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A tip-off on how high the expectations of San Francisco 49ers fans have become is that the Niners can—as they did last year—go 14-2, hold the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants to no touchdowns in two meetings, come within a whisker of the big banana themselves, and people around the Bay Area still shake their heads and say, "We're in trouble." Trouble? You don't know what trouble is, friends. New England, now that's trouble.
The offensive line is in trouble, I hear, with people shifting positions all over the place. Let me tell you something about San Francisco's line. When the 49ers won their last two Super Bowls, in '89 and '90, the line was supposed to be in trouble. I've been hearing that since the days of Bruno Banducci and Visco Grgich. The linemen switch and bitch, and that's tough on guys like Harris Barton, who has gone from tackle to center to guard and back to tackle again, never settling long enough in one spot to collect his much-deserved Pro Bowl recognition. But these guys get the job done.
No running game, I hear, and that's a more realistic complaint. Roger Craig took with him to the Raiders what little of it San Francisco had. Dexter Carter is too small, second-round pick Ricky Watters is hurt, and now the Niners are putting all their hopes on third-year man Keith Henderson, who can't stay healthy. O.K., I'll give you that one.
Montana was not the same quarterback last year, mainly because he was under safety-first orders—take no chances, dump it off quickly if nothing is available, or throw it away if you have to. He was off 23.4 rating points from the season before, when he led San Francisco to a fourth Super Bowl win, and the Giants shut him down twice. Maybe stifling your quarterback isn't such a good idea after all.
Still, I like the Niners—even if Young takes some starts for Montana and even if the running game is nowhere. The reason is defense. It just keeps getting better and better. Pierce Holt and Kevin Fagan are textbook 3-4 ends. Charles Haley is a serious pass rusher. Don Griffin is coming on as a cornerback. And the first-round draft pick is a 300-pound monster, nosetackle Ted Washington, who carried an under-achiever's rap out of Louisville. The 49ers, though, have a way of getting outstanding production out of guys like him.
Yes, the Niners will be in the hunt this year. The defense will make sure of that.
On defense the Los Angeles Rams looked lethargic and often confused in 1990. On offense, quarterback Jim Everett's techniques eroded to the point where at times he looked as if he were just heaving the ball. The Rams were a rudderless ship, and they fell from Super Bowl contention in 1989 to 5-11 Before the '90 season, when Kansas City and L.A. practiced together before their exhibition in Berlin, a few Chiefs said you could see the decline coming. They said the Rams looked as though they didn't give a damn.
Heavy stuff. Coach John Robinson surveyed the wreckage in the off-season and decided that it was time to give his guys something to be excited about. So he brought in a new defensive coach, Jeff Fisher, from the Eagles; he toughened up practices; and he didn't yell "No! No! No!" when a fight broke out. Fisher, out of Buddy Ryan's go-for-the-throat system, installed a 4-3 to replace the zone-oriented 3-4 and said, "We will attack."
Sounds good, but you've got to have the people. Kevin Greene moves from linebacker to end. All right, there's one good player. Tackle Mike Piel? Maybe. How about new outside linebackers Brett Faryniarz and rookie Roman Phifer? Well, Faryniarz can get in there, but Phifer is more of a cover guy, and pretty good at it. Then there's a big rookie lineman, 6'6", 273-pound Robert Young, who was raising hell in camp.