It’s the kind of dream not everyone shares, but launching himself helmet first into the path of a 226-pound charging running back hellbent on scoring a touchdown was a lifelong ambition come true for San Francisco linebacker Gary Plummer Sunday night.
“You lie in bed as a 10-year-old Pop Warner football player dreaming of something like this happening,” said Plummer, his right eye bloodshot from an earlier tackle in the game. “And you go on to make 1,300 tackles or so in your career, and then on national TV in a big game it happens: probably your biggest hit.”
Plummer’s third-quarter blast on running back Darick Holmes set up Lee Woodall’s 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown and allowed the 49ers to rock Buffalo, 27-17, in Candlestick Park before 65,568.
“That’s the hit of the year,” 49er linebacker Ken Norton said. “That’s one of those kinds of hits you can hear. I mean, standing on the field near the play, you could even feel it. And it turned the whole game around.”
Buffalo (8-5), poised to break a 10-10 tie in the third quarter, had the ball on the San Francisco one-yard line with first and goal. Quarterback Jim Kelly handed the ball to Holmes, who had been inserted in the second half to replace an injured Thurman Thomas (leg cramps), and Holmes aimed for the end zone.
“I never anticipated the hit,” Holmes said. “I don’t know if someone missed their block or what . . . one play--it can kill you.”
Plummer, who took a running start five yards deep in the end zone, left his feet and planted his helmet into Holmes’ upper body. The blow forced Holmes to fumble, and an opportunistic Woodall, who later recovered a Kelly fumble, was there to grab it.
Buffalo running backs Tim Tindale and Carwell Gardner gave chase, but they looked like plow horses trying to keep up with a thoroughbred.
“Once I started running, the end zone looked so far away,” Woodall said. “I started getting winded about the 35-yard line, but no one was going to catch me. But I’ve never run that far. I played running back in high school and college, but I never ran more than 50 yards.”
Woodall’s touchdown, second only to Don Griffin’s 99-yard return against Chicago in 1991 in team history, helped the defense set a club record with its seventh score of the year.
“Every week it seems like it’s somebody different making the big play,” Plummer said, “and it gets kind of embarrassing when you’re not one of those players.”
Normally, it’s the 49ers’ offensive players who make the big plays, but this season San Francisco features the NFL’s No. 1 defense. And in an otherwise forgettable football game, it was the difference between victory and playoff disaster for the 49ers.
“We thought we were underappreciated last year, and we’ve been trying to make a statement on defense this season,” Plummer said. “You’ve seen ESPN do features on defenses like the Eagles, but no one is talking about the No. 1 defense in the league.”
The Bills, however, will be muttering to themselves all the way back to Buffalo. They not only lost the chance to leave Indianapolis and Miami behind in their race to win the AFC East Division title, but they frittered away a chance to ambush the 49ers on a night when San Francisco’s offense was struggling.
“I told Steve Young that I came here to enjoy the twilight of my career sitting on the bench and enjoying this terrific offense,” Plummer said. “But we’ve had our share of work to do this season.”
Three years ago, in his last meeting with the Bills, Young threw for more than 400 yards. But Young, who returned to start last week against the St. Louis Rams after sitting out five games because of a shoulder injury, looks like a quarterback in need of training camp. Young was not only off target, but he appeared indecisive in the pocket, setting himself up as an easy target for Buffalo defenders Bruce Smith and Bryce Paup.
“It’s tough to tell whether that was a tough battle or we weren’t playing well,” said Young, who was sacked four times and completed 28 of 44 passes for 243 yards with an interception. “We had a lot of three and outs, and they had a good plan for us. We were frustrated, but I can’t say enough about Derek Loville.”
The 49ers opened the game as though they were on a mission to make a household name of Derek Loville, while ignoring wide receiver Jerry Rice. Their initial five offensive plays involved Loville as ball carrier or receiver; Loville finished the game with career highs with 88 yards rushing and 86 yards receiving.
In the past, it has been players such as Rice, John Taylor, William Floyd, Brent Jones and Young scoring touchdowns for the 49ers. But against the Bills, it was Loville scoring from eight yards out, Adam Walker diving in from the one and Jeff Wilkins kicking field goals of 20 and 40 yards.
“We’re going to have games like this,” San Francisco Coach George Seifert said. “We have to do what we have to do; we’re not always going to win by 30 or 40 points.”
If the 49ers and the Bills advance to the Super Bowl, then of course the 49ers can count on winning by 30 or 40 points, but in the meantime the fight continues.
“I’m still sick about the losses this year,” 49er safety Merton Hanks said. “We’re a 13-0 team that’s what, 9-4? We’re a desperate team, that’s what we are, and that’s the way we have to play the rest of the way.”