Monday, October 29, 1990


By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News

The distinction between being unbeaten and unbeatable is the same as being good or great. As Ronnie Lott sees it, the 49ers are a good, unbeaten team. And nothing more.

Mike Cofer's 45-yard field goal with five seconds left clinched their 20-17 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Candlestick Park. That pushed their unbeaten streak to 15 games, including seven this season. The 7-0 start, their best since they joined the NFL in 1950, keeps them even with the New York Giants, who remained the league's other undefeated team by beating the Washington Redskins 21-10.

In certain respects, however, the Niners may be worse off than before. They lost wide receiver Mike Sherrard for six to eight weeks to a broken right ankle on the game-turning play. And, as Lott sees it, their overall performance against the Browns reflected a step backward.

It has been 343 days since the two-time defending Super Bowl champions last tasted defeat, and Lott says it's beginning to show.

''I'll tell you this right now, we're not a good football team," the Niners' safety said. "All this stuff about going undefeated is bull. All this stuff about being in a race with the Giants is bull. If you can't put teams away, you're not that great."

The 49ers couldn't put away the Browns (2-6). They had a comfortable 14-0 lead at halftime and led 17-3 after three quarters. But with quarterback Joe Montana having his most errant game of the season -- 20 incompletions in 37 attempts, including two interceptions -- the Niners' offense produced a mere two field goals in the second half.

Cofer punched his second field goal through a swirling wind for the winning points.

''I felt like we handled the end of the game well," Niners Coach George Seifert said. "We took some risks, but the players came through and executed when they had to make the plays."

But Cofer's field goal was arguably one of only two big plays the Niners made in the second half. Sherrard's 35-yard reception, which moved the ball from the Niners' 24 to Cleveland's 41, was the other.

It also resulted in Sherrard's breaking a bone in his leg for the third time since the Dallas Cowboys made him their No. 1 draft pick in 1986. This break -- a simple fracture several inches from the lower end of the fibula -- had nothing to do with the previous two, team doctor Michael Dillingham said. But that offers little solace to Sherrard or his teammates.

Personal reality

''To see me at the end of the game, I was so excited that I jumped up and rolled around on the ground," said left tackle Bubba Paris. "But for him, it was the beginning of a personal reality. The reality that this may be it for him . . . the reality that he'll have to go through the pain and suffering he went through before."

Paris also noted this reality: "When you go down, someone else goes up and the games goes on."

So it did for the Browns, who may have saved embattled Coach Bud Carson's job with their second-half surge. Their comeback was built on a number of big plays, perhaps the biggest being Carson's decision to replace starting quarterback Bernie Kosar with Mike Pagel. Cofer's first field goal, a 40-yarder, had restored the Niners' 14-point lead with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter when Carson made the switch.

''We made our mind up before the game that if we got bogged down, we would do it," Carson said.

Pagel provides lift

Pagel, who is far more mobile than Kosar, completed 13 of 21 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns, the first an 11-yard scoring pass to Webster Slaughter.

An interception by Felix Wright three plays earlier had given the Browns the ball at the Niners' 27.

Tight end Ozzie Newsome dived to catch a 4-yard scoring pass from Pagel that made it 17-17 with 70 seconds left.

Those were all big plays, at a time when the Niners should have been closing the door.

''That brought some life to them," nose tackle Michael Carter said of Pagel's entrance. "Normally, when you lose your starting quarterback or you sit him on the bench, the offense will give up if you get some hits on them. But it didn't happen that way. Pagel started running around and made a few plays, and they got their heads up."

Carter maintained that the Browns' comeback had more to do with the Niners' lackluster play than Cleveland's sparkle.

''I think a lot of it fell on our shoulders," he said. "We weren't getting the job done. On offense, we weren't getting the first downs, and on defense we weren't covering guys and we were giving the quarterback time."

That wasn't the case in the first half. The Niners sacked Kosar three times and scored two second-quarter touchdowns, the first on a 14-yard pass to wide receiver Jerry Rice. Tom Rathman followed guard Guy McIntyre into the end zone to complete the Niners' next drive for Touchdown II.

''Obviously it becomes bittersweet because of the loss of Mike," Seifert said. "He's been a great receiver for us. I felt like with him and Jerry Rice and John Taylor that we had the three best receivers in football. To lose him is a dramatic thing. Now the other fellows have to step forward. They have to step forward and play big."

That's been the problem, Lott said -- no one's playing big, or making big plays. The solution?

''No. 1, stop reading the (newspaper) clippings," Lott said. "No. 2, don't worry about going undefeated. No. 3, don't worry about who's going to win the division. You have to focus on getting better today. You can't focus on all these other things that other people want to talk about."