Monday, October 9, 1989


By Mike Weaver
San Jose Mercury News

As jugglers, the 49ers need practice.

In a 24-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome on Sunday, the Niners (4-1) were credited with two touchdowns that could have been taken away because of juggling acts by wide receivers John Taylor and Jerry Rice.

Rice's catch, in fact, would have been reversed by the replay official -- had the official had a chance to do so. The official, Gaylor Bryan, said he would have ruled that Rice dropped the ball as he reached the end zone in the third quarter.

''While we were looking at it, the next play got off," Bryan said. "As soon as the play goes, we're out of it. We can't go back. If we could have gotten down to them, we could have made a ruling on it."

Taylor's TD catch was less controversial, although it lifted the Niners to the victory. His 32-yard reception of a pass from quarterback Joe Montana with 8 minutes, 4 seconds to go put the Niners in the lead 24-20 and helped keep them within one game of the first-place Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West. But on the play, Saints cornerback Toi Cook hit Taylor immediately and knocked the ball away.

The officials on the field ruled Taylor had possession in the end zone before losing the ball. The play was then reviewed by replay officials, who agreed despite the vocal disapproval of the 60,488 in attendance.

''We wanted to make sure that he had a catch, that he had both feet down, and that the ball crossed the goal line before he lost it," Bryan said. "That's why we confirmed their call."

Taylor said the call was correct, but Cook wasn't so sure.

''I thought I had made the play," Cook said. "Before he could bring the ball down to his body, I had stripped it away."

Taylor's view was slightly different.

''All you've got to do is come down with both feet, and that's what I did," he said. "After that, he ripped it out."

Earlier, Rice survived a rotten piece of juggling to score a touchdown.

With six minutes left in the third quarter, Rice beat rookie cornerback Robert Massey and caught a 60-yard touchdown pass from Montana. Rice dropped the ball as he reached the end zone but was credited with the touchdown before replay officials could review the play to decide whether he crossed the goal line before losing the ball.

Bill Barron, who provides the communication between the field and replay officials, said he contacted Bryan after Rice's touchdown to let Bryan know that the play "looked a little suspicious." But Barron said he wasn't able to get word to the field before Niners kicker Mike Cofer made the extra point.

Bryan said his replay indicated that Rice did lose the ball before reaching the end zone, but Rice disputed that.

''I'm sure I crossed the goal line before I dropped it," Rice said. "I was getting ready to raise the ball up and I just dropped it. That will never happen to me again."

Rice said he watched the replay on the Superdome screen when he returned to the bench and thought the angle on the replay he saw was deceptive.

''From that angle, it looked like I might have dropped it," he said. "But that was a bad angle."

For a while, it appeared that the Niners might drop the game. Although they took a 3-0 lead when Cofer made a 41-yard field goal with 9:49 left in the first half, the Niners trailed by as much as 17-3 in third quarter before rallying. ''They battled us every inch of the way," Niners Coach George Seifert said. "But at the same time, our club showed a tremendous amount of heart."

The Saints (1-4) took a 7-3 lead when tight end Hoby Brenner caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bobby Hebert with 1:12 remaining in the half. The TD was set up by a pass- interference call against cornerback Don Griffin. Morten Andersen stretched the Saints' lead to 10-3 when he made a 49- yard field goal with five seconds left in the half.

Andersen's field goal came four plays after Saints defensive end James Geathers had recovered a fumble by Montana at the Niners' 38-yard line. Montana fumbled when he was hit by linebacker Pat Swilling.

Cofer missed a 44-yard field-goal try on the Niners' first possession of the second half, and the Saints moved ahead 17-3 when Hebert and Dalton Hilliard connected on a 19-yard touchdown pass with 7:29 left in the third quarter.

But then the Niners began to come back. After Rice caught his 60-yard touchdown pass, Montana and Taylor connected on a 21-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the fourth quarter to move the Niners into a 17-17 tie.

Andersen gave the Saints a 20-17 lead with a 39-yard field goal with 10:30 to go, but the Niners answered with Taylor's second touchdown.

''The thing about us is, we keep fighting," said Rice, who caught seven passes for 149 yards. "We never feel we're out of a ballgame."

The Saints were still in the game when they drove to the Niners' 19-yard line after getting possession of the ball with 4:10 to go, but Niners cornerback Eric Wright preserved the victory by breaking up a fourth-and-nine pass in the end zone. Hebert was throwing to Brett Perriman on a slant pattern, but Wright dived in front of Perriman and knocked the ball away.

''He came inside the end zone and I tried to get my body between him and the ball," Wright said.

Wright also said he could have been called for pass interference on the play because he had his left hand on Perriman's side.

''I thought I was going to get flagged on the play," Wright said. "It was real close."

Montana, who completed 21 of 29 passes for 291 yards and the three touchdowns, said the Niners are becoming accustomed to coming from behind. So far, they have had to do it in every game this season.

''We know what we can do," Montana said. "We've been there a few times. We have a lot of character on this ballclub. When we get in a situation like that, we never give up."

The outcome spoiled a big day for Hebert, who completed 31 of 49 passes for 308 yards and the two touchdowns.