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THE NFL : Young Legs Figure to Keep Defenses on the Run Against 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers will be a different team this year when they’re being led by Steve Young, the man in charge while Joe Montana’s bad elbow keeps him on the injured-reserve list. Young is a running back playing quarterback, as the New York Giants will see Monday night.

With Roger Craig playing for the Raiders, Young may be the most talented running back San Francisco has.

He is a man out of a different era, who should have played for Red Sanders’ single-wing teams. As a UCLA tailback in those days, Young, a 200-pounder standing 6 feet 2, might have been the nation’s most famous football player.

“He gives you a different set of problems,” Ray Handley, the Giants’ new coach, said the other day.

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The worst problem is the constant run-or-pass threat by the same player--a threat posed, of course, by all quarterbacks, but not in the same way.

Of a typical NFL quarterback, it is often said: “He runs well enough for a passer.”

Of Young, it can be said: “He passes well enough for a running back.”

Montana will return, no doubt, but it is just as well that he doesn’t have to spend a long night against the Giants, who lead the NFL in ways and means of controlling the Montana pass offense.

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They have also mastered the science of beating him up.

For this night, the 49ers seem better off with Steve Young.

On standing around: When the season starts this weekend, it will be observed in many stadiums that the coaches are divided on which of the the year’s two dominant, conflicting philosophies to embrace.

The 1991 matchup is no-huddle football vs. no-mistake football:

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--The fast-break way is favored by the no-huddle teams and others believing in the value of the forward pass. Three playoff clubs--the 49ers, the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals--are in this group.

--The slowdown, no-mistake offense is favored by most conservatives, the Giants and Kansas City Chiefs among them.

The Giants mastered the slowdown last year when, for the first time, they took full advantage of the long period the rules now allow between plays.

In the Super Bowl, they became the only NFL title candidates who ever sought to spend more time standing around the scrimmage line than playing football.

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There isn’t, of course, much to see when athletes are simply standing around. So the no-huddle pioneers will have some imitators, too.

The Bills’ success with high-scoring, no-huddle quarterback Jim Kelly has inspired several teams to try the same game, notably the Denver Broncos with John Elway and the Cleveland Browns with Bernie Kosar.

Unchallenged, the no-mistake guys would strangle the league. To sports fans, the fast-break teams are the hope of the future.

High ground: In a 29-year career, Don Shula, 61, has won 298 games as the coach of two NFL teams, the old Baltimore Colts and the Miami Dolphins.

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That’s an average of more than 10 victories a season--an impressive achievement for one who has lasted nearly three decades in a rough league.

Even more impressive, Shula is on track to match the late George Halas’ proudest record.

Halas, in 40 seasons as coach of the Chicago Bears, won 325 games, an eight-game average in what was usually a shorter schedule.

At his present clip, Shula will hit 325 in his 32nd season, 1994, when he will be 64.

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“I would enjoy holding a record like that, but I don’t think much about it,” he said. “You can be sure that our whole focus is on the (1991) regular season and hopefully beyond, hopefully the Super Bowl.”

The Al Davis theory, borne out by the NFL majority, is that 10 years are enough for a football coach.

“People are different,” Shula commented.

Asked what he likes about his job, he said: “I’ve enjoyed winning within the rules. Our team is usually the least penalized (because) I’m the way I was brought up. I was brought up not to bend the rules.”

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The Halas longevity record came easier to him than it could have to any rival. Halas not only invented the pro game, he owned the club.

Shula has had to work for, among others, two difficult club owners, Carroll Rosenbloom and Joe Robbie. Did he like anything about either of them?

“They were winners,” Shula said.

Change in Detroit: Don’t be surprised if you’ve seen the last of Barry Sanders as a consistently big ground gainer for the Detroit Lions.

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Unless, that is, they call an audible someday and return to the run-and-shoot offense.

As ordered by their front office, the Lions are retreating from the run-and-shoot this year and changing philosophy.

“When Mouse Davis was (an assistant) here, we threw the ball to set up the run,” Lion Coach Wayne Fontes said. “This year (with Davis gone), we’re going to run the ball to make the pass work.”

That’s what remains to be seen.

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What isn’t in doubt is that passes and the threat of the pass set up all of Sanders’ best games for Detroit for two years, when his important yardage came on draw plays.

In both years, most NFL coaches and scouts gave insufficient weight to the role of the run-and-shoot in Sanders’ yardage production.

Fearing the new system, they preferred to stress the man’s skills.

Those skills are considerable, and when and if Fontes can sneak in a few run-and-shoot plays this fall, Sanders will continue to gain yards.

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But don’t expect him to have a big year running power plays. There aren’t enough power blockers in Detroit.

Just asking: Is the Kansas City defensive backfield the NFL’s finest since the Jack Christiansen-Night Train Lane secondary in Detroit many years ago? Is Buffalo’s Marv Levy the only coach to rise so far (13-3 last season) from so far back (31-42 in his Kansas City years)? Does too much have to go too well to expect San Francisco to win five Super Bowls in 11 years? Are the Giants the only NFL team with five effective defensive linemen (Leonard Marshall, Erik Howard, John Washington, Eric Dorsey, Mike Fox)? Are the Washington Redskins the best of the league’s six one-back teams?

Quote Dept.:

--Jim Mora, coach of the New Orleans Saints: “The quarterback position is more important than people give it credit for.”

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--Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne-Creek Indian leader, on why the Redskins should change their name: “If a black woman went to a football stadium in Washington to watch a team called the Black Chicks, you would notice that something was wrong. White people would object to a football team called the White Trash.”

--Vance Johnson, Bronco wide receiver, after three days in jail on a family-disturbance charge: “The only trouble I had, the other inmates were all Raider fans.”

--Jamie Williams, 49er tight end, on breaking camp for the year: “This might be better than Christmas.”


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