Monday, October 12, 1992


By Nancy Gay
San Jose Mercury News

Before the embarrassment set in, probably somewhere over Des Moines, Iowa, at a nice cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, there were the rationalizations. Plenty of them.

''I think all those things that we did to overcome those errors make a statement on the team," said 49ers Coach George Seifert, making the most diplomatic assessment he could for a division-leading NFL team that suddenly takes a powder.

Not that the patently bad New England Patriots were any better Sunday at a chilly, fogged-in Foxboro Stadium. But for the 49ers to scratch and claw for what amounted to a 24-12 escape over the league's lone winless team means there will be a lot of red-faced 49ers watching game films today.

''Well, at least it won't be a real depressing flight home," said wide receiver Mike Sherrard, who did not catch a pass.

Added linebacker Bill Romanowski: "We came out with a victory, and that's all that matters."

For pride's sake, there was no other way to walk away from this slop, which featured a combined six turnovers -- including two fumbles by 49ers punt returner Ron Lewis -- except to talk about the end rather than the means. The chronically loose coverage by the 49ers' secondary, the special-teams breakdowns, the sloppy blocking, the eight penalties (for 62 yards) were too much of a downer to contemplate immediately.

Thus, the 49ers' immediate postgame reaction was one of relief and self-congratulation, for holding together in the face of adversity.

''Guys, we played hard today," said wide receiver Jerry Rice, who caught three passes for 60 yards, one a 32-yard touchdown. "People might look at it and say we didn't play like the 49ers. But we did. We had guys really hustling on the football field."

In keeping with the bubbly locker-room theme, let's focus first on what the 49ers did to pull out this victory, which raised their record to 5-1 and stuck a fork in the Patriots (0-5):

(box) The offense produced 411 yards, with tailback Ricky Watters picking up a career-high 104 yards and a touchdown in 19 carries. Quarterback Steve Young completed 19 of 27 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 69 yards in nine attempts. So a first-quarter interception (and fourth- quarter near-interception) didn't prove too costly.

(box) Late in the third quarter, 49ers defensive end Dennis Brown blocked Charlie Baumann's point-after attempt, making the Patriots' first lead of the season somewhat less conspicuous at 12-10.

(box) The defense, particularly the line and linebackers, held admirably down the stretch, giving the offense the opportunity for two gave-saving (and face-saving) fourth- quarter touchdowns. In New England's final drive, free safety Dana Hall rebounded from earlier mistakes to snare a key interception of quarterback Hugh Millen's throw to Irving Fryar at the 49ers' 27.

But the bad far outweighed the good. "I can't really remember when we played a game this bad," said 49ers tight end Brent Jones, who had two receptions for 34 yards. "Not since I've been here, at least."

The Patriots, to their credit, performed as well as could be expected. Starting tailback Leonard Russell, their leading rusher, did not play after missing practice all week because of nagging injuries. Millen suffered a separated left shoulder in the first quarter after Mike Walter sacked him for a 1-yard loss, but Millen still completed 20 of 34 passes passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. However, he also was responsible for all three New England turnovers, fumbling after Walter's sack and throwing two interceptions.

The game began with three consecutive turnovers. Brown intercepted Millen's pass to tight end Ben Coates; Young's pass to Rice was picked off three plays later by cornerback Rod Smith; and Millen committed his fumble.

Mike Cofer missed a 51-yard field-goal attempt, ending a scoreless first quarter. But the 49ers opened the second with a five-play, 86-yard scoring drive that opened with an 18-yard run by Watters and ended with the touchdown strike to Rice with 11 minutes, 48 seconds remaining before halftime.

A 36-yard field goal by Cofer made it 10-0, but then the problems set in. Lewis, recently activated from injured reserve, committed his first fumble when Smith nailed him on his punt return. That set up a 24-yard field goal by Baumann that cut the 49ers' halftime lead to 10-3.

Then rookie punter Klaus Wilmsmeyer mishandled a third- quarter snap and had to run for it, giving the Patriots the ball at the 49ers' 31. Four plays later, Baumann kicked a 44- yarder that brought the score to 10-6.

Disaster struck again when Lewis failed to signal a fair catch on a punt and was crushed by Kevin Turner. Lewis fumbled again, and five plays later, the Patriots scored on Millen's 11-yard pass to Coates. Even with the missed PAT, the Patriots led 12-10 with 4:56 remaining in the third quarter.

It could have been worse in the fourth. On first-and-10 at the Pats' 45, an errant pass by Young nearly was picked off by cornerback Maurice Hurst, who had a clear shot at the end zone. Instead, the 49ers regrouped for a touchdown, on Young's 2-yard scoring toss to Watters with 9:42 remaining.

The defense held, then the offense moved 41 yards in eight plays for a 1-yard touchdown run by Watters that closed the door.