The calls were brilliant, the passes were pinpoint and the victory was dramatic and sweet. So as the San Francisco 49ers clustered in the visitors' locker room after Sunday's game at RFK Stadium, it seemed fitting that they give thanks to the man upstairs. A postgame prayer or a tribute to Bill Walsh? You make the call.
Walsh, the Niners' Hall of Fame coach turned offensive consultant, may not be the supreme being on the organization's depth chart, but his stint as a glorified gofer is history. On a gray day during which Walsh literally looked over the shoulder of 49ers offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, San Francisco gutted out a 19-16 overtime victory over the Washington Redskins.
So emotional was the triumph that when it came time for the 49ers to pray, they weren't quite ready to assign the credit to higher forces. In a spontaneous burst of backslapping that put a new spin on the expression heaven can wait, the players spent the next several minutes exchanging loud compliments. The bedlam began when quarterback Steve Young, who had just put forth his most significant effort since his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXIX in January 1995, jumped from his seat and yelled, "The defense won it for us! You held them throughout the game and stopped them at the end when it counted." Enough "You the man!" proclamations followed to satisfy a Tiger Woods gallery, and soon it was a full-Hedged strokefest, with defense praising offense. both units lauding the game-saving fumble recovery by Junior Bryant, and everyone thanking his agent, shoe company and cellular-phone provider.
When reporters entered the locker room a few minutes later, the coaching staff got into the act. Both Walsh and coach George Seifert made sure to heap acclaim upon Trestman, who needs support the way San Francisco mayor Willie Brown needs a muzzle. But bruised egos are a secondary concern to the 49ers as the playoffs near. With a 9-3 record—the best in the NFC along with that of the Green Bay Packers—and an offense that looks ready to break out, the Niners are committed to winning a record sixth Super Bowl title even if that means turning their season into a soap opera.
Call Sunday's show Young and the Genius or, if you prefer, The Bill Walsh Puppet Theater. Told by Seifert two weeks earlier to stop worrying about perceptions and become more involved in planning the offense, Walsh made his presence felt throughout RFK. He spent the first part of the game silting in an upstairs booth specifically set aside for him, complete with a headset that allowed him to tune in to Trestman's play calls. Later he entered the coaches' booth with a strategic suggestion for Trestman and hovered behind him for a stretch. And as the 49ers were expertly driving for the tying touchdown at the end of regulation and for the game-winning field goal in overtime, Walsh stood on the sideline a few feet from Seifert. When Jeff Wilkins's 38-yard kick sailed through the uprights to drop the NFC East-leading Redskins to 8-4, Walsh flashed the triumphant grin that was as vital to 1980s culture as Ronald Reagan's wave and Boy George's pout.
"Just doing my job," Walsh said, but clearly his job description has changed in the past few weeks. Early in the season Walsh described his essential game-day duty as fetching hot dogs for team officials—and he was only half-joking. But in mid-November, shortly before the Niners' 20-17 overtime loss to Dallas, Seifert and team president Carmen Policy told Walsh that instead of tiptoeing around, he should start to put his foot down. According to Policy, "George told him, 'Hey, start earning your money. Put some hours into it, and let's go. Don't worry about people's feelings. If I can handle it, everyone else in the organization can deal with it too.' "
If the 49ers proved anything on Sun-jay, it's that winning can smooth over a whole lot of discomfort. Though Walsh, Trestman and Seifert each conceded that their arrangement is awkward, they left Washington feeling much better about the Miners' championship potential. For all of the qualities that have made Seifert the coach with the highest winning percentage in NFL history, his signature skill remains his ability to sublimate his ego for the good of the team. "Look, the hard part about bringing Bill back is that nobody's ever done this before," Seifert said after Sunday's game. "Are there times when we've bumped heads? Have there been lags and pains? Sure. But the reason he was brought here was to help us win games, and we can't lose sight of that. If there's tension, if people feel threatened, you say, Screw it,' and just keep going."
For Walsh that is easier said than done. During the first half of this season he went to great lengths to avoid giving the impression that he was cramping anyone's style. Now, even though he has been given a green light, his instincts tell him to proceed with caution. "I'm suggesting more plays, or options of the same types of play, all of which are already in the game plan," he says. "I'm doing more, but I've still got to be very, very careful."
While the TV cameras had a field day with Walsh, the person truly under the floodlights was the Niners' quarterback—the one not called "a disgrace to humankind" by San Francisco's mayor following the Dallas game. For Young, this game was a throwback to the years he spent living in Joe Montana's shadow, when even his smallest mistake was seen as a sign of weakness. After suffering his second concussion in three weeks during the Cowboys game and then watching his backup—and Brown's bashing victim—Elvis Grbac, complete 26 of 31 passes in the following week's victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the 35-year-old Young, still hobbled by a pubic-bone fracture he suffered early in the season, had plenty to prove to his coach.
"Could he take a hit?" Seifert asked rhetorically. "Could he get out of the pocket and run, and could he survive a sack? Could he move the club at the end of the game? Could he be the guy?"