The good news coming out of San Francisco on Sunday night was that 49ers quarterback Steve Young had walked away from a 28-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings still in one piece.
After Young had been sacked four times in a 44-9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs the week before, the question was, Can the Niners' offensive line protect him in a game against a strong team? "I think we answered that today, and the answer is yes," San Francisco right guard Kevin Gogan said after Sunday's game, in which Young completed 20 of 25 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns to move the 12-2 49ers within a victory of securing home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. "They have some real good pass rushers, and they brought the heat, but we kept it under control."
With Young nursing ribs that had been bruised by the Chiefs, the San Francisco line performed admirably, holding the Vikings to two sacks and preventing All-Pro defensive tackle John Randle from doing any serious damage. In fact, the most stinging shots delivered by Randle were of the verbal variety. Late in the game Randle began chattering at Niners left guard Ray Brown, and Gogan happily entered the fray. Ten minutes after the game, Gogan was still squawking. "Ask John Randle if he has a carnival ticket," Gogan cackled, "because I gave him a good ride today."
Randle shouldn't be offended, for Gogan is an equal-opportunity annoyer. His most frequent targets are teammate Tim Hanshaw, who began this season as the starting left tackle but was benched after Week 3 in favor of Derrick Deese, and offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick, whose meetings are constantly interrupted by Gogan's yelps, barbs and hurling of various objects. "It's like The Howard Stem Show" Deese says of the offensive line meetings. "You always want to see what will happen next." Gogan has no qualms about tormenting the 61-year-old McKittrick. "Hey," Gogan says, "somebody's got to do it."
While the 330-pound Gogan garners the bulk of the attention, it is the quietest member of the line, 6'6", 275-pound right tackle Kirk Scrafford, who is having the best season of any 49ers blocker. Scrafford, who hails from Missoula, Mont., has an overly relaxed manner of speaking—Gogan calls him Eeyore after the Winnie the Pooh character—but is a punishing pass protector. The versatile Deese, who until this year hadn't played tackle since junior college, has also been an effective pass blocker, and the Niners have received strong inside play from Brown and center Chris Dalman.
The line has struggled with pass protection on two occasions this year, both times on the road: in Kansas City and in a season-opening defeat at Tampa Bay, during which Young suffered a concussion. In those games the line looked overwhelmed. "If there was one thing we learned in Kansas City," Scrafford says, "it's that we don't want to be on the road in January."