San Francisco balances its attack - and wins
When a National Football League team that has been down for a long time suddenly begins to appear regularly in the win column, it's a lot easier to get your credits straight when the head coach is also the general manager.
That's the situation in San Francisco, where the 49ers (a composite 8-24 the last two years) lead the NFC West with a 7-2 overall mark and are tied with Dallas and Philadelphia for the best record in the entire league. Not necessarily holding still for media bouquets, but having them thrown at him anyway, is Bill Walsh, who is both front office and field boss of the SF franchise.
Walsh is a very organized person who, after two years as head coach at Stanford, during which the Cardinals went 17-7 and won two bowl games, seemed temperamentally suited to improving lost causes. Before working at Stanford, Bill had spent 10 years in the NFL as an assistant coach at Oakland, Cincinnati, and San Diego.
The thing that Walsh has always been known for is his ability to put together crowd-pleasing offensive units for which there is no known defense. Seeing points go up regularly on the scoreboard is generally good enough to satisfy the natives for at least a couple of years while Bill and his staff are making the necessary repairs elsewhere.
Even though the 49ers have better personnel than they had last season, the specific area in which they are most improved is defense. Instead of presenting extra scoring opportunities to their opponents by turning the ball over because of careless mistakes, they have begun to create some advantages of their own.
''Acquiring a reservoir of defensive talent through trades, free agents, and the college draft was our primary objective when we sat down to analyze this team at the end of last season,'' Walsh told reporters. ''It's tough when you have to play catch-up so much of the time, because it wears players out mentally and physically.
''Today's pro offenses put so much pressure on the defense that one unit, no matter how much talent is there, can't really do the job all the time,'' Bill continued. ''What you need are about 17 or 18 solid defensive players as a protection against injuries, breakdowns, and overwork. We're still not where I'd like us to be, but we're close, and when you begin to win your confidence increases.''
For example, after three years of getting exactly nothing in the way of points from the defensive unit, Walsh got four touchdowns from it in the 49ers' first six games, three on pass interceptions and one on a fumble recovery. A year ago that kind of agressiveness showed up only on offense.
Heading up San Francisco's new hard-nosed look on defense are linebacker Jack Reynolds; defensive end Fred Dean; and rookie cornerback Ronnie Lott from Southern California, a 1980 consensus All-America.
Reynolds, who had 11 great years with the Los Angeles Rams before coming to the 49ers, leads the team in tackles. Dean, who has speed to burn, previously logged 55 quarterback sacks with the San Diego Chargers, while Lott has played more like a veteran than a rookie.
Unexpected help has also come from two other San Francisco rookies - cornerback Eric Wright of Missouri (the team's second draft choice) and strong safety Carlton Williamson of Pittsburgh, who was picked third. Another young player who has drawn rave notices is free safety Dwight Hicks, who seems to be outperforming every other second-year defensive player in the league.
But for those who watch the 49ers regularly, and don't try to analyze them, the offense is where you train your binoculars. Walsh, who in the past has helped bring out the best in quarterbacks Ken Anderson at Cincinnati, Dan Fouts at San Diego, and Guy Benjamin at Stanford, has molded another future NFL all-star in Joe Montana.
Montana, who goes 6 ft. 2 in. and was the quarterback on Notre Dame's last national championship team, has always had a big-league throwing arm. His problem, like most young pros, has been learning to read defenses that are often changed after the offense sets up at the line of scrimmage.
Walsh's passing offense, although highly praised, is about as simple in concept as you'll find in pro football and has been successful because of execution rather than flair or trickery.
San Francisco does a lot with its wide receivers, generally making use of both on every play, one as Montana's primary target and the other as his secondary receiver. And if both are covered, Joe still has two options - throwing to one of his runners coming out of the backfield or throwing a swing pass to a halfback who has drifted wide after completing his blocking assignment.
Whether the 49ers have actually arrived as an NFL power or whether they simply caught some of their opponents on weeks when they were down and took advantage of them is still a moot question. Certainly they made a few more believers on Sunday by defeating the Steelers 17-14 in Pittsburgh for their sixth victory in a row. For a full answer, though, we'll probably have to wait and see how well San Francisco does against its next three opponents, who happen to be Atlanta (last year's defending NFC West champion), Cleveland, and Los Angeles.