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ONE MORE REASON
Offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren didn't like what he saw when he walked into the 49er training room one morning last week. "Oh, this is good," he said sarcastically. Quarterback Joe Montana was being treated for a sprained passing hand, running back Roger Craig and wide receiver John Taylor were having their bum right knees worked on, and Jerry Rice was... Jerry Rice! Holmgren stared anxiously at his wideout.
"Just visiting, Coach," Rice said.
In fact, a primary element in the Niners' recent run of greatness—they're 27-2 since Jan. 1, 1989—has been the extraordinary good health of their key players. Montana, Craig, Rice, fullback Tom Rathman, nosetackle Michael Carter, linebacker Charles Haley and safety Ronnie Lott have been the team's cornerstone players in recent years. From mid-1986 through Sunday, only one of them—Carter, with a broken foot, for six weeks late in '89—had spent time on injured reserve.
Now consider the injury record of three other good teams of the late '80s. Five key Giants ( Mark Bavaro, Joe Morris, Lionel Manuel, Carl Banks and Leonard Marshall) have spent time on injured reserve since mid-1986, as have four of the most important Broncos ( Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson, Karl Mecklenburg and Dennis Smith) and five of the Bears' cornerstone players (Jim Covert, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Otis Wilson and Jim McMahon).
Every team works hard on conditioning these days, so why do the 49er stars remain healthier than most other teams'? The theories: luck, practice habits and a tough-guy mentality.
While Niner conditioning coach Jerry Attaway admits that "luck's always a part of it," he points to the training habits of Rice and Craig, who work out like a couple of Evander Holyfields in the off-season, and of Montana, who seems determined to remain in peak condition so that he can play until he's old and gray. "One thing that's amazed me," says Attaway, "is that even though football is a short career, and you make your money in a short period, some people don't show up in peak condition to perform to their max so they can keep making that money."
Unlike most teams, the 49ers usually abstain from contact work during the regular season. Former coach Bill Walsh believed that hitting in practice increased chances that the body would break down. "We'd go for weeks at a time without putting on pads at all," Walsh says. "We had full-speed explosive movement in practice, but without pads, so there wasn't that continuous combat in practice."
Then there's that tough-guy mentality. "Joe, Jerry, me, a lot of guys, we're warriors," says Craig. "The superstars on our team set our standards high. We stay in shape, and we can overcome nagging injuries. I tore a posterior cruciate ligament in Week 5]. Most guys would be out four to six weeks, but I'll probably be back this week. The team watches us playing hurt or trying to play hurt, and that rubs off on the other players."
Rice, Craig, Rathman, Lott and Haley have played a combined 31� NFL seasons without going on injured reserve. Rice says he wants his pro career to last 15 years, through 1999. If he avoids serious injury, he could set some monster records. Why, in only 5� seasons, Rice has moved within 25 touchdown receptions of Steve Largent's NFL record of 100 (box).