Ironically, those very facets of Spurrier's character and performance are at the heart of his contribution to the team's resurgence. Compared to Spurrier, Tom Landry (the Sphinx of Dallas) comes off as a raving madman, but where he was once cursed for quiescence, Spurrier now is earning praise for being cool. As for his passing, he will still throw a "swan" or two early in the game, but his accuracy improves as the day rolls on. In support of these claims, there is no better evidence than the overall 4-1-1 record the 49ers have achieved since Spurrier became a starter, and the Dallas game specifically, wherein Stevie Wonder completed 16 of 24 passes (11 of 13 in the second half) for 177 yards and a touchdown.
Spurrier's finest work came in the third quarter when the 49ers controlled the ball for 12 minutes and 10 seconds—seven minutes of which were consumed in a 94-yard textbook drive that began after the opening kickoff and ended with a 12-yard scoring toss to Ted Kwalick. Spurrier, floating soft passes and lazy-looking lobs that would not have taxed the grasp of Diana Ross, connected on six of seven passes during the march, three of which converted third-and-long situations into first downs. Moreover, Spurrier's passing enabled the team to run against a respectable defense for one of the few times this season.
Coach Dick Nolan's defensive team also contributed a strong performance and the game's leading scorer, no less, in Linebacker Skip Vanderbundt, who came up with two touchdowns. Blitzing more than usual, the 49ers caught Dallas quarterbacks nine times and limited the champions to 28 plays and 56 yards gained in the second half.
Yet it was a benign mistake that accounted for the 49ers' biggest play. Behind 7-0, San Francisco Linebacker Dave Wilcox got mixed up and blitzed when he was not supposed to. The move surprised everybody, particularly Dallas Quarterback Craig Morton, who almost had his head separated from the rest of his person by Wilcox.
"He didn't see me coming," Wilcox said, "and when a guy gets hit like that something happens to the ball." In this case, what happened was that Morton fumbled it and Vanderbundt picked it up and ran 73 yards into the end zone. In the fourth quarter Vanderbundt went another 21 yards with an awry Morton pass for his second touchdown.
"I broke my shoulder pads in the first quarter," Vanderbundt explained afterward, "and they fixed me up with some wide-receiver pads. I figured if I'm dressed like one, I'm going to score like one. I don't know, but for some reason we play good against good teams, bad against bad teams."
If that continues to be the case, the 49ers should have it made if Los Angeles decides to play like a good team Monday night (Dec. 4) at San Francisco. In many ways, the Rams' season has been more enigmatic than either that of the 49ers or the Falcons, for Los Angeles has struggled heroically with Gabriel at subpar health. Gabriel's problem is tendinitis in his throwing elbow, a condition that caused him excruciating pain earlier in the year before acupuncture and other medical treatment allowed him to grip the football the way he used to.
Against Cincinnati, a team that Los Angeles was singularly fortunate to beat 15-12, the Rams' game plan was predicated on the thought that no play would require Gabriel to throw the ball more than 20 yards. "That was our plan for most of the year," Prothro admits, "but he has thrown deep some. I don't think his arm is bothering him now as much as it was."
Indeed, if he showed little against New Orleans this week, there seemed nothing wrong with Gabriel the Sunday before when he completed 25 of 33 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown against the much better Viking defense. His longest throw, officially, against Minnesota was 29 yards, but many of the Rams' quick-out sideline patterns called for longer diagonal throws, and he delivered them with no difficulty.
Prothro, who almost surely brings more knowledge of the laws of probability to his art than any other coach in the league, does not rely on emotional appeal. Nolan, the boss of the 49ers, is a disciple of the unflappable Landry. He sends in plays for Spurrier, just as his old mentor does for Craig Morton. By contrast, the performance of the young, aggressive Atlanta Falcons often appears—for better or worse—to reflect their coach's personality more than his strategy. Some maintain, in fact, that the team is terrified of The Dutchman, Norm Van Brocklin.