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Running Start
Michael Silver
September 14, 1998
Using a high-octane offense to compensate for their sputtering defense, the 49ers beat the Jets and served notice that they'll be tough to stop
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September 14, 1998

Running Start

Using a high-octane offense to compensate for their sputtering defense, the 49ers beat the Jets and served notice that they'll be tough to stop

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Garrison Hearst was 10 yards shy of the end zone when the sweet-potato pie hit home. The San Francisco 49ers' happy-go-lucky halfback had taken a routine handoff at his own four-yard line and set off on the run of his life, racing down the right sideline while the New York Jets' defense collapsed around him. Now Hearst was in danger of being dragged down by his grandmother's cooking. The previous afternoon Julie Leverett, one of several relatives visiting from Lincolnton, Ga., had filled her grandson's kitchen with down-home standards too delicious to resist. "Fried chicken, cornbread—she came to play," Hearst said. "Believe me, I was feeling every bite."

Hearst ended his 96-yard touchdown run with a flop, giving the Niners a 36-30 overtime victory and the rest of the league food for thought. San Francisco's mix-and-match offensive line had its share of breakdowns against me Jets, and the Niners' best player, wideout Jerry Rice, was far too scared to strut his best stuff in his return from a pair of serious knee injuries. Yet the league's most dangerous attack, which rolled up 557 yards in its first game of the season, already looks more potent than Shawn Kemp with a fistful of Viagra.

"We had a lot of missed opportunities, and we could have played much better," Hearst said after the game. "When this offensive line settles down and Jerry kicks it into high gear, it's going to be scary."

Even if their defense continues to struggle as it did on Sunday, the 49ers appear loaded enough to contend for a sixth Super Bowl title. With Hearst blowing through holes and Steve Young delivering airmail to Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, the NFL might have to hire Kenyan distance runners to work the sideline chains. After surprising 64,419 fans at 3Com Park by wearing gold pants for the first time since the '95 season, San Francisco unveiled some new offensive wrinkles and achieved its highest yardage total in nearly five years.

Coach Steve Mariucci devised a game plan that relied heavily on three-receiver sets and gave Rice room to roam. The future Hall of Famer caught six passes for 86 yards, embarrassed Jets cornerback Ray Mickens on a 14-yard touchdown catch and run and, naturally, described his effort as wimpy. "Yeah, I was soft," he said, "and I'm not at all ready to let it rip. We're going to share the load until probably midseason; then I'll start getting more aggressive."

The Niners, who have won at least 10 games for an NFL-record 15 consecutive seasons, also got a push from their past before they met the Jets. During a team meeting last Saturday, Bobb McKittrick, San Francisco's offensive line coach for two decades, cued up a video featuring what he considers to be the four most striking plays of his tenure: Roger Craig's knee-pumping jaunt through the Los Angeles Rams' defense in 1988; Young's crazy-legged 49-yard scramble to defeat the Minnesota Vikings later that season; and a pair of short Joe Montana passes to John Taylor that went for touchdowns of 92 and 96 yards in a Monday-night victory over the Rams in '89. "They were all great individual efforts," said McKittrick, "but what I really love about them is the way everyone else on the field made the runs possible."

The clips of Taylor's touchdown jaunts highlighted Rice's fierce downfield blocking. Owens, who wore number 80 at Tennessee- Chattanooga as a tribute to Rice, got the message. On Hearst's game-winning run, Owens raced across the field to serve as a sideline escort, tossing aside 280-pound defensive end Anthony Pleasant near the New York 20-yard line and, in the process, exorcising an old Niners demon.

After the Jets downed a Nick Gallery punt on San Francisco's four-yard line with 11:09 left in overtime, Mariucci and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg decided on a play called 90-O, a quick-hitting trap in which the center and right guard block to their left, and left guard Ray Brown comes around the back to seal off the weakside linebacker. The play, says San Francisco backup halfback Chuck Levy, is designed to produce "four yards and a cloud of dust." Young hated the idea, partly because he wanted to throw and partly because of the risk: If Brown didn't get over quickly, the ballcarrier would get smacked shortly after the handoff.

It didn't exactly catch Jets coach Bill Parcells off guard. Late in the 1990 NFC Championship Game the Niners (seeking a third consecutive Super Bowl win) held a one-point lead over the Parcells-coached New York Giants and were trying to kill the clock when they called 90-O near mid-field. It turned into 90-Oh-no! Giants nose-tackle Erik Howard burst through the line and caused Craig to fumble. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor recovered, the Giants drove to a game-winning field goal and went on to win Super Bowl XXV. As Young, who handed the ball to Craig, said on Sunday. "This gets 90-O out of the doghouse."

Hearst's run, the longest from scrimmage in team history, met McKittrick's standard for excellence: a display of individual brilliance made possible by a total team effort. Brown and his fellow linemen, along with fullback Marc Edwards, gave Hearst room, and he ran through an attempted tackle by Pro Bowl cornerback Aaron Glenn. After darting to his right, Hearst was met by rookie free safety Kevin Williams, whose soft coverage on a Young-to-Stokes throw had allowed the Niners to score a go-ahead touchdown with 1:32 left in the fourth quarter. Hearst, who would finish with 187 yards on 20 carries, threw a stiff-arm that flattened Williams like a life-sized cardboard cutout, then headed upheld past Otis Smith and into the clear.

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