Before the vintage uniforms developed a vintage odor from overuse,
before Steve Young began record breaking and ghost busting, before
the offensive line ceased wearing hello, my name is . . . tags, even
before Ricky Watters coined a term -- ''veteranism'' -- that somehow
explained the mind-set of the monomaniacal 49ers, there was,
amazingly, a turning point in San Francisco's 13-3 regular season.
After all, the NFL's best record and a 10-game winning streak don't
just happen, no matter how easy Young & Co. may have made it look.
The moment of truth came in the second quarter of Game 6, one week
after the Philadelphia Eagles whipped the Niners 40-8 at Candlestick
Park. With 11:42 remaining in the half, the Detroit Lions roared to a
14-0 lead in the Pontiac Silverdome. By then, San Francisco was well
on its way to seeing its record drop to 3-3, as already that day it
had 1) surrendered 167 yards and a pair of Lion scoring drives, 2)
dropped two passes, 3) committed a holding penalty to negate Dexter
Carter's 50-yard kickoff return and 4) watched Young limp off the
field with a bruised left knee after being accordioned.
The 49er defense huddled on the sideline with line coach Dwaine
Board. Actually, huddling was the least of it, as various Ridell
products were hurled to the turf. ''A lot of screaming, a lot of
yelling, a lot of guys pissed off'' is how 49er linebacker Gary
Plummer would later describe the meeting. On the Lions' next four
series after the Niners' sideline discussion, Detroit gained the
grand sum of 19 yards. As 49er safety Tim McDonald said, ''We just
went out and played with our hearts.''
At about the same time, San Francisco's offense was getting its
emotional jump start from an unexpected source. Yes, there was the
gutty Young, who returned after missing only two snaps and began to
march the team downfield. But taking charge at the goal line was
rookie fullback William (Bar None) Floyd, the 6 ft. 1 in., 242-pound
blockaholic from Florida State whose nickname was already a Bay Area
legend. (During contract talks, Floyd's agent, Roosevelt Barnes, had
divulged that his client ''thinks he's the best fullback in the
league, bar none.'') Inserted into the lineup to help out with the
blocking (the battered offensive line was missing three starters),
Floyd proceeded to use his rushing ability to climax a 63-yard drive
with a one-yard blast.
He punctuated his score with a fierce spike, then removed his
helmet in the end zone and cupped his ear to the jeering crowd. ''I
have to be excited to play,'' he said. ''I can't be out there like a
church mouse worrying about if I break a glass, something's going to
happen to me.'' Mousy is hardly the way Detroit inside linebacker
Chris Spielman would characterize Floyd after he pancaked Spielman to
pave the way for Watters's four-yard touchdown run on the Niners'
next possession. Suddenly the moribund team, which days before had
prompted a radio call-in referendum on coach George Seifert's head,
had been resuscitated. San Francisco tied the game by intermission
and beat the Lions 27-21.
''To me the issue at that time wasn't even about winning the
game,'' Seifert said. ''It was about demonstrating that we have some
fight in us.''
And from this spark of passion came 10 straight wins of such
overwhelming proficiency and precision that they made the 49ers seem
almost dispassionate. During that streak, the Niners averaged 36.4
points and 399.5 yards a game. They gained a psychological mastery
over the two foes who would be the last to stand in their
championship path, edging the Dallas Cowboys 21-14 at home in Game 10
and drubbing the Chargers 38-15 in San Diego in Game 15. The
aggressive defense, spearheaded by tackles Dana Stubblefield and
Bryant Young, limited rushers to less than 100 yards nine times.
Then there was the roll Steve Young was on. In those 10 games, he
completed 202 of 281 passes for 2,578 yards, with 25 TD passes and
only three interceptions. He also emerged as a more vocal leader,
lashing out at his teammates for their ''complacency'' in the San
Diego wipeout. Could his throwback attitude have had something to do
with those 1955-style uniforms, which the superstitious Seifert
successfully petitioned the league to let his troops keep wearing
after the win in Detroit? Nah, the '55 Niner team went 4-8.
At the start of this season, at least, the Niners certainly had
the look of world-beaters. Their 44-14 Monday-night demolition of the
Los Angeles Raiders, then considered Super Bowl XXIX contenders, was
the franchise's most lopsided lid-lifter since 1972. Young outrushed
the Raiders 51 yards to 34 and threw for four touchdowns, one of them
for the history books. With the Niners up by 23 in the fourth quarter
and the Stick half empty, Seifert left Jerry Rice in the lineup. Rice
had already scored twice, once on a 69-yard grab, and then on a
23-yard reverse on which he bulled his way into the end zone.
