When It Comes to Super Bowl, 49ers Have Special Advantage

Times Staff Writer

TV football analyst Dick Vermeil, the bundle of energy who coached the Philadelphia Eagles into the Super Bowl one winter, began his National Football League career in the 1960s as a special-teams coach.

He was, in fact, the first to coach anybody's special teams full time. And he was talking about it the other day.

"When George Allen hired me," Vermeil said, "he was breaking new ground. That was when he was coaching the Rams and nobody else was paying much attention to kicking. When I went to work for him, George said, 'Everybody talks about offense and defense--but the special teams are one-third of football.' I still think he was right."

Others who agree that the many aspects of the kicking game are that important include Bill Walsh of San Francisco and Don Shula of Miami, Sunday's two Super Bowl coaches.

Their special teams are among the most efficient in the National Football League.

Shula's always rank in the league's top 10. And this season Walsh's are in the top five.

But in a strategic sense, it will be an upset if any kicker is this game's Most Valuable Player.

Although Ray Wersching of San Francisco could provide the mathematical difference, Wersching lacks the range to hit spectacular field goals.

And the other kicker, Uwe von Schamann of Miami, who in college ball at Oklahoma was known as von Foot, has had an unhappy season with many misses at all ranges.

This gives San Francisco the special-teams advantage, but not, perhaps, by much.

For Miami counters with the league's leading punter, Reggie Roby, who ranks as the best to come into the NFL since the Raiders' Ray Guy.

Roby also ranks as the league's all-time hang-time champion.

Otherwise, San Francisco and Miami both take a generally conservative approach to the kicking game, in the opinion of those who specialize in this part of football, including Raiders special-teams coach Steve Ortmayer.

"Shula coaches Miami's special teams himself," Ortmayer said the other day. "And his philosophy is very similar to Walsh's in San Francisco. They both play field position with their kicking game. Their whole idea is not to give away any big plays."

Therefore, their special teams don't make many big plays. Neither Miami nor San Francisco gambles for blocked kicks. They just want the ball in a good location.

"Their emphasis is on not making mistakes," said Ortmayer, who also directs football operations for the Raiders.

One of the NFL's top defensive coordinators, who asked that his name be withheld, thinks Shula stands to make the biggest special-teams mistake Sunday--because of the unreliability of his kicker, Von Schamann.

"The time could well come when Shula has to decide between a long field-goal try and a punt," the man said. "And the wrong decision could cost him the game. His problem is that Von Schamann has had a terrible year and could miss any field goal over 30 yards. But if you don't try for three points, you can't score three. I don't envy Shula the predicament."

Before next season, Shula will probably change kickers. Some think the Dolphins should have made a change several months ago. But their coach reasons that all kickers experience slumps. Publicly, at least, Shula has predicted that Von Schamann will pull out of his.

San Francisco's coach, Walsh, asked to compare the Super Bowl kicking games this year, called them about even.

"Their man has missed some field goals," Walsh said, "but our man has missed a couple, too."

The failure that still haunts Wersching was a 37-yard field goal he blew in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh, the only game San Francisco lost this season. Final score: 20-17.

But recently, Wersching has been far more reliable than Von Schamann, who doesn't get much help from his holder, Don Strock, the Dolphin backup quarterback.

Strock is considered one of the sloppiest holders in the league.

By contrast, the San Francisco holder, Joe Montana, is considered one of the best.

Punt returner Dana McLemore provides another 49er strength. He is the Super Bowl's most gifted kick runner this year.

A product of Venice High School in Los Angeles and a 4.49 man at 40 yards, McLemore is the league's most underrated at his specialty and one of the most effective.

Carl Monroe, who is even faster, runs back most kickoffs for San Francisco. For Miami, Fulton Walker returns both punts and kickoffs with slightly above average results.

Special-teams play entails, of course, more than kicking and running. The two key functions involve 11 men to a side. They are blocking and tackling--which on all clubs are performed by the kick-returning and kick-covering teams, respectively.

Ortmayer, asked to compare the Super Bowl opponents in these areas, said:

"San Francisco has excellent returning and coverage schemes--as good as any in the league. The Dolphins' coverage scheme may be a shade behind San Francisco's but their return teams are similar."

Put it all together, and the 49ers lead in most departments. Their special teams are somewhat more aggressive, they have the better coverage packages, the better placekicker in Wersching, the better holder in Montana and a much better kick runner in McLemore.

Miami's main advantage--better punting with Roby over San Francisco's Max Runager--is canceled out in most games by the magic of quarterback Dan Marino, who usually advances the ball so far that a punt is either unnecessary or a short punt will do.

The Dolphins' one other clear advantage is in what might or might not be a significant area. They get longer kickoffs from von Foot than the 49ers are used to with Wersching.

Most Miami kickoffs sail into the end zone, meaning Montana will be cranking up from his 20-yard line most of the time.

Wersching, kicking off for San Francisco, is always lucky to reach the other team's five-yard line. The Dolphins might run one or two of those out to the 30.

But to be truthful, this is an advantage they might not need. What's another 10 yards to Marino?

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