Skip to main content

BEARING DOWN The Niners' first postseason chore was routine: a 44-15 whipping of Chicago

It's hard to pinpoint when the boredom settled in, but it seemed
to arrive on little cat's feet, oh, somewhere around the time the San
Francisco 49ers surged ahead of the Chicago Bears 13-3. That was
early in the second quarter, when you found yourself thinking, Hey,
look at the way 49er center Bart Oates's beard hairs poke through the
holes in his chin guard. Usually, if you even notice an offensive
lineman in a football game, you've got a problem. Forget whiskers. By
20-3 you had become aware that the 49ers were wearing their throwback
uniforms, that offensive tackle Steve Wallace had some sort of
protective bowl Velcroed on the top of his helmet and that, golly,
look how well the grass at Candlestick Park was holding up after four
days of rain.
By 23-3 you were dozing lightly. At 30-3 a skirmish roused you
briefly -- Chicago safety Shaun Gayle put a late hit on San Francisco
quarterback Steve Young in the end zone after Young had scored, and
Gayle was nearly dismembered by angry 49ers -- and then some scrubs
played for a while, and it all ended quietly at 44-15. The Niners had
become such a well-oiled machine that they could make a nibbling
rabbit seem noisy. The Bears, also a quiet team, but for other
reasons, had no chance, ever. Coming in as one of the biggest playoff
underdogs in the last quarter century (the line was 17 1/2 points at
kickoff), they went out much as they entered.
''Most definitely,'' a miffed San Francisco cornerback Deion
Sanders said + after the game. Sanders, the NFL's Defensive Player of
the Year, basically had nothing to show for his time afield. No
tackles, no passes defensed, no interceptions, no excitement. His
game pants were as white as fleece at the end. The Bears never tested
him. They knew better. ''That's life sometimes,'' Sanders shrugged.
But things would surely change. Consider that Sanders would be paid a
$750,000 bonus by the 49ers if his team was to win the Super Bowl,
and a date loomed with the Dallas Cowboys that would go a long way
toward determining if that would happen. ''Hell, yes, things are
going to change,'' Sanders said.
Indeed, the San Francisco defense was so good it had reached the
point where it could probably win games by itself, without the aid of
what might be the NFL's best offense in years. That would be the
offense, you'll recall, with not only Young but also Jerry Rice and
John Taylor and Brent Jones and Ricky Watters and a line as solid as
a dam. The Niners boasted nine Pro Bowl players, and that did not
include cornerback Eric Davis, who intercepted a pass that set up an
eight-yard touchdown pass from Young to Jones, or rookie fullback
William Floyd, who had three rushing touchdowns in the game.
Sometimes this season, the 49ers simply seemed to have more players
on the field than their opponent. And all those players seemed to
improve weekly. The Chicago game marked the first time all season
that San Francisco had everybody healthy; with all cylinders
whirring, the Niners simply pancaked the Bears.
Three days before the game, Young tried to explain his team's
growing dominance: ''After last year's defeat in the NFC Championship
Game (to the Dallas Cowboys), we asked ourselves, 'What do we need to
do?' I think we all said, 'We need to loosen up.' ''
The new 49ers, Young continued, ''are loose -- we'll have a good
time, we'll dance in the end zone.'' If they were still not a
laugh-a-minute gang, they were certainly much less buttoned-down than
in the past. The addition of a showman like Sanders, as well as
ebullient youngsters like Floyd and rookie defensive tackle Bryant
Young, had made its mark. ''I call them the New Generation,'' said
Rice, a 10-year veteran. ''George (Seifert) had to go with the flow.
I know I did.''
There were also, as Young put it, ''the big names that joined this
team,'' mostly on defense. Besides Sanders, new additions included
linebackers Ken Norton, Rickey Jackson and Gary Plummer, cornerback
Toi Cook and defensive end Richard Dent. Together they had 28
tackles against the Bears.
There was also some credence given to the notion that the tantrum
Young threw after he was yanked by Seifert in the inexplicable 40-8
October loss to the Philadelphia Eagles may have sparked the team,
particularly the offense. ''Yeah, we've played pretty good football
since then,'' said Young. ''But I don't know. It was insanity. How
many times can you scream at your coach from five feet away?''
Maybe weekly, if the results are like this: For the regular
season, the 49ers scored 505 points, setting a club-record average of
nearly 32 points per game. ''We have always had an offense that could
put points on the board,'' said Rice, ''but with this offense, it's
something different. I think it has to do with Steve Young.''
A lot of people agree. Young, in earning the NFL's MVP award,
threw for 35 touchdowns and 3,969 yards with only 10 interceptions
during the regular season. He completed a league-high 70.3% of his
passes, breaking the club mark held by Joe Montana (70.2%). Young
also led the NFL with a quarterback rating of 112.8, breaking the old
league record held by, guess who, Montana (112.4). It was the fourth
straight year that Young had led the league in quarterbacking
proficiency, another record.
With a Super Bowl championship almost within reach, Young had no
time for false modesty. He was also the league's MVP in 1992, but he
said of this year, ''I think I'm a lot better. I feel like I'm in
total control. This offense has answers to anything anybody does
Against the Bears, Young completed 16 of 22 passes for a leisurely
143 yards and a touchdown and ran for 32 yards and another score
before leaving for the afternoon with 6:59 remaining in the third
quarter. After the game he said cheerily, ''I'm just doing what comes
natural. All for one and one for all.''
In another part of the locker room, Watters sat fielding questions
from the curious. With a bandanna, hoop earring, shoulder tattoo, eye
black and a Breathe Right nasal strip over the bridge of his nose, he
looked like a pirate recovering from a minor galleon accident. ''When
we play like that,'' he said of the Bear dissection, ''a total team
effort, I don't know if anybody can beat us.''
His message was clear: Ahoy, Dallas. Prepare for battle.