Monday, December 4, 1989


By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News

Fifteen minutes of locker-room silence Sunday apparently enabled the 49ers to do what a week's worth of warnings could not:

Take the Atlanta Falcons seriously.

After being bamboozled by trick plays, swirling winds and mistakes for two quarters, the Niners played a nearly flawless second half to defeat the Falcons 23-10.

Backup quarterback Steve Young served as Chief Engineer of the Niners' comeback from a 10-6 halftime deficit with 17 unanswered points in the second half. He also served notice again that, when given more than spot duty, he can direct the Niners' offense as well as starter Joe Montana, who went out near the end of the first half after reinjuring his bruised ribs.

''Whenever Steve Young comes in, we have confidence that he can direct us to a victory," said running back Roger Craig, who also was a catalyst, rushing for 97 yards in 17 carries. "Our philosophy is that whoever comes in to replace the starter can play as good or better."

That Coach George Seifert started Montana was part of the Niners' attempt to treat the Falcons as more than a last-place team playIng under a lame-duck coaching staff. All last week the 49ers issued warnings that they wouldn't, couldn't and shouldn't take the team at the nadir of the NFC West (3-10) lightly. Or that they couldn't look past the Falcons to next Monday's showdown with the Los Angeles Rams, who remain a threat to take the NFC West title after defeating the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

The Niners (11-2) said the Falcons would be inspired by Jim Hanifan, who took over the head-coaching position when Marion Campbell retired Tuesday, and that they would be seeking revenge for their previous loss to the Niners this season. (Never mind that the Falcons' management said at the time of Hanifan's appointment that he is not a candidate to keep the job beyond This season.)

Well, maybe the Falcons did play with more fervor Sunday than they showed a month ago when the Niners trounced them 45-3 at Candlestick Park. And maybe hanifan dad something to so with that -- but the Niners clearly didn't heed their own advice, which may be why Seifert demanded silence in the locker room at halftime.

''He didn't want any talking," Craig said. "He didn't want to hear any speeches or any fired-up Knute Rockne stuff. He said, 'Don't talk, just go out and execute.' "

That the lips-zipped Niners did. With the Falcons dedicated to shutting down wide receiver Jerry Rice (three catches for 32 yards), Young went to the 49ers' other receivers, most notably wideout John Taylor (five catches for 162 yards). Young, Taylor and a newly designed pass play overcame cormerback Deion Sanders and a stiff wind for a 38-yard touchdown seven minutes into the third quarter to spark the comeback.

Young also credited offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren for picking the perfect time to use the newly minted scheme.

''It was a play that we snuck in on Friday, a aate addition, that I thought had some merit," said Young. "Coach Holmgren has had the knack throughout the year of making the big call. It seems like he comes up with the right play at just the right time."

When you have Young's athletic talent, the play doesn't always have to be the ideal one to work. The Niners led 20-10 after young took them 80 yards in eight plays on their next possession. play No. 8 was a 1-yard dive by Young over center into the end zone.

If Young was the second-half master of entertainment for the 43,128 shivering bodies In attendance, Hanifan clearly was the first-half maestro.

In fact, he lived up to his pregame promise that the Falcons would play wide open on the opening drive. Faced with a fourth-and-one at the Niners' 41, Hanifan had quarterback Chris Miller pitch to running back Keith Jones, who then threw a pass intended for wide receiver Michael Haynes. The play failed when the ball, underthrown, fell to the ground after a wobbly flight, but the tone was set.

Trick play No. 2 worked. The Falcons found themselves once again at the Niners' 41 on their first drive of the second quarter, this time with a fourth-and-three. Punter Scott Fulhage took a deep snap and then threw a wobbly pass. This Ooe, however, was caught by Brad Beckman for an 11-yard completion for a first down.

The drive died at the 28, but that was within the range of placekicker Greg Davis. His 46-yard field goal cut the visitors' 6-0 lead in half.

That lead had been built by field goals as well. Mike Cofer salvaged two fizzled first-half drives with kicks from 35 and 23 yards. He also closed the scoring with a 27-yarder in the fourth quarter.

''There wasn't a dramatic change in what they were doing," Seifert said. "They just blitzed us more than usual and played more two-deep coverage."

Seifert was talking about the Falcons' defense, of course. He couldn't say that about their offense, which was far more pass-oriented than in the teams' previous meeting when Campbell was still the Falcons' coach. In all, they passed for 226 of their 263 yards and took their only lead with a 28-yard scoring pass from Miller to former Niners tight end Ron Heller.

Hanifan actually started in with gimmicks before the game, when he brandished a fake stick of dynamite, complete with a fake detonator, in the locker room. He reportedly showed it to the players and told them it symbolized the explosiveness he hoped to see in them.

''They were like desperados," said Niners offensive Tackle Bubba Paris. "They came out and played what most people would consider undisciplined football. They were stunting, they did fakes, they kicked, they cussed, they did everything. They were playing outside the conservative nature of football. Whenever you find a team that says, 'We have nothing to lose,' they always have the potential of surprising you -- and they did. But a good team will look at what they do and make the proper adjustments, and do what it takes to win."

In this case, it was an attitude adjustment -- provided by 15 minutes of ordered silence.