Liotta: Niners need to find a way to regroup

The 49ers re-emerge as one giant question mark.

Will they be the team that was so impressive during the season’s first four weeks that fans began talking playoffs? Or will they be the team that self-destructed against the Atlanta Falcons?

I can guarantee one thing. Nobody knows. Not even Mike Singletary.

That’s because, no matter what things look like on paper, football is played between the lines, with a scoreboard all lit up, and a clock running.

Everything else is just talk.

Oh, sure, enough games turn out like the experts say they will that fans begin to believe somebody actually knows something about an outcome before a football game happens.

Not true.

Where a game is decided, how a game is decided, isn’t decided until a game is played. How I know is my favorite first-hand football story. I tell it all the time. I’ve even told it to some of the participants, and they’ve agreed with me.

It was 1992. I was the sideline reporter for Stanford University football radio broadcasts — the year Bill Walsh returned as coach. I worked with Barry Tompkins and Bob Murphy, two guys who taught me more about football and radio broadcasting than anybody.

The fifth game of the season saw the Cardinal travel to South Bend, Ind., to play the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. The Cardinal were 3-1 at the time, and feeling pretty good about themselves.

The game started horribly. The Irish recorded a safety on the first play from scrimmage, and led 16-0 before the game was 20 minutes in. On the sideline, I could see the Stanford kids wanted nothing to do with this game.

Players edged toward the end of the bench, hoping Walsh wouldn’t call their number. It felt like a landslide. Until a play I’ll never forget.

Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer threw a pass over the middle intended for Lake Dawson. John Lynch — the Stanford safety who went on to a stellar NFL career — drilled a shoulder into Dawson so hard that the hip pads came out of Dawson’s pants. It was a clean hit, but it took several minutes before the Irish could get Dawson off the field.

The moment Lynch hit Dawson, the impact rippled through the Stanford sideline, with every player on the bench coming alive, almost as if to say, “Yeah. We can do that, too. Put me in there, coach. Let me show ’em.”

The rest of the game was the kind of history only football can write. Stanford scored 33 unanswered points, and it wasn’t that close.

The Cardinal’s 33-16 victory always reminds me that football games are won and lost with a clock running.
It’s going to be the same for the 49ers. Maybe they find a way to regroup and regain the bounce in their step they had winning three of their first four games. Or maybe they never rekindle the magic, and there will be more days like the game against the Falcons.

This morning in Houston, we’ll begin to find out.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at tliotta@sfexaminer.com.

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