It wasn't a tantrum. It was a turning point. When San Francisco 49er coach George Seifert yanked quarterback Steve Young during a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last season, Young's subsequent sideline blowup was a watershed moment for the Niners, who took off from there and didn't quit until they had won the NFL title. Come January, should the Niners return to the Super Bowl, the Sept. 10 tantrum of wide receiver Jerry Rice will be 1995's Galvanizing Moment.
Dividends from Rice's rant were apparent as the Niners beat the New England Patriots 28-3 on Sunday. For the second straight week the defense—to whose defense Rice had ardently and profanely sprung—stopped a top passer and, in so doing, posed the question, Deion who?
A week earlier Rice had taken umbrage at suggestions that the 49ers would fail to repeat now that a certain ex-Niner defensive back/outfielder had defected to the Dallas Cowboys. " Deion Sanders came to this team for half a season," Rice said inaccurately (Sanders played 14 games). His voice quavering with anger, he added, "It was an insult to the guys who busted their butts and who played the entire season." He went on to name the underappreciated defensive backs: " Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks, Eric Davis, all those guys—you [reporters] didn't give them any——respect...and that pisses me off."
To underline Rice's point, the 49er secondary led the way by tipping at least five Drew Bledsoe passes, sacking him four times, intercepting three passes and knocking him out of the game for a series.
"We want people to see that the 49ers are not just an offense, that it takes a defense to get to the Super Bowl," says linebacker Gary Plummer. "A lot of guys on defense are saying, 'We want to prove we can do it without number 21.' "
Across the dressing room Rice had grown weary of discussing Deion. "Life goes on; he's in Dallas now," said Rice, whose Nov. 12 duel with Sanders is the year's most-anticipated matchup.
The Niners will spend the season rolling their eyes at Deion questions, professing to be dog-tired of the issue. Privately, they'll hold his memory close to their hearts, using it to their advantage.