The San Francisco 49ers, in 25 years of pro football seldom a bridesmaid and never a bride, looked last Sunday as if they were determined to follow their familiar pattern: early success followed by sudden collapse. After having played superbly the week before in beating Los Angeles 20-6, they were tied by lowly New Orleans 20-20.
But, in this case, the wedding hasn't been called off just yet. This isn't a typical San Francisco club bursting with nonchalance, going for broke on offense and breaking down on defense. Under Head Coach Dick Nolan, the 49ers are all fired up, and the tie with the Saints still leaves them only half a game behind the Rams in their division, with another game against L.A. in Kezar Stadium coming up at the end of November.
"We have a real good shot at it this year," says Running Back Ken Willard. "I'm tired of hearing about how we have all the personnel and still can't win. That's never been true. We didn't have the kind of people we have now and we've never been as deep as we are."
But the biggest improvements in the 49ers are the kicking game and the defense. "In 1969 we lost three or four games because we didn't have a capable kicker," Nolan said last week at the team's training grounds in Redwood City. "That's why we traded for Bruce Gossett. And it wasn't just placekicking. Our special teams cost us games, too. That's not happening this year."
Special teams are usually manned by youngsters waiting to move up to either the offensive or defensive units and by veterans who aren't quite good enough to do anything else. But, as Nolan points out, no team can win a championship with ordinary specials. To improve his, Nolan hired Doug Scovil, who was head coach at the University of Pacific, and he named Ed Beard, a San Francisco middle linebacker until injured and supplanted by Frank Nunley, captain of the special teams.
Beard has made it an honor to be picked for the specials. "When he comes to you and asks you to play on one of the special teams, he makes you feel like he's doing you a favor," one player says. "You don't feel like you're in there as cannon fodder. You feel like you're making a real contribution."
Ironically, in the 49ers' one-point loss to Atlanta three weeks ago—their only defeat of the season—it was a special team that failed. Gossett, who rarely misses from inside the 40 on field goals, blew one from the 19.
It is a mark of the new spirit of the 49ers that on the plane from Atlanta to San Francisco every player on the squad went up to Gossett and consoled him. Lou Spadia, the president of the club, called Gossett when he got home. "Don't get your dauber down," Spadia said. "That happens to everyone. You're the best placekicker we have had here in 25 years, just remember that." The following week Gossett kicked two field goals to help beat the Rams.
Spadia has been with San Francisco since 1946, when the team originated as a member of the old All-America Conference, and he is keenly aware of the difference between this team and those of the past. "You think back on all the All-Pro players we've had," he said last week. "Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, Y.A. Tittle, Gordy Soltau, Billy Wilson. I could go on for a long time, but the significant thing is that they were all offensive players. We had a fine team in 1952 and I'll bet you can't remember any defensive player with the exception of Leo Nomellini. We've always been offense oriented and I finally figured that no club ever wins a title without a great defense."
Nolan came to the 49ers from Dallas, where he was defensive coach under Tom Landry, who was himself once a defensive coach. Nolan has almost completely rebuilt the San Francisco defense, only four starters being left from the club he took over two seasons ago.
One of the key members of the revitalized unit is Nunley, who is 6'2", 230 and looks about as hard as a softboiled egg, but he hits like Dick Butkus and roams as widely as Tommy Nobis. His teammates call him "Fudge Hammer." "Because he's so sweet and hits so hard," says Willard.
Nunley is also known for his gung-ho attitude. "He is the most positive man I've ever met," says John Brodie, the 35-year-old quarterback who is having the best season of his life in his 14th year as a pro. "The big difference between this club and the other 49er teams I have played with is the terrific morale, and Nunley has had a lot to do with that, I think."
"He'll call any defense in the book and he's a gambler," says Nolan. "My only problem with him is holding him down. And he has one great quality. If he makes a mistake—and he makes some—he forgets it immediately. He doesn't brood or sulk about it."
Nunley himself has another explanation for the club's new zest. "When I came here four years ago, there was a real sharp division on the team. There was a nucleus of oldtimers and then there were the young players, and the two groups just didn't get along. Now most of the old ones have gone and the young guys are really keyed up."
He looked across the dressing room at a big, powerful man who had thrown his head back to laugh at something another player had said. "Now we got guys like him," Nunley said.
He was speaking of rookie Defensive End Cedrick Hardman. In the Ram game Hardman sacked Los Angeles Quarterback Roman Gabriel twice; Brodie wasn't dumped once by the Fearsome Foursome. Deacon Jones, who is considered the best defensive end in the game, was often double-teamed, and when he wasn't, Casimir Banaszek, a tight end Nolan made into an offensive tackle, fended Jones off.
After the game, Hardman, attired in a white double-breasted suit and a flowered ascot, went to the Ram dressing room to talk to Jones. In a story in a Los Angeles paper earlier in the week, Jones was quoted as saying that while Hardman showed some potential, he was still just a kid and no threat to Jones' eminence at their position.
At 6'3" and 250, Hardman is a bit smaller than Jones, but he braced the Ram veteran coolly. He asked Jones if the quotes were accurate. "I might have said something like that," Jones allowed. "Maybe not just exactly that, but something near it."
"You may be the best now, Deacon," Hardman said, "but you better be ready to retire in a couple more years."
In the dressing room at Redwood City, Hardman laughed, thinking of the confrontation. "He's the best now, I guess," he said. "But I can be just as good as I want to be and I'm going to be the best."
Now he was all duded up in a black cowboy outfit that has earned him the nickname "Fontana." It has no special meaning, but Willard, who conferred it, figured Hardman deserved a name and a horse as much as any other Western hero. He called Hardman's imaginary horse "Sugar." Two days before the 49ers played the Saints, Hardman was 20 minutes late to a meeting, and when he came in Willard had written "Poor old Sugar" on the blackboard and Nolan pointed a finger at Hardman and said, "That'll cost you a hundred."
After practice, walking out to his red Lincoln Continental with Texas plates reading NASTY, Hardman laughed. "If I'd known it wasn't going to cost no more than that, I'd have missed the whole meeting," he said.
He patted the flank of the big car fondly, then grew serious. "I meant it about being the best. I only played as a starting defensive end for one year at North Texas State—my senior year. I went there as a 180-pound running back and then got too big. My first two years, all I played was sideline. So I still have a lot to learn, but I'm learning every day."
"He learns very fast," Nolan says. "He still makes the mistakes you expect from rookies, but he's so quick he outruns most of them. I remember in an exhibition with Cleveland, Bo Scott got outside of him and into the clear and Hardman ran him down from behind. There aren't many men as big as he is who can run down backs in the open field."
And there aren't many coaches like Nolan. "He's a listener," Brodie says. "If you come to him with a suggestion, he thinks it over and he's not afraid to use ideas from the players."
The players might have had any number of suggestions after the tie, but they were almost inarticulate with rage. "We used to lose big on our bad days," one veteran muttered. "We should have won on this one. We won't have any more. Bet on that."