Remember September? Cunningham tries to reclaim early form 49ers may offer vulnerable defense

November 29, 1992|By Mark Bowden | Mark Bowden,Knight-Ridder News Service

In any ordinary world, in a more ordinary football season, today's game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles at Candlestick Park would be billed as a head-to-head contest between two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

The playoff-bound 49ers (9-2) feature left-handed Steve Young, a scrambling 31-year-old quarterback with a deadly arm who has completed 66 percent of his passes this sea- son, has run for 438 yards and tops the league rankings at his position.

The Eagles (7-4) feature Randall Cunningham, third-ranked quarterback in the NFC, who, at 29, is counted as one of the game's superstars. He's completed 60 percent of his passes so far this season and has rushed for 314 yards.

But despite statistics and reputation, Young and Cunningham are playing in a state of siege.

Cunningham was benched two weeks ago in favor of backup veteran Jim McMahon, and is still hanging on to his job week-to-week as he fights his way through one of the longest slumps of his career. He complained again Friday about coach Rich Kotite's offensive system, which he says prevents him from playing the wide-open, passing-running game that gave him the best season of his career in 1990 (when Kotite was offensive coordinator).

"You've got to be allowed to make the big plays," Cunningham said. "You can't make big plays if the system isn't designed to let you."

Young still is trying to step out from under 49ers great Joe Montana, who casts a long shadow from the sidelines now that his throwing elbow has healed and he says he's ready to play.

Instead of a head-to-head quarterback battle, today's game features two talented athletes who can't seem to win any respect. A big game for either likely would mean victory for their teams, and could go a long way toward vindication.

Cunningham didn't sound hopeful Friday.

"What do you think is the best blocking scheme for me?" he asked. "To get everybody out of the backfield and have five linemen in front of me, or to leave people back there to protect me? If you ask me, get everybody out of there. No question about it. They should have a route and be out. The advantage is that it leaves gaps, so that when things break down -- pheww, I'm gone . . . 1990-style."

Kotite has worked to use Cunningham's passing skills more than his running ability, and tends to keep running backs and tight ends in close to help protect him and give him more time to throw. Cunningham had remarkable success with Kotite's schemes earlier this season. He was named the NFC Player of the Month in September after leading the Eagles to a 4-0 start and completing better than 70 percent of his passes.

Since then, the numbers and Cunningham's enthusiasm have dropped precipitously. Over the past six games he has played, he has completed 53 percent of his passes. He threw eight touchdown passes and one interception in his first four games; in the past six games he has played, there have been seven touchdown passes and eight interceptions.

"I'm doing the best I can with what I'm being asked to do," Cunningham said, but he left no doubt that he feels he could play better if Kotite would let him play the way he wants to play.

The game is not a crucial one for either team. San Francisco virtually is assured of a playoff berth already. A win today will enable the 49ers to stay in first place in the NFC West, even if the New Orleans Saints (8-3) beat the Miami Dolphins. A win today will enhance the Eagles' already strong chance of qualifying for one of the three NFC wild-card playoff berths, and solidify their second-place position behind the Cowboys (10-2) in the NFC East.

Despite their winning ways, San Francisco has been one of the most vulnerable teams on defense. The 49ers rank last in defending against the pass, and fourth in the league at stopping the run.

"The statistics are always misleading," Kotite said last week. "In this case, they are particularly misleading. San Francisco's defense has never gotten the credit they deserve, even when they were winning Super Bowls. They are 9-2. They stop a lot of people. They are playing very disciplined defense; their run defense is excellent. They have a very strong and powerful front four, and they're playing well enough to win."

Linebacker Tim Harris, whom San Francisco acquired from the Green Bay Packers last year at midseason, is the 49ers' most potent rushing threat.

"We have to be aware of where he's lined up on every play," said Kotite. Harris has nine sacks this season; he's tied with four others (the Eagles' Reggie White among them) for fifth place in sack totals in the NFC.

On offense, the 49ers are explosive. They lead the league in rushing yards, with Young and first-year running back Ricky Watters, who has gained 965 yards already this season. Watters averages 5.1 yards per carry.

The Eagles enter the game ranked 14th in offense and 10th in defense. Cunningham's slump has left them at 26th in NFL standings for passing, a statistic that might have a good chance of rebounding -- along with Cunningham -- against San Francisco's vulnerable defensive secondary.

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