It was shortly before the start of the second half when San Francisco 49ers guard Guy McIntyre, standing in the shade of an Anaheim Stadium tunnel, heard the voice--Roger Craig’s voice.
“It’s cooling off,” the voice said. “It’s cooling off a little bit.”
McIntyre, soaked in sweat from two quarters of play in steamy, sticky, 100-degree on-field temperatures, thought the Sunday heat was playing tricks on his mind. But it wasn’t. Standing nearby was Craig, the 49er tailback. “It’s cooling off,” he said again.
McIntyre could scarcely believe it. Craig wanted to run into the heat and humidity. The third period couldn’t begin fast enough for Craig.
At game’s end, McIntyre knew why.
Talk about heat; Craig helped supply it. Twenty-two times quarterback Joe Montana stuck the ball in Craig’s hands and then said a simple goodby. For on this day, Craig rarely returned to the huddle without something to show for the journey.
On Sunday it was 190 yards of rushing and 3 touchdowns, which was good enough, along with the heat, to break the Rams’ defense, to say nothing of their will. After all, how many times can you watch Craig dart into the open, or break tackle after tackle before you understand something special is happening?
Ram Coach John Robinson recognized it. “Roger Craig was magnificent,” he said.
Ram linebacker Carl Ekern knew it, too, calling Craig’s effort “his best game of the year.”
Try career. In fact, it was the fourth-best performance by a running back in 49er history.
Craig said he didn’t know what to make of it all. He was tired. He was beat. A headache pushed at his temples, the result of a concussion suffered several plays before the end of the game. And the heat had sapped him. (So he lied to McIntyre.)
But all Craig really needs to know is that the 49ers beat the Rams, this time, 24-21, and that his name now sits atop the league rushing statistics. That’s right, Roger Craig, heretofore known as a pass catcher extraordinaire , is the National Football League’s leading rusher with 764 yards. More than Indianapolis’ Eric Dickerson. More than Dallas’ Herschel Walker. More than the revitalized Greg Bell of the Rams.
“I don’t know what happened,” Craig said. “I can’t even think about what I did. I just go play heads-up football and let my natural ability take over.”
It took over, all right. Just ask the members of the Rams’ defense that were left in Craig’s wake during touchdown runs of 46, 2 and 16 yards. Craig ran around, over and through Ram would-be tacklers the entire afternoon. His rushing average was nearly 9 yards. His need to reach the end zone was incalculable.
“That’s the way you have to play,” Craig said. “Any play can be your last play. I play hard every play. If something happens, I can look myself in the mirror and go on with life.”
What Craig sees this morning is someone who has helped the 49ers-- the 49ers-- lead the NFL in rushing. No longer pass-happy, the 49ers are doing more and more of their scoring business by ground.
Surprised? The 49ers aren’t.
“Everybody (acts) like this is some sort of revelation out of the West,” said 49er center Randy Cross. “We led the league in rushing last year. We can run the ball.”
Of course, it helps to have Craig and backfield sidekick Tom Rathman, who makes more blocks than some linemen in the league. Instead of depending solely on Montana’s arm or receiver Jerry Rice’s hands, the 49ers have turned to something much more simple: handing the ball to Craig.
It works. The 245 yards the 49ers gained on the ground was the third time in the last 4 weeks they’ve gone over the 200-yard mark. And last week against the Denver Broncos, Craig rushed for 143 yards.
“He should be in the Hall of Fame,” Rathman said.
That might be a little premature, but not so far-fetched. Craig, once a fullback, now a tailback, is doing what some have said isn’t possible: He’s proving himself a runner, not a wide receiver stuck in the backfield.
“He’s not just a catcher,” McIntyre said.
The 49ers love blocking for Craig. McIntyre figures that if the line can push the defense back a few yards, Craig will do the rest.
“He makes people miss,” he said.
On the 46-yard touchdown run, Craig broke 5 tackles and skirted past several others. “I thought he was down a half-dozen times,” Cross said.
Instead, Craig kept going. And scoring. Cool out there? McIntyre said it was possible . . . for Craig.
“The way he was running, he was getting the breeze,” McIntyre said.