Young at heart of the 49ers

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AMERICAN FOOTBALL The half-time show at Super Bowl XXIX took as its theme the new Indiana Jones film, which gave it at least one quality missing from the surrounding action. The suspense lasted longer. A more telling image, though, occured in the pre-game razzmatazz as two giant helmets were inflated in the middle of the pitch. As the San Francisco 49ers one basked in its full glory, the San Diego Chargers version appeared to have a slow puncture, and there seemed a real danger that it would not be blown up in time. It was, but the incident had set the tone. The Chargers were never able to rise to the occasion.

Not that the inevitability of their success will worry the 49ers, who won a record fifth Super Bowl title with a crushing 49-26 victory. They began the game as the biggest favourites in the game's history, with many regarding their victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game as the downpayment on a national crown, leaving just the formalities to be concluded. Any sense that this was an overly pessimistic view lasted precisly 84 seconds, the time it took the 49ers to take the lead. From then on, despite the odd flurry from the Chargers, the only sensible question was by how much the 49ers would win.

For the 11th time in a row, an NFC team had beaten their AFC counterpart in the climax to the gridiron season, a depressing slice of one-sidedness that does little to enhance the game's international image. With the eyes of the world upon it, a genuine sporting contest has, for the most part, been replaced by a three-hour inauguration. "We were always going to kick their butts, it was just we couldn't say that," Deion Sanders, the 49ers cornerback, said with refreshing candour afterwards. "We can't talklike that about a game, but let's face it, the real Super Bowl was against Dallas.''

A triumph that was short of genuine excitement at least harvested an abundance of personal achievement, the most notable being that of Steve Young, the 49ers quarterback, who has for so long toiled in the shadow of Joe Montana. Young may never match Montana's four victories in the title game, but he produced a sufficiently masterful performance to suggest that there is a new legend in the making in the Bay Area.

The 33-year-old Mormon would be stretching his Christian values too far if he did not take special pride in breaking Montana's record of five touchdown passes in one Super Bowl. Young took that mark to six and, for good measure, was the game's most productive runner, amassing 49 yards on five carries. This was not a flawless performance, there were a number of overthrown balls and timing errors, but it was one of enormous assurance. He remained unruffled throughout, and, demonstrating Montana-like awareness of his options, was always capable of generating the decisive play. The game's Most Valuable Player award was added to his burgeoning list of personal accolades, and will presumably fight for space in one of the larger pieces of furniture in northern California, the Steve Young trophy cabinet.

Afterwards there was, understandably, a note of redemption as Young enjoyed a moment that had been a long time coming. "For one person to face all that scrutiny and all that scepticism is very difficult. You learn to have a thicker skin, and not to let it pierce your heart," he said.

Young's only serious rival for the MVP award was his own wide receiver, Jerry Rice, whose display was outstanding by any standards, but, given that he played more than half the game with a dislocated shoulder, ventured towards the unbelievable. Rice, whowas also reported to be sick the night before the game, caught 10 passes, three of them for scores to set a new record of seven touchdowns in Super Bowls. "Jerry Rice with one arm is better than everyone else in the league with two," Young said.

Rice scored with his first touch of the ball on the third play of the game, seizing a Young pass over the middle and galloping into the end zone for a 44-yard score. San Diego punted away their first possession and three minutes later, the NFC champions used the same route to Chargers ruin. This time, it was the running back, Ricky Watters, who shrugged off two tackles on a straight-ahead draw play to score from 51 yards - at which point the biggest danger to the Chargers appeared to be their own safeties.

They did mount something of a recovery late in the first quarter, Stan Humphries orchestrating an impressive drive with Natrone Means bulldozing in from one yard out to reduce the deficit to 14-7. Young responded immediately, however, and the 49ers claimed their third touchdown in three possessions when the rookie William Floyd ran in a Young dart as the Chargers blitzed. A few minutes later it was Watters' turn again, and at 28-7, with nearly five minutes left in the first half, it was all over bar therouting.

Watters, with the 49ers' only rushing score, and Rice's two further six-pointers completed the annihilation, with the Chargers' one memorable moment coming on Andre Coleman's 98-yard kick-off return for a TD.

By the end of the third quarter, Chargers fans, who formed the majority of a strangely subdued crowd, were streaming for the exits. For them, there was little consolation. Their team had been over-matched in virtually every department but, like the Buffalo Bills before them, had contributed to the scale of their downfall by making mistakes. Not so much turnovers, though these came as they tried to force the game, but missed tackles, penalties and a couple of perverse play calls, which thwarted whatever momentum they were able to generate.

For the NFL, the result poses some awkward questions. How long is the monopoly of one conference going to continue? Should they do something about it? In fact, the dominance is not so much from the NFC, as from a small group of NFC teams. The 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins and Giants have won the last nine Super Bowls between them, while the Cowboys and 49ers have contested the last three NFC Championship games.

A system where the teams are seeded after the regular season, regardless of conference, has many attractions, but is unlikely to happen. The present formula, for all its flaws, is too firmly entrenched. Assuming there is no change, the only short-term salvation for an American institution lies, appropriately, with the Patriots. New England are a team on the rise and their head coach, Bill Parcells, may know just enough to be competitive in the final game.

Even so, the 49ers and Cowboys, neither of whom appear in decline, must start as strong favourites to continue their domination for at least another year. The Cowboys can be expected to mount a fierce challenge to regain their title, while the 49ers' ability to resist it may depend on whether they can keep the services of Sanders. He has given every indication that he wants to stay but, having arrived relatively cheaply, insists that from now on it is for others to make sacrifices. Whether the 49ers arewilling to make them has just become American football's $3m question.