Now, from the L.A. 38, he ran a streak to the right post, made a
leaping catch at the goal line over cornerback Albert Lewis and
tumbled in for the score. The TD was the 127th of Rice's career,
which placed him ahead of Jim Brown at the top of the alltime list.
''When the ball was up in the air, I remembered what ((former Niner
assistant coach)) Dennis Green always used to tell me: 'Just go up
and attack the football,' '' Rice said. ''And I did.''
Rice's achievement was huge news for about an eye blink; by
Tuesday, the anticipation was already building for the upcoming
battle: Steve Young versus Joe Montana. At Arrowhead Stadium in
Kansas City, Mo., Young would have his first head-to-head chance to
loosen the former Niner quarterback's monumental hold on the Bay
Area. ''We're not supposed to be watching the other team's offense
while we're on the bench,'' 49er left tackle Steve Wallace said
before kickoff, ''but I'll be sneaking peeks.''
Montana won the shoot-out at his K.C. corral 24-17, but Young
could have laid some of the blame for the loss on his offensive line.
Because of injuries, the San Francisco front five included three subs
in the second half -- Harry Boatswain, Derrick Deese and Chris Dalman
for Harris Barton, Ralph Tamm and Jesse Sapolu, if you're scoring
-- who allowed Young to practice his full repertoire of grunts and
groans. And Young's chance to lead a last- minute, game-tying drive
was denied when wideout John Taylor fumbled the ball after a catch.
Back on the sideline following the turnover, Young vomited on the
turf as Wallace put a consoling arm around him. Said Young later, ''I
learned from Joe, from the master. Today the master had a little more
to teach the student.''
With a little help from his pass protectors, who finally got
healthy, Young would be able to flash his knowledge. By year's end,
he had surpassed Montana's team record for TD tosses (35) and
passing-efficiency rating (112.8) in a season.
The 49ers seemed to right themselves in their next two games, a
34-19 victory in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Rams followed by a
24-13 home win over the New Orleans Saints. The former marked the San
Francisco debut of cornerback Deion Sanders; the latter, Sanders's
first pickoff as a Niner for a touchdown. By high-stepping the final
25 yards of the 74 he covered, Sanders drew a $100 fine from
Seifert, who had set his no-styling zone outside the 20. ''I fined
him,'' Seifert said, ''but I'm paying the fine.'' After Sanders's
clinching score with 32 seconds left, the public-address system
blared the Mickey Mouse jingle, a playful counterpoint to disparaging
remarks against the Niners made by Saint owner Tom Benson, who had
called San Francisco a Mickey Mouse organization. ''If Mickey Mouse
clubs can win every week,'' McDonald said, ''then we're going to
Mickey Mouse land.''
What would happen next, against the Eagles, defied explanation.
The blitzing scheme that 49er defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes had
installed against New Orleans failed to stuff the run or stop the
pass, as Philly piled up 437 yards. By the time San Francisco got its
initial first down, it trailed 23-0. With his team down 33-8 in the
third quarter, Seifert yanked Young, fearing his dismemberment in the
clutches of a fierce pass rush. Young, in turn, raged at Seifert,
wanting to rally the team. The loss was the 49ers' worst in their 23
years at Candlestick. ''It was like being in the twilight zone,''
But then came The Turning Point in Pontiac; after that, The
Streak. To continue it, San Francisco blasted Atlanta 42-3 at the
Georgia Dome, where Sanders and Falcon wide receiver Andre Rison went
slaphappy, throwing punches at one another after some bumping. Then
the 49ers clobbered Tampa Bay at the Stick 41-16. Watters finally
broke loose against the Bucs, carrying 14 times for 103 yards; until
then, the 49ers had been averaging only 90 yards per game on the
ground. As a goodwill gesture, the voluble Watters shared his press-
conference stage with the offensive line. After a bye week, the
49ers' resolve got a subtle test in Game 9. Instead of looking past
Washington to the, well, you know, they whipped the Redskins 37-22
behind Carter's 96-yard kickoff return.
