49ers not ripe for '69-vintage upset

January 19, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Maybe Stan Humphries will turn into Joe Namath, Steve Young into Earl Morrall, Natrone Means into Matt Snell.

Maybe Jerry Rice will find himself all alone in the end zone, jumping up and down and waving his arms like Jimmy Orr.

Several former Baltimore Colts believe it's possible -- it happened to them, didn't it? But times have changed, and so has the Super Bowl.

"When we played, it was only the third Super Bowl, and the first two weren't sold out," safety Rick Volk recalled yesterday. "It was sort of a new thing.

"It was an important game, but you didn't realize how important until you lost it. We had a lot different attitude the next time, in Super Bowl V. And this is No. 29.

"It's gotten to be a big thing, a huge thing. I don't think anybody is going to overlook anybody. I'm not saying we overlooked the Jets. But the atmosphere was different."

Indeed, there's no question the Super Bowl is a bigger deal now than it was then. The Jets' 16-7 upset in Miami was one reason it became so popular.

The Colts were favored by 18 points, the 49ers are favored by 19. But more than a quarter of a century has passed. The enormity of the game virtually ensures the 49ers won't lose.

Drained as they might be from beating Dallas for the NFC title, they understand the potential for embarrassment if they lose the Super Bowl as a prohibitive favorite.

The Colts had no clue. Volk said the atmosphere before Super Bowl III was comparable to that of the Playoff Bowl, the consolation game the NFL staged in those days for its conference runners-up.

"It was another game after the season," Volk said. "We were already the NFL champs -- that was the ultimate. Now, we were going down to play the Super Bowl against the AFL.

"It was more of a family-type thing. The wives stayed with us in our rooms the week before the game. We didn't have the same attitude and focus we had during the regular season.

"We treated it more like a vacation. We had distractions. We tried to do a lot of things besides practicing and talking about the game."

Both the Colts and Jets stayed at oceanfront hotels in Fort Lauderdale. In the days leading to the game, The Sun frequently ran pictures of players frolicking on the beach with their families.

"We thought our season was over after kicking the Browns' butts," linebacker Mike Curtis once said. "I couldn't believe all the women and kids running around our Florida hotel."

The Colts had beaten the Browns, 34-0, for the NFL title. Their record entering the Super Bowl was 15-1. Morrall, the season-long replacement for John Unitas, was the league MVP.

They were a team every bit as dominant as the 49ers, and the AFL was taken about as seriously as the AFC is today. In that sense, the parallels are too obvious to ignore.

"I tell people this: Ask Mike Tyson about Buster Douglas. Ask the Baltimore Colts -- all 40 of us -- about the damn New York Jets," offensive tackle Sam Ball said.

Or, as running back Tom Matte warned: "Check the history books, baby. Don't get overconfident. Things can happen that you never think will happen -- they did to us."

Ball, Matte and Unitas dispute Volk's notion that the Colts weren't adequately prepared. The problem, they said, was the way they played.

Morrall threw three first-half interceptions. Lou Michaels missed two field goals. Matte lost a fumble. And, Orr is still standing in the Orange Bowl end zone, wide-open.

Unitas replaced Morrall in the third quarter. He had missed most of the season with a sore arm. But to this day, Matte believes coach Don Shula should have made the change at halftime.

"Absolutely," Unitas said.

As Volk put it, "They played a perfect game, and we self-destructed." The same thing would need to happen for the Chargers to win.

"If they can get the game film out of archives, I'd show it to them," Ball said. "That ought to be one of their big motivational tools."

But would it make a difference? This isn't college basketball, where championship-game upsets are fairly common. In the Super Bowl, the better team almost always wins.

The Niners beat the Chargers by 23 points in their regular-season meeting. They also beat the Raiders by 30, the Broncos by 23, the Falcons by 36 and 39. The Chargers lost to each of those teams.

"To me, everything is leaning in San Francisco's direction," Unitas said. "But we certainly had the same type of situation. There's no way to say it can't happen again."

No, there isn't -- that's why they play the games. The Colts beat the Jets four straight times after moving to the AFC in 1970. It made the outcome of Super Bowl III seem all the more remarkable.

Why can't it happen again? Because the Niners, unlike the Colts 26 years ago, recognize what is at stake. If they slip now, everything -- even their emotional victory over Dallas -- will go to waste.

The Chargers' chances are slim and none. And slim already made an appearance, back in 1969.

@

SUPER BOWL XXIX

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS vs. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS Where: Joe Robbie Stadium, Miami

When: Jan. 29, 6 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: 49ers by 19

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