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A CASE FOR THE DEFENSE : 49ers’ Ronnie Lott Would Like to See His Teammates Get More Recognition

Times Staff Writer

Ronnie Lott would like to propose a friendly wager for, say, a soda pop. Name four players--no, make it three, he says--who play for the San Francisco 49er defense. This would be the same defense that is ranked first statistically in the National Football League, ahead of the more celebrated Chicago Bears or the New York Giants.

Ready . . . begin.

Lott? Of course. A gimme. Just Thursday Lott was selected to his sixth Pro Bowl team--four as a cornerback and now two as a free safety.

Anthony Carter? Actually, it’s Michael Carter, but Lott accepts answers containing correct last names.

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Hacksaw Reynolds? Uh, no. Hacksaw retired in 1984.

Jimmy Johnson? A fine guess if this were 1961, when Johnson actually played. But it isn’t, so Lott makes a point and earns himself a grape Nehi.

Misplaced during this mad rush to plant backslaps on the 49er offense is the 49er defense. No one seems to notice that no other team defends better against the pass, that only five other teams in the league are better at stopping the run.

It figures. Glance at the 49er team marquee and you’re likely to see, in bright lights, the names of quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, wide receiver Jerry Rice, running backs Roger Craig and Tom Rathman. Located below, in small letters, would be: . . . and also appearing, the 49er defense.

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So many names, so little space.

Lott doesn’t mind so much. When he arrived from USC seven seasons ago, he knew 49er Coach Bill Walsh concerned himself more with scoring points, than actually stopping them. Forewarned, Lott happily came anyway.

“I knew when I came here what the coach stands for, what this team stands for,” Lott said, conducting the interview by car phone after a late-week practice. “It stands for offense. We have a great offense. Ira Miller could quarterback this offense and it would still be a great offense.”

Miller is a cordial, pleasant, not very athletic man in his mid-40s or so who covers the NFL for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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The point is this: The 49er offense, at least during Walsh’s stay, has had this aura about it. It is ahead of its time; it features the team’s best athletes. It scores touchdowns as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Then there is Lott’s part of the team. The defense. Oh, them.

With those six Pro Bowl selections comes a certain form of star status. Still, it seems as if even Bay Area fans lose interest by the time they find their way to the 49er defense and its little known assortment of notables. Out of respect, or maybe exhaustion, they have adopted Lott. “I’ve gotten lucky,” he said. “I’m the chosen one.”

Lott said he would feel better if admirers looked around the store a bit. At one cornerback is Don Griffin, who hasn’t allowed a touchdown the entire season. Linebacker Keena Turner would have likely been considered strongly for a Pro Bowl appearance had not a recent injury ended those plans. Linebacker Mike Walter, said Lott, is having his best season of his five-year career. “But people will say, ‘Who is Mike Walter?’ ”

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And Lott could do without the little tags that have been stuck on the 49er defense, like a finesse defense. Since when could you ram a helmet into another player’s rib cage and do it with finesse?

“We know what we can do,” Lott said. “We know that we can play hard. We’re not worried about finesse. We’re not worried about being physical. We’re worried about winning. I mean, it’s not important what kind of pants you wear; it’s how you wear them.”

This, the 49ers can do. They wear that 12-2 record quite well, enough to be considered favorites in Sunday night’s game against the Rams at Candlestick Park. Enough to be favored to represent the NFC in this year’s Super Bowl.

First, the Rams, 6-8 and headed nowhere, await.

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“I’m surprised that (the Ram season) fell apart,” Lott said. “I’m surprised that it fell apart because I think their organization is a good organization. I think what John Robinson has done for their organization, I mean, what more can you ask a coach to do?

“I think . . . what happened to the Rams is that when you have a problem with guys wanting to be traded (Did someone mention Eric Dickerson or LeRoy Irvin?) it causes dissension among teammates. That’s kind of tough. It causes players not to believe in each other. That’s a difficult thing to have in an organization.”

Lott would know. He was a holdout before. And worth the wait, too.

His most trying times came in 1985, when he fractured and lacerated the pinky finger on his left hand during the final regular season game. Rather than miss the wild-card playoff game against the Giants, Lott told team trainers to bandage it as best they could. When finished, he looked as if he were wearing a boxing glove.

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Once during the game, Giant running back Joe Morris broke through the 49er line. Lott sprinted forward to meet him. It was a sad mismatch. Lott could do little more than try to grab hold with his one good hand.

It was during that following off-season that Lott decided to have the tip of the finger surgically removed rather than try more conventional medical options. When he returned to the 49ers for the 1986 season he found his locker nameplate changed to, Stump Mitchell.

Lott laughed all the way to another Pro Bowl season. He led the league with 10 interceptions. Funny what you can do when one of your hands isn’t encased in yards of tape and cloth.

“The reason why I did what I did was that it was one of those things in life that you decide is right for yourself,” he said. “I had friends who said that it was probably the right thing to do, that I probably would have had more problems the other way. I mean, they didn’t cut off my finger. It’s just a little tip. They didn’t amputate it halfway down.”

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Lott dismisses the whole subject as nonsense. His least favorite subject is himself and especially his digits. Ask him to assemble a list of his most meaningful interceptions and there is silence. He has 38 career interceptions, just 10 shy of breaking Jimmy Johnson’s club record. Yet, Lott treats each one as if they never happened.

“It’s really hard,” he said. “I’m a person who really doesn’t dwell on the past. I probably think more about the ones I should have gotten.”

Lott will, however, be more than happy to talk about other players. Among his favorite receivers are Raider James Lofton--"in his prime"--Seattle Seahawk Steve Largent and former San Diego Charger and Green Bay Packer John Jefferson. And when the 49er secondary, Lott included, sat down and discussed NFC Pro Bowl nominees, it selected Minnesota’s Anthony Carter, Philadelphia’s Mike Quick, St. Louis’ J.T. Smith and Washington’s Gary Clark.

“But there’s not one guy on our secondary who doesn’t think Jerry Rice is the best receiver in football. We have to cover him everyday. They talk about Magic Johnson one on one. this guy is in the same league. He’s got that same type of magic about him.

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His favorite Rice story is the one where the 49er offense is practicing those desperation passes at game’s end, the ones that almost never work.

So Lott watches Rice run to the end zone, wedged in between defenders. The ball arrives and, well . . .

"(Rice) went up about two or three feet,” Lott said. “He caught the ball with one hand, as if it was nothing. It was unbelievable. From then on, I knew he was going to be something special. The way he moves, the way he runs, the way he works, the length of his fingers; he was just chiseled to be a wide receiver.”

And Lott? Lott said he considers himself a worker bee of sorts. Had he not been switched from cornerback to safety, who knows what would have happened. Most likely unemployment. "(Ram receiver) Ron Brown would leave me every play,” Lott said. “It wouldn’t be a contest.”

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Lott can rest easy. His job his safe, his reputation secure. Now if he can just do something about the rest of the 49ers.


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