Riding on the matchup between 8-1 Dallas and 7-2 San Francisco was
more than the home field advantage in the playoffs. It was the
Niners' chance -- and especially Young's -- to prove that in a
high-stakes game, they had more than enough chips to play with the
two-time Super Bowl champs. Niner middle linebacker Ken Norton Jr.,
one of the 27 new faces in scarlet and gold, played with the whirling
ferocity he had become known for in his six years at Dallas; he even
sprained Plummer's left knee when they collided while making a
tackle. Rice, for one, relished the injection of nastiness. ''It's
like you're going to school, and you've got this bully who's taking
your lunch money every day,'' Rice said. ''What are you going to do?
Eventually you take a stand.''
Young sent an early signal that he would not be denied, taking off
for 25 yards on a naked bootleg in the first quarter; he would run
for one score and pass for two more. ''They were willing to sacrifice
Young,'' Cowboy coach Barry Switzer said. ''We were kind of
surprised.'' Meanwhile, the 49er secondary intercepted Troy Aikman
three times -- the only turnovers in the game -- with Merton Hanks,
converted from corner to safety after Sanders's arrival, picking off
a pair inside the Niner seven-yard line. ''They are a different
team,'' Aikman said. ''They did upgrade themselves.''
Only a spectacular day by Rice at Candlestick in Game 11 against
the Rams saved the 49ers from blowing the advantage they had gained
over the Cowboys the previous week. The Rams began the second half
with three touchdown drives of 69 yards or more to take a 27-24 lead,
and Rice later squandered a chance to put the Niners back up by
fumbling on the Rams' 25. But he redeemed himself on San Francisco's
69-yard final drive, making three catches and netting the decisive
points on his third TD grab, an 18-yarder, in the 31-27 win. Rice
gained 165 yards receiving, and his 16 catches marked the
third-highest total ever in an NFL game.
; The 49ers' next two performances drew raves from their NFC
West rivals. ''They have at least five guys on the field at any time
that can hurt you,'' New Orleans linebacker Sam Mills said after a
35-14 Niner romp in the Superdome, which had recently been a
notoriously difficult place for San Francisco to win in. ''That's
what makes them so tough.'' The next week, at home, the Niners
crushed the Falcons 50-14 to sweep their intradivisional slate by an
average margin of 21 points. ''They're playing well,'' Atlanta head
coach June Jones said. ''Maybe the best I've ever seen.''
On Dec. 10, Dallas lost to the Cleveland Browns 19-14. When the
49ers suited up at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego the next day,
they had a chance to come within one win of booking all of their
playoff dates at the Stick. What followed seemed impressive enough.
Young connected on 25 of 32 passes for 304 yards. Bryant Young, a
rookie from Notre Dame, made six unassisted tackles, sacked Charger
quarterback Stan Humphries and blocked a pass while helping to hold
running back Natrone Means to 50 yards on 18 carries. Rice joined Art
Monk and Steve Largent in the 800-catch club. Sanders got his third
TD off an interception.
But Steve Young wasn't satisfied with the four passes the Niners
dropped, or the 322 yards they gave up through the air, or the 21-3
halftime lead that should have been 35-0. He made that clear in a
rare locker room address after the game. ''I think we have a
standard, and if we don't play to it, we should be honest with
ourselves,'' Young explained later. ''I just wanted to remind the
guys.'' Taylor seconded the oration: ''He had to say it.'' Tight end
Brent Jones decoded those comments, saying, ''There's something about
this team. There's still always a little paranoia in the
The San Francisco pass rush, which had shown signs of a split
personality, was at its Mr. Hyde best against the visiting Denver
Broncos in Game 15, a 42-19 drubbing. The Niners sacked Bronco
quarterback John Elway six times, forcing coach Wade Phillips to
remove him for his own safety. With the win, San Francisco clinched
the league's best record, rendering the season finale at Minnesota
meaningless. Seifert rested many of his starters in a 21-14 defeat.
''We'll get something to eat and forget about it,'' Barton said
afterward. ''We'll go home and look at the Super Bowl trophies and
realize what we're still working for.''
But deep inside, they already had it: a resolve, a toughness, an
attitude. ''Times have changed,'' Floyd said. ''You don't have Vince
Lombardi around anymore.'' At the end of the season, the 49ers were
the best team in football, bar none.
Before the vintage uniforms developed a vintage odor from overuse,