Monday, November 11, 1991

TURNOVERS, DEFENSE LIFT SAINTS 10-3

By Nancy Gay
San Jose Mercury News

What will it take to ignite the 49ers this season?

Not even a fireball from above could get them going Sunday. A halftime fireworks display gone bad dropped a ball of flames from the Superdome rafters onto the turf, and this was the most thrilling development anyone probably will remember about the 49ers' latest loss.

The game went about as most have this season -- loss of concentration, loss of ball, loss of game. Thus, the New Orleans Saints sneaked away with a 10-3 NFC West victory, while the 49ers' playoff hopes very nearly were snuffed out.

Misery and mediocrity, however, love company. The rest of the NFC wild-card wanna-bes -- the Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons -- stumbled Sunday as well, so the 49ers remain amazingly alive with a 4-6 record.

The division-leading Saints, making do with backup quarterback Steve Walsh, are marching along at 9-1 and talking about playing in Minneapolis on, say, Jan. 26. The 49ers -- who turned the ball over three times on fumbles, one of which led to the game's only touchdown -- are talking about the way they used to play, when the breaks used to go their way.

''We used to be on the receiving end of that stuff," said fullback Harry Sydney, whose fourth-quarter fumble at the Saints' 15-yard line with 3 minutes, 41 seconds remaining killed the 49ers' chances for good. "But this is not a normal year."

It would be convenient to blame Sydney, or third-string quarterback Steve Bono -- who faced the unenviable job of starting his first non-strike NFL game against the league's most daunting defensive front.

But that would make explaining the 49ers' third loss in their last five games, their fifth loss in six road games, entirely too easy.

The pattern for destruction, though, seems firmly set:

* "Too many penalties, then to fumble the ball in those situations that we did." -- Coach George Seifert.

* "That's been the key this season -- the turnovers, big penalties, things of that nature." -- strong safety Dave Waymer.

* "It's the same thing, week in and week out -- turnovers, penalties, mistakes . . . that are killing our team." -- fullback Tom Rathman.

* "Everyone played hard. It was the mistakes again." -- defensive end Kevin Fagan.

* "Mistakes. Mistakes killed us." -- free safety Todd Bowles.

Those mistakes, as usual, were wide-ranging. Five dropped passes. Poor special-teams play by the receiving team that pushed the start of two fourth-quarter drives inside the 49ers' 10-yard line. Seven penalties (including three false starts) for 51 yards. Two ventures inside the Saints' 20 that resulted in three points and a fumble.

This time last season, the 49ers had Joe Montana and the finest backup quarterback in the land, Steve Young, waiting in the wings, and a 10-1 record. Today, Montana is injured, Young is injured. Both were on the sideline Sunday, Montana sporting an elaborate arm brace and Young a thigh-high leg cast. The 49ers' record is hurting. But they're clinging to those memories of past success as the impetus to keep this season going.

''It's the legacy of success, the character of teams past, and even the character of the team present, the organization itself, that continues to carry us through the situations," tackle Steve Wallace said. "Not being willing to concede to what's happening. Not willing to give in and develop a losing attitude."

Wide receiver Jerry Rice, who caught only four passes for 24 yards, talked again of fighting back, of leaders stepping up and taking charge. But his words seemed repetitive and weary.

''It's tough, but also it's a challenge to try to work your way out of this and get back into that winning tradition again," Rice said. "Who needs to step up? The guys who have been around for a while. I'm not going to accept this season being over yet. I'm going to continue to fight."

The latest battle seemed to go the 49ers' way early on.

On the second play from scrimmage, Waymer picked off Walsh's pass intended for Hoby Brenner and ran it back 42 yards to the 17. Four plays later, Mike Cofer kicked a 32-yard field goal, giving the 49ers a 3-0 lead with 13:03 remaining in the first quarter.

That would be about all the offense could put together. Bono did a capable job, completing 15 of 32 passes for 131 yards. That he was sacked only three times -- NFL sack leader Pat Swilling had two of them -- was a testament to Bono's poise in the pocket.

An 11-yard sack by Swilling caused Bono to fumble at the New Orleans 40. But no one in the 49ers' locker room had negative words for Bono's performance.

''You can't be pleased -- we didn't win," Bono said. "But I feel like I played OK."

The next drive he directed moved the 49ers' to the Saints' 27, but Cofer missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt with 14:06 left in the second quarter.

Saints linebacker Sam Mills' hit on Rathman ended another second-quarter series as soon as it started. Rathman ran 7 yards, was drilled by Mills and fumbled at the 49ers' 30. Cornerback Vince Buck recovered the ball at the 32. Five plays later, Walsh threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Eric Martin, giving the Saints a 7-3 advantage with 5:21 remaining before halftime. Although the 49ers' defense limited the Saints to 191 total yards, that letdown was enough to let New Orleans take control.