49ers must retool to make it back to top


January 27, 1991|By VITO STELLINO

As a way of promoting its selection of Joe Montana as the winner of its Player of the Year award, a sponsor arranged a news conference by satellite last week with the San Francisco 49ers quarterback.

A representative of the company stood in front of the television monitor and relayed the questions to Montana from the reporters in the audience so he'd have no trouble understanding them.

But when Ira Miller of the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Ask him if he's thinking about retiring," Montana didn't need to have the question repeated.

He recognized the reporter's voice and blurted out, "No, Ira."

Even though he was knocked out of the 49ers' 15-13 loss to the New York Giants in the National Football Conference title game last week with a broken bone in his hand and wouldn't have been able to play in the Super Bowl had the 49ers won, Montana isn't considering calling it quits.

At age 35 next season, he'll be back still trying to become the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls.

But Montana now seems to know he can't do it all by himself.

The lesson of this season for the 49ers is that they've got to retool their running game if they're going to go all the way again.

Montana was good enough to go 14-2 in the regular season without a running game to support his golden arm, but it finally caught up with him in the playoffs.

Without having to worry about the run, opposing defenses could simply tee off on him on every play, and the battering took its toll.

In his last six quarters, against the Washington Redskins and the Giants, he produced one touchdown. Even before Leonard Marshall knocked him out, the Giants softened him up by getting to him three times in the first eight plays of the game.

All this means the 49ers must improve their offensive line and find a new running back to replace Roger Craig if they're going to win it all again any time soon.

The 49ers still figure to win their division next season even without a running game because the Los Angeles Rams are in a state of flux, the New Orleans Saints don't have a reliable quarterback and Jerry Glanville hasn't proven to be the answer with the Atlanta Falcons.

But to become super again, the 49ers have to develop a running game, so it's no longer open season on Montana.


If the 49ers don't win another one before Montana retires, they'll remain tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers with the most Super Bowl championships -- four.

That will spark endless debate about which team is better.

The most logical answer is that the Steelers had the better team TC with more Hall of Fame players, but the 49ers pulled off the most impressive feat.

For the 49ers to win four times in the 1980s in an era of high salaries and Plan B was remarkable.

Joe Greene, one of the nine Steelers to make the Super Bowl's Silver Anniversary Team, said last week, "Can you imagine trying to pay the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s?"

They played in an era when $200,000 -- not $1 million -- was a good salary.

Plan B also makes it difficult to keep continuity because a team's depth changes every season.

"You're starting over every year now," Giants coach Bill Parcells said.

The 49ers managed to neutralize Plan B because none of their backups wants to leave. They've left their starting tight end, Brent Jones, unprotected two years in a row and he didn't sign with any other club.

More Plan B: The teams must submit their 37-man protected list the league by Friday, but there might be some trades of backup players before then.

The league moved up the start of the trading period to this week so teams that can't protect a player likely to be lost can trade him.

If the Buffalo Bills lose the Super Bowl today to the Giants, Bills coach Marv Levy will be written off as another uptight coach who couldn't handle the Super Bowl pressure just as his mentor, George Allen, couldn't.

Another Allen disciple, Dick Vermeil, made the same mistake when he brought the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl XV to play the Oakland Raiders, who had a good time in New Orleans the week before the game while Vermeil kept the Eagles virtually locked up in their hotel.

But there was more significance to Levy skipping the Photo Day session than just being another uptight coach.

It was another example of coaches ignoring league rules on dealing with the media.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has failed to do anything about enforcing the rules on media access, so the coaches figure they can ignore them. Levy, for example, opens his locker room in Buffalo only one day a week. That's a violation of league policy, but the league ignored it.

As a lawyer who fancies himself as a CEO who deals with legal and financial matters, Tagliabue has shown little interest in dealing with media matters.

Until he does, the coaches will continue to ignore league directives.


If today's game is a close one, it will fuel the debate about whether the two-week break between the conference championship game and the Super Bowl has contributed to all the blowouts.

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