F10Y Retro – The 1981 49ers – The season that launched a dynasty

by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro and @NFLFANINENGLAND)

Sometimes legacies begin with a big bang, sometimes however they start without even a fizzle. 

Back in the Spring of 1977 Eddie De Bartolo Sr bought a present for his 31 year old son of the same name. It wasn’t a car or even a house, it was an NFL franchise – the San Francisco 49ers team in fact. 

From 1977 to 1979 the 49ers won just 9 of 46 games as they went through four different head coaches, finally settling on former Stanford College coach Bill Walsh. 

James Lofton in Canton – Picture credit: Raiders.com

Walsh was given the opportunity with the 49ers in part for his outstanding job nurturing offensive talent at Stanford including future 10-year pro RB Darrin Nelson and future Hall of Famer WR James Lofton, who caught two TD passes for the Cardinals in their 1977 Sun Bowl victory over LSU. 

The 1977 49ers started their season 0-5 and finished 5-9 with QB Jim Plunkett, a 1976 trade acquisition from the New England Patriots. Plunkett would go on to be released by the Niners in the 1978 preseason, before being picked up as a backup by the Oakland Raiders. Plunkett would go on to win not one but two Super Bowl rings as the Raiders starter in the early 1980s. 

San Francisco 49ers Jim Plunkett (16) right, and O. J. Simpson (32) Photo credit: AP

After jettisoning Plunkett, San Francisco made the bold move to sign the 70s biggest named running back, none other than O.J. Simpson, a West Coast native. The Simpson move was a disaster as he only scored one rushing TD in 1978 and he had his career low YPC of 3.7. The team set a then record of 63 turnovers in a season, not surprisingly a record that still stands today. 

In 1979 the 49ers repeated their paltry 2-14 record as they had achieved the season before, but there were good signs, as the team set an NFL record as the only team to lost 12 games in a season where they had the lead. Somehow the incredible patience the 49ers owner Eddie De Bartolo Jr showed, by keeping head coach Bill Walsh with the team, was soon to be rewarded.  

1979 was also the year the 49ers took a QB in the 3rd round of the draft to back up their starter. After trading their 1st round pick to Buffalo for O.J. Simpson, a pick that turned out to be the #1 overall pick, they went with Cowboys 1977 10th round pick Steve DeBerg as their starter, and he ended up leading the league in attempts and completions. Like Plunkett, DeBerg would go on to complete a prolific NFL career, passing for over 34,000 yards, playing his last game aged 44 for the Atlanta Falcons. 

DeBerg (17) and Montana (16) in 1979 – Pic credit: Pinterst

The rookie QB drafted by Walsh in 1979 made one start as a rookie, in a Week 14 loss to the St Louis Cardinals. He would go on to wrestle the seating job away from DeBerg in the middle of his second season in 1980. The QBs name – Joseph Clifford Montana Jr. 

Montana started 7 games in 1980, winning only 2 games, but his cool play, and high completion rate was enough to convince Coach Walsh that he had a future star commanding his teams huddle. A 64.5% completion rate 40 years ago was quite remarkable. 

After improving to 6-10 in 1980 and beginning to play a new breed of short passing possession sustaining football opposing teams got a taste of the next decade but no-one was prepared for what was to happen just one season later. 

Picture credit: Newsmax.com

With Joe Montana installed as the starter from Week 1 the 1981 49ers looked to be reverting to type, losing two of their first three games, including defeats on the road to the Lions and the Falcons. The Niners then tore off a 7 game win streak to enter Week 11 at 8-2. 

A 15-12 Week 11 defeat to the Cleveland Browns, where the 49ers failed to score a touchdown, turned out to be their last defeat of the entire season. 

The 49ers, led by a fresh but impactful rookie secondary of Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Willamson, went on the rampage to finish off the regular season 13-3, forcing a season high 6 turnovers agains the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14.

In the divisional playoffs Montana and Co. beat a New York Giants team led by the lesser known QB Scott Brunner, in what turned out to be Brunner’s second and last post-season game of his career. 

A second home playoff game ensued, the NFC Championship against the Dallas Cowboys, made remarkable by the fact it was the the first time in franchise history they hosted two consecutive playoff contests.

The game itself is part of NFL folklore as it featured ‘The Catch’, a Joe Montana touchdown hookup to fellow 1979 draftee WR Dwight Clark to tie up the game in the final period. The Ray Wersching extra point making the ultimate difference in a 28-27 thriller. 

Two weeks later the 49ers met up for a second time with the Cincinnati Bengals, as both teams, playing in their inaugural NFL title game met in Super Bowl XVI in the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit. 

Personifying the West Coast ‘1,000 paper cuts’ offense Montana remained patient after leading the Niners to a first quarter 7-0 lead, capped by his 1 yard rushing score. In the second Montana found prolific pass catching full back Earl Mitchell for an 11 yard score. Two more Wersching field goals later and San Francisco had a commanding 20-0 half-time lead. 

The Bengals fought back to 20-14 behind Ken Anderson’s rushing score and 4 yard hookup to TE Dan Ross in the early stages of the fourth quarter, but the 49ers offensive machine went back to work and Wersching kicked his third and fourth field goals, before Anderson found Ross to bring the game within 5, but it was in vain, as the 49ers took the victory and began a dynasty that would dominate the 1980s. 

Picture caption: 49ers.com

Montana won the MVP, courtesy of his 157 passing yards, one rushing score and zero interceptions. Ken Anderson for the Bengals almost doubled Joe’s passing output and threw one more score, but he was picked off twice, once by rookie Eric Wright and once by 4th year safety Dwight Hicks. 

In a strike shortened 1982 season the 49ers went 3-6, but they more than made up for it by the end of the decade, winning a further three Vince Lombardi trophies, all with Joe Montana at QB. 

In an era where teams can transform their fortunes in a 12 month period it was the 49ers who showed that with patience, precision passing and some exquisite drafting anything is possible. 

Fast forward 40 seasons, from when Montana was drafted, and the 49ers are back for their seventh crack at a Super Bowl title. 

Can the 49ers strike gold and join the Steelers and Patriots on Sunday as the only teams to start their Super Bowl ring collection on a second hand? Can’t wait to find out.