Monday, December 24, 1990

49ERS' DEPTH CHARGES MISFIRE

By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News Staff Writer

It probably wasn't on their lists to Santa, but the 60,012 who ventured to frozen Candlestick Park on Sunday afternoon received a dubious gift: a glimpse into the future.

Anyone who has wondered what the two-time defending Super Bowl champions will be like when quarterback Joe Montana, running back Roger Craig and free safety Ronnie Lott are no longer Niners may have found out watching the New Orleans Saints eke out a 13-10 victory.

It was an unexpected preview. It had been announced that Lott and Craig would be held out to rest injuries, what with the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs already in pocket.

Montana, however, was scheduled to start and play at least half the game before giving way to backup Steve Young. But Montana was held out because of a strained lower abdominal muscle sustained last week against the Los Angeles Rams, an injury Montana did not report until Saturday night, a team source said.

''If he doesn't complain about it, we don't know about it," trainer Lindsy McLean said through a team spokesman, explaining why Montana didn't appear on the team's injury reports this week.

Seifert learned of Montana's injury Saturday night and made the decision then not to play him, the source said. Contradicting a report by CBS television commentator John Madden, several 49ers said Montana did not have his uniform on before the decision was made.

Montana, asked about the injury as he hurried out of the locker room, said, "Ask the doctors." Team physicians Michael Dillingham and James Klint were not available for comment.

Madden, who also mistakenly cited Montana's injury as a strained groin muscle during the telecast, apparently wasn't the only one confused about the nature of the quarterback's malady. Saints Coach Jim

Mora said he had heard before the game that Montana was sick and would not play.

With Montana expected to share time with Young, Mora said the Saints prepared for both quarterbacks, anyway.

''It's just a matter of emphasis," Mora said. "With Young, you have to account more for his running. . . . But the game plan doesn't really change from one to the other."

Not so the psychological edge. The Saints (7-8) used the absence of Montana, along with Craig and Lott, as a rallying point.

''If the Niners go without Montana, Craig and Lott," Saints defensive back Toi Cook said, "we've got to come away with a win."

Conversely, Montana's teammates were deflated when it was announced their leader wouldn't be playing.

''I think a lot of guys were really surprised when they found out Joe wasn't going to suit up," said nose tackle Pete Kugler. "And, honestly, I think there was a little letdown. There shouldn't have been, because we've always struggled with New Orleans, They've always given us a real tough game. Maybe we didn't take it as seriously as we should have."

Young did. His performance showcased the versatility that has earned him recognition as the league's best backup quarterback -- and a $1.1 million a year contract, which expires after this season -- by completing 22 of 37 passes for 208 yards and rushing eight times for 102 yards.

In fact, the outcome was hardly foreseeable when Young moved the Niners (13-2) 67 yards on their first possession, which ended with fullback Tom Rathman diving behind guard Guy McIntyre into the end zone with 7:14 left in the first quarter.

''Against these guys, I tried to use all my facilities," Young said.

The mistake the Niners' coaching staff may have made was in not preparing a game plan better suited to Young, who had made only four cameo appearances this season and thrown only one pass (a 14-yard completion).

In staying with the plan they had intended to use with Montana, Seifert said, "we might've stretched (Young) a bit at times."

But Young appeared poised to do a worthy impression of a Montana last-minute-game-winning drive until rookie running back Dexter Carter fumbled the ball on a draw play at the Saints' 20 with 53 seconds remaining.

Linebacker Rickey Jackson subsequently recovered the ball at the 23 to keep the Saints' playoff hopes alive. A win next week against the Rams at home, combined with a loss by the Dallas Cowboys, would earn them the sixth and final NFC playoff berth.

''That's a simple thing that we do all the time," Young said of the final draw play. "It's not unusual. And I didn't feel anything unusual happen."

The problem may have been that Carter didn't feel anything at all. "As far as I know," he said, "I didn't ever have the ball."

Whatever the reason, it was a disappointing return to the past for Carter, who also killed a second-quarter drive with a fumble at the Niners' 46. His inability to hold onto the ball in preseason limited him to returning kickoffs until nearly midseason. In recent weeks, however, the 5-foot-8, 168-pound rookie had demonstrated a tight grip and a swift gait, rushing for a team season-high 124 yards against the Rams last Monday. Craig's injury didn't seem such a burden then.

Then again, Carter wasn't alone Sunday. Young, after being sacked hard by Jackson, and tight end Brent Jones, crunched after catching a pass over the middle, also lost fumbles to the Saints.

''It was not a good performance at all," Seifert said. "We put too much pressure on our defense."

The defense responded by intercepting two of Steve Walsh's passes and limiting the Saints' quarterback tandem of Walsh and John Fourcade to 10 completions in 30 attempts for 120 yards.

''I thought the defense played OK," linebacker Charles Haley said.

The only blatant error came when linebacker Bill Romanowski failed to look back for the ball while covering tight end Greg Scales on an end-zone pattern, which resulted in Scales' catching a 5-yard pass from Walsh to tie the score 7-7 with 57 seconds left in the first quarter.

Carter's fumble on the Niners' ensuing possession set up the Saints' first field goal, Morten Andersen's 30-yarder that put them ahead 10-7. Mike Cofer tied it 10-10 with a 30-yarder early in the fourth quarter.