At approximately—no, check that—at exactly one minute and 24 seconds into the first quarter of Super Bowl XXIX at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, everybody knew this one was over. Three quarters of a billion people were suddenly witnessing another of those huge mismatches of which Super Bowls seem to be made. San Francisco 49er wideout Jerry Rice crossed the San Diego Chargers' goal line with a 44-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steve Young, wearing Charger safeties Stanley Richard and Darren Carrington like twin tails on his Superman cape, and the signal was loud and clear: uh-oh.
That touchdown capped the fastest scoring drive in Super Bowl history: the opening kick return; a four-yard completion from Young to fullback William Floyd; an 11-yard completion to wideout John Taylor. Then Rice. Boom. Done.
Wouldn't the Chargers have expected Rice, who has only scored more touchdowns than anyone else in NFL history, to link up deep with Young, the fellow who has led the league in quarterback rating for an unprecedented four straight years? Well, yes, by golly, they did think of that. Back in December, San Diego, playing its linebackers deeper than normal and using a lot of double coverage on the 49er wide-outs, had been walloped 38-15 by the Niners. San Francisco had nickeled-and-dimed the Chargers to death that day. So on Sunday, San Diego decided to move its linebackers up tighter, play the 49er wide-outs more aggressively on the short stuff and pray that its safeties could bottle up the middle.
God to Chargers: Prayer rejected.
"We were in a man-free zone, and I was outside," said a stunned Richard of that opening score. "There's supposed to be a man in the deep middle, and there wasn't." There hardly seemed to be any Chargers anywhere. The point is, when playing the Niners, about all you can adjust is the speed of your death, not its inevitability. The final score on Sunday was 49-26 in San Francisco's favor, but it probably could have been 63–26, if 49er coach George Seifert hadn't quit passing and then yanked his offensive stars for much of the fourth quarter. "We're part of history," summed up San Francisco guard Jesse Sapolu in the locker room afterward. "This is probably the best offense people will see in their lifetimes."
Depends on how old you are. Because if you live long enough, you may see the 49ers do this again and again into the next millennium. While all other NFL teams ride the normal peaks and valleys of sports, the Niners calmly massage the salary cap, pull off some astute off-season free-agent acquisitions, draft shrewdly, recharge Rice and Young and, voila, they're always near the pinnacle.
The second time San Francisco got the ball on Sunday, it slowed down just a bit, needing a full 1:53 to march 79 yards for a touchdown. The drive included a 21-yard scramble by Young and was topped off by his 51-yard touchdown pass to running back Ricky Watters, who broke tackles by each of those two snakebit Charger safeties. That gave the Niners a 14–0 lead with more than 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter. Just then the Chargers might have envied that little boy in the new Pepsi commercial who is able to suck himself right inside the bottle.
But there is nowhere to hide when the 49ers come calling. Young came into the game having thrown for 4,267 yards and 37 touchdowns, and his offense had averaged 31.6 points per game in the regular season. At practice on the preceding Monday at the University of Miami, the San Francisco attack was already running through drills as smoothly as honey melts into tea. With more weapons at his disposal than the proprietor of a gun shop, Young moved his unit up and down the field at will. Except for the skittish Rice, who dwells in his own world of discipline, fear and conquest, everybody was loosey-goosey. Even the preternaturally calm Seifert was stirred, saying the session was "as good a practice as I've ever seen us have. It was scary."
This was precisely the way everyone feared it would be. The 49ers were favored by 19½ points, the largest spread in the history of the Super Bowl, and an AFC team hadn't won this thing in a decade; it was impossible to figure any way that the Chargers could withstand the Niner tidal wave. "We've been the over-dogs in a number of games this year," said Young, adding that that was how the 49ers liked it. "We're risking everything. If we lose? Absolute train wreck."
On Wednesday of Super Bowl week, San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. sat poolside at his hotel in Miami Beach. Despite his enviable position—nobody in the NFL can come close to matching the 49ers' skill level and their record these last 15 years except the Dallas Cowboys, and those detested foes were vanquished two weeks ago in the NFC Championship Game—DeBartolo was in a dark mood. The hotel was the one at which he and his wife, Candy, had spent their honeymoon back in 1968, but somehow DeBartolo could not see the bright side of things. Imminent decay haunted him. And there was no time to rest.
