don't want to be chasing receivers across the field."

Heavy blitzing makes no sense against 49er quarterback Steve Young, who can get the ball away in a heartbeat or dance around and buy time or take off down-field. "We've got to get our linebackers into the short coverages on Rice and Taylor," says Charger cornerback Dwayne Harper. "We've got to make them pay for every pass they catch, not only with our linebackers but our safeties, too."

San Diego has two sturdy hitters at safety in Darren Carrington and Stanley Richard. Against Pittsburgh they took turns cheating up to the line to stop the run. But they won't be able to do that Sunday. "If we load up against the run this time," says Charger inside linebacker Dennis Gibson, "we'll get killed."

"Big guys whacking little guys makes sense," says Junior Seau, San Diego's 250-pound All-Pro linebacker and a very serious whacker. Which brings us to....


Put him in the right spot, and he will make something happen—sometimes, even if he's not in the right spot. Seau must come up big Sunday, pinched nerve, bad arm and all.

Seau fans say that he is the most disruptive player in the game today, Lawrence Taylor reborn. His detractors say that he's out of control, undisciplined. Ten guys play one defensive scheme, say the critics, and Seau plays his own—a dig that brings a very sour look to the face of Bill Arnsparger, San Diego's 68-year-old defensive coordinator. "He has never played with more discipline than he's playing with right now," says Arnsparger. "He plays within the scheme, and then goes beyond it, which not many people can do. It's because of his ability to run. Say he has a gap responsibility; if that gap isn't attacked, then his responsibility becomes a very large area. It might give the impression that he's freelancing, but he's not."

Says Seau, "If there's a football on the field, I'm going after it."

"Take that away from him," Charger defensive end Blaise Winter says, "and you take away his soul."

Adds 49er inside linebacker Gary Plummer, who was a Charger for eight years, "It would be like taming a wild horse."


Sooner or later San Diego will have to get down to some serious crunching against San Francisco. But it will have to be set up. The Niners have been run stoppers ever since coach George Seifert arrived as the defensive coordinator 12 years ago. And now they're even sturdier, thanks to the acquisition of Plummer and an amazing rookie tackle named Bryant Young, who is a dominant force against the run. Next to him is Dana Stubblefield, a penetrator and a pocket collapser.

Perimeter running might make sense for the Chargers, but so might throwing first and taking a bit of the zip out of the front four's legs and then coming back with the run. In the off-season the 49ers shipped in a boatload of fading All-Star pass rushers, but their most effective guy down the stretch was 30-year-old defensive end Tim Harris, who was plucked off the reject pile in midseason. "He still has the best slap-and-swim move in the NFL," one scout says.

Sanders and free safety Merton Hanks make the Niner pass coverage scary, but San Francisco can be thrown on. Not on the deep outside, though, San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries's favorite area, but to the inside. Walsh calls Humphries "one of the game's truly gifted long passers," and Humphries himself says, "You can't get away from what you do best." Perhaps, but if you throw the deep outside route against Sanders, you can forget it. At the other corner, Eric Davis will have double-coverage help.

Finally, the Chargers have to find a way to score touchdowns from inside the 10, a major frustration for them in the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins and the Steelers shut down Means's running lanes and clamped down on the wideouts. The San Diego tight ends aren't nimble enough to get off the line quickly. "We'll come up with some schemes," Humphries says. "We have to find something."


Game plans erode, teams panic and start pressing when they're behind, and Super Bowls become blowouts. Happens all the time. "The choke factor in the Super Bowl is simply tremendous," says former Giant quarterback Phil Simms. "The first time I was there, I couldn't get my breath."

A missed field goal by Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich and Gibson's deflection of a Pittsburgh pass at the goal line put San Diego into the big show. In both of those playoff games the Chargers came from behind to win. In fact, San Diego held the lead in its two postseason games for a total of five minutes and 48 seconds.

The Chargers are courageous and resilient, but, along with the Seattle Sea-hawks, they are also the NFL's youngest team. If their game plan starts to unravel early—as it did against the Niners when these teams played in December (a 38-15 49er win)—can the Chargers regroup?

In the NFC title game, Dallas owned the fourth quarter. If Sanders had not gotten away with obvious interference on Michael Irvin on a long pass with 6:07 to play, and if Cowboy coach Barry Switzer had not drawn a 15-yard penalty for bumping an official, we could be assessing a different Super Bowl matchup.

But Dallas is a veteran team, with solid internal leadership. The Chargers are un-proven at this level. And so is their coach, Bobby Ross. He makes his guys perform—"He gets into a zone," Reuben Davis says, "and he just lifts everyone to a new plane"—but we'll see whether that holds true in a Super Bowl.


"The 49ers are good for 35 points," Walsh says. "If the Chargers are going to stay with them, they have to get at least two first downs every possession. As soon as they go three-and-out, they're dead. For San Diego to win? Well, I could see a long possession drive, then a punt that puts the Niners inside the 10, then if the Chargers force a mistake, you never know.

"But here's the thing," Walsh concludes. "The Chargers could outplay the 49ers on special teams; in fact, they probably will. San Diego could control the line of scrimmage and win the battle of ball control. They could play a fundamentally sound game but look at the scoreboard and see themselves down by four touchdowns. That's how dynamic the 49er passing game is. The stuff they're doing was in our old playbooks, but they've taken it to a level I never dreamed of."

San Diego must do the same with its same.



If the Chargers are to pull off a Namath, Davis (93) & Co. must contain Young, and hulks like Stan Brock (67) must stop the 49er rush.



[See caption above.]



[See caption above.]



The Chargers cannot win without knockout performances from heavy hitters Seau (55) and Means.



[See caption above.]