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Streak Buster: 1980 Opener

Bill Walsh


Eddie DeBartolo


Earl Cooper


Archie Manning leaving the field disconsolate in 1980


Dick Nolan


Russell Erxleben


Steve DeBerg


Tony Galbreath dives over for Saints' first TD.



Tommy Myers


Erxleben after missing final FG.

 

Bill Walsh approached his second season as 49ers head coach with optimism.

  • Many questioned his hiring after San Francisco went 2-14 in his first season, the same record as the year before and tied for the worst mark in the league.
  • But owner Eddie DeBartolo had no such qualms. I provided the team with, in my opinion, the best football coach in the country, said Eddie D. to a reporter. It's just a matter of patience, just sitting back and waiting for the good times to come. And I think they will. I really do.
  • Eddie thought the team improved in 1979 and was much more fun to watch, especially on offense, Walsh's specialty. Using what would be dubbed the "West Coast Offense" with its short, ball-control passing game, the Niners scored 308 points, 91 more than the previous season.
  • The stats from 1978 and 1979 show the shift Walsh made in the offense.
    49ers Passing Rushing
    1978 190-435-1956y 585-2091y
    1979 361-602-3641y 480-1932y
  • The problem was the defense, which surrendered 66 more than the year before.

Walsh, who had control of player personnel, showed the eagle eye for talent that would help him make the Pro Football Hall of Fame by bringing in several players who would contribute for years to come.

  • Dwaine "Peewee" Board, a light but fast DE, was picked up on waivers from the Steelers.
  • DB Dwight Hicks, cut by the Eagles and out of football, would become an All-Pro FS.
  • Mike Wilson, WR cut by the Cowboys, would play for Walsh the rest of his tenure in San Francisco.

The 49ers also improved themselves through the 1980 draft.

  • DE Jim Stuckey from Clemson
  • RB Earl Cooper from Rice
  • Light but fast OLB Keena Turner from Purdue, who would become a defensive mainstay for a decade

Walsh considered the 1980 opener in New Orleans a strong test of how much his team had improved.

  • The Saints had beaten their NFC West rival twice in 1979, 30-21 and 31-20.
  • Those victories helped New Orleans to finish 8-8, their best in the franchise's 14-year history.

Excitement was at an all-time high in the Crescent City. The heart of the 1979 offense that ranked 4th in the NFL in yardage returned.

  • QB Archie Manning came off his second straight Pro Bowl season.
  • "Thunder and Lightning," otherwise known as RB Chuck Muncie and FB Tony Galbreath, returned after gaining almost 2700y from scrimmage as a combo in '79.
  • Third-year WR Wes Chandler snagged 65 balls for 1,069y while TE Henry Childs caught 51 for 846.
  • Coach Dick Nolan had a problem, however. Three of his offensive stars had missed the last preseason game because of injuries. Muncie nursed a bruised big toe, and Chandler suffered from a sprained knee. Childs would definitely miss the 49ers game with knee and groin injuries.
  • Nolan made what proved to be a crucial decision when he cut veteran K Garo Yepremian, a crowd favorite, and kept second-year K Russell Erxleben, a first-round draft choice in 1979 who had been injured most of his rookie season. Erxleben was expected to handle both the place-kicking and punting duties.

Nolan knew that matching 1979's success would require an improved defense.

  • I think our defense is better in many areas. We have to be a better team. Everyone in the division has improved.
  • On the SF passing attack: They've done well. What they do is throw percentage passes. They run their routes right and pick up their receivers well. They don't make foolish mistakes.

A crowd of 58,621 gathered in the Superdome to see if the Saints could win their third opener in team history.

  • Quarter 1
    49ers QB Steve DeBerg picked on the Saints' LBs all game long with passes to his RBs and TEs. The Saints countered by giving up their run-oriented "flex defense" in favor of a "4-3 Rush" technique designed to put pressure on the QB. But DeBerg responded by calling a running play when he saw the 4-3 defensive formation.
    A Saints' drive to the 49er 13 came up empty when Russell Erxleben's 30y FG attempt hit the right upright.
    A later N.O. drive to the 30 stalled because of a holding call.
    END OF Q1: SAINTS 0 49ERS 0

  • Quarter 2
    Erxleben failed to connect on a 47y attempt. However, a good bit of acting resulted in a roughing the kicker penalty. That enabled the Saints to continue the march that culminated in FB Tony Galbreath diving over from the 1. Saints 7 49ers 0 (9:22)
    The Niners responded with a 69y drive sparked by the running of HB Paul Hofer and rookie FB Earl Cooper. The crucial play came on a 3rd-and-6 when DeBerg hit Cooper with a 15y pass. Cooper ended the drive with a 2y run. Saints 7 49ers 7 (5:23)
    Before the half ended, the visitors drove 55y to take the lead. DeBerg relied almost exclusively on Cooper who caught seven passes during the 11-play march, then ran 6y for his second NFL TD with just seconds left in the half.
    Saints S Tommy Myers: Cooper surprised me. He's a much better back than I thought he was.
    HALFTIME SCORE: 49ERS 14 SAINTS 7

