A Play Of Infamy: Craig's Fumble Ends 49Er Dynasty

SAN FRANCISCO - The fumble.

Roger Craig will call it the worst moment of his professional life. It will be a play that will live in San Francisco 49er infamy. It will be remembered as the play that ended a dynasty.

``I've had a lot of highs and lows, but this is the lowest ever,'' Craig said in the gloom of the losers' locker room. ``I never dreamed I would make a fumble in a spot like that. This is like a nightmare for a running back.

``The main thing I think about at a time like this is my teammates, especially the rookies who've never gone to a Super Bowl. I let them down.''

The game belonged to the 49ers. They were ahead 13-12 with the clock on their side. The championship three-peat was alive. It was going to be San Francisco and Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV.

For the first time all afternoon, the Niners were running well. Craig went for 6 yards up the middle and 5 more on a sweep to the right. His number was called again, a personal three-peat.

He drove into the middle of the New York Giants line. Erik Howard's helmet knocked the ball out of his hands. New York linebacker Lawrence Taylor recovered on the Giant 43.

There were 2 minutes, 36 seconds left. It was winning time. Niner time. But this time San Francisco made the momentous mistake.

``I thought we were controlling the line. Things were just opening up well for us, except for that one play,'' Craig said. ``I had two hands on the ball. I was going through the hole. I don't know what happened. All of a sudden, the ball was out of my hands.

``It's kind of an overpowering feeling right now. Right after it happened, on the sidelines, I was in the ozone. I was shocked. I don't remember anything.''

After the fumble, the Giants marched 33 yards, perfectly positioning the ball in the middle of the field for Matt Bahr's 42-yard, game-winning field goal at the final gun.

The Giants won the NFC championship yesterday 15-13.

The better team won. The Niners' weaknesses - questionable defensive backs, a mediocre offensive line and, most of all, no running game - caught up with them.

``I think the trouble with the running game is that we didn't exercise it enough this year,'' said Craig, who gained 26 yards in eight carries. ``We've got to come back next year.''

The numbers explain the Niners' fall. San Francisco rushed only 11 times and threw 27 passes. Only one of its 13 first downs came on a run. It managed 39 yards rushing. The Niner offense was on the field only 21 of the game's 60 minutes.

``All season, we never got the old running game going and it eventually hurt us,'' 49er tackle Steve Wallace said. ``If you don't get it going, eventually it will come back to haunt you. This year, next year, eventually it gets you.

``Still, we had a chance to win it without a running game. I mean we didn't even try to run much, but I don't want to get into the amount. I don't want to say anything about that.''

All season San Francisco played with fire. The 49ers lived off their stingy defense and the arm of quarterback Joe Montana. Late in the fourth quarter yesterday, with the 49ers ahead 13-9, Montana suffered a broken little finger and a bruised sternum after a savage hit from Leonard Marshall. He didn't return.

Doctors said Montana wouldn't have been ready for next Sunday's Super Bowl. Bahr's final field goal saved the Niners from an almost certain loss to Buffalo. Without Montana and without a running game, they didn't stand a chance.

``It's very shocking that we're not going to the Super Bowl. It really is,'' Wallace said. ``But life goes on. Things could be worse. I could be dead fighting in the war. At a time like this, you just have to be thankful for being alive.''

For a decade we've become accustomed to 49er finishes. Dwight Clark's catch against Dallas. John Taylor's catch against Cincinnati.

But in this fourth quarter, the Giants made the plays. Gary Reasons ran a fake punt 30 yards for a first down that led to Bahr's fourth of five field goals. It proved to be a prophetic prelude to Craig's fumble.

Dynasties die slowly. Teams don't drop out of sight after winning back-to-back Super Bowls as the Niners have. The first loss is a shock.

``I like this team's chances every time we go out there,'' linebacker Matt Millen said. ``We lost it and that's not expected. We had the game won.''

The erosion is gradual. It happened that way to the Los Angeles Lakers. It will happen to the Oakland A's and Detroit Pistons.

Players get old together. The luck changes. The big victory escapes. San Francisco won 15 games this season, but it didn't win the biggest one.

``This game will leave a bad taste in a lot of our mouths,'' wide receiver Jerry Rice said.

The inevitable questions will follow this loss. How much longer can Montana take a beating? How much more pain can safety Ronnie Lott withstand? Where have Craig's legs gone? Is he this season's Curt Warner?

These questions will echo through Candlestick Park like the wind, through the long winter.

``People have been counting me and counting us out all year,'' Craig, 30, said. ``They've been saying that I've lost a step and everything like that. I'll be back next year. I'm just happy that my teammates still respect me.''

It was just after 4 o'clock. The whimsical winds of Candlestick were hushed. Matt Bahr's field goal was true, and in the quiet of the gathering twilight, a dynasty died.

Steve Kelley's column usually is published Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the Sports section of The Times.