The San Francisco 49ers had just beaten the Los Angeles Rams 20-17 last Sunday, and now their dressing room was thinning out—a couple of equipment men collecting towels; Ray Wersching, the kicker, combing his hair; Defensive End Fred Dean, standing by his locker, slowly flipping a football in the air and catching it.
It was the game ball, naturally, the only one the 49ers awarded. It had been an inspirational victory, San Francisco's first ever in Candlestick Park over the hated Rams, after 10 losses. It gave the surprising 49ers a 6-2 record and a two-game lead on L.A. and Atlanta in the NFC West, and on these kind of occasions game balls are usually handed out in bunches—the whole defense, or the offensive line, or the coaching staff, or the grounds crew, or, perhaps, Ram Kicker Frank Corral, who missed four field-goal attempts. This time the 49ers gave out only one, and now Dean was tossing it in the air in a lazy spiral and saying he would give it back to the team.
Dean, you see, collects game balls. He earned one after he got to Danny White for two sacks and forced a third in the 49ers' 45-14 victory over Dallas three weeks ago, a game after which the world rubbed its eyes and wondered if those funny little fellows from San Francisco could possibly be for real. In his six years and change with the San Diego Chargers, Dean collected 23 game balls—that's right, 23. And now in three games with the 49ers, he has two. After his afternoon against the Rams, during which he had 4½ sacks of Pat Haden and set up another one—and made San Francisco's final tackle of the game, stopping Running Back Mike Guman to force a 45-yard field-goal try that failed—at least one 49er was wondering how in the world the Chargers ever could have traded Dean away.
"Defensive ends like Fred Dean—well, there just aren't any like that around," Offensive Tackle Keith Fahnhorst said. "I remember playing against him in an exhibition game in '75 when he was a rookie. I looked in the program and saw 6'2", 230 pounds, and I licked my chops. On the first play he flew by me so fast I never even saw him. I asked someone, 'Who the hell is that guy?' "
Right now he's the new dimension in a 49er defense that has twice been called on to bail out the offense—against Green Bay two weeks ago and against L.A. Sunday. He drives opponents' offenses crazy. They don't know how to prepare for him. In the Packer game he played as a rover, popping up in different areas as a weak-side pass rusher. The Packers countered by shifting Tight End Paul Coffman to help block on Dean. "That played into our hands," 49er Defensive Coordinator Chuck Studley said. "It took Coffman out of their passing offense, and he's a heck of a receiver."
Against the Rams, Dean appeared only on the right side of the 49er defense, which turned out to be opposite the weak side of the L.A. offense almost all the time. At first the Rams played it honest with Dean, assigning 270-pound Left Tackle Bubba France to him. The Rams aren't a gimmick team; they play me-against-you football. They beat you with personnel, and France has a couple of Pro Bowl trips on his rèsumè.
Dean's first 2½ sacks came on inside rushes, fighting through the traffic like a guy hacking his way through a jungle. Then he forced a misfire coming from an outside rush, and it was time to give France help. The Rams kept a back in to lend a hand, but on their last offensive series Dean sacked Haden twice more, each time splitting the back-tackle double team.
Before Dean joined them, the 49ers were an interesting team, with possibilities. Coach Bill Walsh had done an admirable job, bringing San Francisco to respectability. In the four years before he arrived, the management had traded away 20 draft choices, including four firsts, three seconds and four thirds, without a single player on the current roster to show for it. The Niners' offense, under Walsh, always had been exciting, but their defense had been a joke for four years. Now it had three high-draft rookies, including No. 1 pick Ronnie Lott out of USC, starting in the secondary. And to settle them down, there was 33-year-old Hacksaw Reynolds, the former Ram, at middle linebacker.
San Francisco started off the season 3-2, the victories coming over losers—Chicago, New Orleans and Washington. It looked as if the 49ers would come back to earth once the schedule firmed up. Two ingredients were lacking: the tough, helmet-busting runner of the kind Paul Hofer was before the Cowboys tore his knee apart last year, and the defensive superstar up front.
Oh, the young secondary was capable of big plays, all right. Cornerback Lott and No. 3 draft pick Carlton Williamson, the strong safety from Pitt, could deliver true NFL-style hits; Free Safety Dwight Hicks, a third-year pro, was an opportunist who returned an interception and a fumble for a couple of TDs against the Redskins. But it's tough to rally a unit around a defensive back; the offense can simply freeze him out by directing things the other way. What was needed was the uncontrollable element closer to the action, the Dick Butkus or Randy White type. And then along came Dean.
Last year the Chargers paid Dean $67,500 for a season that ended with his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. No question, he was a terrific player. John Madden, whose Raiders had to face Dean twice a year, used to say he was the finest defensive end in football, bar none. But the Chargers had a lot of big names on their front four—Louie Kelcher, Big Hands Johnson. It was an embarrassment of riches. This year Dean's Charger salary would have been $75,000. By 1984, the final year of his Contract, he would have gotten up to $125,000—at age 32. So long, career.
The Chargers already had showed the world how they stood on renegotiating contracts when they traded away their best offensive player, Wide Receiver John Jefferson, who wanted to have his contract done over. That move caused San Diego Quarterback Dan Fouts to sink his head into his hands and moan, "It's like trading away Willie Mays in his prime." Now it was time to unload Dean, the Chargers' defensive star, and like Jefferson, a walkout. The 49ers were first in line. They traded a No. 2 draft in 1983 and agreed to swap No. 1 drafts that same year, if the Chargers so choose. San Francisco signed Dean for roughly double what he was making in San Diego and told him to start collecting sacks.
