A possible road straight through to Super Bowl XXV opened Sunday for the Buffalo Bills, who seem to have everything it takes to end a San Francisco 49er bid for a fifth NFL championship.
In a season when Joe Montana, the 49er quarterback, has lost his running game, he’ll have his hands full if it’s a Buffalo-San Francisco Super Bowl.
One Buffalo plus is the competence of its No. 2 quarterback, Frank Reich, who is probably the best backup of those who in the last two weeks have replaced eight injured NFL passers, the Bills’ Jim Kelly among them.
“I’ve never been around a smarter quarterback,” Coach Marv Levy, a Phi Beta Kappa guy himself, said of Reich, who led the Bills past Miami Sunday, 24-14, with a thoroughly professional performance.
In the last week of the regular season, the 49ers and Bills are the NFL’s only 13-2 teams. And if they’re both in the last game at Tampa Jan. 27, the 49ers will be favored because the Bills are not used to the Super Bowl’s pressures, which can be agonizing.
But when they turned back Miami’s Dan Marino on Sunday, the Bills made sure that the AFC’s other top teams would have to travel through Buffalo next month to advance in the playoffs.
The Raiders alone seem capable of beating the Bills on a clear day. In a January blizzard, they won’t be favored in Buffalo, where, wearing out in the fourth quarter, they lost a 38-24 game three months ago.
The long shadow of Sam Wyche, coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, is likely to be hanging over the playoffs this winter, regardless of whether he’s on the scene. Consider:
--In the Coliseum Sunday, the Raiders, who want to make it 12-4 for 1990 against the San Diego Chargers, can again be expected to use Wyche’s no-huddle approach as a part-time weapon.
--The Bills no-huddled deftly through the Miami defense.
--More significant, perhaps, the 49ers got their only touchdown in a losing cause without Montana Sunday on a no-huddle march from the opening kickoff.
Backup quarterback Steve Young made it work while getting some experience for the playoffs, if summoned. He obviously needed the work.
“You keep their (defensive) specialists off the field when you go without a huddle,” Wyche said, recommending it to all up-to-date coaches.
Even so, 49er fans were shocked to see their club running no-huddle plays. One difference between 49er Coach George Seifert and his predecessor, Bill Walsh, possibly, is that Seifert is more likely than Walsh to incorporate another genius’ inventions.
If Seifert has an ego, he controls it pretty well.
One thing Walsh is right about, many football people concede, is that no NFL coach can prosper unless he has full control of the draft.
Leaving it up to a general manager is usually disastrous, Walsh noted in his new book, because, “The general manager’s first consideration is the economic bottom line: How much will it cost?”
In “Building a Champion,” the book Walsh wrote with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Glenn Dickey, he said: "(The general manager) thinks of the team’s long-term future. For him, winning in the current season may be secondary.
“The coach, for his own security, must emphasize winning immediately.
“Teams that have had sustained success have had either the same coach and general manager for years, or a coach who is responsible for virtually all decisions.”
Walsh makes an exception of Raider owner Al Davis. Football officials stating principles often except Davis. But otherwise, Walsh stresses the importance of a dictator’s role for a coach--which is how he built the most successful team of modern times, a 49er team that has already won four Super Bowls.
In Buffalo, however, the Bills are proving that there is another way. Well-coached by Levy, the Bills were built by their general manager, Bill Polian.
One team that won’t be in the playoffs this winter is the Cleveland Browns, whose owner, Art Modell, is taking a media beating in Ohio.
Cleveland fans, embarrassed by the club’s 3-12 record, are also angry. They’ve been shouting insults up to Modell as he sits, his face in his hands, in his box far above the field at Cleveland Stadium.
Earlier this month, one fan walking around below, but looking up, carried a big sign reading, “Jump, Art!”
When he was thrown out of the stadium, the fan, a week later, hired an airplane to tow an even larger sign reading, “Your cops can’t get me here. JUMP, ART!”
Even Cleveland’s players were angry when, at midseason, Modell made his third coaching change in three years, firing Bud Carson.
“Can you imagine what (Carson) went through?” the Browns’ best defensive player, Michael Dean Perry, asked. “How do you get ready for a game if you don’t know if you’re even going to be here?”
It’s a troubled year for the Browns, but it’s a rare year of its kind for Modell. From 1986 through last season, his teams were 41-21-1--best in the AFC and third-best in the NFL.
It is in the record that the Browns have played in three of the last four AFC championship games. They made the playoffs seven times in the 10 seasons of the ‘80s.
In spite of which, this fall, a Cleveland newspaper ran a poll to find out, “What’s wrong with the Browns?”
Modell was held to blame by 88.8% of those replying.
What have you done for us lately?
John Robinson coached the Rams into the playoffs six times in the last seven years in by far the hardest NFL division to dominate--because the 49ers are in it, too. Going into 1990 he was 71-50. In a 50-year-old franchise, no other Ram coach ever won that many.
What have you done for us lately?
Quarterback Rodney Peete will be in Seattle with the Detroit Lions Sunday in one of the games of the week.
Seattle Coach Chuck Knox is still alive in the playoffs and still hopeful that in time he can put the Seahawks in the run-and-shoot offense.
He will get another good look at it this week in the Detroit-Green Bay tape. As the Lions won in frigid temperatures Saturday at Green Bay, 24-17, Peete and running back Barry Sanders, defying their critics, proved:
--You can gain a lot of yards running the ball in the noticeably pass-oriented run-and-shoot system, inside or outside the other team’s 10-yard line.
--Even when they know you’re going to throw, you can throw effectively on a midwinter day.
--You can make the run-and-shoot machinery run smoothly in terrible weather.
“Any offense in any system works best on a good day and worst on a bad day,” said run-and-shoot creator Mouse Davis, a Detroit assistant. “We think our offense is a little better than most where our critics think we’re worst--on a cold day on the goal line.”
What’s more, as the director of Davis’ novel attack, Peete seems to be improving steadily.
On an indoor stage a week ago, he passed for 316 yards and four touchdowns, overwhelming the Chicago Bears, 38-21.
That led Bear cornerback Donnell Woolford to compare Peete’s performance favorably to his work in Chicago two weeks earlier.
“Peete did some things differently this time,” said Woolford. “He looked me off a couple of times and went to the post-corner behind me.”
Knox, however, with a shot at the playoffs, will be waiting for him in the NFL’s noisiest stadium.
Chuck Knox, Seattle coach, on his football career: “There’s two things in coaching. One is winning and two is misery.”
Bill Polian, Buffalo general manager, on his background as a New York Giant fan: “I guess my rooting interest has changed to deep respect.”
George Allen, Cal State Long Beach coach, formerly of the Rams and Redskins, asked by Pro Football Weekly how he wants to be remembered: “Well, as a good coach whose team was always prepared. Whose trademark was great defense, outstanding special teams and very few mistakes. And that my teams were always in condition.”
Marty Schottenheimer, Kansas City coach, on his conservative offense: “Finesse doesn’t do a lot for me.”