Monday, Sept. 26, 1994

It's Deion to rescue, clinching 49ers win

By Jerry Magee
San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN FRANCISCO -- Say what you want about Deion Sanders, but the man does have a sense for seizing a moment.

His arrived with 32 seconds to go here yesterday when Sanders, holding the football aloft with one hand, high-stepped into the end zone at the end of a 74-yard interception return that put his signature on San Francisco's 24-13 triumph over New Orleans.

Before this play, Sanders had been largely a non-presence in his first Candlestick Park appearance with the 49ers. The Saints in effect eliminated him by having quarterback Jim Everett direct his passes away from San Francisco's right corner, where Sanders was hanging out.

In the last minute, however, Everett did challenge Sanders. From San Francisco's 43, the quarterback stepped away from a rush and sought out Michael Haynes, breaking down the sideline. But the pass was thrown too much inside, and Haynes slipped as he made his cut.

For Sanders to make the catch was easy. Profiting from a robust block on Haynes by safety Tim McDonald, Sanders sped down the sideline, then veered toward the center of the field while going into his touchdown strut.

"I did tell him he is being fined $100 for beginning his high-stepping at the 25-yard line," San Francisco coach George Seifert said.
"He's not supposed to do that until he gets to the 20. I'm paying the fine," Seifert added.

When Sanders entered the end zone, the Candlestick public address system began piping "M-I-C-K-E-Y" -- the Mickey Mouse song. Saints owner Thomas Benson had termed the 49ers "a Mickey Mouse organization" for not disclosing when they signed Sanders that they had written a $5 million option clause for 1995 into his contract.

In selecting the 49ers, Sanders turned down a contract offer from New Orleans that would have brought him $4 million annually.

"I don't want to say they're jealous and envious," Sanders said of the Saints, "but I feel I made the right decision, and I'm happy."

Sanders' interception was the second of two Everett served within an interval of 1:51 in the last two minutes. Earlier, safety Merton Hanks had seized an Everett pass meant for fullback Derrick Ned in the end zone with 1:54 remaining and the Saints threatening with a first down at the San Francisco 30.

"Hanks just made a beautiful play, coming back and getting the ball," Everett said. For the interception Sanders achieved, Everett blamed himself.

"But I didn't feel it should have come down to that," Everett said. "We killed ourselves with some drops."

Finally came Sanders' play, which he did not discuss. Seifert talked about it for him, describing it as "electrifying."

What pleased Sanders, he said, was that his presence enabled the Niners to play more aggressive defensively than has been their wont. They were blitzing and pursuing man-for-man coverages rather than deploying in their customary zones.

"A lot of guys are so happy that they're finally getting a chance to do what they like to do," Sanders said. He added that he could not perform as aggressively as he would have preferred yesterday because of a lack of conditioning.

"But my game will come around as I stay here," he promised.

The 49ers yesterday were 15-point favorites. Only one other NFL betting line this season has been that large -- when Dallas, also a 15-point choice, stopped Houston, 20-17.

But the 49ers had to perspire plenty before sealing a third victory in four games and retaining the lead in the NFC West. The Saints outgained the winners, 340-299, inflicted five sacks on quarterback Steve Young, and had several potential winning opportunities.

The only 49er the Saints couldn't handle was Jerry Rice, who scored touchdowns on 28- and 6-yard passes from Young.

The first gave the hosts a 10-3 advantage, with the second putting Seifert's side ahead, 17-13. At halftime, New Orleans had led, 13-10, with its points coming largely from its kicking game.

An extemporized 21-yard run by punter Tommy Barnhardt preceded a 17-yard Everett pass to tight end Irv Smith that made it 10-10. A 35-yard punt return by Tyrone Hughes then positioned the Saints for the 25-yard Morten Andersen field goal that made it 13-10.

The Saints' biggest chance may have come on the third period's first series. They were at the San Francisco 33 when Everett reached Smith up the middle at the 12, only the tight end failed to hold the football. Later, a 50-yard Andersen field-goal attempt was short.

"We had chances, they had chances," summed up New Orleans coach Jim Mora. "We just didn't get it done in the fourth period. I really thought we were going to get it done, but we didn't."