SUPER BOWL XVI: 49ers-Bengals
X'd, O'd and
Cincinnati was dazzled by the master of deceit, Bill Walsh, then doomed by a gutty goal-line stand as San Francisco won Super Bowl XVI
By Paul Zimmerman
Issue date: February 1, 1982
These are some of the new plays the San Francisco 49ers put in but did NOT use in Super Bowl XVI:
They had an end-around pass, Dwight Clark throwing to Freddie Solomon. They had different option passes for every healthy running back. They had a play in which Solomon throws a pass off a reverse and they had a pitch-and-lateral, Joe Montana to Ricky Patton to Earl Cooper. They had something called a Nickel Blizzard, which isn't the big brother of Pennies From Heaven; it's a safety blitz out of the nickel-back formation. What else? Oh yeah, they also had what they call a Short Yardage Triple Pass, which means sweep, reverse, pitch back and pass ... no, wait a minute, they did use that, yes they did. They used it in the first half, in which they built a 20-0 lead on the way to their 26-21 triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.
Why didn't they use that other stuff? Well, they had enough, quite enough, more than enough. How many new toys can you fit in the attic? How many candy bars can a healthy child digest? How many newfangled things can you throw at a team without having the Competition Committee come up with another Parity Edict in the off-season ... O.K., Walsh, the other guys get two weeks to prepare for Super Bowl XVII, but we're giving you three days, see.
Brother, did 49er Coach Bill Walsh throw some stuff at the Bengals. The Triple Pass, in which Montana hands to Patton who hands to Solomon who pitches back to Montana who throws downfield to Tight End Charle Young, was designed for third-and-one. It made its entry on the Niners' first third-and-one situation of the game -- in the middle of their long (68 yards), exotic touchdown drive in the first quarter -- picked up a neat 14 yards and then bowed out for the day amid polite applause.
The 49ers' most significant pass, in fact the last pass they threw, was a 22-yarder to reserve Flanker Mike Wilson. It got them out of a deep hole, second-and-15, early in the fourth quarter when the Bengals had closed to within six points. It launched them on their way to the field goal that made the score 23-14. It was called Sweep Pass Right, Z-Comeback and it was put in on Wednesday, four days before the game.
"I run 25 yards downfield, then I come back to about 20," Wilson said. "All year long when we showed anything 20 yards deep, it was a takeoff, a go, so the cornerback [Louis Breeden] figured I'd keep on going."
Simple, see. Just do something you never did before, or maybe once, a long time ago, and then forgot. Like the play in the second quarter that got San Francisco its second touchdown and ended a 92-yard drive, longest in Super Bowl history. This one was an 11-yard pass to Cooper, the fullback, a particular bit of nastiness designed to burn Reggie Williams, the Bengals' right outside linebacker, a Dartmouth graduate and an active chap who'd been making things lively with his blitzes.
Cooper had already run for two significant gains -- 11 and 14 yards -- and this time he started up the middle, but Montana faked the handoff and Cooper took a left at the stop sign and headed for the expressway. Solomon and Mike Shuman, the wide receivers on the left side, had swooped inside, wiping the blackboard clean like a giant eraser, and Cooper dipped out behind them, getting an extra step on poor Williams, who'd bitten for the fake up the middle. Six points. And when had this play, named Fox-Two Special, been seen? Only once before, in 1980, against the New England Patriots. It had gone for a touchdown then, too. It was used only once on Sunday. Why repeat? Got a million of 'em, fellas.
"We didn't know what to expect, given the mentality of their coach," Williams said afterward. "Plus, he had that extra week to prepare them."
On Wednesday, Walsh put in a pass to Solomon, and that got the Niners down to the five-yard line and set up a field goal late in the first half. It was a square-out, with Solomon coming from inside the flanked tight end. This one had been used once before -- against Green Bay -- and it got Solomon a first down then.
