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BACKBREAKERS
Paul Zimmerman
October 22, 1990
The swarming—and pass-happy—49ers, now 5-0, had a ball in Atlanta
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October 22, 1990

Backbreakers

The swarming—and pass-happy—49ers, now 5-0, had a ball in Atlanta

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LIFE IN THE PASS LANE

The slats after five games hammer the point home: The 49ers have been far more dependent on passing than they were over the same span in each of the last two seasons-when they went on to win the Super Bowl.

YEAR

RECORD

COMP.

PASSING ATT.

YD.

ATT.

RUSHING YD.

AVG.

POINTS

1988

4-1

110

177

1,240

167

824

4.9

129

1989

4-1

111

163

1,330

142

550

3.9

124

1990

5-0

131

199

1,695

126

349

2.8

127

Pro football's team of the '80s came into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium last weekend with a 4-0 record but trailing a lot of questions. Unbeaten, sure, but the San Francisco 49ers had played such perfect football through the playoffs and Super Bowl last season that anything less than perfection would not be accepted. They had made things tough on themselves.

They stole this year's opener, beating the Saints by a point in the final nine seconds at the Superdome. They beat Washington comfortably in Week 2, and then they took Atlanta by six points—and the Falcons had a shot to win at the end. Next they spotted Houston 14 points and came back to win by three. Not exactly dominating, but they were still undefeated.

"Let me ask you something," said Niner inside linebacker Matt Millen last Saturday. "How good are we really?"

"Don't you know?" someone asked.

"No one knows," said Millen.

"It's weird," said right guard Harris Barton. "There's been so much pressure that when we win and don't play all that well, everyone walks around like we've lost. Winning ugly, man—that's what we've been doing."

Now San Francisco was facing the Falcons again, and on the sideline at the 49er practice last Saturday, Roger Craig, the heart and soul of San Francisco's ground game, or what was left of it, was in sweats, taking laps around the field. Running alongside him was the team's orthopedist, Dr. Michael Dillingham, who was keeping his eyes on Craig's injured right knee. Craig had torn the posterior cruciate ligament six days earlier, against the Oilers. That's the kind of injury that could sideline a player for a season, but here he was, jogging with no sign of a limp. "I've done so much work on my legs," said Craig after cooling down, "that the muscles are strong enough to compensate for an injury like this."

"You're not really thinking about playing tomorrow, are you?" he was asked.

"If they need me," he said.

The Niners were coming into the game averaging a league-low 2.9 yards per rushing attempt. They had yet to crack 100 yards on the ground in a game. The Atlanta defense was allowing 2.7 yards per rush, best in the NFL. The 49ers wouldn't be running on Sunday. They knew it, the Falcons knew it, and no, Craig would not see action. Coaches have remarkably high thresholds for other people's pain, but San Francisco's George Seifert wasn't crazy.

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