One year ago at this time the San Francisco 49ers were the surprise team of the NFL. Powered by Running Backs Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson and sack-happy defensive linemen Cedrick Hardman and Tommy Hart, the 49ers had a 5-1 record and led the hated Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West. Their young rookie head coach, Monte Clark, was the toast of the Golden Gate.
All that is ancient history. Until they upset the Detroit Lions 28-7 last Sunday at Candlestick Park, the 49ers were the No. 1 flop of the 1977 NFL season. Now they probably share that distinction with the Cincinnati Bengals. Powered by nobody, the 49ers had an 0-5 record before they beat the Lions and their coach was the whipping boy of the Golden Gate. Not Monte Clark, mind you. He was fired by San Francisco's new owners last spring, and he spent Sunday afternoon flying to a convention of Burger King owners in Colorado. The new coach is a fellow named Ken Meyer, and before the Detroit game there was heavy speculation around San Francisco that he would soon be looking for a hamburger franchise himself.
On Sunday, though, the 49ers finally played like their old selves. Williams exploded for 106 yards on the ground. Quarterback Jim Plunkett, calling his own plays for the first time all season, completed eight of 12 for 130 yards and hit Gene Washington with a pair of touchdown passes. And the dormant San Francisco defense rose up to record eight sacks and intercept its first and second passes of the year. Best of all for Meyer, the vote of confidence he had received from his bosses the previous Sunday not only did not turn into an instant kiss of death, but he went home with the game ball.
Still, the 49ers, who finished with an 8-6 record in 1976, were only 1-5—and the schedule gets no easier. What in the sainted name of Frankie Albert is going on here?
Simple. Joe Thomas, the NFL's most controversial general manager, has set up light housekeeping in San Francisco. And if past be prologue, Thomas' 49ers, their present record notwithstanding, are well on the way to becoming a juggernaut.
Spectacular shakedowns, followed by spectacular turnarounds, have been the rule in Thomas' turbulent career. His shrewd personnel decisions helped convert both Minnesota and Miami from ragtag expansion teams into Super Bowl clubs. At Baltimore Thomas inherited a championship squad growing long in the tooth, traded it in for a bunch of college kids and promptly sank to the bottom of the NFL. But just when Thomas' critics were gloating the loudest, the Colts grew into frisky racehorses and won the AFC East championship the last two seasons. Thomas could not savor his triumph; indeed, he lost a power struggle with Coach Ted Marchibroda, whom he had imported from the Redskins, and was fired last January by owner Robert Irsay.
Thomas took over as general manager of the 49ers on March 31st after helping the Edward J. DeBartolo family acquire the team. Predictably, Thomas got off to the bumpiest of starts by precipitating the firing of the popular Clark. Clark's contract gave him powers over all personnel decisions, the same powers that the DeBartolos had assigned to Thomas. So Thomas won that power struggle, then hired Meyer, who was the offensive coordinator for Los Angeles.
On the whole, the 49er situation didn't seem to offer Thomas the dramatic possibilities he encountered with his previous teams. Under Clark the 49ers had already launched their turnaround after three straight losing years. With Williams and Jackson, San Francisco had a powerful ground game, and with Hard-man. Hart, Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb it had one of the NFL's best front fours—The Gold Rush. A little spit here, a little polish there, and the 49ers would be in the playoffs—a piece of cake for an old pro like Thomas.
That cake crumbled quickly. During the preseason the once-potent 49er offense went into eclipse. San Francisco lost to Houston 17-3, then was shut out on successive weeks, 33-0 by Oakland, 20-0 by Denver, and, in the season opener on Monday night TV, 27-0 by Pittsburgh. In all, the 49ers went 19 quarters without a touchdown. They finally scored, but proceeded to lose four more. So much for the playoffs. Niner fans wrote the season off in a barrage of letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. "How would one go about having the TV blackout on 49er games extended from 75 to 200 miles so we wouldn't be forced to sit through this?" read one.
Most of the heat for the collapse of the 49ers has fallen on Meyer. In addition to the "We want Clark" chants at games, "Fire Meyer" bumper stickers have become popular around the city. Two weeks ago a newspaper column, headlined A QUESTION OF WHEN, NOT IF, Stated, "The question is no longer whether [Meyer will] be back next year but whether he'll even survive this one." However, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the 31-year-old club president, assured local writers that Meyer's job was not in jeopardy.
