Late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, coach Bill Walsh stood on the sideline in Giants Stadium, watching his San Francisco 49ers' offense come apart. The New York Giants had stuffed San Francisco on its last two series and had taken a 17-13 lead. The 49ers' last four possessions had produced no points. Wide-out Jerry Rice had dropped two passes, including one on the goal line. Quarterback Joe Montana, who replaced Steve Young at the start of the second half, was having problems with New York's swarming defense, and the Niners' only serious weapon of the day, halfback Roger Craig, was getting beaten up every time he touched the ball.
With 1:21 to go San Francisco looked ready to launch another disastrous drive, this time from its own 23-yard line. On the first play, Rice dropped yet another pass, a little slant-in. The second play was a botched snap, with center Randy Cross falling on the ball for a one-yard loss. On third-and-11, the 49ers lined up with four wideouts across the field. Rice was wide right with Mike Wilson slotted inside, and Wes Chandler was wide left with Calvin Nicholas in the slot.
This is San Francisco's version of the desperation play, the old fling-it-up Big Ben, which places three wide receivers on one side of the ball and which Walsh has called "the ugliest play in football." That's not really the Niners' style. Picks, crosses, sweeps, that's their game. In the previous three seasons they had pulled out only one game in the waning moments on the strength of Montana's arm, and that was on a 25-yarder against the Cincinnati Bengals in 1987.
But this time the Giants did something unusual. They covered the four San Francisco wideouts with four defensive backs, period. They didn't bring in any extra defensive backs—no nickel, no dime, no loose change of any kind. They had all four linebackers in the game and three down linemen. Rice, the only player who had a realistic chance of breaking free for the winning touchdown, was the property of cornerback Mark Collins, New York's best cover man. Best against best—that's what football is all about, isn't it?
Montana had tried only one deep pass all day (to Rice) and it was overthrown. But what happened on Sunday will be on Reel 1 of the 49ers' 1988 highlights film. Walsh sent in a play called 76 All Go, which is just what it sounds like. "You say a prayer and leave the huddle," said Walsh after the game. Montana threw a bomb and Rice, streaking down the right side, got a step on Collins. Strong safety Kenny Hill, who had broken off his coverage of Wilson, arrived late and collided with Collins just as the ball settled in Rice's hands. Sayonara. Touchdown Niners with 42 seconds left. The final score read 20-17.
Deep silence descended on the stadium. Then the grumbling began. Four defensive backs against four wideouts? Geez, that ain't modern football. You have got to cover Rice with two guys, don't you? "It's our regular coverage," said New York's secondary coach, Les Fontes. "It's what we call Cover Four. My cornerback's very reliable. Kenny Hill's very reliable. The best player won on that play."
Giants head coach Bill Parcells said that nickelbacks wouldn't have helped, because they would have had the short zones to keep Craig from running free underneath. Said Collins, "I felt I had him, but it was just a perfectly thrown ball. He [Rice] didn't make a play all day, then he makes the last one."
Said Hill, "I have to get a read on the quarterback, and if he opens up, then I get over on the outside receiver. I might not get the ball, but I have to knock the stuffings out of him. Unfortunately, I got more of Mark than Rice."
Thus, with one fling of a 32-year-old quarterback's arm, the aura of invincibility that had briefly surrounded New York's defense was shattered. The week before, the Giants had risen with a fury in the second half to beat Washington 27-20. Now we know they are human.
And when the 49ers are through savoring the victory that places them with the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams as one of only three undefeated teams in the NFC, they'll have some questions of their own. First, what's with Rice? For 59 minutes he was Rice the rookie—three drops, three catches for minimal yardage. Then on one 78-yard pass he was Rice the two-year All-Pro. What gives? On Friday night the Niners had watched a motivational film that featured nasty hits the Giants had inflicted on Rice in previous meetings.