"Back then everything was brand-new," he said, waving his hand at his surroundings. "But they've just let this place go. You could sink $50 million into this place, no problem, and there would still be a long way to go."
The 49ers have stayed at the top through DeBartolo's skillful management and ready infusions of cash, but life's problems cannot be so easily assuaged. DeBartolo's beloved father, Eddie Sr., died of pneumonia in December. Then, too, there was the constant speculation about the ability of the Niners to retain the services of cornerback Deion Sanders and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan next year, and about the job security of Seifert (box, page 41). The big question was whether DeBartolo could be cruel enough to fire a likable, low-key coach with the best winning percentage (.778) in San Francisco history just because he wasn't, well, higher key. Seifert himself had said earlier in the week, "I'm always paranoid. I guess most coaches are too, but in this situation, I am particularly. I'm not going to b.s. you. In this organization you live on the edge."
"I really consider George a friend, away from all this," said DeBartolo with a sigh. "He's the type of guy, maybe, you could not go out and slam drinks with, but you could go out on a fishing boat with and really have a good time."
The gloom had even touched DeBartolo on Tuesday's Media Day at Joe Robbie Stadium. "That was the first time I ever felt out of place in 18 years," he said. "I felt strange, not like I didn't belong there, but just sort of awkward. I wanted to get it over with. Maybe it's because I've missed so many games this year because of my father. I'm not really sure, but it's the first time I ever felt that way."
The previous night DeBartolo had spent an hour listing every possible scenario that might bring about a 49er defeat. "He tried to convince me of all the reasons why we might lose," Niner president Carmen Policy said with a grin. "Then he called me up this morning and said, 'It's going to rain.' I said, 'What the hell difference does that make?' "
If DeBartolo was unsure about many things, including the preeminence of his Niners, other people had no doubts. Indeed, as the game proceeded, the destruction of the Chargers resembled nothing so much as a train coming rapidly off its track, car after car after car. There is little to say about the great 49er offensive machine except that it was even better than advertised. "It's just wonderful to watch," said Buffalo Bill coach Marv Levy three nights before the game. The Bills, of course, had for the previous four years prevented some other AFC team from being destroyed by the NFC's powerhouses in the Super Bowl. Now, hey, welcome to it!
Young would throw for a Super Bowl—record six touchdowns, and the best way to describe the TDs might be to list the scoring receivers in order: Rice, Watters, Floyd, Watters, Rice, Rice. Sounds almost like a recipe. There was also a nine-yard rushing touchdown in there, by Watters in the third quarter, but it was nearly lost in the Young passfest. The game might have been more interesting if the Chargers had scored when they had a chance, with two minutes left in the first half and San Diego on the San Francisco 13. The halftime score might have been 28–14 instead of 28–10 had Mark Seay not dropped a pass in the end zone. But maybe it wouldn't have mattered at all.
"It's not like we were possessed or anything," said 49er cornerback Eric Davis in the locker room afterward. "The AFC is just a different brand of football. It's not like the NFC, like us or Dallas, or even some other teams. I feel fine now, but after we played the Cowboys, I was really beat up. I hurt bad until the next Friday." The hardest shot he received in this game? Davis shrugged. Probably it came on his diving interception of a Stan Humphries pass that ended the first half, when Davis collided with...the ground.
"This is no streak, man," Young said after the game, referring to the blowout victory march the 49ers had been on ever since an inexplicable 40-8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in early October. "This is what we do."
By throwing those six touchdown passes and leading all rushers, with 49 yards on five carries, Young earned the Super Bowl MVP Award and effectively exorcised the Joe Montana ghost that had been haunting him for years. Before every game this season tackle Harris Barton would come up to Young and rub his shoulders and say, "I'm taking the monkey off your back."
"Today," Young noted afterward, "Harris said, 'I'm taking it off for the last time.' For a long time I tried to pretend it wasn't there. But I guess it was."
