When the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers finished the 1982 season 3-6 and out of the playoffs, there were charges of complacency, rumors of drug abuse and an admission of "burnout" on the part of Coach Bill Walsh. While all of the above no doubt contributed to the 49ers' collapse, the chief indictment of the team on the field was that, in keeping with recent San Francisco history, it had only 10 men on offense. Five linemen. A tight end. Two wide receivers. A quarterback. A blocking back. But no running back.
Not since the 1976 salad days of Delvin Williams have the 49ers had a back rush for 100 yards a game, something the Raiders' Marcus Allen did three times last year as a rookie. And the wonder of the Niners' Super Bowl season was that their top rusher, Ricky Patton, gained a mere 543 yards—a bad month's work for George Rogers or Billy Sims. In fact, Patton was cut by the 49ers last year when their leading running back, Jeff Moore, gained all of 281 yards—on 31.1 yards a game.
Walsh's best clutch runner in '82 was his quarterback, Joe Montana, but all too often Montana was running for his life. His play-run fakes didn't fool anyone; he had to keep the ball himself because he didn't have a running back to hand off to. Worse still, the 49ers' offense became so predictable—opponents concentrated on Wide Receiver Dwight Clark, gang-tackled Montana and forgot about everyone else—that people no longer were calling Walsh a genius.
So Walsh pursued a runner. In a ghostwritten column bylined Bill Walsh in the Houston Chronicle on April 11, Walsh fairly salivated at what great deeds the 49ers might accomplish with a Joe Cribbs, a Curtis Dickey, a Chuck Muncie, a Sims, a Wendell Tyler or an Earl Campbell working out of their backfield. The hometown Oilers took offense at that last mention and wrote a letter of protest to the NFL. The Niners paid $10,000 on a tampering charge. "Houston protested," Walsh says, "but they were trying to trade Campbell to us at the same time."
All speculation ended on April 25 when Walsh gave the Los Angeles Rams a No. 2 and a No. 4 pick in the 1983 draft in exchange for Tyler, Defensive End Cody Jones and a No. 3 draft choice. To listen to Walsh, the acquisition of Tyler alone was a stroke of, well, sheer genius. "If I had my choice of any available back," he says, "or perhaps any back, period, I would have taken Wendell Tyler."
While Montana no doubt was as ecstatic as his coach about the Tyler deal, the happiest 49ers had to be the members of the defense. Tyler, you see, ran for five touchdowns in two games against San Francisco in 1982; on the other hand, the 49er running backs managed a total of six touchdowns in nine games.
Of course, the real question is this: Why did the Rams suddenly deem expendable a 28-year-old runner who had a 1,109-yard season in 1979, a 1,074-yard season in 1981, a 564-yard season in strike-torn 1982 (project that total over 16 games and you get 1,008 yards), had scored a total of 30 touchdowns in his last two seasons and had eight 100-plus yard games on the books? True, the 5'10", 205-pound Tyler fumbled a bit too often, but he had a nose for the goal line.
"When we traded Tyler," says John Robinson, the rookie coach of the Rams, "we had the chance to get Eric Dickerson in the draft, and we feel Dickerson's going to be great."
The trade came as no great surprise to Tyler, who went to UCLA and played against Robinson's 1976 USC team. "I talked with Robinson when he got the job and I knew I was gone," Tyler says. "I was a workhorse in L.A., and with Dickerson around, there wouldn't have been enough of the football for both of us."
The rub is, there wasn't enough of the football for Tyler during the 49ers' four-game preseason that concluded last Saturday afternoon with a 20-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park. Walsh is one coach in the NFL who uses the preseason schedule as a time to test rookies and bring his veterans along slowly. No sense getting the vets banged around in some no-account August game.
So, while a hotshot rookie like Roger Craig, the 49ers' No. 2 draft pick from Nebraska, got a good shot at running back in preseason, Tyler carried the ball just 26 times and gained a meager 80 yards.
"We will get use out of Tyler this season," says Walsh. "He'll get his yards, if we keep him healthy."
If. A big word. After a spectacular career at UCLA, highlighted by a 172-yard rushing performance against Ohio State in the 1976 Rose Bowl, Tyler was drafted in the third round by the Rams in 1977 but spent almost all of his rookie season on the bench. In the second game of the 1978 season Tyler suffered a knee injury and spent the rest of the year on injured reserve. The following season Tyler cracked the starting lineup in the fifth game, rushed for those 1,109 yards, caught 32 passes for another 308 yards and led the Rams into the 1980 Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The next summer Tyler's career reached another crisis point when he was involved in an automobile accident on a mountain slope in West Virginia. "The driver—I was in the passenger seat—just went to sleep," Tyler says. "I woke up just in time to ball up." And possibly save his life.
As it was, Tyler's hip was dislocated, and physicians said that he might never walk again. "They told me I had a 10 percent chance," he says. But Tyler recovered from those injuries and played in four games late in the 1980 season. By 1981 he was completely healthy once again and produced 1,510 yards and 17 touchdowns.
How often Tyler reaches pay dirt in '83 will depend, to a great extent, on the play of the 49ers' offensive line. In Los Angeles, Tyler ran behind a wall of Pro Bowl candidates, including Dennis Harrah, Jackie Slater and Kent Hill, guys who could bore a hole through Fort Knox. But in San Francisco he will be working with counterpunching linemen who know all the tricks of pass protection but probably can't put a hole in a screen door.
"Somebody's got to sustain a block out there," Tyler says. "Somebody's got to lift some weights."
True, but as one 49er lineman says, "Walsh has always been a passing coach, and it's hard to change what you are."
Change, though, is needed. Or, as another 49er put it, "I only know that we don't go this season unless Wendell goes."