By reputation, the San Francisco 49ers are a passing team with a sharp, short-range passer, Joe Montana.
Actually, under Coach Bill Walsh, the 49ers are dedicated to two other things, one quite elemental, one radical:
--Their basic aim, unremarkably enough, is to control the ball with either runs or passes and score after long drives.
--Their approach, however, is both revolutionary and unique. Every seven days during the season, the 49ers change their offense almost completely with almost all new plays. To Walsh, football is a sport needing new runs and passes in every game. What's more, his plays are not only always different from the previous week's but also tailored for each opponent.
Making good use of their novel strategy, the 49ers have ripped 17 of 18 defenses this season with both runs and passes. And should they choose, they can strike the Miami Dolphins with more running plays than usual in Super Bowl XIX next Sunday at Palo Alto's Stanford Stadium.
"The 49ers can run on Miami--they have a very good trap-blocking game," said Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll, whose Steelers handed San Francisco its only loss this season, 20-17. The 49ers are now 17-1.
Other National Football League coaches believe that the 49ers will set up the Dolphins with runs and knock them out passing.
Said one: "You'll see Montana throwing a lot of quick, new, short, play-action (fake-run) passes. To start with, Walsh will re-design some runs he hasn't used for a month or two or maybe all season. Then he'll put in some new passes based on the new running plays. And the Dolphins won't know what's coming--first because they haven't seen the plays in any 49er film, and second because the passes will look like runs. You can bank on it, the 49ers will win it this way."
The speaker, an NFL veteran, and Noll, who calls Pittsburgh's offensive signals, were in a group of 12 NFL coaches who in individual conversations this week discussed the Super Bowl planning of the 49ers and Dolphins with a Times reporter.
Three are head coaches, five are offensive or defensive coordinators and four are assistant coaches with game-plan responsibilities on their own clubs. Some asked that their names not be used. And most declined to be quoted directly on what they think is sensitive material.
As experienced coaches, they disagreed on many points. What follows is a consensus.
Walsh seems to be the foremost exponent of the theory advanced many years ago by former football strategist Clark Shaughnessy: "It doesn't matter what you do (in football) as long as it's new."
During practice each week, other NFL teams concentrate on perfecting the execution of sound, proven plays.
Walsh, by contrast, deliberately throws out one successful play after another and fills his game plans with new ones just because they're new.
They may not, of course, be literally new. In the last 102 years, it is likely that every possible football play has been designed and used and, in many cases, forgotten.
The Walsh function is to resurrect a bunch of these each week, add a wrinkle or two, incorporate a play-action pass and build a entirely different kind of game plan.
In the NFC title game against Chicago last week, for example, the 49ers revived the old halfback-dive play with Wendell Tyler carrying the ball. The play-action variant, after Montana faked to Tyler, was a pass to Tyler.
Many of Montana's passes that day were delivered to receivers running 10-yard stop patterns. The object was a quick completion before the Chicago rush could reach the 49er passer.
A week earlier against the New York Giants, Montana had thrown most of his passes to receivers running other kinds of stops and quick outside patterns.
San Francisco's Super Bowl plan this week may also seem somewhat similar, but it will be entirely different to the defense--minimizing the advantages Miami might expect to have with a former Walsh aide (Chuck Studley) as defensive coordinator.
"He (Walsh) doesn't necessarily pick on weak defensive players," one coach said. "Rather, he attacks the structure of the other team's defense. He is confident that his play design can beat the kind of zone defense Miami uses under Don Shula."
Montana is the extension of Walsh in the 49er attack.
"Montana isn't the best (defense) reading quarterback in the league," a coach said. "So Walsh cuts the field in half for him and frequently floods an area (in the secondary) with three receivers. Montana just has to look here or there or throw the ball away."
On many San Francisco passes, a receiver comes wide open.
"This is because the defense hasn't seen the play before," a coach said. "Defenses are used to keying on this or that. (A typical key is the action of the tight end.) And when they read the key, they anticipate the rest of the play. But on a 49er pass, most keys don't mean anything."
On running plays, an offensive coordinator of a team in the East predicts that the 49ers will hit Miami in the two places where the Dolphins are most vulnerable.
"You can run up the middle on Miami," he said, "if you double-team (nose tackle) Bob Baumhower. And you can run to your left (the offensive club's left)--away from Doug Betters and Bob Brudzinski."
Betters is Miami's defensive left end. Brudzinski is the left-side linebacker.
In general, NFL coaches respect the discipline and commitment of Miami's defensive players but describe only three of them as unusually gifted: Betters, Baumhower and cornerback Don McNeal.
"And both Baumhower and McNeal have been hurt," one said.
Most coaches also believe Miami is vulnerable to long passes because safeties Glenn and Lyle Blackwood have more muscle than speed. Others doubt if the 49ers can exploit this weakness.
"Montana isn't a bomb thrower," a coach said. "And neither of the 49ers' receivers (Dwight Clark or Freddie Solomon) is a sprinter. You won't see too many 49er bombs."
Instead Montana will be throwing every other kind of pass for a team coached by the most original ball-control thinker of all time. It was Walsh who first showed that passes can be safely and profitably used in ball-possession football.
"They (the 49ers) have the type of controlled passes that will work against Miami," said Buffalo Bills Coach Kay Stephenson.
The thing that makes the 49ers different from all other teams is the way they use their plays in a fixed order in the first quarter of every game.
During the week of practice, their specially designed new runs and passes are rehearsed and listed the way their coach plans to call them at game time--1 through 15 or 20 or sometimes 25.
This makes Walsh a "script coach," his peers say. And the script gives the 49ers the advantage because, in developing the team's game plan, Walsh deliberately ignores such considerations as down and distance and tendencies.
"The whole thing about defense is preparation," one coach said. "But you can't prepare for San Francisco. He (Walsh) takes it away."