SAN FRANCISCO -- She was a 40-something blonde, elegantly and expensively dressed for the inclement weather and occupying a front-row seat behind the San Francisco 49ers bench at Candlestick Park yesterday. Her hands rested on the shoulders of an 8-year-old boy as she rose, a symbol of cool California chic, to express her considered opinion on the events taking place before her.
"SEIFERT, YOU S !" she shouted. "YOU SHOULDA PUT IN JOE, YOU IDIOT!"
Should have put in Joe Montana for Steve Young, the lady meant. Should have turned the job of quarterbacking the 49ers to yet another Super Bowl to the fellow standing on the sidelines with his helmet on. Should have benched the league's Most Valuable Player who, one more time yesterday, reminded 49ers fans that he is not Joe Montana.
Montana would have never let this happen, of course.
Montana wouldn't have allowed fumbles by punt returner Alan Grant and running back Ricky Watters that led to Dallas' first 10 points, points that provided the Cowboys with the exact margin of their 30-20 victory.
Montana wouldn't have allowed the Cowboys to drive within striking distance on six consecutive drives -- during which they scored four touchdowns -- from early in the second quarter to late in the fourth.
Montana wouldn't have held the 49ers to 13 offensive plays in the first 23 minutes of the second half.
Montana wouldn't have allowed Dallas receiver Alvin Harper to run 70 yards unmolested late in the game after the 49ers had closed within four points. Montana would have tackled Harper himself. While standing on the sidelines, if necessary. Hey, he's Joe Montana.
Does it matter that Young completed 25 of 35 passes for 313 yards against the Cowboys? It does not.
Does it matter that Dallas gained 416 yards on the San Francisco defense? Nope.
Does it matter that the Cowboys unleashed Emmitt Smith after a slow start, got a wonderfully gutty game out of Troy Aikman and wore the 49ers down with their human wave defense in which fresh troops keep coming in from the sidelines? No, again.
Does it matter that the Cowboys are so strong, so confident and so very much on a roll that they will beat Buffalo senseless in the Super Bowl Jan. 31 in the Rose Bowl? Sorry.
All that matters is that Steve Young is not Joe Montana and that that the 49ers lost. It might not have made any difference, truth to tell, if the 49ers had won.
Shortly after the game, Montana performed what might well have been his last substantive act as a 49er. He split. His locker was empty. His car was somewhere on the highway. His release -- which would allow the 49ers to sign a high-salary free agent otherwise forbidden to the last eight remaining playoff teams -- may be imminent.
Montana's disappearance allowed the postgame throng of curiosity seekers to concentrate solely on Young, who manfully, mournfully, stood there and took it.
The plays that will come back to haunt Young the most in the days ahead -- and that will be pointed to most often by his critics -- are the two interceptions he threw in the fourth quarter. How can a man call himself a quarterback when he throws two interceptions in the fourth quarter? Montana's partisans will want to know.
But as Young pointed out, the first one, which was thrown right at Cowboys linebacker Ken Norton, really didn't hurt because Dallas didn't score. And when the 49ers got the ball back, Young quickly completed eight passes and immediately marched them 93 yards in 2:28 to narrow the score to 24-20.
"Norton's body was going in the other direction and I tried to throw the ball to Brent Jones," Young said. "Then I got hit and when I looked up I saw he wasn't going in that direction."
As to James Washington's interception with 1:58 left, it was a matter of desperation, of having to do something, anything, no matter how risky.
"You have to have the guts to go for it," agreed 49ers coach George Seifert. "You lay your butt on the line."
"I thought we could get the ball back and put the hammer on," Young said of his feelings after the 49ers' last touchdown drive, which culminated in a 5-yard scoring pass to Jerry Rice with 2:44 left to play. "We've done it a couple of times before and it looked like we were going to do it again, but they turned it around on us. When you get the momentum back and they go 80 yards on three plays, that's not good."
The 49ers' biggest problem, Young said, was that they kept trading field goals for touchdowns.
"There were a couple of big drives inside the 30 for us, but we had to kick field goals too many times," he said. "We moved the football, but in a big ballgame you can't trade three for seven. Those are the ones that are really going to come back to me, those third-down plays where we had to settle for field goals."
As for all the time in the second half when the 49ers offense stood around and watched -- San Francisco had the ball for only 4:20 in the third period -- Young said, "It's devastating when you don't touch the ball. It was 10-10 at the half and we really never saw the ball again, it seemed like."
Time to go now. Time to walk the lonely route out into the parking lot where his friends and family are waiting but most of the other fans will appear almost not to notice him. This is a response you cannot imagine ever waiting for Joe Montana.
"I think when you get to this point, when you know how hard it is, you just put your body and soul into it," Young said. "I feel like my soul and spirit are still out on the field trying to win a ballgame."
Which will never be enough, of course, for the people who cannot forgive him for not being Joe Montana.