Inevitably, Meyer suffers when compared to Clark, who achieved a sort of local martyrdom by sacrificing his job to his principles last spring. Well liked by his players. Clark was the 49ers' star attraction. At 6'5" and 260 pounds he was a highly visible, emotional man on the sidelines. By contrast, Meyer is quiet, and at 5'10" he seems lost in a football crowd. San Francisco fans have likened his demeanor on the sidelines to that of a cigar-store Indian.
Clark is still highly visible in the Bay Area. He and Miami Dolphin Coach Don Shula are partners in a Burger King franchise in San Jose and are planning to open another restaurant. Clark sat in the stands during the first two 49er home games, using tickets provided him under the terms of his contract, which the DeBartolos must honor through 1978. Clark says he went to Candlestick Park "surreptitiously." He arrived well ahead of the crowds, hid behind big sunglasses and lingered afterward until most of the fans had dispersed. Both outings passed without incident, which is what Clark wanted. He has steadfastly refused to be drawn into a discussion of Thomas because, he says, "I have nothing good to say about him."
When Thomas offered Meyer the coach's job, Meyer realized he would have to contend with Clark's ghost. He accepted anyway. "I had been in coaching 27 years," he says. "This was my opportunity to become a head coach." As for Thomas' reputation for being unable to coexist with head coaches once they became successful, Meyer says, "People told me that Joe Thomas had this reputation or that reputation, but one reputation he definitely has is that he gets good football players. I'd be foolish not to want to be with a man who gets me good football players."
The most frequently voiced complaint about the 49ers is that under Meyer's magic touch their ground game has disappeared. Last year Williams and Jackson rushed for a total of 1,995 yards; this year it doesn't appear that they will make 1,000. "Our running game has had problems," Meyer admitted Sunday. "We've been searching and searching for the answer. We have the same running backs. One of the best plays Delvin ran last year was called a 28 Bob. We kept the same name for that play, and we run it the exact same way, but until today it hardly worked at all."
What obviously worries the 49ers is Thomas' reputation for making wholesale changes in his new team's roster. But what they forget is that Thomas usually waits an entire season before making those moves. Thomas insists he will be patient in San Francisco. "At the end of this year, not before, I'll review our whole team, our whole operation," he says. "The most frustrating thing about this situation is that there is nothing I can do at the moment. We've got to get good football players but they come from the draft. The draft is the blood and guts of any football team."
In the past Thomas has had uncanny success with the draft—remember his Bert Jones caper in Baltimore—but San Francisco has not. Since 1971 the 49ers have had nine first-round selections, but they have just three players—Plunkett, Jackson and Webb—to show for them.
Quarterback always receives top priority in Thomas' reclamation projects. For Minnesota and Miami he drafted Fran Tarkenton and Bob Griese, respectively. In Baltimore he benched the 39-year-old Johnny Unitas, looked at backup Marty Domres, then traded to acquire the draft rights to Jones. Thomas had quarterback on the brain the morning he took over the 49ers. "Plunkett is the key here," he said. "If he doesn't come through, it will set us back a few years."
Plunkett has come through this season, even when Meyer was calling his plays. Responding to a suggestion by Clark, Plunkett trimmed 20 pounds off his 6'2" frame in the off-season by watching his diet and running long distances. He covered the 7.8 miles in San Francisco's Bay-to-Breakers race in less than 50 minutes. This summer he reported to training camp weighing 207 pounds, and at times has dipped under 200.
Despite a shaky start in the Pittsburgh game, Plunkett has now completed better than 55% of his passes and has gained an average of better than 7.7 yards a throw. "I'm a little quicker," he admits, "but every time I lose a lot of weight I hurt my ribs." A rib injury knocked him out of the Atlanta game in the second quarter, and he now plays with a protective pad over his right rib cage. "It hurts to throw," he says. "It even hurts to breathe." Nevertheless, Plunkett has thrown well enough to silence those who used to say he was what was wrong with the 49ers.
Surprisingly, the critics aren't criticizing Thomas, either. They know he has had the last laugh too many times. And who knows? Maybe for Thomas, the 49ers will be another piece of cake.