Ailing 49ers fast running out of steam

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American football


Before the season started, the American newspaper the Sporting News ran a three-page feature on the San Francisco 49ers offense, the general tenor of which was that as there was no stopping it, the best you could hope for was a measure of containment. Half a season later, there may be a need for an apology.

Not that the News was alone in regarding the attacking potential of the defending Super Bowl champions as one of the wonders of the sporting world. With Steve Young in his prime, Jerry Rice still hungry and the West Coast offense tuned to perfection, a succession of 40-point victories seemed a formality.

All of which makes the demise of the 49ers, and their offense in particular, the most extraordinary aspect of a bewildering couple of months in the NFL. It is not unusual for the boys from the Bay Area to drop the odd game in the season's opening chapters, but Sunday's defeat was their fourth, and their second in a row at home to a team they would normally thrash. A week ago, they could manage only seven points against New Orleans, and they had to make do with the same meagre return in losing to an expansion club, the Carolina Panthers.

The 49ers have been badly hit by injuries with Young, William Floyd and Brent Jones all missing, but enforced absences are the name of the game and George Seifert, the 49ers' normally placid head coach, was entitled to his furious response to this latest reverse. "I'm really angered at our guys. People have to step up," he said.

The Panthers took advantage of five 49er turnovers, one of which - an interception by Tim McKyer - was run back 96 yards for a touchdown. A brace of John Kasay field goals completed their scoring before half-time. Not that defeat by the Panthers is any disgrace these days. It was their fourth win in a row.

The 49ers hope to have Young back for Sunday's visit to the Dallas Cowboys, a contest originally billed as the game of the regular season, but currently boasting all the competitive allure of a bullfight. In a confusing season, just about the only team to conform to type has been the awesome Cowboys (well, all right, the Jets are predictably awful) and if the 49ers cannot beat the Panthers and Saints, it is hard to see them getting within 14 points of their old rivals.

The 49ers' claim to be the second-best team in the league probably belongs to the Kansas City Chiefs, whose eighth victory of the season came at the expense of Washington. The Chiefs lead a highly competitive AFC West in which the Oakland Raiders are also thriving.

For fans of the Cleveland Browns, depression at their latest defeat (to Houston) paled into insignificance once the news broke that Art Modell, the team's owner, intended to move the team to Baltimore next season. On the face of it, the decision seems astonishing as the fans in Cleveland, unlike those in Los Angeles which lost two teams in the summer, are among the most committed in the league. However, the NFL is above all else a league of businessmen, and if Modell can make more money in Baltimore we can expect the removal men.

There was a chilling reminder of the sport's dangers in Minnesota's victory over Green Bay. With the game level in the fourth quarter, Reggie White and Sean Jones, Green Bay's two gigantic defensive stars, collided as they attempted to sack Warren Moon.

The incident was reminiscent of the one which left a former New York Jets lineman paralysed two years ago. "It reminded me a lot of the Dennis Byrd kind of thing. The moans, and the pain those guys were in, that's all I could think of," Moon said.

White injured his knee, but Jones played on. However, at the end of the game Jones, clearly disorientated and unable to respond to the repeated questioning of team officials, was taken out on a stretcher still wearing his uniform. He spent the night in hospital suffering from a suspected concussion. In all, the Packers lost five players from a brutal encounter, including their starting quarterback Brett Favre, and his back-up Ty Detmer.

NFL (home teams first): San Francisco 7 Carolina 13; San Diego 14 Miami 24: New Orleans 19 St Louis 10; Cincinnati 17 Oakland 20; Cleveland 10 Houston 3; NY Jets 7 New England 20; Atlanta 34 Detroit 22; Kansas City 24 Washington 3; Indianapolis 10 Buffalo 16; Seattle 30 NY Giants 28; Chicago 34 Pittsburgh 37 (OT). Did not play: Jacksonville, Tampa Bay.