A star has risen in the West. For the better part of the 1984 season the San Francisco 49ers have labored under the long shadow cast by the unbeaten Miami Dolphins, but now it's even Steven. The Dolphins were upset 34-28 by San Diego on Sunday, while the 49ers beat Tampa Bay 24-17 and became the first team to clinch a playoff spot. Both the 49ers and the Dolphins, as well as the Denver Broncos, are 11-1, so if you want to make a case for San Francisco as the best team in pro football, the won-lost records no longer stand in your way.
These 49ers don't have the flash and dash of the Dolphins but they're sound and precise. They're effective on any level, from working on a cerebral plane, with Joe Montana running one of the NFL's most complicated passing attacks, to brutalizing opponents with a very rough and effective ground game. They gave Tampa Bay a taste of both Sunday, finessing the Bucs in the first half and building a 14-10 lead, then taking it to them in the second for the win.
There's only one thing missing. The magic. The beautiful rose-colored glow of 1981, when the 49ers came from nowhere and won it all. The Bay Area gasped at the play of the 49ers' magnificent rookie pass defenders, Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson; at the artistry of their 25-year-old quarterback, Montana; at the pass-catching heroics of Dwight Clark; and at the work of Jack Reynolds and Fred Dean, who had arrived from the Rams and Chargers, respectively, to apply the final defensive touches.
In a way it's unfair to compare the two teams. What can compare with your first kiss, your first sip of wine?
"Ask anyone and he'll tell you there's no question that this team's better than the one we had in '81," says Lott. "And it's fun now, too...don't get me wrong...but it's more professional. In '81 it was a different kind of fun, bubbly fun, rookie fun, you know what I mean?"
The cast is better now, at least on offense. Montana still has his keynote wide receivers. Four of the five interior linemen are the same. The only change is at left tackle—Bubba Paris for Dan Audick. Montana is a better quarterback now. "I'm more aware of the people around me," he says. "I don't look for Dwight Clark all the time, like I did then." But the major difference between the teams is the running game. These 49ers have a couple of big league backs, Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig, while the '81 team had an assortment of so-so's.
"We can do things with our running game that we couldn't do then," says Fred Quillan, the center. "We can take charge of a game with it; we can dominate defensive lines. You saw what we did against the Bucs in the second half today. We couldn't have done that in '81."
The running game put the finisher on a contest that shouldn't have been so close. In the first half Tampa Bay failed to stop the 49ers on their first four possessions. Two long first-quarter drives carried to the six- and 15-yard lines but ended with a fumble each time. The next two drives ended in touchdowns. At that point, Montana was 13 for 15 passing, and the Niners had converted eight straight third downs. It was a clinic in offensive football.
The infantry took over in the second half. San Francisco loaded up with two tight ends, bringing in demon rookie blocker John Frank. Montana threw the ball only seven times, the runners picked up 126 of their 190-yard total, and the Bucs were rubber-legged at the end.
Overall, the 49er offense has averaged 404.9 yards per game this season, or 66.6 yards per game better than its '81 numbers—38.3 on the ground, 28.3 in the air. But the defense...well, it was different, or it was until a very significant event took place on Sunday. Defensive end Fred Dean made his first appearance of 1984.
In '81 Dean was the catalyst, the loose cannon, "capable of winning a game all by himself," coach Bill Walsh says. This season Dean was a holdout. It wasn't until Nov. 11 that his representatives, 49er officials and Willie Brown, the California State Assembly Speaker acting as mediator, hammered out a deal in a motel room as the 49ers were crushing the Browns 41-7. For the rest of 1984 and the next four years, Dean, now 32, will receive close to $2 million in salary and bonuses.
Dean's appearance on the practice field last week was electric. "It raised the whole level of practice," right guard Randy Cross said. "It was like a karate competition where the star is a brown belt from Redwood City, and all of a sudden a fifth-degree sensei from the Far East shows up."
"What would you have said," someone asked Walsh, "if I told you that after 11 games you'd be 10-1 and you'd have Fred Dean fresh and healthy without a single bruise on him?"
"I'd have said, 'Merry Christmas,' " Walsh said.
On Sunday, Dean appeared in a few long-yardage situations in the first quarter and nothing much happened. Early in the second, he lined up for the first time next to tackle Gary Johnson, his former All-Pro teammate at San Diego who became a Niner this year. He and Johnson tried an end-tackle stunt, tripped over each other and fell down.
"We come to the sideline and Fred said, 'C'mon man, you're in my way,' " Johnson said. "I told him, 'Just go outside and do what you want to do.' "
When it became clear that Dean was planning a full day's work, the Bucs flopped their tackles, taking Gene Sanders away from Dean's side and replacing him with Ron Heller. Heller is an unusually aggressive rookie, a fist-in-the-throat guy, "an unsportsmanlike conduct kind of player," Dean said after the game. Dean made a big play against Sanders in the first half, forcing an interception on a cat-quick inside move, which set up the Niners' first score. It was a little tougher going against Heller. In the third quarter, tailback James Wilder popped Dean, and Heller finished him off, driving him to the ground and nailing him with his helmet. Dean got up slowly, and the Bucs drove for a TD that kept them within striking distance.
The game, for all purposes, ended with just under five minutes left. The Bucs were on the Niners' 38. Second-and-10. A TD would tie it. But Dean finished off those hopes. He beat Heller with an outside rush and an arm-over and forced an incomplete pass. Next play he took a wide route and then a quick swoop. Heller grabbed him and dragged him down and got a flag, but still Dean had somehow crawled in, grabbed Steve DeBerg's legs and toppled him for the 49ers' only sack of the game. The Bucs punted. End of contest.
Maybe the old magic is gone, but right now the 49ers are an awfully good-looking team.