A funny thing happened on the way to The Showdown. The San Francisco 49ers turned out to be mortal.
From the moment back in April that this year's schedule was announced, fans saw the Nov. 12 meeting of the Niners and the Dallas Cowboys as the only regular-season game that would really matter. Dallas, 6-1 after a 23-9 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, is playing to form, but who would have guessed that after seven weeks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have more wins (five) than the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers (four)? And no sane person would have thought that this Sunday's encounter between the Niners and the Rams in St. Louis would be the first big game of the year. But it is, and not only because the Rams are 5-1 but also because they are a half-game ahead of the sleepwalking 49ers, whose latest poor showing was an 18-17 loss to the Colts in Indianapolis on Sunday.
"Shame on us," said a livid Carmen Policy, the San Francisco president, seven hours after the bitter defeat. "There was a lot of introspection on that plane ride home, and there should have been. There's no excuse for what happened in Indianapolis."
No excuse, perhaps, but an explanation is possible: Maybe the 49ers fell into a trap that coaches constantly warn their players about. "You couldn't help but get caught looking ahead to Dallas- San Francisco," Policy said. "But now this game with the Rams is more important. We've said all along we have to win our division first, and now that goal comes into clearer focus."
In focus, too, is the fact that the Rams' off-season move from Anaheim to St. Louis is having an enormous impact on the NFC race. The Niners had owned the Rams at Anaheim Stadium, winning their last eight meetings there, including all five in the 1990s by double-digit margins. But the Rams have been energized by the enthusiastic reception of the St. Louis fans. Sunday's battle with the 49ers is scheduled to be the Rams' last game at Busch Stadium before they move into the new Trans World Dome. The St. Louis players have grown to love Busch. "It's as loud here as a dome crowd," says punter Sean Landeta. "We get a big boost from it."
As for the Niners, this week is a bad time for them to have to travel anywhere. Against the Colts, San Francisco quarterback Steve Young was sacked six times—by a team that had had only three sacks in the previous five games. On two of those visits to the turf, Young suffered first a deep bone bruise and then a soft-tissue injury to his left (throwing) shoulder. He will miss at least three games, and his return for the meeting with Dallas is uncertain.
With or without Young, who will be replaced at quarterback by the inexperienced Elvis Grbac, the Niners should be concerned about their offense. "I've seen them at their very best," St. Louis defensive coordinator Willie Shaw said on Monday between glimpses of Sunday's San Francisco game tape. "And they're slumping a little. It's such a precise offense that little flaws in the timing can throw it off, and it looks like that's what's happening now."
With 46 seconds left to play on Sunday, the 49ers were once again done in by kicker Doug Brien, who pushed a field goal attempt wide right from 46 yards out. Brien had also missed the potential game-tying 40-yard field goal in a 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sept. 25. On Sunday night, holder Grbac said, "You've just got to make that kick." That's why the Niners waived Brien on Monday and plan to hold a tryout to replace him.
Brien may take the fall for the loss, but midway through the third quarter San Francisco coach George Seifert committed an unaccustomed sideline gaffe that loomed large as the game wound down. Seifert elected to kick the point after rather than go for two after Derek Loville's touchdown had given the 49ers a 13-12 lead. A 15-12 lead would have meant that a Colt field goal would tie the score. Had the two-pointer failed, a 13-12 lead would have been no worse than a 14-12 lead. In the end Cary Blanchard's 41-yard field goal with 2:36 to play gave the Colts the win. "Years from now," said Seifert, "I may be haunted by that decision."
Perhaps, but if you're the best team in football, you don't lose on the road to Detroit and Indianapolis, and you don't let a game hang on the toe of a shaky kicker.