Our first play," San Francisco 49er Coach Bill Walsh was saying last Saturday, looking at a little piece of paper, "will be a screen pass to the fullback. Then we'll throw wide to the fullback, then we'll run dives on our third and fourth plays, knock 'em off the ball, surprise 'em, and then we'll come back to Earl Cooper on a quick pitch."
The Houston game was still 18 hours away, but the first 20 plays, virtually the entire first quarter, were neatly penciled in. "We'll change formations on them," he said, "and run our fullback in motion, strong side, and run quick-hitting patterns against the zone. We'll run Dwight Clark on an end-around on about the 12th play, and then we'll go deep to Freddie Solomon out of slot formation."
Neat, clean, everything was accounted for but the score. You could almost hear the click of tumblers as the intricate mechanism was set into motion. Then an old story came to mind, the one about the coach who told his quarterback to "run three plays and punt." So the quarterback ran three plays, which carried down to the opponent's one-yard line, and then punted the ball out of the stadium. "What if things don't go exactly as planned?" Walsh was asked.
"Things never go as planned," he said, smiling at the obvious question. "But sooner or later we'll come back to everything that's down here. Listing them like this makes me feel more secure, and it makes my quarterback feel more secure."
Sunday broke gray and rainy. Upset weather. The fans didn't mind. They gathered early at Candlestick Park, setting up their tailgate parties in the drizzle. Hey, these are our 49ers. The first NFL team to clinch a division title, the first playoff team for San Francisco in nine years, an 11-3 team, tied with Dallas for the best record in pro football. And they've beaten the Cowboys by 31 points. That morning the San Francisco Examiner had printed the results of a fan poll to pick an alltime, 36-year 49er team. Walsh, in his third season, was voted the coach; Defensive End Fred Dean and Left Inside Linebacker Jack Reynolds both made the squad even though neither has completed one full season in San Francisco.
The 49ers started their first series on their 12-yard line. The screen from Quarterback Joe Montana to Cooper, the fullback, gained 41 yards. A Montana pass to Cooper picked up six more. Two running plays gave San Francisco nine more and another first down. It was all down there on Walsh's little sheet of paper. Click went the tumblers. A sweep for seven more yards, a quick pitch to Cooper for 21. First down on the Oilers' four. Click.
It was at this point that the argument began in earnest. The Oilers are an aging, flawed team, but still dangerous. And they can still rise up and play goal-line defense. When they stopped the 49ers inches short of a touchdown and then took over and moved the ball back up-field, to the San Francisco 37, you could almost hear the Niners' bubble burst. You had to wonder whether by clinching their division so early—two weeks before—the 49ers had dulled the edge of the sword and set the stage for a case of the playoff blahs.
And as the two teams swatted each other around in a dreary, scoreless first half, you began to wonder whether Walsh's creation was really as sound as he would have you believe or just the product of the parity era in the NFL, in which the teams are so close that a few breaks here or there can produce an 11-3 club out of ordinary clay. That's the trouble with a coach like Walsh, whose appeal is cerebral, who will answer questions logically and directly, cutting through the clichès in proper English. He is so atypical he is suspect. When he talks about his "system"—which is nothing more than finding the proper people to do precisely what he wants them to do, and then using them in ways most suited to their particular talents, and then supplying his own intellect to use them in exactly the right manner to home in on an opponent's weaknesses—he makes it seem so simple that he appears to be tampering with a coaching image. The snarl and the scowl. Closed practices. Woody Hayes and the grapes of wrath.
The 49ers put the Oilers away in the third quarter, which went 21-0. The final score was 28-6, Houston averting a shutout in the last 47 seconds. Walsh had gotten around to all 20 plays on his sheet. He had used that deep pass to Solomon out of the slot on the 49ers' 17th play, and it had gained 34 yards. The end-around to Clark came later than planned, in the third quarter actually, but it picked up 18 yards and launched San Francisco on its second TD drive. And so, the 49ers, now 12-3, had scored their second straight thumping big win when, logically, they could have been expected to come up with those blahs. The week before, they had gone to Cincinnati and put away what was then the NFL's hottest team, 21-3. Somehow the cerebral approach of the 50-year-old Walsh has created a team that not only can run a precise attack—it seems that Walsh's teams have always been capable of that—but can also knock the hell out of you. It is time to take a closer look at this curious coach with as good a record as there is in the NFL.
