Sam Wyche, the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach, should have known what was coming. Wyche's Bengals held a 16-13 lead with 3:20 remaining in Super Bowl XXIII, and the San Francisco 49ers were backed up on their own eight-yard line. Wyche, who had been a Niners assistant back in 1982, who had radioed down plays from the booth during the team's epic 89-yard march against the Dallas Cowboysthe one that culminated in the Dwight Clark touchdown grab that sent San Francisco to the Super Bowl against, of all teams, the Bengalsshould have known that his defense did not stand a chance.
"Somebody came up to me on the sideline and said, 'We got them now'," recalled Cincinnati wide receiver Cris Collinsworth. "I said, 'Have you taken a look at who's quarterbacking the San Francisco 49ers?'"
Giving a huddle pep talk no longer than four words in duration ("Let's go, be tough"), quarterback Joe Montana commenced an 11-play drive that included nine passes, eight of which he completed.
For the record: eight yards to running back Roger Craig, seven to tight end John Frank, seven to wide receiver Jerry Rice, followed by two Craig runs that gained four yards and another first down. Seventeen yards to Rice, then 13 more to Craig. The guys holding the first-down marker were beginning to suck wind as the ball was spotted at the Cincinnati 35-yard line with 1:54 remaining.
Then the machine burped. An incomplete pass was followed by a completion to Craig in which 13-year veteran center Randy Cross, playing in his final pro game, was whistled for being an ineligible player downfield. Second-and-20 from the Cincy 45, and now, Montana admits, "I was just thinking about getting the field goal that would put the game into overtime.'
What followed was perhaps the most dangerous pass that Montana, who would never be intercepted in his four Super Bowl appearances, ever threw in the league's showcase event. With Rice bracketed on either side by Cincy defensive backs Lewis Billups and Ray Horton, and with All-Pro safety David Fulcher backing that pair up, Montana rifled a 13-yard square-in to the gifted wideout. Rice not only made the catch but also broke free for an additional 14 yards. An eight-yard pass to Craig put the ball on the 10 with just under a minute remaining, setting the stage for 20 Halfback Curl X-Up.
In the huddle during a timeout before this play Montana belied the tension of the moment. Scanning the crowd, the 10-year vet suddenly became, for him, garrulous, and he remarked to his teammates, "Hey, look, there's John Candy!'
The touchdown play was designed to go to Craig, but the fullback, Tom Rathman, lined up in his spot on the left side of the backfield. Noting later that "there wasn't time to argue," Craig took Rathman's spot on the right side and attempted to run his route. He became entangled in coverage, however, so Montana simply found the secondary receiver, John Taylor, who had not caught a pass all afternoon.
"All I could think was, Catch the ball," said Taylor, who did just that with 0:46 left on the clock. The Niners would win 20-16, as the Super Bowl enjoyed its first truly super finish and Montana cemented his reputation as the best crunch-time QB the game has ever seen.
Photographs: John McDonough, John Biever