Monday, October 30, 1989


By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News

The 49ers' lead in the NFC West thickened Sunday even as their ranks thinned. The Niners, as expected, rolled over the New York Jets 23-10 in Giants Stadium for their seventh win -- and sixth on the road -- in eight games. Combined with the Los Angeles Rams' 20-10 loss to the Chicago Bears, the 49ers' division lead at the halfway point is two games strong.

But that adjective can't be used to describe their health. They were missing safeties Ronnie Lott and Jeff Fuller and quarterback Joe Montana when the game started. When it was over, the Niners had suffered five more injuries to key players. Four of the players may not be able to play next Monday against New Orleans at Candlestick Park: quarterback Steve Young (right ankle and knee injuries), linebacker Keena Turner (pulled calf), nose tackle Michael Carter (sprained right foot) and cornerback Darryl Pollard (concussion). Running back Roger Craig suffered a bruised hand, but that doesn't appear to be serious.

''Fortunately, the players that are replacing the injured ones have done an outstanding job," Coach George Seifert said.

The Niners also have gotten and will continue to get a break from the schedule. They haven't faced a team with a winning record since Oct. 1, and they play only one winner in the next five weeks, although that game, against the New York Giants on Nov. 27, could have a bearing on who gets the home-field advantage in the playoffs.

''It's obviously very bothersome losing the players that we're losing," Seifert said. "It's something that once we get into (practice this week) will not be an excuse, but at this time it's going to affect us."

Young, who started in place of Montana (sprained left knee), went down early in the second quarter when he was tackled by linebackers Troy Benson and Kyle Clifton after a 1-yard gain at the San Francisco 41. He returned to play later, but his status for next week is uncertain. The encouraging news for the Niners is that Seifert expects Montana to be ready by next week.

The Niners also can gain strength from the fact that replacements continue to fill in admirably. Case in point: Steve Bono, who came in for Young and completed 4 of 5 passes for 62 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Jerry Rice. That made the score 14-7 and gave the Niners the lead for good with 8 minutes, 17 seconds left in the first half. Rice made the catch by leaping between Jets defensive backs Erik McMillan and Bobby Humphery.

''It's our job to come up with the big plays," said Rice, who had five catches for 95 yards. "Steve Bono came in and put the ball downfield and made my job pretty easy for me. I knew I had to jump up and be aggressive and pull the ball in. If I had waited, they (the defensive backs) probably would've made a play on it."

Well, maybe. The fact was that there weren't many Jets (1-7) who successfully made plays of any kind Sunday. Even McMillan, a Pro Bowl player who scored the Jets' touchdown, was up for goat-of-the-game honors. Though he scooped up Roger Craig's fumble and returned it 45 yards to tie the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter, he also was burned on two Niners touchdown passes. The first occurred with 1:55 left in the first quarter when Young hit Brent Jones with a 10-yard scoring strike. The second was Rice's catch.

Rice's touchdown was the last of the game. After that, the scoring was limited to field goals. The Niners' Mike Cofer was 3 for 3 on kicks from 25, 41 and 40 yards. The Jets' Pat Leahy kicked a 24-yarder in his only attempt.

''We're just inconsistent," Jets offensive tackle Reggie McElroy said. "We haven't jelled yet, and it's the eighth game of the year. Why? I don't know why. . . . The game is to win, plain and simple. We're not doing that."

The 49ers, meanwhile, are doing that despite an injury list that grows each week.

''We go into every week with the sense we have to win," Young said. "There's an urgency with the way we play. . . . We're so scared of losing that we don't. I think that comes from the owner to the coach to everyone."

Turner attributed the team's success to high standards.

''What you've got to realize is you've got a team whose expectations from itself are very high," he said. "This team isn't just happy being 7-1. This team is complaining about it. We're one of the unhappiest 7-1 teams in the league. We're not complacent. We know that some weeks we're going to need our special teams to win it, some weeks we're going to need our defense to win it. Some weeks it's going to be our offense."

It was the defense Sunday. End Charles Haley led the charge, making a pregame speech to the team and then following with an equally inspiring on-field performance that included three sacks.

''He made the statement (to the team before the game) that it would be an all-out effort, and he was putting himself on the line," Seifert said.

Haley, however, was not alone. The Niners had nine sacks, four fewer than their total coming into the game.

Defensive back Tim McKyer also made a big contribution. McKyer wasn't expected to play much, what with him returning Monday from a suspension for what the Niners said was insubordination. But Seifert had little choice when Pollard went out because of a concussion in the first quarter.

''He played more than we planned because of Darryl Pollard's injury," Seifert said of McKyer. "I thought he handled himself well."

As for the two-game division lead, Seifert said: "That's something we really can't dwell on . . . because we're coming into the bulk of our division play now and some very difficult games."