Walsh and Ray Wersching, the kicker, also concocted a new style of kickoff, a hard squibber specially designed for the Silverdome's AstroTurf, which is seven years old and rock-hard. The squibber was bobbled twice by the Bengals, both times inside their five-yard line. The 49ers recovered the second one, setting up a gimme field goal with five seconds left in the first half. The hard squib was put in on Tuesday.
"I'd go out with Wersching early in practice and shag kickoffs for him," 49er Publicist Jerry Walker said, "and that squib was bouncing up and hitting me in the face, all over the place, and I'm reasonably coordinated. Then he felt sorry for me and started kicking them soft, and I still couldn't handle them. They were devastating."
"It was," said Archie Griffin, who fumbled the last one, "something we didn't expect."
Maxims of Playoff Football: You dance with who brung ya; you don't get away from your strength; people win, not formations. Forget them, says Walsh, the mind in motion, a walking collection of X's and O's seeking only a blackboard, a piece of lined paper, a napkin, anything.
"We keep surprises in our back pocket," Cooper says.
"Every week," says Solomon, "Coach Walsh keeps coming up with more X's and O's."
During the off week following the 49ers' defeat of Dallas for the NFC championship, Walsh studied the films of Bengal Quarterback Kenny Anderson, and he didn't like what he saw. Anderson was playing with supreme confidence, cutting up the 3-4 defenses, killing them with his scrambles. Gut pressure, Walsh thought, we've got to get pressure on Anderson from inside, something to make him think. "I want more blitzes," Walsh told his defensive coordinator, Chuck Studley, "something we've never shown before."
Studley came up with the Nickel Blizzard, Carlton Williamson blitzing from his strong safety position, which the Niners had never done, and he reached into the past for another defense that was a supreme bit of exotica. The inspiration for the latter was the old Oakland Raiders' original 53-defense, the forerunner of Miami's famed 53, only this No. 53 had been the late Dan Birdwell, a tackle with a linebacker's number, a rover who slid along the line, searching for the inviting pass-rush lanes. Studley set three linemen in the middle, to occupy the guards and the center. He put two outside linebackers, Bobby Leopold and Keena Turner, in a down position, playing the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles, and then as a middle linebacker, roving at will to find a blitzing lane, he set Fred Dean, the supreme sacker, the 49ers' Pro Bowl passrusher.
"Fred's eyes lit up when I showed it to him," Studley said. "I said, 'Gimme a name for it, something with real impact.' 'Cobra,' Fred said. 'Call it Cobra.'"
Cobra made its appearance late in the first quarter, with the 49ers leading 7-0 and the Bengals on their own 41, third-and-10, after having picked up two first downs. Dean blitzed between Cincinnati's center and right guard. A hand reached out and slowed him. Anderson, about to step up in the pocket, retreated when he saw Dean in such an unlikely spot; he dodged to his right side -- and into the arms of Turner, who got the sack. End of series. Score one for Cobra, over and out.
"We closed the book on it and filed it," Studley said.
The day before the Super Bowl, the act was almost complete for the 49ers. "We had about a dozen new plays," said Montana, "all of which we were going to use." But Walsh's mind was still buzzing. Something else, one more new thing, let's show 'em one more. Aha, unbalanced line. Dan Audick, the left tackle, would flop over to the right side, between Guard Randy Cross and Tackle Keith Fahnhorst.
That formation made its appearance during those two long first-half drives, picked up decent yardage a couple of times, got stuffed twice and then crept back into the mothballs to be resurrected, when? Super Bowl XVII? Only Walsh knows. The Bengals had differing viewpoints about the unbalanced line. They are proud people. They don't like to feel they've been slickered.
"A minor adjustment for us," Inside Linebacker Jim LeClair said, and then he thought for a moment. "But it was an annoyance, too. We just weren't the finely oiled machine we'd been in the past."
"It really didn't hurt us," Williams said, "but it caused us a lot of consternation on the sideline because we had to spend a great deal of time preparing for things they might possibly do out of it."