  • Quarter 3
    The 49ers scored on their opening series on a 27y pass to RB Paul Hofer over a badly-beaten Reggie Mathis. The advance covered 66y in 10 plays. The Rickey Ray blocked the PAT try. 49ers 20 Saints 7 (9:55)
    Starting from their 26, Manning & Company roared back to another TD, Muncie doing the honors on a 7y sweep. But a high snap threw off the EP try. 49ERS 20 Saints 13 (5:28)

  • Quarter 4
    SF added a 37y FG by Ray Wersching to start the period. 49ers 23 Saints 13 (14:52)
    It didn't take two minutes before Manning threw a 49y bomb to a leaping Wes Chandler. 49ers 23 Saints 20 (13:03)
    Tommy Myers intercepted DeBerg on the next series and four plays later Erxleben hit a 37y FG to tie the game. 49ers 23 Saints 23 (9:47)
    Saints DE Elois Grooms: I felt we were getting ahead of them at that point. But we had them in a sitution where we had to control the ball, and we let them drive the field on us.
    The 49ers drove 61y to set up a 38-yarder by Wersching. 49ers 26 Saints 23 (3:37)
    Beginning from the 20, Manning led an 11-play drive, hitting a key 4th-down pass to Larry Hardy to put the pigskin on the SF 34. Along the way, though, New Orleans was charged with a timeout when T Bob Woods was injured with less than two minutes left, leaving them with just one more. On the next play, Archie completed a pass to Galbreath to the 16 with 25 seconds left. Manning decided not to use his final timeout despite the fact that his offense seemed confused as he frantically gestured them up to the line for the next play. The crowd began chanting, "Timeout! Timeout!" The result was an incomplete pass that ran the clock down to just 4 seconds.
    Afterward, Manning explained: I wanted to take a touchdown shot with a timeout left to protect the chance at a field goal. The problem was it just took us too long to get organized. If you call timeout at that point, then the only play you can run after it and still get a shot at the FG is to pass into the EZ. When you're in that situation, they're going to have five DBs in the EZ. You have to force the ball in there, which means possibly a tipped ball or worse. So I'm thinking, "Run a play." Try to go into the EZ with a pass. If you don't score, you stop the clock. Or look for one of your backs short. If they don't get in, you can still kill the clock and kick the FG.
    Nolan: Archie tried to move Wes to flanker and Ike to split end. He just took too much time.
    So Erxleben, already suffering from a miserable day, came in to try a 34y FG to send the game into OT. He missed wide left and dropped to the turf and hid his face as the crowd booed.
    DeBerg said the 49ers were worried. Last year, we weren't a 2-14 team, but something crazy would always happen to us. If this had been last year, that kick would have been good.
    FINAL SCORE: 49ERS 26 SAINTS 23
Thus did San Francisco win their first road game after 18 straight losses. The last win came in the Superdome November 13, 1977.

Postgame

  • Saints
    With Erxleben avoiding the press (Please, I have nothing to say. Please.), his teammates tried to absorb some of the blame for the loss. Myers: You can't blame a game on any one thing or one person. We all had a hand in it.
    Chuck Muncie on Erxleben: He's got to grow up. This came from someone who had some maturing to do himself.
    One teammate said of the kicker, Dammit, I'd rather see him kicking over benches. But maybe that's his way. Whatever it is, he's got to pull it together. I don't know why we ever let Garo Yepremian go. But that's water under the bridge. He's all we got.
    WR Ike Harris on the confusion at the end of the game. If everything had gone cleanly at the line of scrimmage, we could have run another play, called time out with 14 seconds left and had time for one more play with about six or seven seconds left.
    Nolan: I think we're a better team (than last year). We were able to come back. ... Penalties and the big plays killed us. I was pleased with the fact that we moved the ball, but penalties stopped our drives. On his kicker: There was no fault of the center on the missed field goals. Erxleben took his eye off the ball on his first miss. We expect him now to kick the ball higher and deeper. We expect him to conquer his problems.
    Chandler: The crowd noise really got to us. That was the only time I couldn't really hear the call.
    DT Derland Moore, an eight-year veteran: This is the most disappointing loss I have ever had as a New Orleans Saint. There are going to have to be a lot of changes - a lot more concentration, a lot fewer mistakes. We were supposed to be a real good football team this year. ... We stunk. They were smart and played a good game and all tat, but we just stunk.
    DE Elois Grooms: It just seemed like no matter what we used, they were able to hit us.
    CB Clarence Chapman: It's the same type of offense, he [Walsh] used against us last year. When you get a RB on a LB, you've got to expect the back to be able to get open. You can't stop it. You just try to limit it, knowing the percentages are against them, that they'll get tied up inside the 20 or make a mistake. But today we just couldn't get an edge on it.
    LB Ken Bordelon: Their offense is designed to pressure the LBs. They just did a good job of mixing their plays up. They kept us off balance. I don't think we did a bad job defensively. They had a couple of big plays, but we were not embarrassed.
    Myers was not as happy with the defensive effort. We didn't stop the passes to the backs all day long. Our responsibility is to stop the pass. Obviously we didn't do the job today.
    As Erxleben walked into a hallway and approached the door, he slumped back against the wall and sobbed.

