SUPER BOWL XXIX : Luck Runs Into Greatness When Chargers Play 49ers : Pro football: Even Namath, architect of the Super Bowl’s greatest upset, has no trouble picking San Francisco.


Why play?

When one team, the San Francisco 49ers, is perhaps one of the greatest of the Super Bowl era and the other, the San Diego Chargers, is, well, lucky to even be here, why play?

That is what a lot of people could be asking themselves by the time the Super Bowl ends tonight at Joe Robbie Stadium.

For by the second quarter, third at the latest, they may be watching Elvis Grbac throwing to Nate Singleton, Ed McCaffrey and Ted Popson--not long after Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Brent Jones have devoured the suspect San Diego secondary.


By then, the only consolation may be that neither the Buffalo Bills nor Denver Broncos are here.

The 49ers are playing for the NFL championship because they have been one of only two dominant teams in this season of parity. The other was the Dallas Cowboys, whom the 49ers beat, 38-28, in the NFC title game two weeks ago, accomplishing the goal they set after losing to Dallas the previous two years.

This is a team of superstars seeking to become the first to win five Super Bowls, while extending the winning streak of the NFC to 11 NFL titles. All but two of the last 10 victories were by lopsided scores, an average of 38-15--the same score by which the Niners beat the Chargers in San Diego on Dec. 11.

San Diego?


The Chargers were picked to finish at the bottom of the AFC West. Instead, they won the division at 11-5, but remained one of those second-line teams, in the “better-than-average” category with the Packers, Dolphins, Chiefs and Lions, among others.

And that’s just one of the reasons the Chargers have spent the week fielding questions about the margin of defeat.

“The only way to get respect is to go out and try to win the game,” responds Leslie O’Neal, the defensive end who is one of the few recognizable names on the Chargers’ roster.

“It would be a travesty if we went out and didn’t play well and then had to listen to others about how we didn’t belong here--that we had played over our head to get here.”


Sounds defensive; it should be.

The Chargers come to the big game following victories over Miami and Pittsburgh that could just as easily have been losses--the other team had the game in its hands on the final offensive play.

Pete Stoyanovich’s 48-yard field-goal attempt went wide right in the 22-21 victory over the Dolphins, and Dennis Gibson got his little finger on Neil O’Donnell’s pass to Barry Foster in the end zone of the 17-13 victory in Pittsburgh.

The Chargers were dominated by the Steelers, but made two big plays, both 43-yard touchdown passes by Stan Humphries--one to Alfred Pupunu, the other to Tony Martin. That was after a pass interference call set up a field goal.


But if San Diego scores 17 points today, the 49ers will just shrug it off.

San Francisco scored fewer than 17 only twice in 18 games. One was in the meaningless final game of the regular season, the other in perhaps their watershed game of the year--a 40-8 loss at home to Philadelphia in which Young went ballistic at Coach George Seifert for pulling him in the middle of a series.

San Francisco has Young, the league MVP two of the past three seasons; Rice, the NFL’s all-time touchdown leader; Deion Sanders and a panoply of brash young stars whose trash talking would never have been tolerated during the reign of Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott.

San Diego has a panoply of the obscure and the cast off. Beyond O’Neal and Junior Seau, the middle linebacker who smashes sand castles in commercials, the average fan would be hard-pressed to recognize anyone, even Humphries or Natrone Means, the smashmouth running back.


Four Chargers starters once played for Tampa Bay, a team that has lost 10 games or more for the last dozen years. Reuben Davis, a 320-pound defensive tackle, played for the Bucs and Cardinals, the only NFL teams not to make the playoffs in the last dozen seasons.

After the Philadelphia loss, which left them 3-2, the 49ers went on a 10-game winning tear and were held under 30 points only twice. Young had 22 touchdown passes and only three interceptions during that stretch, completed more than 70% of his passes and finished the season with a record quarterback rating of 112.8, breaking Montana’s five-year-old record.

Those accomplishments nearly erased the shadow of Montana that has plagued Young since he took over as starter in 1991. A victory today will complete the task.

If he does win, it will be with an entirely different sort of team than the ones Montana led to Super Bowl triumphs.


The previous San Francisco winners were a businesslike bunch, a proper group that might have carried briefcases to their games.

This is a rapping, quick-talking, fun bunch.

“I’m household now,” Sanders, Mr. Prime Time, said in the chaos of Tuesday’s media day, while rookie William Floyd led a rap-fest farther down the field.

That wouldn’t have been permitted during the reign of King Joe I.


“The last few times I was here, Joe was the focal point,” said left tackle Steve Wallace, in his third Super Bowl with the 49ers. “Now it’s more of a team. You feel like part of a team. It used to be you felt like a part of Joe.”

Added left guard Jesse Sapolu, contrasting the easygoing Young with the no-nonsense Montana: “Steve’s just an average Joe. Well . . . maybe I should put that another way.”

But if the 49ers were just offense, they wouldn’t be here.

The offense was nearly as good as in 1992 and 1993, when they came up one game short, losing to Dallas each time in the NFC title game. That was because the defense just wasn’t up to standards.


Enter Carmen Policy, the 49er president.

Working for the first time under the restrictions of a $34.6 million salary cap, he slashed $18-20 million from the payroll. Yet he still added the defensive players he needed with a clever series of moves that brought linebackers Ken Norton from the Cowboys and Gary Plummer from the Chargers and defensive end Rickey Jackson from the Saints.