The system that produced him—the one taught by Bob Bronzan at San Jose State in the early and mid-1950s—was unsung and largely unrecognized in college football, but it produced Walsh, Philadelphia Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil and Tampa Bay's highly talented defensive coordinator, Tom Bass. "Bob Bronzan was a man ahead of his time," Walsh says. "He was a great theorist, a highly detailed football coach. He coached it as a science, a skilled sport.
"Dick Vermeil was a junior there when I was a graduate assistant. People ask me how well I knew him at that time; well, I can assure you we found each other very quickly. We were very close. I have to smile sometimes when I hear someone comparing his work habits to mine, when he's called a workaholic, while I work more or less normal hours. That's just Dick. He was always like that, in everything. Tremendous industry and drive, like no one else I'd ever seen.
"If he were an auto mechanic instead of a coach, you would find him in the shop at 10 p.m. putting in a new transmission. Dick knows cars. When I was having trouble with mine, he'd come over on the half a day we had off and work on it until it was fixed. I was the kind of person who didn't even know how to open the hood. He used to have barbecues at his house for 10 people and he'd do all the cooking.
"But it's a sad fact that, in the NFL, the way Dick works makes some people nervous. What is your typical NFL club, anyway? At the top you've got an owner who made it quick, who wants things to be done quickly on his club without quite knowing how.
"Under him you've got the general manager, who's positioned firmly within the owner's comfort zone. He demands a large salary for doing very little. Then you've got a personnel man, often a frustrated former player or coach, who justifies his position by sending scouts out.
"Then there's the coach, in there with his assistants at night, looking over the films, again and again, trying to find out what's wrong. And at the same time, there are the owner and general manager and personnel man out having dinner, discussing the team over their third martini. The general manager says, 'Well, I don't know what's wrong. Look, I've got the best facilities and administration and exhibition schedule; I've set up every possibility to do a job.' And the personnel man says, 'We've got the players. I had a great draft. I know because I read it in the papers. But everyone knows Smith is a guard, not a tackle.' And the GM says, 'Everyone knows so-and-so should be playing, and everyone knows so-and-so should be the quarterback.' And then they say, 'What do we do?'
"So they put their heads together and they get a new coach, obviously within the general manager's comfort zone, not too strong a threat, a guy who knows where he got his job from. So the cycle starts all over again and the situation continues to exist. Why? The big money that is made, TV, NFL Films, the hype. Football should get the hype; it's a great sport. But sometimes, well, sometimes the way teams are run makes you wonder."
For many years Walsh existed on the outer fringes of that system, an acknowledged mastermind of offensive football, particularly the quarterback position, but far removed from the comfort zone. Around the league the quarterbacks knew how valuable he was; he was Greg Cook's coach at Cincinnati when Cook burst onto the scene like a rocket as a rookie in 1969; and he guided Ken Anderson to two NFL quarterback titles in the '70s. Dan Fouts still talks about the year Walsh spent with him in San Diego in '76. But when it came time to interview for a head coaching job, something always seemed to go sour; maybe he was too much his own man. The Bengals passed over Walsh in favor of Tiger Johnson, who was fired two years later. The Jets interviwed him and settled for Lou Holtz, who didn't last the season. He lost out on the Rams' job to George Allen, who didn't even make it through the exhibition season.
So Walsh settled in at Stanford, and the offenses he created were pictures you frame and hang on the wall. "He was a breath of fresh air when he came there," says Guy Benjamin, Walsh's All-America quarterback at Stanford in 1977 and his current back-up to Montana on the 49ers. "He could be tough; he could be tough with the best of them. The good thing was that he never let it get boring. Pro scouts would come to the practices, and they'd wind up copying down our plays and formations and taking them back with them to the NFL."
