MIAMI — It was a call to glory for all of them, as loud as a siren, as unmistakable as their signature. Fourth quarter. Trailing by three. The Super Bowl, the championship of the world on the line.
Wake up, men.
And here they came, under the full-moon over Miami. The quarterback, Joe Cool, standing in the middle of the war, picking out his receivers, guiding the drive. The running back, Roger Rabbit, cutting left and right, making the clutch catches in the flat. The receiver, Hail Jerry, awaiting the drop of the ball into his arms, as always, somehow, one miracle after another.
Down the field they marched, the team of the 80s, as if someone had reminded them that the decade was about up, that this was it, center stage. And all they did was move 92 yards in the final three minutes of the perhaps the greatest Super Bowl game played, culminating with a bullet strike from Joe
(Cool) Montana to the least of all expected receivers, John Taylor, a guy who sells cars in the off-season, with just 34 seconds left to go.
“It took a totally team effort,” said Rice, who was named the MVP of the 20-16 Super Bowl XXIII victory. And why correct his English? Totally team. Yeah. And thank goodness. For on this Sunday night, they were football’s saving grace. Just when you thought there was no way this Super Bowl game could ever live up to its billing — well, did you watch? Then you know what we’re talking about.
What a weird, wacky and ultimately wonderful contest! It was a game without a touchdown for the first 30 minutes. A game in which two players were seriously injured and finished for the day within the first eight minutes. A game in which the biggest touchdowns would be scored by kick returners.
It was a game of strangled emotion, force butting heads with resistance, Cincinnati surges then dies, San Francisco surges then pulls back, then suddenly a flash of brilliance, a score, then back to the pits.
It was a game that featured the famed no-huddle offense of the Bengals, yet which saw the 49ers forsaking the huddle in the final minutes. And how they did it! Montana, criticized earlier in the year, benched, told he was washed up, proving that when the big one is on the line, he’s the guy you want. Montana is now 3-0 in Super Bowls.
And what of Rice? Wow! He caught 11 passes for 215 yards, enough work for two men. He caught them over his shoulder, on the edge of his fingertips, in his chest, in someone else’s chest. What a performance! And this, from a guy who had an injured ankle all week and didn’t practice (although he did find time to dance).
And in the end, it was Bill Walsh, the silver-haired coach in perhaps his last game, walking off arm-in-arm with Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche, his former assistant. Fitting. Because they both had a lot to do with this one. The underdog bites back
Here was a game that was supposed to be one-sided, an exercise in 49ers superiority. The AFC had lost the last four of these January extravaganzas and, considering the level of competition in that conference this season, there was no reason to suspect otherwise this time. “We’re just lucky to be here,” Wyche would say all week long, playing up on his underdog status.
And yet they played beyond that. Here was a team that came back from a 4-11 season last year and almost went all the way to the throne. “We were 34 seconds away,” said a disappointed Wyche afterwards. “Thirty-four seconds. We’ll never forget this feeling.”
This was the kind of spirit the Bengals were operating under: Tim Krumrie, their all-star nose tackle, was wounded in the first quarter, broke two bones in his leg, had to be wheeled off the field. They wanted to fly him to a hospital to set the leg. No dice, he said. He was staying put. And when the Bengals came into the locker room at halftime, they found Krumrie, lying on the table, just waiting to urge them on. Stanford Jennings, a back-up running back, returned a kick 93 yards for Cincinnati. Jim Breech, the shortest guy on the field, kicked three field goals. They held the lead until the final minute. They believed they could win it. And yet a poor performance by Boomer Esiason, their quarterback, and a defense that was weakened without Krumrie — who no doubt would have put pressure on Montana down that final stretch — all that did the Bengals in. Thirty-four seconds short.
No Ickey Shuffle.
No Bengal mania.
Thirty-four seconds. The signatures of victory
So once again, in a San Francisco-Cincinnati Super Bowl, these were the signatures of victory: Montana scrambling, eyeing the field, finding the fullback or the halfback or the wide receiver or whoever was open and unexpected: Rice yanking in a pass over his shoulder, one-handed, as if the ball was buzzing and his hands were flypaper; Craig, a man who travels with his own medical staff, taking the licking and keeping on ticking, cuts and jukes and charges for precious yards.
They were all there in that final drive — as was Taylor for the touchdown catch. In the days and years to come, people will hail those final three minutes as perhaps the greatest clutch moments in a championship game.
Good. Make it as big as you want. For here was the culmination of an exhausting seven days for the national heartbeat. Not only was this the week that George Bush, the new president, was sworn into office, the week that Miami exploded again with racial violence, shooting and lootings and hatred and flames, the week that a crazed man went on a killing spree in a northern California school, slaying five children, not only was all that taking place, but we were being asked to prepare for a 3-D halftime show, an animated commercial game between beer bottles, Spuds MacKenzie, Billy Joel, Burt Reynolds and a character named Elvis Presto. This may finally have been the year that the Super Bowl outgorged itself in excess — particularly in light of all the other things that mirrored it. So it needed a great game to justify its fatness.
That it got. Finally, a game that didn’t leave you snoring by the third quarter. Finally a game where they could still be discussing strategy in the final minutes instead of Gatorade tossing.
Finally a game that reminded you why they play this crazy thing in the first place. The best against the best. Down to the wire. Forty-Niners, the team of the 80s, in a squeaker. Nice going, men. This one was really super. CUTLINES
San Francisco 49er Roger Craig is airborne Sunday after catching a Joe Montana pass for a first down in the first quarter of the Super Bowl.
A San Francisco 49ers fan makes it clear who he wants to win Super Bowl XXIII on Sunday between the 49ers and the Cincinatti Bengals in Miami.