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Running Start Using a high-octane offense to compensate for their sputtering defense, the 49ers beat the Jets and served notice that they'll be tough to stop

Garrison Hearst was 10 yards shy of the end zone when the
sweet-potato pie hit home. The San Francisco 49ers'
happy-go-lucky halfback had taken a routine handoff at his own
four-yard line and set off on the run of his life, racing down
the right sideline while the New York Jets' defense collapsed
around him. Now Hearst was in danger of being dragged down by
his grandmother's cooking. The previous afternoon Julie
Leverett, one of several relatives visiting from Lincolnton,
Ga., had filled her grandson's kitchen with down-home standards
too delicious to resist. "Fried chicken, cornbread--she came to
play," Hearst said. "Believe me, I was feeling every bite."

Hearst ended his 96-yard touchdown run with a flop, giving the
Niners a 36-30 overtime victory and the rest of the league food
for thought. San Francisco's mix-and-match offensive line had
its share of breakdowns against the Jets, and the Niners' best
player, wideout Jerry Rice, was far too scared to strut his best
stuff in his return from a pair of serious knee injuries. Yet
the league's most dangerous attack, which rolled up 557 yards in
its first game of the season, already looks more potent than
Shawn Kemp with a fistful of Viagra.

"We had a lot of missed opportunities, and we could have played
much better," Hearst said after the game. "When this offensive
line settles down and Jerry kicks it into high gear, it's going
to be scary."

Even if their defense continues to struggle as it did on Sunday,
the 49ers appear loaded enough to contend for a sixth Super Bowl
title. With Hearst blowing through holes and Steve Young
delivering airmail to Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, the
NFL might have to hire Kenyan distance runners to work the
sideline chains. After surprising 64,419 fans at 3Com Park by
wearing gold pants for the first time since the '95 season, San
Francisco unveiled some new offensive wrinkles and achieved its
highest yardage total in nearly five years.

Coach Steve Mariucci devised a game plan that relied heavily on
three-receiver sets and gave Rice room to roam. The future Hall
of Famer caught six passes for 86 yards, embarrassed Jets
cornerback Ray Mickens on a 14-yard touchdown catch and run and,
naturally, described his effort as wimpy. "Yeah, I was soft," he
said, "and I'm not at all ready to let it rip. We're going to
share the load until probably midseason; then I'll start getting
more aggressive."

The Niners, who have won at least 10 games for an NFL-record 15
consecutive seasons, also got a push from their past before they
met the Jets. During a team meeting last Saturday, Bobb
McKittrick, San Francisco's offensive line coach for two
decades, cued up a video featuring what he considers to be the
four most striking plays of his tenure: Roger Craig's
knee-pumping jaunt through the Los Angeles Rams' defense in
1988; Young's crazy-legged 49-yard scramble to defeat the
Minnesota Vikings later that season; and a pair of short Joe
Montana passes to John Taylor that went for touchdowns of 92 and
96 yards in a Monday-night victory over the Rams in '89. "They
were all great individual efforts," said McKittrick, "but what I
really love about them is the way everyone else on the field
made the runs possible."

The clips of Taylor's touchdown jaunts highlighted Rice's fierce
downfield blocking. Owens, who wore number 80 at
Tennessee-Chattanooga as a tribute to Rice, got the message. On
Hearst's game-winning run, Owens raced across the field to serve
as a sideline escort, tossing aside 280-pound defensive end
Anthony Pleasant near the New York 20-yard line and, in the
process, exorcising an old Niners demon.

After the Jets downed a Nick Gallery punt on San Francisco's
four-yard line with 11:09 left in overtime, Mariucci and
offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg decided on a play called
90-O, a quick-hitting trap in which the center and right guard
block to their left, and left guard Ray Brown comes around the
back to seal off the weakside linebacker. The play, says San
Francisco backup halfback Chuck Levy, is designed to produce
"four yards and a cloud of dust." Young hated the idea, partly
because he wanted to throw and partly because of the risk: If
Brown didn't get over quickly, the ballcarrier would get smacked
shortly after the handoff.

It didn't exactly catch Jets coach Bill Parcells off guard. Late
in the 1990 NFC Championship Game the Niners (seeking a third
consecutive Super Bowl win) held a one-point lead over the
Parcells-coached New York Giants and were trying to kill the
clock when they called 90-O near midfield. It turned into
90-Oh-no! Giants nosetackle Erik Howard burst through the line
and caused Craig to fumble. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor
recovered, the Giants drove to a game-winning field goal and
went on to win Super Bowl XXV. As Young, who handed the ball to
Craig, said on Sunday, "This gets 90-O out of the doghouse."

Hearst's run, the longest from scrimmage in team history, met
McKittrick's standard for excellence: a display of individual
brilliance made possible by a total team effort. Brown and his
fellow linemen, along with fullback Marc Edwards, gave Hearst
room, and he ran through an attempted tackle by Pro Bowl
cornerback Aaron Glenn. After darting to his right, Hearst was
met by rookie free safety Kevin Williams, whose soft coverage on
a Young-to-Stokes throw had allowed the Niners to score a
go-ahead touchdown with 1:32 left in the fourth quarter. Hearst,
who would finish with 187 yards on 20 carries, threw a stiff-arm
that flattened Williams like a life-sized cardboard cutout, then
headed upfield past Otis Smith and into the clear.

