This is pro football of the '80s: lots of scoring, lots of passing, a major problem with contracts. It's wild and unpredictable, it follows no script and on Sunday in Anaheim the San Francisco 49ers learned all about it.
Three days before, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams, both 5-2, were to play for first place in the NFC West, the 49ers had a free safety named Dwight Hicks. His resume read two straight Pro Bowl years, four seasons of leading the team in interceptions, 55 consecutive starts. Two days before the game, they had no free safety. Hicks had walked off the team, claiming a contract problem. In this era of big money and the USFL, it seems as if every club has one of those. In Hicks's wake came turmoil.
Ronnie Lott, the Niners' All-Pro cornerback, was chosen to take Hicks's place. He had a Friday and a Saturday practice to learn a brand-new position. Be great, kid. Learn quickly.
It would be nice to report that Lott went out and performed brilliantly against the Rams, turning the game around, but unfortunately the NFL scripts are not written by the Brothers Grimm, and Ram Quarterback Vince Ferragamo, noting the unsettled nature of the 49er secondary, calmly threw for five touchdowns. Eric Dickerson caught two of those TD passes, racing through a forest of blown coverages and missed tackles, and added 144 yards on the ground. LA. scored 35 points and collected 441 yards, both high-water marks under new Coach John Robinson.
And did they win the game? Well, no. This is football of the '80s, remember? Shoot-out football. The 49ers outscored the Rams 45-35, and actually won the game on a sack—that rarest of all sacks, the touchdown sack. The sacker was Defensive End Dwaine Board. The sackee was Ferragamo, who had the ball torn out of his hands in the end zone. The play came with 6:40 left in the game, with the Rams sitting on a 35-31 lead and facing a third-and-eight from their own 10-yard line. What was Ferragamo doing throwing from so deep in his own territory with a four-point lead? Hey, get with it. This is the modern era. You throw from anywhere, anytime. You don't give up the ball, especially to a quarterback like San Francisco's Joe Montana, who had gotten the Niners on the board in five of their last six possessions (not counting a one-play clock-killer at the end of the first half).
The touchdown sack happened so quickly that few people really understood what had taken place. Board came in
from the right side. Jeff Stover, a defensive tackle, flushed Ferragamo to his left, into Board's path. Board didn't go for the sack, he went for the ball. "All I saw were blue jerseys," he said. 'Actually, a sack is a subconscious type of thing; you attack the quarterback, and the next thing you do is go for the ball. I got a good grip on it and it came out."
Referee Red Cashion hesitated before making a call. Was Ferragamo in the tackler's grasp, was his progress halted before the ball was stripped? "I saw the ref looking around," Robinson said. "I don't think anybody saw what happened. Then the ref must have looked at Board and figured, 'Oh, you're a 49er and you've got the ball in the end zone, so it must be a touchdown.' Which it probably was."
"Even I was waiting for the ref," Board said. "Then I saw him put his hands up and I said, 'Oh, touchdown.' " For Board, it was the first touchdown in his five NFL seasons.
Then an old-time 49er was heard from: 33-year-old Linebacker Willie Harper. The teams had traded punts after the Board play, and the Rams, trailing 38-35 with two minutes left, had a first down on their own 30. Harper found himself racing down the field with Wide Receiver Gordon Jones. "Tim Collier [Lott's replacement at left corner-back] had the deep coverage," Harper said. "I was underneath. I think Ferragamo felt he could get the ball over my head. He almost did."
Harper picked off the pass on the Ram 44 and returned it to the seven. Three plays later Bill Ring ran four yards for a San Francisco TD, and it was over.