Since Dean's arrival the 49ers have gone 3-0. The Dallas game was a laugher. They beat Green Bay 13-3 in a typical NFC Central game, a frosty, drizzly slug-fest in Milwaukee County Stadium. That was a dull game for the fans, but an exhilarating one for Walsh, because it was exactly the kind of game his 49ers had never been able to win. And then they beat the Rams in a game that, as Reynolds said, "We were very, very lucky to win."
It took those four missed field goals by Corral to do it, every conceivable kind of miss: wide left from 49 yards; a 26-yarder that was blocked; another miss from 32 on which Corral hit more bars than Kenny Stabler, right upright, crossbar, bonk, bonk and out; and finally the 45-yarder, wide left, with 13 seconds left.
But the point is that when things got hairy in the fourth quarter—when the 49ers were running five straight offensive series of three-downs-and-out; when the Rams were driving, driving, and Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers' owner, said, "I kept reaching into my pocket for my St. Jude's medal and was having trouble finding it among my rosary beads"—the 49ers found a force to rally around. Fred Dean. There's no hot dog in him. He does no sack dance when he upends a quarterback, no hollering, no finger-pointing. He just plays.
"I kept watching him in the huddle," Lott said. "He was calm, he was like ice. But my God, when the ball was snapped—I've never seen a pass rusher like that in my life, so fast, so strong. And he never got tired."
"The fourth quarter is when a pass rusher earns his money," Walsh said. "The offensive line is somewhat tired, the quarterback's not what he was. When I was an assistant with the Bengals [offensive coordinator, 1967-75], there were so many times we had the Raiders beaten with two minutes to go and we couldn't put the game away because we weren't able to get to their quarterback. A great pass rush late in the game is the key to NFL football."
Dean, who stands a shade over 6'2", weighed 227 the day before the Rams game. He says that in his senior year at Louisiana Tech he was timed in 4.48 for the 40. But when opposing tackles put on their track shoes and get ready for the footrace, they get a shock because they find out that that little shrimp across the line has ungodly strength. He's a thrower. He got his two sacks against Dallas by simply flinging 250-pound Pat Donovan out of his way. His sacks against the Rams came on muscle.
"I never lifted weights in my life," Dean says. "My strength is farm-boy strength. I didn't get it in a gym. I baled hay when I was a kid, hauled logs. And I did some good eating."
The 49ers are treating their prize pass rusher very carefully—and intelligently. He's a situation player, a pass-rush specialist when their 3-4 defense turns into a 4-3 or a 4-2 nickel. "Fred'll play 30 snaps a game, give or take a few," Studley says. Dean has a history of muscle pulls. The 49ers are handling him like a finely tuned thoroughbred.
Is the equation really right for the 49ers? Have they really arrived? They'll find out in November. That's the killer month for them: Pittsburgh at Three Rivers, Atlanta and Cleveland at Candlestick, and then the Rams again, in Anaheim. "Tough teams, teams that have been there," Reynolds says, "teams that can come back from 10 points down without panicking. If we're consistent, we'll be all right. That's the key, consistency. We beat Dallas big; that was O.K. for the kids, but to me, Dallas didn't show up. I've never seen the Cowboys so flat. The Rams today? A good win but a lucky one."
The 49ers also have been lucky with injuries. They lost Wersching for the first four games with a pulled hip muscle, but he has been their only major casualty. They're still a team in transition. Twenty faces on their roster weren't around last year. That shows on special teams, which play like their members are still waiting to be introduced.
San Francisco's punt-return and kick-off-return stats, both offensively and defensively, are worse than they were last year, when they were pretty bad. The punt-coverage team is a disaster. The players regularly take the wrong lanes; the 49ers are allowing 14 yards per return, worst in the NFL. The Rams' LeRoy Irvin killed them with his returns Sunday—seven of them for 127 yards—and Johnnie Johnson had a 39-yarder. Four of the Rams' last five possessions started at their 49 or closer.
It's a credit to the San Francisco defense, and Corral's errant instep, that L.A. came up with nothing to show for all that. In fact, it's the defense that's setting the tone for the 49ers. "We don't have to play wide-open offense the way we used to, because our defense is so much better," Fahnhorst says. "We don't throw the ball like crazy anymore. It's not as much fun, but we win more."
You wouldn't recognize the 49er offense these days. This year, as opposed to last, San Francisco runs the ball more often than it throws. Joe Montana, who threw two first-quarter touchdown passes Sunday, has risen to the top of the NFC ratings with a careful approach. He has had only five interceptions all year, and on Sunday his 32 passes without an interception boosted him past John Brodie's club record of 95 straight. Montana now has 99 and the meter is running.
The defense has made that kind of conservative approach possible. For the first time since the sack happy Tommy Hart-Cedrick Hardman team of '76, you can look at the 49ers' defensive stats without laughing. They have allowed only six touchdowns in the last five games, and in the three games that Dean has been with them, they have 13 sacks, counting the six Sunday. The Rams converted one of their last nine third-down tries; the Packers made zero of 10.
As the 49ers were running off the field after the Green Bay game, Dwight Clark, the team's leading receiver, yelled, "Look out L.A., the boys are coming home!" Well, they're home now and they're winners, and before killer November is over, they'll find out just how good they really are.