Walsh's pedigree was impeccable. He broke into the pros under Al Davis at Oakland in 1966 and '67, when the Raiders were first becoming a playoff team. "Al has a great, great football mind," Walsh says. "He was a master at attacking defenses, at fitting a system to his personnel. The Al Davis-Sid Gillman systems of that era probably did more to advance offensive football than anything since Clark Shaughnessy in the '40s."
From Al Davis he went to Paul Brown and the Bengals for eight years. "Paul gave you command of your area," Walsh says. "He let you develop and mold your own philosophy. Every now and then he'd make a suggestion. He'd say something like, 'I want more of that swishing and swaying.' He meant more man-in-motion."
For one year, 1976, Walsh worked under Tommy Prothro at San Diego. Then, after two years at Stanford, Walsh got the 49er job in 1979. He knew three things: He'd been stripped of draft choices; he could put together an offense that could move the ball, but God help his defense; and he had to put in his own system and his alone. In an early interview, Walsh was asked if he would bring in a coordinator to install an offense.
"Usually that's step four," Walsh said. "Step five is toward the exit."
For two years his 49er offenses were pretty. He used the passing game as a ball-control device, not exactly a radical concept, but few coaches had refined the technique to the extent he had, or had his ability to find and work on the soft spot of the defense. His '79 and '80 teams set NFL records for passes thrown and completed. He came up with innovations every week.
"He drove us crazy when I was with the Rams and had to play against him," Reynolds says. "He'd add three hours to my practice day. You couldn't type him. You never knew what the hell he'd do. If you had films of the last three games they'd played, you might as well throw them out, because he wouldn't repeat any tendencies."
But the 49er defenses were disasters, and observers began to wonder if Walsh was just a one-way coach whose talent lay only on the offensive side of the line. He remained polite and informative, but inwardly he brooded.
"My biggest concern was 'Can this be done? Can I stay together long enough to get it done?' " he say's. "I'd taken over a team that had experienced a crushing succession of losses, a team with almost no draft choices coming up. I needed time and I needed patience from everyone. During those two years I felt that the team was a puzzle I was trying to put together, but half the pieces were missing. Those pieces were on defense. They just weren't there."
This year they arrived in the persons of Dean and Reynolds and the three rookies who injected a jolt of electricity into the secondary: Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson. All of a sudden the 49ers became a defensive team that could win the low-scoring games. For two years the Niners had scored no defensive touchdowns, but in a space of three games this season they came up with four. When they went to Cincinnati, they faced a Bengal team that had averaged 35.4 points in its last five games. They held Cincinnati to three. The Bengals had allowed five turnovers in their previous five games; San Francisco forced six. Walsh points to that game as a capsule of what he has been trying to achieve this year: a grind-it-out offense that could put together long drives, and a shocking, quick-striking defense.
"The role of the defense was to go in and hit them so hard and so quick that we'd shatter them, we'd shock them," he says. "We don't have massive people; we don't have the gigantic linemen or linebackers. But we're quick strikers, hard, punishing tacklers. Well, we did that against Cincinnati and we held the ball on offense. When you can do that, you erode their defensive game plan from the start. You attack the game plan itself. It's not like completing a 90-yard pass. That will get a defense fired up. They'll say, 'Dammit, you won't do that again!' I want them saying, over and over again, 'Dammit, we've got to stop them from making first downs. Dammit, they just completed that five-yard pass again.' "
Walsh remembers his Bengal teams that went into the playoffs happy just to be there, and he remembers their early departures. He says the motivation now is "to improve the level of our play by 15 to 20 percent, up to the level you need for sustained playoff football."
"It's almost there," he said in the locker room after the Houston game. "Are we a Super Bowl team? I think our chances are as good as anybody's. I don't know if we could thoroughly dominate anybody, but we could be in a 17-14 game we'd win. Right now there isn't anybody in the league we can't play."
And maybe, after it's all over in January, Walsh will find that he has actually arrived at that ever so elusive place, the comfort zone.