"We hadn't used it," Walsh said. "We needed it for short yardage. We got it." He paused. He noted the look of incredulity on the faces around him. Need short yardage? O.K., plug in a new formation on Saturday. Presto, instant short yardage. Is this really the same old NFL we've been used to all these years? Walsh realized the impression he was making. He smiled. His eyes rolled upward.
"It came to me in a vision," he said, "like a man clutching at a ledge, feeling his hands sliding down."
During the week, during one of his many interviews, Montana was asked if he ever worried about Walsh running out of new things to come up with, new tricks, new gimmicks. I mean, after a few years you can only do so many things.
"You know, I was thinking about that the other day," Montana said. "But then I figured Bill would probably just start all over again and find things that worked in high school or junior high."
But still, a new offensive formation one day before the game? It's got to be a little nerve-racking for a Super Bowl quarterback, right? Right, Joe?
"It happens all the time," Montana said, smiling. "We were afraid we were going to get a new play on our way to the game while our bus was stopped at the bottom of the hill."
Ah yes, the bus. It was the scene of one of the 49ers' scarier moments Sunday afternoon. The trip from the Niners' hotel to the Silverdome should take 25 minutes. Bus No. I left at 1:15 and it breezed into the stadium on schedule. Solomon and Clark were aboard Bus No. 1. They dressed quickly and ran onto the field all by themselves, to the scattered cheers of the 49er fans and the solid boos of the bigger Bengal contingent. Solomon had an iffy knee. He sprinted 100 yards, from end zone to end zone, "to show myself I was all right."
They jogged back to the tunnel. Was Bus No. 2 in yet? No, it was not. Bus No. 2 contained Walsh and Montana and half the San Francisco team. It was stuck on an off ramp, half a mile from the stadium, a victim of the motorcade for Vice-President Bush, which had stalled traffic in all directions.
"Coach Walsh was pretty loose on the bus," Montana said. "He said, 'I've got the radio on and we're leading 7-0. The trainer's calling the plays.'"
"After sitting there for 20 minutes, I was starting to get a little uneasy," Walsh said. "Everyone was cracking jokes, but I was looking at the angle we'd have to take to walk to the stadium, a cross-country trip, each person holding onto the next one's shirt so we wouldn't get blown over."
Bus No. 2 finally made it in at 2:40, an hour and 35 minutes before kickoff and 20 minutes before the team was supposed to be on the field for its warmup. To Super Bowl historians this was an omen. Teams that have trouble lose. The whole week had been a bad omen for the 49ers. They hadn't been sleeping right. The three-hour time difference had put them out of sync. Montana was showing up for his 8:30 a.m. press conference, 5:30 a.m. San Francisco time, bleary-eyed, punchy. Their Tuesday and Wednesday practices had been sloppy and lethargic.
"Why do we have to have the early practice and the Bengals the late one, especially since they're already on Eastern time and our hotel is farther from the Silverdome?" Walsh wanted to know. "Coin flip," the NFL people told him. How about if we find our own practice facilities? Sorry, no can do.
On Friday, Walsh was still fuming. "It's madness," he said. "You can get any playground director to do what they do, only he'd do it hand over hand with a baseball bat. High-salaried people ... it's a joke."
Another bad omen. Bitching coaches lose. Remember Bud Grant and the sparrows in the shower room? And the game certainly started off badly when the 49ers' Amos Lawrence fumbled the opening kickoff and the Bengals took over on the San Francisco 26. But six plays later Free Safety Dwight Hicks intercepted an over-the-middle pass intended for Isaac Curtis, the middle man of three wide receivers flanked left, ran it back from his own five to the Niner 32, and the 49ers had bailed out.
"Anderson made an unwise choice on that one," Cornerback Ronnie Lott said. "Dwight's just been eating that play up in practice."
