Taking it all the way back to 1980 (Part 1)

by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro @NFLFANINENGLAND)

When you are as old as I am (45) and you fell in love with the NFL in the mid-1980s then you will always have fond memories of a time that was dominated by Joe Montana, Da Bearz, and the likes of the outstanding Cleveland Browns secondary, consisting of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield (below).

Photo credit: Cleveland Browns YouTube

Back then NFL highlights were on Channel 4, and merchandise was everywhere in England, from replica shirts (I owned an Art Monk #81 burgundy one) to plenty of different books, and even NFL Films special programmes such as ‘Football Follies’ on VHS video tape.

With time on our hands caused by the Coronavirus pandemic I wanted to take a deep dive into the decade that gave birth to a sporting phenomenon in the UK, changing the  lives of thousands of impressionable fans. 

I play a game called Action PC Football, which is visually about as much fun as watching some eggshell matt paint dry, but as in-depth tactically and statistically and as having a January Saturday night dinner with Bill Belichick. 

Having loved the 1980s more than any other decade (nothing to do with my team winning two Super Bowls) I decided to try and get 15 more retro NFL addicts together to each draft an entire franchise (50 players), and then replay the entire decade, season by season. 

I was fortunate to find some committed 80s super fans from around the globe (well Scotland, Wales, Italy, England, USA and Canada) and we set about each drafting 50 players from the entire database of everyone who played in the NFL in 1980 (or before if injured for all of 1980). 

Using random.org we set a draft order that was then reversed every even round (a snake draft) and off we went, drafting the cream of the start of the 1980s. Don’t forget this is not fantasy as such, this was building and entire team, offense, defense, special teams, ensuring all positions are filled to a minimum and maximum requirement. For instance you cannot have more than three quarterbacks and you need at least four outside linebackers. 

Rules and ratings

To give a further bit of context it’s worth explaining how the players are rated in the game. 

The obvious ones such as quarterbacks, running backs, wideouts are governed by their real life stats such as attempts, rushes, catches etc.. The likes of fullbacks and tight-ends have an additional blocking rating (ranging from 2 up to 7). 

Offensive and defensive linemen are rated out of a total of 10 (min 3 max 10) and the absolute superstars may have a ‘+’ added so they are rated 10+. The overall rating is broken down to run and pass blocking for offensive linemen and run defending, pass defending and pass rush for all defensive players. 

All defensive players also have all their real life stats used, so their tackles, sacks, interceptions, passes defended etc are included. Special teams is the same so kickers, punters, and anyone who returns punts or kicks has their real life stats used. 

If you are still with me there are a few more factors that the GMs needed to factor in, namely durability, usage, and who you will be keeping for the following seasons as we replay all 10 1980s seasons up to 1989.

All players have a real life durability rating, so if you pick someone who in 1980 played all 16 regular season games they have a 10 durability rating. They play only 8 regular season contests their durability rating is 5 (out of 10). 

Many leagues that folks set up where they replay seasons or decades they have a salary cap (all players have a salary in the game) but I did not want this level of complexity with just 16 teams picking. Instead I set a rule that you can only keep a player for the next season if you use him for 50% of his real stats. So, for instance if you pick a player who had 50 catches in 1980 he would need to have 25 catches in 1980 to be kept on the roster for the 1981 season.

Picture credit: Gloriousa.com

The final rule for all teams is that you have to cut 10 (20%) of your roster at the end of each season to then be able to draft either rookies for the next season or any remaining veteran free agents. For anyone who remembers, the absolute monster rookie in 1981 was Lawrence Taylor (above), the once in a lifetime pass-rushing sensation, and star in both the Blind Side (real life) and Any Given Sunday (fiction). 

So with all teams named, mine being the Four Oaks Krakens, named after the mythical sea beast that Perseus has to defeat in Greek mythology, we hunkered down in our war rooms, got out the giant white-boards and bag of magnetised players names and began a 50-day draft, which was somewhat of a reassuring daily ritual during peak global lockdown. 

I bet you are wondering now who went first, and how the first few rounds played out, as teams grabbed their franchise studs for the decade, and revealed glimpses of how they would be building their team – an offensive masterclass? A defensive dynasty or a balanced team with no real weaknesses? 

