At approximately—no, check that—at exactly one minute and 24 seconds into the first quarter of Super Bowl XXIX at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, everybody knew this one was over. Three quarters of a billion people were suddenly witnessing another of those huge mismatches of which Super Bowls seem to be made. San Francisco 49er wideout Jerry Rice crossed the San Diego Chargers' goal line with a 44-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steve Young, wearing Charger safeties Stanley Richard and Darren Carrington like twin tails on his Superman cape, and the signal was loud and clear: uh-oh.
That touchdown capped the fastest scoring drive in Super Bowl history: the opening kick return; a four-yard completion from Young to fullback William Floyd; an 11-yard completion to wideout John Taylor. Then Rice. Boom. Done.
Wouldn't the Chargers have expected Rice, who has only scored more touchdowns than anyone else in NFL history, to link up deep with Young, the fellow who has led the league in quarterback rating for an unprecedented four straight years? Well, yes, by golly, they did think of that. Back in December, San Diego, playing its linebackers deeper than normal and using a lot of double coverage on the 49er wide-outs, had been walloped 38-15 by the Niners. San Francisco had nickeled-and-dimed the Chargers to death that day. So on Sunday, San Diego decided to move its linebackers up tighter, play the 49er wide-outs more aggressively on the short stuff and pray that its safeties could bottle up the middle.
God to Chargers: Prayer rejected.
"We were in a man-free zone, and I was outside," said a stunned Richard of that opening score. "There's supposed to be a man in the deep middle, and there wasn't." There hardly seemed to be any Chargers anywhere. The point is, when playing the Niners, about all you can adjust is the speed of your death, not its inevitability. The final score on Sunday was 49-26 in San Francisco's favor, but it probably could have been 63-26, if 49er coach George Seifert hadn't quit passing and then yanked his offensive stars for much of the fourth quarter. "We're part of history," summed up San Francisco guard Jesse Sapolu in the locker room afterward. "This is probably the best offense people will see in their lifetimes."
Depends on how old you are. Because if you live long enough, you may see the 49ers do this again and again into the next millennium. While all other NFL teams ride the normal peaks and valleys of sports, the Niners calmly massage the salary cap, pull off some astute off-season free-agent acquisitions, draft shrewdly, recharge Rice and Young and, voila, they're always near the pinnacle.
The second time San Francisco got the ball on Sunday, it slowed down just a bit, needing a full 1:53 to march 79 yards for a touchdown. The drive included a 21-yard scramble by Young and was topped off by his 51-yard touchdown pass to running back Ricky Watters, who broke tackles by each of those two snakebit Charger safeties. That gave the Niners a 14-0 lead with more than 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter. Just then the Chargers might have envied that little boy in the new Pepsi commercial who is able to suck himself right inside the bottle.
But there is nowhere to hide when the 49ers come calling. Young came into the game having thrown for 4,267 yards and 37 touchdowns, and his offense had averaged 31.6 points per game in the regular season. At practice on the preceding Monday at the University of Miami, the San Francisco attack was already running through drills as smoothly as honey melts into tea. With more weapons at his disposal than the proprietor of a gun shop, Young moved his unit up and down the field at will. Except for the skittish Rice, who dwells in his own world of discipline, fear and conquest, everybody was loosey-goosey. Even the preternaturally calm Seifert was stirred, saying the session was "as good a practice as I've ever seen us have. It was scary."
This was precisely the way everyone feared it would be. The 49ers were favored by 19� points, the largest spread in the history of the Super Bowl, and an AFC team hadn't won this thing in a decade; it was impossible to figure any way that the Chargers could withstand the Niner tidal wave. "We've been the over-dogs in a number of games this year," said Young, adding that that was how the 49ers liked it. "We're risking everything. If we lose? Absolute train wreck."
On Wednesday of Super Bowl week, San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. sat poolside at his hotel in Miami Beach. Despite his enviable position—nobody in the NFL can come close to matching the 49ers' skill level and their record these last 15 years except the Dallas Cowboys, and those detested foes were vanquished two weeks ago in the NFC Championship Game—DeBartolo was in a dark mood. The hotel was the one at which he and his wife, Candy, had spent their honeymoon back in 1968, but somehow DeBartolo could not see the bright side of things. Imminent decay haunted him. And there was no time to rest.