Monday, October 21, 1991


By Bud Geracie
San Jose Mercury News

THIS was the kind of game George Seifert dreamed about -- not just last week, but for the last couple of years.

The 49ers ran the ball Sunday. They controlled the ball, controlled the game. They manhandled the opposition, offensively and defensively, and the result was an entirely representative 35-3 rout of the previously once-beaten Detroit Lions.

"Yes, smash-mouth football has finally arrived in San Francisco," Seifert said, jokingly.

But this is no joke: If the 49ers return to prominence, this is the game they'll look back on. This was a must-win game for the 49ers. More than that, it was a victory that reaffirmed Seifert's approach to winning football.

The 49ers ran the ball 54 times Sunday, for 233 yards. They controlled the ball for 45 of the 60 minutes. They took the ball away from Detroit twice, and they kept it, forever. The 49ers had four drives that went 10 plays or more; one went 16, another 15. They scored on five consecutive possessions. They never punted.

''If we had played this way all season," mused offensive- line coach Bobb McKittrick, "we'd be 7-0."

Two questions leap to mind:

Why were the 49ers suddenly able to run effectively, and, how good are the Detroit Lions?

Chris Spielman, the Lions' ferocious linebacker, did not take kindly to Question No. 2. "We're still tied for first (place)," he spat, "so I don't give a (dang) what the people at home say or what the newspapers write."

The Lions' 5-1 record entering play is unfathomable in the aftermath. Perhaps it was attributable to weak competition. Detroit's five victories came against teams with a combined record of 7-27. Detroit's only loss came against its only quality opponent -- Washington -- and the final score was 45-0.

Still, the Lions had the fourth-best rushing defense in the league, and the 49ers had their best day rushing in 27 games. What gives? What gave?

The Lions, clearly, didn't have the answer. There was no shortage of explanations in the 49ers' locker room, however.

''The key was the decision to keep Keith Henderson in the game, even after he fumbled," said offensive tackle Steve Wallace. Henderson fumbled on the Detroit 19 to kill the 49ers' opening drive, but, atypically, Seifert sent Henderson back into the huddle on the next possession and Henderson finished the day with 104 yards in 20 carries.

''We felt we could run the ball all year long, if we just stuck with one back," Wallace said.

To McKittrick, the key was simple: The 49ers made a decision to run the football and they stuck by that decision.

''We decided to be patient today," McKittrick said. Patience comes hard when you lack a star running back, McKittrick said, "but the way our defense plays -- with the exception of last week -- we can afford to be more patient offensively."

So the 49ers ran. And ran. And ran. The last time they ran the ball 54 times . . . well, nobody knows. The 49ers' publicity staff went all the way back to 1981 before calling off the research for the night.

Defensively, the Lions played right along with the 1960s motif. They made no adjustments, never straying from their base defense. They stayed in the 3-4, rarely blitzing, rarely substituting.

The 49ers found this "quite helpful," according to Wallace. "You knew what your man was going to do, pretty much. You could anticipate their stunts."

The end result was the 49ers learned you can do it the Seifert way, and it can be wildly successful.

Said Guy McIntyre: "This gives us the confidence that we can take the game to somebody, we can run the ball against a pretty good defense. There'll be tougher tests down the road. But we can see ourselves doing it now."

Last Sunday, the 49ers came together under quarterback Steve Young. On this Sunday they might have come together under George Seifert. Not only was Detroit outplayed Sunday, it was outcoached.

Seifert wisely declined to take the broader view.

''It's a step right now and nothing more," he said of the victory. "To give this game any meaning, we have to win next week."