The 1980 Draft – Round 1 to 5

Without further delay here is the results of Round 1: 

Picture credit: Cleatgeeks.com

ROUND 1 Results 
1.1 Boston Tea Baggers – Walter ‘Sweetness’ Payton RB
1.2 Pine City Dragons – Joe ‘Joe Cool’ Montana QB
1.3 Washington Huskies- Earl Campbell RB
1.4 Detroit Silver-Rush- Tony Dorsett RB
1.5 Four Oaks Krakens – Art Monk WR
1.6 Conroe Crushers – Anthony Muñoz T 
1.7 Mount Dora Hurricanes – James Lofton WR
1.8 Sierra Madre Axemen – Steve Largent WR
1.9 Kutztown Golden-Bears – Dwight Clark WR
1.10 West Whiteland Wyrm- Randy White DT
1.11 Da Bru Cru – Lester Hayes CB
1.12 Dashwood Freeze – Dan Fouts QB
1.13 St Louis Honey-Badgers – Kellen Winslow TE
1.14 Wales Whales – Otis (OJ) Anderson RB
1.15 Montreal Alouettes – Danny White QB
1.16 Yakima Yaks – Mike Webster C

Round 1 Analysis

Nobody can deny running back Walter ‘Sweetness’ Payton going number one, but it was a small surprise for those who expected quarterback Joe Montana (the person who this league is named after) to be the very first pick. 

Of all available RBs in 1980 Payton ended the decade with the most rushing yards (9800) and only trailed Eric Dickerson (11,226) in terms of all running backs in the entire 1980s. 

It took until pick 10 before a defensive player was selected, in the form of beastly DT Randy White who went to six consecutive Pro-Bowls and was named All-pro five times in the 80s. 

Art Monk – Photo credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

My own pick (1.5) was a tough call between two players – a head v heart decision. As a lifelong Redskins fan I wanted the person that led the entire decade in catches or the best offensive tackle of the 80s. I went heart as Art Monk’s 662 catches in the 80s were simply going to be more fun to replay on my team than the dominant blocking of Anthony Munoz, who as it turned out was selected with the very next pick. 

14 of 16 picks were on offense in Round 1 but just three quarterbacks.

Round 2 Results

2.1 Yakima Yaks – Fred Smerlas DT
2.2 Montreal Alouettes – Billy Sims RB
2.3 Wales Whales – John Hannah G
2.4 St Louis Honey-Badgers – Joe Theismann QB
2.5 Dashwood Freeze – William Andrews RB
2.6 Da Bru Cru – Dan Hampton DE
2.7 West Whiteland Wyrm – Mike Kenn OT
2.8 Kutztown Golden-Bears – Jack Lambert ILB
2.9 Sierra Madre Axemen – Ozzie Newsome TE
2.10 Mount Dora Hurricanes – Wes Chandler WR
2.11 Conroe Crushers – Gary Johnson DT
2.12 Four Oaks Krakens – Mark Gastineau DE
2.13 Detroit Silver-Rush – Jackie Slater G/T
2.14 Washington Huskies – Pat Thomas CB
2.15 Pine City Dragons – Randy Cross G 
2.16 Boston Tea Baggers – Mike Haynes CB

Round 2 Analysis

A lot more of a balanced round with seven defensive players, four offensive linemen and just one quarterback selected. 

I had a huge amount of choice, and like 75% of the league I realised I could wait a little bit longer before grabbing my franchise signal-caller. I decided to go defense, and by the time I picked it was going to be a big named defensive lineman or cornerback. Mark Gastineau was part of the ‘New York Sack Exchange’ of the early to mid 80s and his mullet and #99 shirt number are too hard to resist. Gastineau was in fact married to Brigette Nielsen. 

Picture credit: Independent.co.uk

Half of Round 2 was an offensive or defensive lineman, proving that the owners in large part know that if you are to build a quality team you have to have rock solid line play. Already you can see that this is not like a standard fantasy draft, this tests all your GM muscles more than a Joe Wicks workout on a wet Tuesday morning. 