It was more like a 1,000-pound gorilla that sat on the Chargers all night. "I don't think our defense improved all season," mourned San Diego defensive end Leslie O'Neal after the game. "The things that were unsound are still unsound." He thought about the 49er offense, about how maybe there was not much that he and his mates could have done against it anyway. "They spread you and spread you, and you try to pinch it down," he said, "and you try to stop everything, and you end up stopping nothing."
For his part, Rice, who had 10 catches for 149 yards and those three touchdowns, was merely himself. He cried before the game, during it and afterward. He played with a strained shoulder, injured when he was blasted by cornerback Darrien Gordon after a 10-yard gain on an end around in the first quarter. Rice's tears made his eyeblack flow down toward the pink Breathe-Rite strip across his nose until, in the locker room after the game, he had a certain puffy-eyed raccoon look to him. "I'm emotional," he said, as if that was not perfectly obvious.
Rice could have mentioned that he is unique, as well. With his offensive production on Sunday, he rose to the top of the Super Bowl receivers' stratosphere, a region that probably should bear his name. He now either holds or shares Super Bowl records for most receiving yards in a game (215, against the Cincinnati Bengals in 1989), most receiving yards in a career (512), most receptions in a game (11 in '89), most receptions in a career (28), most touchdowns in a game (three, twice, in '90 against the Denver Broncos and on Sunday) and most touchdown catches in a career (seven).
"Jerry Rice with one arm is better than everyone in the league with two arms," is the way Young summed it up. Any dissenters? Not this evening, thank you.
But it was, above all, Young's night of nights. He was brilliant afield, and then he, too, cried when it was all over, pent-up emotion gushing from him like water from a sponge. He hugged the Lombardi Trophy the way a sinking swimmer hugs a life preserver, and then he, not Seifert, gave the postgame speech to the Niners, shouting in a voice made hoarse from signal-calling and celebrating: "There were times when this was hard! But this is the greatest feeling in the world!"
Then, with veins bulging in his neck, he almost blew out his vocal cords, screaming, "No one—no one—can ever take this away from us! No one, ever! It's ours!"
One of his teammates yelled, "Sweet redemption, Steve!"
"I guess he can't win the big one," said Young's agent, Leigh Steinberg.
"The weight of the entire world was on his shoulders," said Barton. "Everyone was waiting for Steve to fall apart."
After his locker room address Young talked to every TV, radio and newspaper person inside the stadium, anybody who would have him for a quote, a sound bite or a smile, and then he nearly collapsed.
In the limo that took him and Steinberg back to the 49ers' hotel, Young turned shaky, pale and weak. Then he vomited onto the floor of the car. "Well," said Steinberg, "I'll never wash that shoe again."
Young needed air, so he got out and walked the last quarter mile to the hotel. In his room he was joined by his parents, Sherry and LeGrande; his four siblings; his girlfriend, Stephanie Weston; some college chums and other buddies—44 people in all. Then he felt sicker. Paramedics from a rescue unit arrived. Young was given an intravenous saline solution for dehydration, and he lay on his bed, like an ailing head of state, receiving well-wishers into the wee hours.
Sick or not, he could not be calm. One was reminded of his statements earlier in the week about coming to BYU in 1980 as an incredibly raw option quarterback from Greenwich, Conn. "I really didn't know how to throw back then," he had said. "I learned to throw at Brigham Young, mostly from Jim McMahon. We were about the same size and had the same athletic abilities. It was really good for me, because he had no bad habits."
Realizing that this last observation was not entirely accurate, Young laughed. "I mean, naked golf, that's different," he said.
"Is this great or what?" he burbled. "I mean, I haven't thrown six touchdown passes in a game in my life. Then I throw six in the Super Bowl! Unbelievable."
Someone in the crowd yelled, "Joe Who?"
"No, don't do that," Young responded. "Don't worry about that. That's the past. Let's talk about the future."
They did that then. They talked about the future while Young did his damnedest to make time stand still.
"Don't go," he would say whenever anyone tried to leave. "You can stay. Stay! I'm fine. Really, I'm fine."
He really was.