AMERICAN FOOTBALL:Haley hoping to rock Seifert and roll over 49ers

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The Independent Online
Should Charles Haley bring his considerable influence to bear on tomorrow's NFC Championship game, it will be of absolutely no consolation whatsoever to George Seifert to know that Haley still regards him as the coach who made him. But it may come s as abit of a surprise.

Haley left the San Francisco 49ers, where Seifert is head coach, amid much acrimony two years ago, taking his truculence and talent to the Dallas Cowboys. His new team, then run by a couple of volatile characters called Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones, were rather more forgiving of Haley's turbulent ways, especially as they correctly reasoned that his pass-rushing gifts were the final piece in their championship-winning jigsaw.

Seifert's prim outlook was perceived as the reason Haley moved on. However, in a recent rare interview, he went out of his way to credit Seifert with his development as one of the game's outstanding linebackers.

"I learned a lot off Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner," he told the Sporting News of two former 49er team-mates. "The biggest credit for it all would go to George Seifert, though. When he was defensive co-ordinator, he used to go over every little detail." Haley, who is facing the 49ers for the third year running in the championship game, bears no grudges. "I don't have anything against George Seifert as a person," he said. "My situation was out of control. It came down from higher authorities for me to getout of there. I don't blame George. They had cut all the leaders away, and I wasn't ready to step up and be that guy for everybody."

Haley, who won Super Bowl rings with the 49ers before claiming a couple more with the Cowboys, will not be the only defensive stalwart facing old colleagues tomorrow. For two years the middle linebacker, Ken Norton Jnr, was a less visible but no less valuable member of the Cowboys defense. Now does his stuff for the 49ers, doing so with all the heart that might be expected from the son of another Ken Norton, his father, the former heavyweight world champion. Norton's principal duty will be to thwart theadvances of an old friend, Emmitt Smith. The Cowboys' running back may have aggravated a hamstring injury in the victory over Green Bay last Sunday, but he expects to play.

As has become depressingly customary, the NFC title game is widely seen as not just a Super Bowl semi-final, but the contest to determine the Super Bowl itself. Tomorrow's AFC game between Pittsburgh and San Diego is being generally billed as a warm-up match before the serious business.

The long-standing gulf between the leading NFC and AFC sides has, if anything, widened this season, with the 49ers and Cowboys apparently locked on a collision course from the pre-season onwards. The 49ers broke their run of defeats to the Cowboys with asatisfying regular-season victory, and the effective rushing in that game of their quarterback, Steve Young, clearly made an impression in Texas.

"I saw that bootleg play a million times in practice when I was with the 49ers," Haley said this week, with reference to one of Young's particularly devastating manoeuvres. "They won't fool me with it anymore. I should have been ready for it in October. I will be ready on Sunday."

Haley's colleagues are also focused on Young. "The last time we treated him like a quarter- back. This time we'll treat him like a running back. If he doesn't slide when he's supposed to, he's going to get connected," said James Washington, the Cowboys safety.

Such fighting talk is typical of the Cowboys, who find themselves in the unaccustomed position of being slight underdogs. In times gone by the 49ers would rise above such taunting, but there are signs of a grittier approach. When Young took a late hit after scoring last Sunday against Chicago, the entire offense piled in to protect him.

This week, when told of the plan the Cowboys had for Young, William Floyd, the 49ers rookie running back said: "If you're going to talk the talk you gotta walk the walk. They're scared. We're the ones who are gonna walk the walk."

For all their strutting, the Cowboys remain daunting opponents. They demonstrated in crushing Green Bay that they can be awesome even without Emmitt Smith. Having tipped the 49ers all year, though, now is no time to lose the faith. No team has responded better to the monopoly threatened by the Cowboys, and having raised their game to a new level in the last month the 49ers should possess too many offensive weapons to be denied. San Francisco by three then, followed by a comfortable victory over Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.