The first member of the Bears famed 1985 ‘4T6’ defense went this round as Dan Hampton the DE became the first edge rusher to get picked in the draft. 

ROUND 3 Results
3.1 Boston Tea Baggers – Kent Hill G
3.2 Pine City Dragons – Jacob Green DE
3.3 Washington Huskies- Nolan Cromwell S
3.4 Detroit Silver-Rush- Al Baker DE
3.5 Four Oaks Krakens – Ron ‘Jaws’ Jaworski QB
3.6 Conroe Crushers – Gary Green CB
3.7 Mount Dora Hurricanes – Lynn Dickey QB
3.8 Sierra Madre Axemen – Dave Krieg QB
3.9 Kutztown Golden-Bears – Joe Cribbs RB
3.10 West Whiteland Wyrm – Steve Bartkowski QB
3.11 Da Bru Cru – Donnie Shell S
3.12 Dashwood Freeze – Mike Pruitt RB
3.13 St Louis Honey-Badgers – Pat Tilley WR
3.14 Wales Whales – Marvin Powell T
3.15 Montreal Alouettes – Stanley Morgan WR
3.16 Yakima Yaks – Clay Matthews OLB 

Round 3 Analysis

Round 3 and a quarter of teams decided enough was enough and grabbed a quarterback, myself included. Half the league have QBs by now and half are still hanging on for a bargain.

Many of you may know the rather chipmunk looking Ron ‘Jaws’ Jaworski as a member of the NFL media collective, who worked for many years on ESPN in various guises. Jaworski remains in the top 10 all-time for consecutive starts. His 116 game streak is the ninth most by a QB in NFL history, so you can see why I made the pick. For the first half of the decade I would not have to think about QB in a big way. 

Picture credit: Owen C, Shaw/Getty Images

You may have spotted Clay Matthews (above) went at pick 3.16. Yes this is the father of Clay Matthews Jr, who is still playing in the NFL today. 

Nolan Cromwell, a hard hitting quality tackling Rams veteran became the first safety to come off the board. Remember Ronnie Lott did not join the NFL until 1981. 

ROUND 4 Results
4.1 Yakima Yaks – Raymond Clayborn CB
4.2 Montreal Alouettes – Ted ‘Mad Stork’ Hendricks OLB
4.3 Wales Whales – Dwight Stephenson C
4.4 St Louis Honey-Badgers – Louis Wright CB
4.5 Dashwood Freeze – Alfred Jenkins WR
4.6 Da Bru Cru – Herbert Scott G
4.7 West Whiteland Wyrm – LeRoy Selmon DE
4.8 Kutztown Golden-Bears – Joe Ferguson QB
4.9 Sierra Madre Axemen – Tony Hill WR
4.10 Mount Dora Hurricanes – Ted Brown RB
4.11 Conroe Crushers – Charlie Joiner WR
4.12 Four Oaks Krakens – Harry Carson ILB
4.13 Detroit Silver-Rush – Ray Donaldson C/G
4.14 Washington Huskies -Brian Sipe QB
4.15 Pine City Dragons – Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones DE
4.16 Boston Tea Baggers – Gary Fencik S

Round 4 Analysis

Some delightfully named defenders went in Round 4, from the ‘Mad Stork’ to Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones (below), who stood at a towering 6ft 9 (206cm). 

Photo credit: Theundefeated.com

I wanted to keep my balanced approach and draft another defensive player here, one that would serve me well throughout the decade, with maximum games played at a high level from 1980-89. There were higher rated players to draft in 1980 but few had the complete decade consistency of inside linebacker Harry Carson, who went on to win a Super Bowl ring for the Giants. What you ay not know is that Carson was one of the inaugural ‘Gatorade shower’ instigators, having dumped the sticky stuff on head coach Bill Parcells.

The selection of Centre Dwight Stephenson was done with the future in mind. As a rookie Stephenson was rated just 4 (out of 10) but he goes on to play in 5 Pro Bowls and was an All Pro from 1984 to 1987. 

A second member of the 85 Bears went here with S Gary Fencik getting selected at 4.16. 

