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Scott Ostler

Caught With Their Pants Down

November 11, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

Joe Montana's dramatic return Sunday surely caught the attention of John Robinson of the Rams, and also of Al Flores or Tom Davis or whomever is calling the shots for the Raiders.

There was a lesson there.

Montana's return also caught the attention of San Francisco football fans, who have fallen on hard, hard times recently. When Montana took off a few quick weeks for major back surgery and rehabilitation, the City's beloved 49ers took a vacation, too. They went South.

Where to turn for these loyal fans? Well, there's always Bay Area college football. Let's see. At Stanford, the band grabs most of the football headlines when several of the musicians urinate on the gridiron. You didn't expect them to use a tuba, did you?

And over at Cal, to liven up a dull postgame press conference, the coach unzips his fly. Better he had flashed at halftime in the locker room, exhorting his players to win one for the zipper.

If you're a dedicated dad or mom, and junior loves sports, this is a grand opportunity. "Son," you tell him, "let's go watch the Stanford band in action, then hurry over to catch Joe Kapp's press conference. To complete the day, we'll head for the trout stream and do some fly fishing."

Clearly, a miracle was needed in San Francisco. The football faithful were floundering spiritually. And so it came to pass Sunday that Montana came to pass. What Montana did in one afternoon for football in San Francisco, for the fans and the players, was not lost on the Ram and Raider leaders, one would hope.

What he did was prove what the leaders of the Rams and Raiders have been trying to deny, both in word and deed, for the last couple years--that in today's NFL, you really do need a quarterback.

The Ram-Raider philosophy has been to build a strong, hard-hitting team, and if you happen to wind up with a real quarterback, swell. Otherwise, you find yourself a reasonable facsimile, on the order of an Elvis impersonator.

Then you lose ballgames. Not all of them, just the ones that really matter.

Even before they saw Montana's video highlights Sunday, the Raiders got a reminder of what a difference a quarterback can make. Jim Plunkett's long-overdue return to action lifted the entire team's morale, and resulted in a victory. Unfortunately for the Raiders, this is not likely to be a long-term solution to the problem.

Plunkett, bless his king-sized heart, is old and slow and not unbreakable. To expect him to hold up for another two months of Sundays under normal NFL wear and tear is unrealistic.

The Raiders waited too long, a couple of years too long, to take drastic quarterback measures. Get a Jim Everett, a Jim Kelly, even a Doug Flutie. Somebody who might give your team hope and inspiration.

The Rams didn't wait, they simply failed to exercise rational judgment. They went for old guys, patched-up museum pieces doomed from the moment they signed. The Rams fell victim to the Gene Autry syndrome.

Finally, the Rams acted boldly and intelligently, landing a very promising rookie, Jim Everett. So far he has shown great skill with a clipboard. The Rams cool Everett on the sidelines while the relics and journeymen flounder and heroic 21-man efforts often go to waste.

The Rams and Raiders failed to realize just what a great quarterback can do. Montana reminded them. Sunday, Joe had the most incredible game a pro quarterback has had all season, maybe for many seasons. He brought back the 49ers' short passing game.

"He also brought back the long passing game, the running game, the defensive game and the kicking game," wrote the San Francisco Examiner's Ira Miller.

The 49ers kicker, Ray Wersching, came out of a personal slump and kicked field goals from all over the lot, then said, "(Montana) just gave an air of confidence to everyone, knowing that Joe was out there and one way or another we were going to win."

There aren't a lot of Joe Montanas around. They are as rare as Golden Gate bridges. But that doesn't excuse the Rams and Raiders for failure to act, or to act wisely, in filling quarterback needs. They spent most of their energy denying the problem, or shooing away the media gadflies.

What now? The Raiders play Plunkett and pray. The Rams sit their phenom on the bench and wait till next year.

The least the Rams can do now, to afford their fans some entertainment, is to book the Stanford band to play at halftime. The band has been suspended for a couple of Stanford games and is looking for gigs. They are limited. They can't play stadiums with artificial turf because of drainage problems, but the Rams play on natural turf.

The band could perform a salute to Joe Kapp, featuring a peppy rendition of "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah."

Those poor Rams fans could stand some cheering up. And the Stanford band wouldn't be missed by Bay Area football fans, because now they have a team to watch.

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