To his amazement Hearst saw one man closing in: teammate Dave
(the Wave) Fiore, a 288-pound left tackle playing in his first
NFL game. Fiore, an undrafted free agent from Hofstra who was
released by the Jets a year ago after tearing up his left knee
in training camp, kept up with Hearst until Owens relieved him
for the final 50 yards. After Hearst flopped into the end zone,
under pursuing linebacker Mo Lewis, Owens piled on top of them,
followed by about 30 Niners. William Randolph Hearst couldn't
have provoked more pandemonium. "Get the hell off me," Hearst
told Owens. "I'm tired as hell."

"That was like the Immaculate Reception," Mariucci said. "It's
going to go down as one of the biggest runs of all time."

Mariucci may have gotten a little carried away, but can you
blame him? A year ago in Tampa, in his first game as an NFL
coach, Mariucci watched in horror as Young sustained a
career-threatening concussion and Rice went down with torn
ligaments in his left knee. Rice responded by completing the
fastest rehabilitation in league history. He returned for a Dec.
15 Monday-night victory over the Denver Broncos, catching his
record 155th career touchdown--then broke his left kneecap when
he was hit in the end zone by safety Steve Atwater.

Having been held out of the entire preseason by Mariucci, Rice
was feeling fragile. Six days before the Jets game, he showed up
for a final checkup at ActiveCare, the San Francisco clinic
where he did the bulk of his rehab work. It was the anniversary
of his knee injury in Tampa. "We should be popping champagne,"
physical therapist Lisa Giannone said, but Rice was far from
bubbly. "Those guys are going to try to kill me," he said of the
Jets defenders. "They're going to go for my knee, and I'm scared."

At practice that afternoon, hoping to test the knee, Rice asked
330-pound guard Kevin Gogan to tackle him. "No chance," Gogan
replied. "I'm not going to be the guy who injures Jerry Rice."
Later Rice told a reporter, "I'm looking forward to coming back,
but if things don't go as planned, it will be so devastating."

The Jets weren't buying it. "I'm the one who should be scared,"
Glenn said from his Long Island town house last week. "Most
receivers come at you a certain way, but Jerry changes his style
for every defender, and that's what makes him so dangerous."

Rice was tentative at times and never took the big hit he hoped
would quell his fears. But there were flashes of his old form,
especially on the touchdown reception that got the Niners to
within a point of the Jets late in the third quarter. Then San
Francisco began to pay for its lack of offensive-line depth.
Right tackle Derrick Deese had been forced from the game at
halftime when anticramping medication upset his stomach. In came
rookie Chris Ruhman, a third-round pick from Texas A&M, who was
taken to school by linebacker Bryan Cox. The Niners' first two
drives of the fourth quarter ended on sacks by Cox, who beat
Ruhman to the outside both times.

The Jets also exposed San Francisco's defensive weaknesses,
following a blueprint drawn by the Carolina Panthers in '96 and
copied by the Green Bay Packers in last season's NFC title game.
The Niners had the league's top defense last season and were
ranked seventh in '96, but they've been vulnerable to offenses
in which a quarterback takes three-step drops and hits his
wideouts on quick slants. With cornerback Marquez Pope out with
a back injury, San Francisco let the Jets' Glenn Foley complete
30 of 58 passes for 415 yards. New York's Keyshawn Johnson (nine
receptions, 126 yards) caught two long scoring passes, both
after coverage breakdowns, and fellow wideouts Wayne Chrebet
(six catches, 125 yards) and Dedric Ward (five catches, 96
yards) ran free most of the day. "Defending that kind of attack
is a real weakness for us," said Niners defensive end Chris
Doleman. "We've got to tighten up our coverages."

Until that happens, San Francisco will have a tough time
overtaking the Packers, who held them without an offensive
touchdown in winning last season's NFC title game 23-10. That
game was especially painful for Hearst, who was rusty in his
return from a collarbone break that occurred in a Nov. 30 defeat
at Kansas City and was benched after gaining 12 yards on eight
first-half carries. Having averaged a mere 2.2 yards per attempt
during this year's exhibition season, Hearst and his linemen had
something to prove against the Jets.

"We've heard so much s--- about us not being able to run the
ball," Hearst said. "I think our big boys got a little pissed
off, and that's what made the last run so sweet."

The Niners hope they can sustain their early-season burst as
well as Hearst did. They'd also like to avoid that flop at the
finish line.

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Jet Wayne Chrebet is run down by Lee Woodall in the 49ers' comeback win (page 44). [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER BLOCK SOLID Hearst (20) got an escort from Owens (81) on his 96-yard TD, the longest run from scrimmage in 49ers history. [Garrison Hearst, Terrell Owens and other players in game]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER(2) GRAB BAG A cautious Rice (80) pulled in six passes, and Stokes (right) caught seven, including this fourth-quarter touchdown. [Jerry Rice in game; J.J. Stokes and Jets defender in game]

"Those guys are going to try to kill me," Rice said. "They're
going to go for my knee."