ROUND 5 Results
5.1 Boston Tea Baggers – Joe Klecko DT
5.2 Pine City Dragons – Rod Martin OLB
5.3 Washington Huskies- Lemar Parrish CB
5.4 Detroit Silver-Rush- Terry Bradshaw QB
5.5 Four Oaks Krakens – Ed Newman G
5.6 Conroe Crushers – Curtis Dickey RB
5.7 Mount Dora Hurricanes – Art Still DE
5.8 Sierra Madre Axemen – Rulon Jones DE
5.9 Kutztown Golden-Bears – Gary Barbaro S
5.10 West Whiteland Wyrm -Randy Gradishar ILB
5.11 Da Bru Cru – Robert Brazile OLB
5.12 Dashwood Freeze – Charlie Johnson DT
5.13 St Louis Honey-Badgers – Bob Baumhower DT
5.14 Wales Whales – Chuck Muncie RB
5.15 Montreal Alouettes – Matt Blair OLB
5.16 Yakima Yaks – Scott Studwell ILB

Round 5 Analysis 

12 defensive players go in Round 5, including 5 linebackers. One of those, Rod Martin (#53 below), had an incredible 3 interceptions in Super Bowl XV in 1981. 

Picture credit: Tony Tomsic via AP

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls in the 1970s went at pick 5.4. Bradshaw, who many of you will know from Fox TV’s NFL coverage, played 39 games in the 1980s but never replicated his monumental success from the Seventies.

I decided to start building my offensive line, grabbing former Dolphins G Ed Newman. Newman was a Pro-Bowler from 1981-84 and blocked for Dan Marino in his only Super Bowl appearance in early 1985. 

As you can see the league owners were all looking to build solid teams, with five more defensive linemen selected, including another member of the ‘New York Sack Exchange’ Dan Klecko. 

If people like this I will continue to analyse the top 20 rounds of the draft? 

Hit me up at @F10YRetro

F10Y Retro Feature – Tom Rathman – The original #44

by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro and @NFLFANINENGLAND)

When the San Francisco 49ers scored their first touchdown in Super Bowl 54, it wasn’t mega-stud TE George Kittle, red-hot RB Raheem Mostert or even mid-season acquisition WR Emmanuel Sanders who broke the plane of the end-zone, it was a guy with a name that features two z’s, and we are not talking Buzz Lightyear. 

Photo credit: NBCSports.com

Kyle Juszczyk the premier fullback (FB) in the NFL was the scorer of that TD. Resplendent in a #44 shirt Juszczyk could have gone on to score a second, but even if he had it would not have won the game for his beloved 49ers. 

Exactly 30 years prior to Juszczyk’s heroics the 49ers were in the Super Bowl, their fourth, and coincidentally their fullback wore #44 too. In fact that #44, a Mr Thomas Dean Rathman, went on to eclipse Juszczyk’s feat by scoring not one, but two touchdowns of his own.

The game, Super Bowl XXIV, ended up at the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history as the 49ers destroyed the John Elway led Denver Broncos 55-10. 

Turned out for Tom Rathman that in his 14 career playoff games he never again had two scores, and never topped the 11 bone-shattering carries he was given by Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana on that remarkable day in New Orleans. 

So who exactly was Tom Rathman? 

Photo credit: ksnblocal4.com

Born in 1962 in Grand Islands, Nebraska, a city of under 50,000 residents, Tom went to his local high school, Grand Island Senior High. This was an honour he shared with another boy who went on to become the 10th heaviest recorded human being in history. 

Rathman was an excellent high-jumper, once clearing a distance of 6 feet 7 inches, but he was most at home in high-school running the football for the Islanders, so much so he earned a place at the University of Nebraska.

Rathman joined the Cornhuskers in 1981, but only saw limited action as a freshman, gaining 20 yards on four carries. A power running team, Nebraska’s backfield in the early 80s was led by Roger Craig (more to come later) and Mike Rozier, who went on to play in the USFL and then the NFL for 8 seasons. 

After redshirting in 1982 Rathman benefitted from a fortunate proverbial bounce of the ball a year later when the team’s starting fullback Doug Wilkening quit the team, allowing Tom to avoid the possibility of being converted to a tight-end. 

