For those people who are San Francisco 49ers fans, there are only two periods of history: the Bill Walsh Era and everything else. With Walsh’s death from leukemia on Monday, it is truly the end of that era.
When Walsh took over as head coach in 1979, the 49ers were coming off their worst six seasons since becoming a professional football team in 1946. Not one of the more successful franchises to begin with, 1973-1978 was the low point. Only the 1976 season was a winning one. Overall, the 49ers win-loss record during that period was a dismal 31-55. In 1978 the team bottomed out, going 2-14.
Walsh’s inaugural season of 1979 was just as bad, yielding another 2-14 record. But Walsh had set the wheels of the 49ers Dominance Express in motion, initiating an innovative new offense and drafting players some of whom would become the most talented ever to play in the NFL.
Growing up in Northern California, I was a fan of the 49ers from a young age thanks to my Dad. (Thankfully, my Dad never had any use for the Oakland Raiders.) In the1980 season, my Dad acquired some tickets to a 49ers game from a friend. Although no one knew it at the time, it was the game that, looking back, was a signal of great things to come. It was week 14 of the season, and the 49ers had struggled to a 5-8 record. Walsh was still trying to decide who would be his full time quarterback, Steve DeBerg or Joe Montana. They were playing the New Orleans Saints, who at 0-13 were the worst team in football. Somehow, though, at halftime the Saints were ahead, 35-7. I remember my Dad looking at me woefully and saying, “Well, it must be the week of the Saints.” I’m sure he thought that this was proof that the 49ers’ losing ways would continue. I’m also sure that he could not have been more delighted to have been wrong. In the second half Joe Montana brought the 49ers all the way back to a 35-35 tie. In overtime, the 49ers won the game on a field goal. After that, Montana was the full-time quarterback.
And then, in 1981, the magic began. The 49ers had a league best 13-3 record. They went on to win their first Super Bowl with a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The most memorable moment came not in the Super Bowl, but in the Conference Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys. With 4:54 left in the game and down by six points, the 49ers drove 89 yards for a touchdown to win, 28-27. The touchdown was one of those rare moments so spectacular that it would be immortalized with its own name, “The Catch.” (Go here to see why.)
That season was the first of a 17-year run that included 5 Super Bowl victories, 13 Division Championships, a cumulative regular season record of 195-68(!), and a post-season record of 23-9. If you are a sports fan, you count yourself very lucky if any of the teams you root for have a period of dominance like that during your lifetime. (Unless of course you are a New York Yankees fan, in which case dominance is seen as an entitlement.)
Walsh achieved this dominance in part because he was not only a great coach, but also a visionary. He developed what became known as the “West Coast Offense.” Traditionally, during a game, a football team attempted to establish its running game before it started its passing attack. The West Coast Offense focuses on establishing a passing game filled with quick, short passes. This has the effect of “stretching the defense,” making it easier on subsequent plays to go for longer passes. My guess is that Walsh realized how effective such an offense would be after the NFL changed the rules in 1978 so that the defense could have no contact with wide receivers past the first five yards from scrimmage. A strategy that would make it more difficult to defend the long pass would be much more effective after such a rule change. The only question was how to achieve it. The West Coast Offense did the trick, not only making the 49ers winners but also transforming football strategy forever.
Walsh also made the sort of draft picks and free agency deals for the players who could carry out his offense, including wide receivers like Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark, and later Jerry Rice and John Taylor. And, of course, there was his greatest draft pick, Joe Montana, the Hall of Fame quarterback who would so deftly run Walsh’s offense.
After the 1981 Super Bowl victory, 49ers tickets became nearly impossible to get. Luckily, my Dad had a friend with season tickets, and I was able to attend one more game with him during that period. It was the 1988 Divisional Playoff against the Minnesota Vikings. The previous year, the Vikings had stunned the 49ers in a 36-24 upset. That day in 1988, however, it wasn’t even close. The 49ers dominated, 34-9. Great teams often give their fans a very satisfying sense of payback.
A lot of people seem to forget that Walsh retired from the 49ers in 1989 after winning his third Super Bowl. What permitted the Walsh Era to continue for many more years was Walsh developing his successor, George Seifert, a fine coach in his own right who would lead the 49ers to two more Super Bowl victories. Late in his coaching tenure, Walsh also brought on Steve Young as a backup quarterback for Montana. He would turn out to be the perfect replacement when Montana left the 49ers in the early 1990s. Young also became a Hall of Fame quarterback, leading the 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl victory.
Alas, all great things must come to an end. Since 1997, the 49ers have won only one Division Championship, made the post-season only three times, and compiled a cumulative record of 64-80, including two 4-12 seasons.
But, for a span of time just shy of two decades, 49ers fans experienced nirvana. None of that would have happened without Bill Walsh.
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