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PRO FOOTBALL : In Retrospect, 49ers Should Have Used Bono All Season

The emergence of Steve Bono as a first-class NFL quarterback this month is one of the league’s most mysterious developments of the last few decades.

Seven long years after Bono’s final college game at UCLA--a winning appearance against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, 39-37--he suddenly has become not only a starter but a big winner for the San Francisco 49ers.

That doesn’t happen in pro football. As a rule, good NFL quarterbacks emerge in one or two years, as Troy Aikman did, or develop in three or four, as most do. They don’t jump--as seven-year veterans--from nothing to stardom.

Yet, fitting the San Francisco system as if former coach Bill Walsh had created him to succeed Joe Montana, Bono, 29, has come out of nowhere to lead the 49ers to five victories in a row.

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It could even be said that playing Steve Young over the former UCLA quarterback this season cost the 49ers their best chance at the playoffs. Although Bono has brought them from 4-6 to 9-6 since Nov. 17, they were eliminated from playoff contention when New Orleans defeated the Raiders Monday night.

“It’s weird when you see a guy playing as well as Steve Bono,” wide receiver Jerry Rice said the other day.

Defensive tackle Jim Burt, asked to comment on the club’s new quarterback, said: “I tell you, he’s tremendous. He’s amazing. He’s playing like Superman.”

After seven years? Who would have thought it?

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Nobody at Minnesota, clearly, or Pittsburgh--where Bono began his bench career.

Trade him: To return as an NFL power next year, the 49ers need, above all, a good running back. Although they won’t draft high enough to get one this spring, they could deal for one--offering, in trade, their best surplus player. That would be quarterback Young.

A trade with Kansas City, Young for Harvey Williams, leaving Montana and Bono 1-2 in San Francisco, could put both clubs in the Super Bowl.

Kansas City isn’t the only NFL franchise with a running back surplus, but it’s among the few. Only one position is harder to fill, quarterback, which means that the 49ers have what a lot of clubs want.

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Alternatively, the 49ers could move Young to running back. He’s the best running back they have. But as a quarterback, he also is talented enough to be a winner most places--but not in San Francisco.

Smart reader: The San Francisco system is widely misunderstood, even on the 49er team. At midseason, the club’s critics were charging: “The 49ers have grown too conservative.”

And Rice complained: “They don’t throw it to me anymore. They’ve taken me out of the offense.”

They hadn’t, of course. Young just couldn’t find Rice. The difference now is that Bono can.

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The 49er pass offense, as designed by Walsh, rests on complicated reading. To win four Super Bowls, Montana read from his primary receiver to as many as four others--sometimes skipping Rice the first time around, then going back to him if everyone else was covered, too, and if Rice, by then, had gotten open.

Bono, by doing the same things, suddenly has made the 49ers winners again.

Playoff projections: Although this has been another year of NFL upsets, it is conceivable that the favorites will win from now on. If they do, the playoffs will begin as follows:

FIRST ROUND

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Wild-Card Games

Dec. 28-29

NFC: Atlanta at New Orleans (Dec. 28), Dallas at Detroit (Dec. 29).

AFC: Miami at Denver (Dec. 29), Kansas City at Raiders (Dec. 28).

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SECOND ROUND

Divisional Playoffs

Jan. 4-5

NFC: Detroit at Washington (Jan. 4), New Orleans at Chicago (Jan. 5).

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AFC: Raiders at Buffalo (Jan. 4), Denver at Houston (Jan. 5).

Worst to first: The Atlanta Falcons have won five in a row since the Washington Redskins blew them out, 56-17, leading some of Coach Jerry Glanville’s Atlanta players to recommend him for coach of the year.

“Jerry has made the difference,” said all-pro tackle Mike Kenn, noting that the Falcons, like the Braves this year, are on course to improve in 12 months from worst to first.

Said Falcon cornerback Tim McKyer: “The team is a Jerry Glanville thing (because) the guys are loose going into every game.”

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Johnson vs. Glanville: Some voters probably will take Dallas’ Jimmy Johnson as the coach of the year if the Cowboys get past Glanville’s Falcons at Texas Stadium Sunday.

Johnson’s leadership knocked out one of the other candidates, Rich Kotite of the Eagles, last Sunday, leaving only Detroit’s Wayne Fontes and the Glanville-Johnson winner still in the race.

At Philadelphia, Johnson won the coin toss and chose to kick off, removing the early pressure on his young offense against the NFL’s meanest defense. Then Johnson gave the winning instructions.

“Don’t worry if you don’t complete a pass,” he told quarterback Steve Beuerlein. “We’ll win with our defense and special teams if you all do one thing right: No negative yardage.”

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It was Beuerlein’s best game, considering the defense he faced. His numbers--nine completions in 31 passes--were without meaning on a day when he was under orders to throw them all away if sacks or interceptions were imminent. The meaningful numbers: zero interceptions, zero fumbles, one sack, one touchdown pass.

Point plan: The Cleveland Browns suffered a familiar fate Sunday. They will be remembered now as just another team that missed a chance at the playoffs when their kicker choked.

It should have been an easy kick--a 19-yard field goal--but Matt Stover hooked it in the last seconds of a game that Houston won, 17-14.

What’s to be done about the football coaches who play for field goals instead of touchdowns?

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“For every field goal you miss, three points should be subtracted from your score,” Modesto Bee sportswriter Jeff Jardine said. “That would cool them down.”

The big losers: Which are the most inept franchises in pro football? They were identified this week--three of them--by Rick Korch, managing editor of Pro Football Weekly, who said:

--The Indianapolis Colts (1-14) need a new coach and, as general manager, a new football man to serve under President Jim Irsay.

--It’s time for the the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13) to hire a general manager and a coach.

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--Although the Phoenix Cardinals (4-11) brought in the right coach, Joe Bugel, they should replace General Manager Larry Wilson with a modern football expert.

“Twelve years ago, the 49ers, Bears, Bills (and) Giants were losers,” Korch said, noting that better general managers and coaches turned them all around. "(It can be done) in 12 years. A lot sooner than that, in fact.”

Dome needed: The economy in the Boston area, where the national recession began several years ago, would come back faster than it went down if it had a domed stadium.

That is the view of the New England Patriots’ new general manager, Sam Jankovich, who said:

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“The Patriots would (like a dome), of course, but leaving us out of it, Boston is falling behind in tourism the way things are now.

“It’s no surprise that Atlanta got together and built the Georgia Dome, which opens next year. They saw what happened when other people built the Superdome, Hoosier Dome, Metrodome and Kingdome.

“Those aren’t just nice places for the NFL teams that play there. They make a big economic impact on their cities. They bring in 120 to 130 events a year.”

Quote Department:

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Bobb McKittrick, 49er line coach, recommending separate sets of statistics for sack artists on natural and artificial fields: “The outstanding pass rushers are predominantly home-based on artificial turf. (Pass rushers) are more effective on that than grass.”

Michael Irvin, Cowboy receiver, on quarterback Steve Beuerlein: ( He’s ) a backup who plays like a starter.”

Joe Gibbs, Redskin coach, on using Mark Rypien, his injured quarterback, and other starters in meaningless games: “Guys get hurt in practice. You can’t play football any other way ( than all out ) .”

Ernest Givins, Oiler receiver, on the players in the Philadelphia Eagle defense: “They are one of the nastiest defenses I’ve played against. They go for the head and knees. They could take a life.”

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