The 1983 Cornhuskers had a remarkable season, Rathman was lead blocker for Mike Rozier, who as a senior rushed for 2,148 yards and went on to win the Heisman Trophy. Nebraska reached the College National Championship Game, losing 31-30 to ‘The U’ – the Miami Hurricanes. 

Rathman averaged 5.5 a carry that season on his rare handoffs and scored his first college TD (a catch), and like most fullbacks he spent most of the season blocking, in fact in the College Championship he didn’t touch the ball. 

With Rozier gone Rathman entered his junior season in 1984, and again his carries went up, gaining 381 yards on 75 carries with 4 scores, but 0 catches. 

Photo credit: Richard Voges/Nebraska Football

The Cornhuskers lost two games, but won the Sugar Bowl against LSU, running the ball 59 times for 280 yards. Rathman had 2 carries for 8 yards in the victory. 

In his senior season (1985) Rathman’s draft stock shot up, and he was billed as the top fullback in the country after gaining 881 yards, at 7.5 a pop, plus 8 scores. Nebraska lost in the Fiesta Bowl to Michigan to cap off a 9-3 season. Behind the blunt force trauma blocking by Rathman, Nebraska ran for 304 yards in the Bowl game, Tom himself gaining 47 yards in the showcase contest. 


The 49ers 1986 Draft was one of the best negotiated and choreographed masterpieces of tactical execution in NFL history. 

San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh, who had won Super Bowls following the 1981 and 1984 season was reeling after a 1985 Wild-Card loss to the Giants. 

Walsh wanted to come out of the ’86 draft with an improved secondary, a devastating pass-rusher and blocking fullback, to lead the way for Roger Craig, who was fresh from becoming the first RB in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a regular season. 

Moving around the draft like a chess grandmaster Walsh traded away an acquired first round pick to the Buffalo Bills to pile up picks in the middle rounds, including the first pick of the 3rd round. With that 56th pick the 49ers selected Tom Rathman. 

Despite only watching footage of Rathman once Coach Walsh said:

“I saw Rathman take a screen pass, break two or three tackles physically and run 60 yards. He was an absolutely terrific blocker, and the thing we’d never had was the massive blocking fullback. I knew Rathman could be that player.”

The 49ers draft class of 1986 included DE Charles Hayley (4th Rd) who is now in the Hall of Fame, CBs Tim McKyer (12 season is the NFL) and Don Griffin (11 seasons in the NFL), WR John Taylor, and T Steve Wallace. Between just these six (including Rathman) their careers combined for 18 Super Bowl winners rings. 

As a rookie Rathman suffered from some training camp fumbles, and feared he would be cut, however by the time his nine-year NFL career was concluded he only lost the pigskin 7 times. 

Picture credit: 49ers.com

Now reunited with former college backfield team-mate Roger Craig, Rathman was going to become a significant feature in Bill Walsh’s final three seasons coaching. 

Tom’s first two NFL seasons ended in crushing playoff defeats, firstly a devastating 49-3 loss to the Giants and then in 1987 a huge shock defeat to the visiting Minnesota Vikings. 

In his first two seasons Rathman ran for just under 400 yards, and although big and bruising, it was found he had soft hands, catching 43 passes in a West Coast offense that would not simply carry a blocking back. He missed 4 games in 1987, but would not miss a start over the next four years. 

The 1988 49ers finished the regular season a rather middling 10-6, but went on to win their third Vince Lombard Trophy, a second win over the Bengals. Rathman led the way for Roger Craig to go All Pro with 1,502 rushing yards – Craig’s career best. 

Photo credit: 49ers.pressdemocrat.com

Rathman himself had 427 yards rushing and 42 catches for just under 400 yards in ’88. He touched the ball six times for 39 yards in Super Bowl XXIII, and narrowly missed scoring a second quarter rushing touchdown, a David Fulcher tackle preventing end-zone glory. 

Following the emotional retirement of Coach Walsh, the 1989 49ers, under recently promoted defensive coordinator George Seifert, and offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, gained revenge against the Vikings from 1987, blowing them away in the playoffs en-route to their fourth Super Bowl title, a blow out beatdown of the Denver Broncos.