  • 49ers
    Walsh: We were spirited, relentless, a very determined team.
    DeBerg threw 29 passes and completed 21 of them for 223y. 17 passes went to RBs Paul Hofer and Earl Cooper. They were doing a good job of covering our wide receivers, and we have the kind of backs I don't hesitate to throw to. If my wide receiver isn't wide open, I don't try to force the football. On Cooper, the Niners' first offensive draft choice of 1980: He's got great hands. We'll continue to use him. He might be the leading receiver in all of football this year. It's very likely that he could be at least the top receiving back. On the Saints' flex defense: The flex presents problems in the running game. But then it's weaker against the pass because the guys have a longer way to go to the ... QB. So that's the problem with the flex. They use it in running down situations. ... They were doing basically what they've been doing for the last three, four years. Steve expressed optimism about the Niners' chances in the NFC West. We do think that things are going to be very positive until somebody proves us wrong. And nobody yet this year has been able to prove that they're a better football team. Asked if Walsh was the reason for the 49ers turnaround: Yes. Also my maturity, the maturity of the whole offense and being under the system - maybe the best system in all of football - for two years. And don't forget those other players. On top of that is our defense and its progress over the past yeare. We're really in the running.
    Hofer on the passing attack: That's what we've done since Bill Walsh came to the 49ers. That's our offense. I'd hate to play defense against our offense.

The "Aints"
Follow up
  • The 1980 Saints would become the "Aints" as they lost their first 14 games - the last an OT defeat in San Francisco 38-35 - before beating the Jets to finish 1-15. Nolan lost his job after 12 games, and O-line coach Dick Stanfel finished up.
  • The 49ers would start 3-0 before losing eight in a row on their way to a disappointing 6-10 season. Along the way, DeBerg lost his job to a second-year QB named Joe Montana, who led the NFL in completion % (64.5). With another excellent draft and Joe under C from the start of the '81 season, the Niners would win the Super Bowl.
Reference: The Genius, David Harris (2008)

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Saints Saga Archives - I

First Draft
Dazzling Debut: Archie Manning
Dazzling Debut: John Fourcade
The Sad Tale of Russell Erxleben
Could've, would've, should've
Profile: Billy Kilmer
"Shut that music off!"
Record Setter: Seven INTs
Profile: Morten Andersen
Memorable Game: Aints No More
Mascots to Fit the Team
Saints Get Moore from Lance

Saints Saga Archives - II

Bobby Hebert's Terrible Year
Memorable Game: Rams 10/23/94
Bum Takes Over
Dazzling Debut: Aaron Brooks
The Longest Boo
Profile: Tom Dempsey
The Love Affair Started Early
Record Breaker: 12 TD Passes
Firsts: Andersen Points, OT Victory
The Great Pizza Revolt

Saints Saga Archives - III

Profile: Ironhead Heyward
"One of the Oddest Two-Play Sequences in Saints History
"The Man Belongs in the Hall of Fame"
Profile: Michael Haynes
Ditka's Regime
First Victory
Memorable Game: Raiders 1979

Saints Saga Archives - IV

Streak Buster:Tampa Bay 1977
Dazzling Debut: Deuce McAllister
First 2-0 Start
"The Case of the Purloined Playbook"
Profile: Danny Abramowicz
"Black Sunday"
Dixon's Quest
Record-Setting Punt Returner
Profile: Bum Phillips
Memorable Game: Bears 1977

Saints Saga Archives - V

First 1,000y Rusher
Dazzling Debut: Marcus Dowdell
River City Relay
Emeril Helps the Saints I & II
Profile: Boy Owner I & II
We Sucked!
Profile: Bobby Hebert I, II, & III

Saints Saga Archives - VI

Hank Returns to KC
Streak Buster: Lone 1980 Win
Say Two Hail Marys and Beat the Saints
That Penalty Hurt!
Record Setter: Sam Mills 1992
Unlikely Victory
Big Plays Win It
First NFL Game in Mexico
Payton-Brees Regime Begins

Saints Saga Archives - VII

Take Me Out to the Brawl Game
Profile: Don Reese I and II
Memorable Games: Vince's Redskins I, II, III
Dobler Returns to the Dome I and II
Saints in Blue and Gold?
Walter Payton Gets the Record
Saints-49ers Shootout

Saints Saga Archives - VIII

Record-Setting Performance: Joe Horn 2003
Not So Dazzling Debut - Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson
Memorable Game: Pearl Harbor Day Disaster 1980
Memorable Game: Saints-Eagles 2007 Playoffs
Record-Setter: George Rogers
He looks funny in white pants
Profile: Monty Stickles

Saints Saga Archives - IX

Season in Time: 1987

Saints Saga Archives - X

Biggest Margins in Saints History
Firsts: Seven Wins, NFC Player of Year - 1978

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