We are sailing in uncharted waters with these San Francisco 49ers. We are seeing them put up numbers that we've rarely seen. We are seeing power football, defensive brilliance, and execution so precise it's scary. That's what the Los Angeles Rams got a taste of in the Niners' 30-3 victory in the NFC title game at Candlestick Park on Sunday, and now it's the Denver Broncos' turn in Super Bowl XXIV on Jan. 28. The question we must ask is: Have we seen it all? Is this the complete 49er package?
The frightening answer is: not really. Waiting in the shadows, like an assassin behind the door, is the long passing game. The Niners have yet to show it in these playoffs. In their crushing wins over the Minnesota Vikings (41-13) and now the Rams, they didn't need it. Everything else worked too well.
Especially on Sunday. Here are some numbers: Joe Montana completed 26 of 30 passes for 262 yards. The San Francisco offense rolled up 442 yards, while the defense allowed 156—and only 26 on the ground. The 49ers ran 76 plays to L.A.'s 47, and their time of possession (39:48) was almost double that of the Rams.
But things didn't start out that way. The Niners were stopped on their first series. They fumbled in Los Angeles territory on their second. Then came the deluge. Their next three possessions in the first half produced three touchdowns. Their first four possessions in the second half: three field goals and one that missed. While all this was going on, the Rams failed to crack the San Francisco 40. In fact, only once all day did they get inside the 40, and that was on their first possession.
The game, for all practical purposes, ended with the 49ers' last drive of the first half, an 87-yard, 13-play touchdown march that made the score 21-3. At the two-minute warning the Niners were on their own 18. With nine seconds left they had the touchdown—an 18-yard bullet from Montana to wideout John Taylor. Eleven plays in 111 seconds, an average of 10 seconds per play. San Francisco ran crosses and picks and hooks and quick cuts, and on the TD pass, the line gave Montana so much time that he could wait for Taylor to put three moves—fake in, fake out, break inside—on poor LeRoy Irvin, the Rams' right cornerback.
"That drive sent us reefing," said Irvin afterward. "It turned the tide. We were on our heels the rest of the game. They dropped an overhand right on us."
"The last drive of the first half? I can't even remember it, there were so many drives," said Los Angeles linebacker Mel Owens. "It was about as devastating as the first one."
"We were overwhelmed," said John Robinson, the Rams' coach. "Clearly dominated." And on and on—one depressing, slightly stunned quote after another from a team that had been thoroughly whipped.
The second half brought out the bully in the 49ers. They turned their attack to the ground against a tired and injured L.A. defense. The Rams were against the ropes, getting hammered, with no referee to stop the fight. They had come into the game short-handed in the secondary—free safety Vince Newsome was sidelined with a sprained ankle—but their troubles up front were even worse. When the Rams lost linebacker-lineman Mark Messner because of a sprained knee in the first quarter and starting end Mike Piel with a dislocated elbow in the second, they were down to three linemen, total.
By the third quarter the Rams were fighting for air, their jerseys black with mud and sweat. The 49ers kept pounding them with running backs Roger Craig and Tom Rathman—between the tackles, especially with the Washington Redskins' old counter-gap play in which the offside guard and tackle pull, and outside on sweeps, with wide receiver Jerry Rice doing some heavy-duty blocking. On one 12-yard counter-gap run by Craig in the third quarter, 280-pound right tackle Harris Barton pulled and found a corner so soft that he had no one to block. "A finesse team?" said Irvin. "Oh no, not today they weren't. Today they were a physical team."