Deck the halls with Niner folly

Fa-La-La-La-La, La-La-La-LaYoung was pulled and wasn't jolly

Fa-La-La-La-La, La-La-La-La.

Houston's blitz performed quite great

Fa-La-La, La-La-La, La-La-La.

Can't say the same for No. 8

Fa-La-La-La-La, La-La-La-La.

First of all, let us assure you that despite any rumors you might have heard, the San Francisco 49ers were trying to win Saturday's game. Really. They were. They said so. I believe them.

However, you could certainly forgive anyone who might have wondered if things were just a little too ... well, non-intense at Candlestick Park on this holiday afternoon. Even the playing field itself was absent of its usual game face, painted up like a tacky Christmas card with "Season's Greetings" slogans and holly in the end zone. The only missing touch was a fake beard on the helmet logo at the 50-yard line.

Anyway, you probably know what happened by now. The 49ers lost to Houston, 10-7. More significantly, Niners quarterback Steve Young was asked to sit down in the third quarter, to keep his arm healthy for the playoffs - but Young was not full of cheer about that. He wanted to stay in the lineup and rally the team to victory. And he didn't mind saying so.

"It hurt," Young said. "Believe me, I wasn't happy about it. ... To be taken out in that situation. ... I had to really bite my tongue. It wasn't easy. But the decision had been made."

By whom? By Niners head coach George Seifert, of course. He more or less decided to treat Saturday as a quasi-exhibition game, rather than a regular-season game.

Was this a wise choice? I'm not convinced. To me, it's awfully hard to treat a game with 80 percent game-plan intensity when the other team is at 100 percent.

But give Seifert credit. He had his reasons for what he did. Before the kickoff, the 49ers already had clinched a division title, a first week playoff bye, and home-field advantage in the first postseason game. Granted, the Niners still could have gained the home-field edge for the entire playoffs, but they needed an improbable combination of wins and losses by the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

Knowing all this, Seifert decided that Young wouldn't play the whole game against the Oilers. Fine. Only problem was, Seifert didn't tell everybody what he was doing - at least not specifically. Last week, Seifert did hint that backup quarterback Steve Bono might play "some." But the details were vague.

Until halftime. That's when Seifert broke the news to Young: He would play just two more offensive series. Then he would sit down. No matter what.

"It was something that had been decided well before the ballgame," Seifert said. "If Steve wasn't playing well, we were going to take him out. If he was playing great, we were going to take him out. If he was playing average, we were going to take him out."

As it turned out, Young was playing somewhere between less-than-average and fetid. He threw two interceptions in the first half and fumbled away the ball when he was smacked by a Houston tackler. That's why the Niners trailed Houston 10-0 at halftime.

The third quarter didn't go much better. He drove the team with some success, but couldn't put any points on the board in those first two possessions. Which is why he argued to stay in the game.

"It was the perfect chance to fight back," Young said. "But George had made up his mind. He said the game wasn't as meaningful as some, and he didn't want to risk me getting hurt. I tried to make the point that it was worth the risk. You know, I'm pretty durable. ... I was begging for one more (series)."

The begging strategy didn't work. Seifert didn't change his mind. Not only did he want to protect Young from any late-game cheap shots by the Oilers' storming defense, Seifert also wanted to see Steve Bono run the Niners offense in case he might be needed in the playoffs. Bono did drive the team to one touchdown but will be back on the bench next week.

"Basically, I took a stubborn Dutchman approach," Seifert said, not intending to offend any of his fellow Dutch-Americans but standing up for the inalienable rights of his fellow Stubborn-Americans.

"We wanted to win," Seifert said. "We had our chances. If we had taken advantage of all our chances in the first half, we would have had 17 points. Of course, if my grandmother had whiskers, she'd be my grandfather."

And if Seifert's grandfather had been the Niners' starting quarterback, he also would have been benched in the third quarter. That was Seifert's plan. He didn't announce his intentions beforehand because he didn't want Young - "or anybody else" - to be thinking about his inevitable exit during the first two quarters of the game.

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But what about the folks who paid $35 to watch Saturday?

"I feel bad we didn't win," said Seifert. "But it wasn't a calculated thing to be a Grinch."

Tight end Brent Jones, one of Young's good friends on the team, probably has it right.

"I understand why Steve feels the way he does," Jones said. "He's a competitor. It's the nature of a competitor that you want to be involved. But you also don't want to have your starting quarterback get a separated shoulder in the fourth quarter of a game like this. ... You've got to look at the big picture. He (Young) will calm down."

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