Rathman led all NFC running backs with 73 catches, but just one TD, adding a second score on the ground alongside 305 rushing yards. Tom had 11 carries in the Super Bowl and turned them into two scores. 

His first came in the second quarter, a 1 yard dive to cap a 14 play drive where he caught three Joe Montana passes for 39 yards, as well as converting a 4th and 1 at the Broncos 3-yard line. 

Photo credit: Focus On Sport, Getty Images

Rathman’s second score in the final period extended the 49ers lead to 36, a three yard dive, in what would turn out to be his final touch of a ball in a Super Bowl. 

An unsung hero, Rathman went on to play a further 55 games for the 49ers, winning a grand total of 7 division titles in 8 seasons. Whilst his trophy cabinet was bulging as a valued team-mate he never gained any individual recognition in his playing days, failing to make a Pro Bowl roster or an All Pro team. 

Rathman played his final season in 1994 for Art Shell and the Los Angeles Raiders, failing to find paydirt for the only time in his 9 seasons in the NFL. 

What happened after Rathman retired? 

Having sacrificed his body for almost a decade Rathman hung up his helmet and immediately went into coaching, spending 1995-96 as an RB coach at high school level and then OC for the Menlo College Oaks in California. 

The 49ers came calling in 1997 and Rathman was reunited with the red and gold colours as RB coach, a role he served until 2002. Rathman coached RB Garrison Hearst to three 1,000+ yard rushing seasons, including a team record 1,570 in 1998, to eclipse Roger Craig’s 1988 team record (where Rathman paved the way). 

Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Following two seasons out of the league due to a potentially career ending medical condition Hearst returned in 2001, and thanks in part to Rathman became the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. 

Rathman accompanied 49ers coach Steve Marriuchi (yes that crazy one on NFL Network) to Michigan and the Detroit Lions in 2003. With minimal talent Rathman helped RB Kevin Jones have his only 1,000 yard season as a rookie in 2004. 

Missing the West Coast Rathman spent 2006-08 with the Raiders, still as RB coach. With an equally inept roster as the Lions Rathman helped Huggy Bear’s (character from the original Starsky and Hutch TV series) son to lead the Raiders in rushing three seasons in a row, including his only 1,000 yard season (2007). 

Rathman then moved up the road and back to the 49ers for a second stint with the 49ers, from 2009-16, surviving four head-coaching moves (Mike Singletary, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly). 

In the 2012 season Rathman coached in his first Super Bowl, a 3-point loss to the Baltimore Ravens. This was Frank Gore’s only Super Bowl and Rathman coached Gore to 110 yards rushing and a touchdown to lead all players in the game. 

Photo credit: Matt Kryger/Indy Star

Following the arrival of Kyle Shanahan in 2017 Rathman was cut loose by the Niners, and after a year out he was hired as RB coach by the Indianapolis Colts just under two years ago. Colts RB Marlon Mack had his first 1,000 yard season under Rathman’s tuition in 2019. 

2020 and beyond for Rathman 

Having spent 30 seasons playing and coaching in the NFL, 23 for the 49ers, it’s time for Rathman to move into a more senior coaching role, as a head coach or offensive coordinator at the very least. 

Maybe Rathman has been offered promotions but just loves to coach running backs, somewhat symbolic of the sacrificial role he had on the field, one where his reward was not so much glory, rather executing a pancake block or helping to find a tiny crease for a star half-back to get that crucial first-down. 

Millennial 49ers fans will only recognise Kyle Juszczyk as their favourite #44, but before him, paving the way for his team-mates, putting his body on the line against octopus-armed speed rushers, sledgehammer safeties and missile focused middle linebackers was San Francisco’s original #44 – Tom Rathman. 

Photo credit: 49ers.com

I’ll leave you with a recent intense quote from Coach Rathman, who was inducted to the 49ers Hall of Fame in 2017 (above):

“If you have the ball in your hands, you’re not only carrying yourself and your family, but the whole organization. The entire franchise is in your hands.” 

Follow Lawrence at @F10yRetro on Twitter for more blasts from the NFL past.

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.