The Raiders and others are also on the big-line kick, but Tice is taking it to a new high with five linemen who all top 300 pounds and average 326, and who, accordingly, nicely protected Frerotte from the 49er rush. At Denver on Oct. 19, Tice will get another kind of test. The Broncos win with the smallest of offensive linemen.
NO MINNESOTA VIKING expects Tice to have a quarterback controversy when Culpepper returns. Nonetheless, judging by the Minnesota-San Francisco game, the Vikes are better conditioned for backup-quarterback help than most NFC Northern opponents, including Green Bay, if Frerotte is that good. Is he?
The best answer is, who knows? During his 10 NFL seasons, Frerotte has played for 5 teams — Washington, Detroit, Denver, Cincinnati and Minnesota — usually as a backup. He has often appeared to be just good enough to be a backup. His personal history reveals that when upgraded from backup to starter for whatever reason, he doesn't make it.
Yet Frerotte is a graceful player and fluid passer who completed all but five of 21 throws to whop San Francisco. It happened in large part because Tice's large offensive line helped him unreservedly. There were in truth many times when, as Frerotte retreated to read San Francisco's defenses, a distance of 5 or 10 yards or more separated him from the nearest 49er rushman.
This may have demonstrated that Frerotte, to be efficient, needs just what Tice gave him, breathing room manufactured by those 326-pound blockers. When heavily rushed in other years, Frerotte has had his troubles. Not that he's the only passer in the world who needs time. But at Minnesota at least, his new coach may be onto something.
One Best Football Game Plan
THE TICE OPERATION at Minnesota is worth any other NFL coach's scrutiny. It isn't as strange as the ascent of the headman himself but it's different from most in this fussy, copycat league.
For example, as Tice's first major hire, he brought in George O'Leary — the controversial college coach from Georgia Tech — as his defensive coordinator after studying O'Leary's contributions to the San Diego Chargers for a couple of years. The 49ers could accomplish naught against O'Leary's defensive designs.
As his pass-defense coach, Tice kept Chuck Knox Jr., who made an impression on Tice after joining the Vikings in 2000. In the beginning, Knox had coached for his father on the old Los Angeles Rams before diversifying at Green Bay and Philadelphia.
Strangest and most significant of all, Tice picked up, as his most important assistant, an offensive coordinator who had never played or coached pro ball, and who indeed had coached at only one big-time university: Scott Linehan of Sunnyside, Wash.
For the 49ers, Linehan put in a simple game plan — the simplest and probably best plan of them all — one requiring Frerotte to throw the ball whenever the 49ers displayed a run-based design and to hand off for running plays when the 49ers lined up in a pass defense.
If that's as simple as it sounds, it's so hard to accomplish, play after play after play, that few if any NFL signal-callers can stay with it. The temptation to vary one's game-day approach is plainly so powerful that great play-callers such as Ram Coach Mike Martz often stray, and therefore often lose by, for instance, sending their running backs into 8-3 run defenses.
On the occasions in Week 4 when the 49ers presented an eight-man front, Frerotte, following Linehan's instructions, passed every time, even when his most celebrated receiver, Randy Moss, was closely covered. The Vikings were confident that Moss could beat any single-covering defensive back every time. But not double coverage.
So when the 49ers shifted into pass defenses, Frerotte regularly handed off to his running backs and gained some key yardage even though injuries have left Minnesota with very ordinary ballcarriers by comparison with San Francisco's superb pair, Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow.
To stay with superlatives, San Francisco's best pass receiver, Terrell Owens, is better than Moss — which contradicts what Owens said Sunday. But a difference Sunday was that San Francisco didn't attack opposing defenses with Linehan's game plan. Nor with Tice's mighty offensive line. The Vikings may in time fade away to mediocrity, but they're unbeaten now and, for one game, they were overpowering. They dominated the team that not long ago was much better than they are.
Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at latimes.com/bookstore or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).