It was a matter of perception that caused the San Francisco 49ers to place renewed emphasis on their inert running game nearly two months ago.
The perception was not that they had a running game; the 49ers knew better.
No, the perception was that they would need a vibrant, productive running game if they were to accomplish their unprecedented Threepeat. You don't reach the Super Bowl without a smash-mouth running game, right?
Silly them. They almost forgot they had the best quarterback in football, and very likely the best passing game. Much to the Washington Redskins' chagrin, the Niners remembered last week, just in time to launch their annual playoff assault. And that 28-10 victory over the Redskins re-enforced just how dangerous Joe Montana can be with a football in hand and a receiver downfield.
Montana passed for 274 yards and two touchdowns to send the 49ers into Sunday's NFC championship game against the New York Giants (4 p.m., Ch. 11). It was his most productive day since throwing for 290 in a Week 10 triumph over Dallas. It was also getting back to the basics of 49ers football.
"We kind of fell into a trap," tight end Brent Jones said last week. "Everybody was saying we needed a running game, so we started concentrating on [it], instead of just going out and playing like the 49ers play."
The trap was sprung on Nov. 25, when the Los Angeles Rams bamboozled the 49ers with a nickel package of six defensive backs. The Rams were daring the 49ers to run. The 49ers couldn't. The Rams won, 28-17. That's when the trouble started.
It wasn't quite panic that set in at the 49ers' Santa Clara, Calif., training complex, but it wasn't too far removed, either. The 49ers saw a lot more nickel coverage the following week in a 7-3 victory over the Giants.
In the ensuing month, the 49ers forced the issue of the running game. In Week 14, Roger Craig had his best day of the season, rushing for 97 yards against Cincinnati. In Week 15, rookie Dexter Carter rushed for 124 against those devilish Rams. In Week 16, with Montana resting, backup quarterback Steve Young ran for 102 yards. And in Week 17, Carter gained 27 yards on 10 carries.
In the process, the offense sputtered. The 49ers averaged 25.3 points for their first 10 games, but only 16.7 over the last six. Montana had just one 200-yard passing game in his final four outings.
The point seemed to be made. In an attempt to revive the run, the 49ers were killing the offense. Hence, last week's decision to go back to what they do best. In their three touchdown drives against the Redskins, the 49ers covered a total of 243 yards. Only 17 came on the ground.
Make no mistake, the San Francisco running game is dormant. The Niners average 3.8 a carry this season, 25th in the league. Craig, a victim of age (he's 30) and injury (he has played with torn knee ligaments), appears to be a washed-up running back -- but still effective receiver swinging out of the backfield. Last week, Harry Sydney, a former wishbone quarterback at Kansas, got almost as many carries (seven) as Craig (12). Together they gained 39 yards.
All of which suggests that if the 49ers reach Super Bowl XXV in Tampa next week, it'll be on the arm of their 34-year-old quarterback, not the legs of their running backs. The running game doesn't figure to get well at the expense of the Giants, one of the league's toughest teams to run against, either.
Montana will shoulder the load. In the regular season, he threw more passes (520) and interceptions (16) than in any of his previous 11 seasons. But he also threw for 26 touchdowns and a career-high 3,944 yards.
The architect of San Francisco's four Super Bowl victories, Montana is at his best in the postseason. His playoff record of 14-4 includes seven straight wins. In that winning streak, he has thrown for 21 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
In the Dec. 3 victory over the Giants, 49ers coach George Seifert was almost as conservative as his counterpart, Bill Parcells. Montana hit only 12 of 29 passes for 152 yards. His completion percentage of 41.4 was the lowest of his career. Presumably, the 49ers learned something from that lesson, too.
And in case they forgot, the Niners won their first Super Bowl after the 1981 season with a pair of running backs named Ricky Patton and Earl Cooper.