Monday, November 4, 1991


By Mike Antonucci
San Jose Mercury News

SPARE ME the tears. If anything was out of place Sunday, it was 49ers fans crying in their beers.

The Atlanta Falcons were awful, and the 49ers were more awful. Worse, it was surprising that the Falcons were awful. The 49ers, however, are capable of stinking it up anywhere, any weekend.

The miracle play that gave Atlanta a 17-14 victory over the 49ers is going to make a great excuse for people who can't face what the 49ers have become, which is an ordinary team.

''Nyah, nyah, Atlanta was lucky. It was a fluke play, man, a freak play." That's the kind of bleating and bleeding that will constitute the case for the 49ers' defense.

If only there had been a bit better defense on the play.

Falcons receiver Andre Rison, who insisted he got a hand on the ball before it plopped into the grasp of Michael Haynes, referred to the obvious -- that the San Francisco defensive backs seemed to think a Hail Mary pass meant it was their job to pray. Don Griffin and Johnnie Jackson led the congregation to the end zone, but they were lost souls when they got there.

''They gave me time to get into position for the tip," Rison said. "They should have gone up sooner and batted it down."

Kevin Fagan, back on the 49ers' defensive line after missing four games with an ankle injury, called the outcome 'tragic."

In fact, it was justice. If it's not one kind of Justice in this city, it's another.

The 49ers didn't deserve to win. Lonnie Smith couldn't blow as many scoring chances as they had if he plays in the World Series every year.

And the defense sank to the occasion when it counted most.

In the first half, the 49ers missed four field-goal attempts. The first was blocked; you can't hang that on kicker Mike Cofer. On the next three, he hit the right upright and missed to the left from 32 and 47 yards. Remember, it was a three-point game.

You want to talk lucky? The 97-yard touchdown play on a second-quarter catch by John Taylor materialized because Scott Case and Tim McKyer knocked each other down after bracketing the 49ers receiver in their coverage. It wasn't a Hail Mary, but there must have been angel in the vicinity.

In the second half, with Steve Young sidelined by a knee injury, the 49ers' offense became even less productive, and the defense found itself vulnerable for the second time this season to an Atlanta running back who came off the bench to control the game's momentum. In last month's 39-34 loss, it was Steve Broussard who did the damage. This time it was Mike Rozier.

On the Falcons' first touchdown drive, Rozier ran for 35 of his 55 yards and made first downs in fourth-and-one, third-and- one and third-and-two situations.

The only person who runs like that on the 49ers is Young, who converted two third downs by rushing before paying he price for having to fill that kind of role. Those were the only two third downs the 49ers converted by rushing, and there were some notable failures. Harry Sydney failed twice in the second quarter on third-and-one.

Despite that problem, the 49ers' offense also was strangely conservative. If CBS analyst Hank Stram mentioned once that the 49ers ought to be challenging Deion Sanders' gimpy leg, he must have mentioned, oh, a few dozen times.

Still, the 49ers had Taylor, full of grace. And he did beat Sanders with less than a minute to go for a 30-yard touchdown reception from Young's replacement, Steve Bono. That should have been the winning TD.

But Billy Joe Tolliver, who had moved in at quarterback for Atlanta when Chris Miller was injured, led the Falcons back against the 49ers' defense that Charles Haley can't stand to see insulted.

On fourth-and-six at the Atlanta 37, Tolliver convinced Atlanta Coach Jerry Glanville that he was the reincarnation of Bobby Layne by dodging charging defenders and firing a great sideline pass to Rison to the 49ers' 44.

The miracle play to Haynes came two downs later.

So, add Tolliver's name to a list that includes Jeff Hostetler, Wade Wilson, Jay Schroeder and Miller. Those are the quarterbacks who have beaten the 49ers this season.

Now there's something to cry over.