CLEVELAND — How successfully can football be played in January weather? Well, some athletes can make it look like a romp on a summer afternoon, as two National Football League quarterbacks did Saturday:
--At San Francisco, the Minnesota Vikings' surprise backup sensation, Wade Wilson, became the All-Pro quarterback of the playoffs--at least for the first two weeks--with his second consecutive big game for the wild-card Minnesota Vikings, who upset the 49ers, 36-24.
Wilson's running, passing and, yes, blocking made the difference for the Vikings on a day when they intelligently double-teamed 49er Jerry Rice consistently, taking him out of the game.
At the same time, the 49ers unintelligently spent the entire day trying to single-cover Anthony Carter. They couldn't. Nobody can.
--On a cold afternoon in Ohio, quarterback Bernie Kosar won a 38-21 game for the Cleveland Browns.
It was 19 above when the Cleveland game started, and close to zero at the finish, but there wasn't much wind. That was the key. To a canny, determined football player, a calm winter day is like any day in July, and there isn't a more resourceful quarterback in pro football than Kosar.
The young Cleveland leader took full advantage of this strange, still day on a frozen beach near Lake Erie to complete the 20 passes--3 for touchdowns in a total of 31 attempts--that eliminated the Indianapolis Colts.
Kosar's four turning-point passes were all thrown to 31-year-old tight end Ozzie Newsome on identical angle-out patterns in the third quarter. These plays, comprising the unexpected element in Cleveland's game plan, set up the decisive points after Indianapolis quarterback Jack Trudeau had surprisingly played Kosar to a 14-14 tie at the half.
Later, Cleveland Coach Marty Schottenheimer said the play of the game was a blitz by one of his inside linebackers, Eddie Johnson, who lined up in the Browns' version of the Chicago Bears' 46 defense, then bored in on Trudeau, hitting the quarterback's arm to force a wild pass.
This was intercepted by Cleveland free safety Felix Wright at the Browns' 14-yard line to end a menacing 71-yard drive by the Colts from their own 15 at the start of the second half.
"We never ran that blitz before," said Schottenheimer. "I don't think (the Colts) were ready for it."
They weren't. But that wasn't what beat them. What beat them was the 86-yard Cleveland drive that followed Johnson's big rush.
The Kosar passes. The Newsome catches. Playing gallantly, the Colts were beaten by a 24-year-old quarterback and a 31-year-old tight end.
Eric Dickerson, the Colts' new running back, was probably the best player on the Cleveland field. The Browns had made a pregame decision to take Dickerson out, come what may. And it was this strategy--removing the pressure from Trudeau and his receivers--that made the game even for nearly three quarters.
For on 33 pass plays, as the Browns defensed Dickerson, Trudeau completed 21 for 255 yards and 2 touchdowns. That was more yards passing than Kosar got.
Trudeau has improved, and his wide receivers are pretty good, but they aren't that good. They hadn't played as effectively as this at any other time this season against a defense like Cleveland's.
When he won, finally, it turned out that Schottenheimer had guessed right. Explaining why he gave the Indianapolis pass offense so many opportunities, the Cleveland coach said:
"Every time (the Colts) throw the ball, that's one less time they can give it to Dickerson."
Cleveland cornerback Frank Minnifield said: "Our objective today was to commit 11 guys to . . . Eric Dickerson."
Cleveland's other Pro Bowl cornerback, Hanford Dixon, added: "We said before the game, if (Dickerson) is gonna gain a few yards, let him have to break 11 tackles, and that's what we did."
So Dickerson faced a defense that was stacked against him--with a Cleveland linebacker on each side keying on him on every play--and still netted 50 yards in 15 carries. But most were wasted plays. The Colts, against this particular defense, should have thrown to him more often than they ran him.
With seven catches, Dickerson was the leading receiver on the field, proving, once more, that he is underrated on pass plays.
His touchdown catch demonstrated, in any event, that the Browns had underestimated him as a receiver. In the second quarter, on a first-down play at the Cleveland 19, the Browns doubled both Indianapolis wide receivers and tried to cover Dickerson down the middle with their best linebacker, Clay Matthews.
It was a ho-hum touchdown that the Colts, strangely, didn't try to duplicate again, a failure that cost them.
Most of the way, the Ohio game was beautiful and well-played with one long offensive march after another. This is what you can expect, even on a cold day, when neither side blitzes the passer and when both offensive lines are powerful enough to hold off the rushers in two rather indifferent defensive lines.