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Bill Walsh - VI

Ronnie Lott

Dwight Hicks

Fred Dean

Joe Montana

49ers-Falcons action

"Hacksaw" Reynolds tackles Oilers RB Earl Campbell

Later in his life, Bill Walsh called the 1981 season "the most satisfying" of his career.
  • He had improved the 49ers from 2-14 his first year as head coach in '79 to 6-10 in 1980. So '81 was a do-or-die year for him: attain a winning record or, in all probability, hit the road.
  • With the offense in good shape, he used the 1981 draft to shore up his defense, which allowed the second most yards in the league in '80 (after the Saints).
The Niners started slowly, 2-2 after four games. Then they caught fire and won eleven of their next twelve.
  • It started with a road win at Washington. According to Walsh, it was the first game that showed what kind of team we could be. After driving right down the field with the opening kickoff to lead 7-0, the 49ers got another TD from their defense when rookie S Ronnie Lott caused a fumble that popped into the hands of Dwight Hicks, who ran 80y to paydirt. The margin eventually reached 30-3 before the Redskins scored two late TDs.
  • Before the big game the following week against Dallas, Walsh added a final piece to his defensive puzzle. Two-time All-Pro DE Fred Dean was holding out on the San Diego Chargers because they refused to renegotiate his rookie contract. So the Chargers agreed to a trade in which they received the 49ers' second-round pick in '82 and the right to switch places in the first round if the SF picked ahead of San Diego. With his salary tripled, a happy Dean took the field against the Cowboys.
  • The Niners jumped on Dallas the way they did the Redskins. SF led 24-0 before the Cowboys even gained a first down. Final score: 45-14. The San Francisco Chronicle called the game the most important win since Bill Walsh took over as coach and general manager.
  • Playing with supreme confidence, the 49ers won at Green Bay 13-3 and edged the Los Angeles Rams at home 20-17.

Next came a measuring stick game at Pittsburgh, home of the four-time Super Bowl champions.

  • Chuck Noll's Steelers were the epitome of a "physical" team while the 49ers were trying to shed their reputation as a "finesse" team. All season, the Niners stared at a locker room sign that declared, WE WILL NOT BE OUTHIT. Walsh had each player sign it.
  • The game was particularly big for QB Joe Montana, who had grown up in the Pittsburgh area. To say I was in awe of the Pittsburgh Steelers was ... an understatement, he recalled. They still had a lot of players from their (last) Super Bowl team (two years earlier). As far as I was concerned, if we could go into Pittsburgh and beat them, we were good enough to win it all. They were our litmus test. Unfortunately, Joe had badly bruised ribs that would hamper his performance.
  • With both sides determined to impose their will on the other, fights broke out early and often. Two plays in a row, rookie S Carlton Williamson knocked receivers out of the game who came across the middle. Both offenses stalled before the 49er defense set up the first two scores. First, an INT by Eric Wright started a 46y drive that ended with Montana hitting Charle Young. Then Williamson recovered a fumble that led to a 10-0 halftime lead.
  • But the Steel Curtain defense burned the Niners for two Q3 TDs. First, CB Mel Blount ran back an INT 50y to paydirt. Soon afterward, Joe threw another one into enemy hands that was returned 31y to set up a one-play scoring drive and a 14-10 lead for the home team. Same old 49ers. Keep the pressure on them, and they'll fold.
  • Walsh's gang mounted a 68y drive that ended with a blocked FG attempt. But two more turnovers by the refitted defense finally paid off in a 43y drive that produced a go-ahead TD with 5 1/2 minutes left.
  • Could the Niners hold the 17-14 lead? The answer was yes When the Steelers faced 4th-and-3, the Niners line sacked Terry Bradshaw, who afterward praised the 49er secondary, dubbed "Dwight Hicks and His Hot Licks," as the best he'd seen all year.
  • Walsh joined in the jubilation in the Niners locker room. So did owner Eddie DeBartolo, who told the press, I don't want to get too excited. It's going to take another draft, another year to have a real contending club, but these kids we have are amazing. Eddie underestimated his team with that prediction.
  • Several thousand fans met the 49ers' charter flight at SF International late that night.

The Niners had a letdown the next week against Atlanta but still managed a 17-14 victory.

  • Their seven-game winning streak ended at home when the 4-6 Browns pulled a 15-12 upset.
  • But SF started another streak the next week in a 33-31 squeaker at Los Angeles.
  • The Giants fell on their home turf 17-10.

That cleared the decks for a game Walsh had pointed toward since the 1981 schedule was published.

  • Bill would be making his first trip back to Cincinnati since he resigned as assistant coach when Paul Brown reneged on his promise to make Walsh his successor.
  • Walsh called the 10-3 Bengals "the best team in the league by light years." With a playoff spot already clinched, Bill indicated he might rest his starters since his chance of beating Cincy was slim.
  • But his team knew this was all hype for the press. Montana: The players knew that he wanted this game bad. I don't think it needed to be said.
  • The Niners forced six turnovers - four by the young secondary - to dominate 21-3. Walsh's backups played as he promised but at the end of the game, not the beginning.
  • In the owner's box, GM Paul Brown watched with discomfort. Walsh never talked to his old boss, but his wife Geri did. The old man seemed ill at ease.

The 49ers won two more to finish the regular season.

  • A packed house at Candlestick Park saw their heroes romp over the Houston Oilers 28-6.
  • The 4-11 Saints played the Niners tough in the Superdome before falling 21-17.

So San Francisco entered the playoffs for the first time since 1972.

To be continued ...
Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers, Bill Walsh with Glenn Dickey (1990)
The Genius
, David Harris (2016)
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Football Profiles Archives - VI

Bill Walsh - I and II

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