49ers can't cover spread of shortcomings


SAN FRANCISCO -- Once, they were the mighty 49ers, a perennial Super Bowl contender, the most admired franchise in the NFL.

Now they're a team in such decline, the coach resorts to cheap psychological stunts to inflate his players' egos.

The Niners can't beat Dallas, can't beat Green Bay, can't even blow out the Ravens. So yesterday, they called time out with an 11-point lead, the ball on the Ravens' 4-yard line and just over a minute remaining.


Because coach George Seifert wanted to make certain they'd score.

"I felt it was a tonic the club needed," he said.

A tonic?

Since when do the Niners need a tonic?

Uh, since Steve Young suffered his second concussion in three weeks and Mayor Willie Brown called Elvis Grbac "an embarrassment to humankind."

At least the Niners feel all better knowing that Grbac scored on a 1-yard run with 16 seconds left to cap a 38-20 victory over the Ravens.

They puffed out their chests.

They released their frustrations.

And, oh yes, they covered the 12-point spread.

Maybe they found out Mayor Brown bet the Ravens.

They showed that Brown. They showed the former Browns. They showed Buster Brown, Charlie Brown, James Brown and Downtown Julie Brown, too.

But guess what?

They proved nothing.

The Niners are 8-3, but they're not going to the Super Bowl.

For heaven's sake, they trailed the Ravens by three points early in the third quarter, and let's not hear about how the rain at 3Com Park slowed down their vaunted offense.

The old Niners didn't care about rain. They didn't blow 10-point leads at home. And they didn't need to score an extra touchdown against a 3-8 opponent to boost their pride.

"It has nothing to do with our respect for Baltimore," Seifert said. "Under normal circumstances, we would have knelt on the ball. But it was something our club needed at this particular time."

Actually, San Francisco needs a healthy Young, a new offensive line and a secondary receiver to complement Jerry Rice, but never mind.

The new-age Niners are working on their self-esteem.

"It was kind of like the coaches throwing me a bone," Grbac said. "With everything going on this week, it was kind of like, 'Here's your touchdown, go ahead and score.'

"I heard some of the Baltimore players say they'd remember it. Hopefully, it won't come back to haunt us."

Actually, the Ravens didn't seem too upset -- when you're 0-6 on the road, you've got other problems.

"That's football," defensive tackle James Jones said. "We could have tried to do something about it by stopping 'em."

Of course, that was too much to ask for a team that has allowed 34 points per game since Oct. 6.

The defense can take pride knowing that the Niners wouldn't have made it to 25 without a defensive touchdown and their last-minute "tonic."

A touchdown against the Ravens.

What an accomplishment.

"I think it was a good decision by George," tight end Brent Jones said. "It says to the players, 'Hey, we're going to stand up and be aggressive.'

"I felt our play-calling in this game was as aggressive as it has been all year. He wanted to top it off.

"It's not something where we're worried about people's feelings. We're going to be aggressive from here on out, and not worry what everyone else thinks."

That's a rational approach to the irrational mind-set in the Bay area, where the Niners are expected to go to the Super Bowl every year.

But seriously, how much will Grbac's touchdown matter next week when the 49ers visit the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium?

What matters is that San Francisco rushed for only 110 yards yesterday against the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL.

What matters is that Rice has now gone six straight games without a 100-yard day.

Grbac completed 26 of 31 passes for 268 yards yesterday, but he also threw two interceptions, and his teammates lost two fumbles.

Want to know the truth?

The outcome could have been far different if the Ravens hadn't lost quarterback Vinny Testaverde early in the second quarter.

The Niners, at least, understand that problem.

Young has missed all or part of eight games. Grbac is good, but not as good. And the deficient running game makes his task that much more difficult.

Chances are, Young will start against Washington, but who's to say he'll be his normal All-Pro self? And who's to say he won't get injured again?

"It's something we'll give an awful lot of thought to," Seifert said. "He is our quarterback. We expect him to be our quarterback next year. There's a lot of future to think about. We're not just thinking about the next ballgame."

How can they?

The Niners have problems.

Big problems.

Problems a phony last-minute touchdown won't resolve.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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