Trailing 7-0, Anderson completed a long pass to Cris Collinsworth down to the 49er five, but Cornerback Eric Wright stripped the ball from Collinsworth, setting up that 92-yard drive. A familiar pattern was establishing itself. Six turnovers did the Bengals in when the 49ers beat them 21-3 in December, some of them forced, some of them lucky. Now, midway in the second quarter, they had committed two. Cut the field to 95 yards and Cincinnati would have had two touchdowns.
The number rose to three in the third quarter. The San Francisco offense, which had been so pretty in the first half, was now crumbling under the ferocious pressure of strong-safety and linebacker blitzes. Eight plays for four yards was the 49ers' total output for the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Bengals were driving, driving, getting good yardage out of that three-wide-receiver left formation, burning the 49ers with a flea-flicker, stunning them with a 49-yard bomb to Collinsworth, over Wright's coverage.
Now they were down to the three-yard line, first-and-goal, trailing 20-7 in the quarter's dying moments. The Niner goal-line defense -- six linemen, four linebackers and Lott in the secondary -- bunched in to stop the thrusts of 249-pound Pete Johnson on the first two downs; Inside linebacker Jack Reynolds cracked him one time for the hit of the game, a blow that left Reynolds "groggy and dazed -- but I wasn't going to come out." Next, Dan Bunz stopped Charles Alexander on a swing pass, an almost impossible play for a big guy like Bunz. Then he was in the middle of the final surge that stuffed Johnson. "Snapped my chin strap, knocked the screws loose from my face bar," Bunz said.
The goal-line stand bought six minutes for the 49ers. Cincy scored five minutes into the fourth quarter, and now it was a 20-14 ball game with plenty of time left. At this point the 49ers again showed their amazing knack for doing the unexpected. They threw two passes, the second one the 22-yard completion to Wilson, and with 9:38 showing on the clock their passing attack was over, finito. The team that uses the pass to set up the run went Big Ten. No more passes, not one. Seven straight running plays led to a 40-yard field goal by Wersching and burned more than five minutes off the clock. After Wright intercepted a deep sideline pass for Collinsworth and returned it 25 yards to the Bengal 22, the 49ers ran the ball six more times and kicked another field goal. The clock showed 1:57, they were up 26-14 and the only thing left was a long, concession TD drive for the Bengals, an onside kick that was recovered by Clark, and the trophy presentation ceremony.
How will we evaluate this Super Bowl champion? The 49ers weren't supposed to be able to run the ball, but when they had to they did, most of the time on traps and counters by Patton, occasionally by Cooper. "Great, great guards," Walsh said. "Randy Cross and John Ayers are the two best pulling guards in football. That aspect of the game's been overlooked while everyone's been collecting massive offensive linemen."
Reynolds, the middle man on those superb L.A. Ram defenses, always had been a skeptic. "If we do it again next year I'll be convinced," he had said during the week. Now, dressing slowly after the greatest victory in his life, he conceded that he might have been wrong. "I'm used to the dominating defense loaded with All-Pros," he said. "This team? Well, it has something the Rams have lacked for the last few years. Togetherness, people who are all pulling for each other. Plus a class organization. Repeat -- class."
"We're a team of character," Walsh said. "You could see it in our goal-line stand, in the way we played all day. I'm sure a lot of people still aren't convinced. The scouts don't see great talent here. Most of them picked the Bengals to win. Most of the coaches, too, even the coaches in our own division. They were looking at the talent, at the numbers. But most of the players around the league picked us. Their vision was clearer. They could see something that the others couldn't -- inspiration."
On Monday the 49ers were to enjoy a motorcade through San Francisco, even the six Pro Bowl players who were supposed to be in Hawaii for NFC Coach John McKay's meaningless Monday-night meeting. Sorry, league, we've got a better thing going for us right here in San Francisco.
"It's only McKay's offense, anyway," said Cross, a UCLA grad. "If guys from USC can learn it, how complicated can it be? We're used to something a little more interesting."