Monday, October 2, 1989

RAMS CELEBRATE NOW,
BUT THE SEASON IS YOUNG

Column By Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News

STOP THE PRESSES. Someone finally has figured out a way to keep Joe Montana from winning a game in the last seconds:

You take away those last seconds, and then send him to his locker room without any supper.

That's what the Los Angeles Rams did Sunday. They recovered a 49ers fumble with 2 minutes, 59 seconds remaining, then milked the game clock to its last drops before kicking the winning field goal with two seconds left.

Consequently, Montana spent the game's final two minutes pacing impatiently behind the 49ers' bench, starving for a chance to perform his regularly scheduled weekly miracle. He never got the opportunity.

Rams 13, Niners 12.

''What we did," Rams Coach John Robinson said, "was kind of like the 49ers have done, driving the ball down at the end to win."

And my gosh and golly, weren't Robinson and his men pleased about it. The Rams weren't just routine Happy Lambs. They were veritable Screaming Sheep. Robert Delpino, one of their running backs, ran off the field blowing exaggerated kisses to the crowd. Several other Rams trotted off the turf yelling, "Yeah! Yeah!"

Willie Anderson, the L.A. wide receiver, waxed eloquent a few minutes later at his locker.

''We've been overshadowed by the 49ers in the 1980s, and rightfully so," Anderson said. "But now, we want to show ourselves -- plus America -- that we've arrived as one of the top dogs in the league."

Huh? Top dogs? Kisses to the crowd? If you didn't know better, you'd think the Rams had clinched a playoff spot. Robinson, still flushed and perspiring 10 minutes after the final gun, was trying to restrain himself in victory, with mixed results.

''The 49ers are the world champs, and this puts us in a position to play even with them the rest of the way," Robinson said. "It was quite an accomplishment holding them to no touchdowns. I don't know how long it's been since that's happened."

Memo to Coach John: It happened less than a year ago, in the 11th week of last season when the Raiders beat the Niners, 9-3.

And, as we all know, that game had about as much effect on the eventual Super Bowl picture as a canasta game between Zsa Zsa Gabor and her pet Chihuahua.

Let's step back and be reasonable here. The Rams' enthusiasm Sunday was understandable in one sense, because this was the first time they had held the 49ers without a touchdown since 1976. For the past decade, the Niners have been your basic Johnny Carson of the NFC West, while the Rams have been your basic Ed McMahon, forced to sit there on the couch and endure one unfunny joke after another.

Still. One football game does not change the order of the universe. Yes, the 49ers of this season are a team with flaws. But a one-point loss to the Rams doesn't suddenly turn the Screaming Sheep into Super Bowl material.

It took no deep thinker to analyze Sunday's result. Niners safety Ronnie Lott was out with a wrenched ankle. So was teeth- rattling defensive back Chet Brooks. This meant the Ram receivers were able to frolic downfield without worrying about any dislocated bones. Anderson somehow got behind everybody in a Niners uniform to catch a 65-yard touchdown pass.

Even before the football settled into Anderson's hands, you were thinking: "This never would have happened with Lott on the job."

Meanwhile, on offense, the 49ers were sorting out all their line changes of last week, caused by various defections, demotions and scientific experiments. Only two of the five starting Niners inside linemen -- center Jesse Sapolu and left tackle Bubba Paris -- were at the same work stations as a week ago. By the second half, Paris also was gone, because of a pulled groin.

Yet despite the ongoing shuffle and the sluggish first half it created, the Niners offense gained momentum as the game progressed. The 49ers easily out-rushed the Rams, in total yardage (152 to 37) and average per carry (4.6 to 1.9). The Niners were driving downfield to a clinching score when fullback Tom Rathman -- who, of course, had suggested two weeks ago that he wasn't getting the ball enough -- fumbled away the ball just 19 yards from the goal line.

Rams quarterback Jim Everett then calmly moved the Rams 72 yards into position for the winning kick. Both key passes in the drive were over the middle to tight end Pete Holohan, squarely in Lott's territory. This could explain why, of all the Rams, Everett was the least ready to jump on the "It's-Our-Turn-To-Win-The-West" bandwagon.

''I hope it's our turn, but I'm not foolish enough to say that," Everett said. "This was big for us today. But we realize they were missing some people in the secondary. And we've got a lot of games left."

Although the Niners' tailgate army will grumble, a defeat for the Niners at this point of the season might actually be a good thing, to eradicate any strains of overconfidence. Eric Wright, the veteran defensive back who's been around for all three Niners Super Bowls, listened to the Rams winning words and wasn't impressed. It wasn't that long ago the Saints were saying the same things.

''The Rams can say whatever they want," Wright said. "They won the game. But the season's early. We've got what? Twelve more games? They've got to see us again. And we've got to see them again."

And next time, what do you want to bet that Joe gets to eat supper?