After capping off a great 1981 season by winning the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers got stuck in neutral for most of the next two years. They slumped to 3-6 and didn't even make the playoffs in the strike-abbreviated 1982 campaign, then continued to struggle through most of 1983. But quarterback Joe Montana & Co. awoke in time to almost reach the Super Bowl again last January, and they've kept on rolling in high gear ever since.
With a 10-1 record after Sunday's 41-7 rout of Cleveland, and with four games coming up against losing teams, the current 49ers are just about a cinch to win their third NFC West title in four years. And the way they're playing, it seems clear that Coach Bill Walsh has fused the remnants of the Super Bowl team with some key new elements to create another club with a good shot at going all the way.
As late as Dec. 4, 1983, it looked as though it would take a major overhauling to get the 49ers back into the top echelon. At that point the team had lost four of its last five games and was bogged down with a 7-6 record (adding up to a sorry 10-12 overall tally since the Super Bowl win). But three straight victories, including a season-ending 42-17 annihilation of Dallas, put the 49ers in the playoffs, where they beat Detroit and then stormed back from a 21-0 deficit to tie Washington in the NFC championship game before eventually losing out 24-21 to a late Redskin field goal. And so far this year, the record speaks for itself.
One big reason for the team's renewed success has been the emergence of a strong running game headed by Wendell Tyler (acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams), and former Nebraska star Roger Craig, who has blossomed into an outstanding all-purpose back in his second pro season.
Of course the passing game is still the bread and butter of this team's offense, with Montana throwing to the likes of Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, and a host of other fine receivers. Craig, coming out of the backfield, is actually the team's leading pass catcher in terms of total receptions, while Earl Cooper, Mike Wilson, and former track star Renaldo Nehemiah add various other dimensions. And making it all work is that unsung bulwark of any passing attack, the offensive line - which in this case has allowed fewer quarterback sacks than any other team in the league so far this year.
''We have a veteran offensive line which has served as the nucleus of our team,'' says Walsh. Indeed, four of the five regulars up front also started in the Super Bowl three years ago - two-time Pro Bowl choice Randy Cross and 8-year veteran John Ayers at guard, 7-year man Fred Quillan at center, and 11-year pro Keith Fahnhorst at right tackle. The only newcomer is Bubba Paris, a third-year man who has taken over at left tackle.
Now with all this plus a more credible ground game to keep defenses honest, the club has achieved the offensive balance it lacked before - which makes it even more difficult to contain. Elsewhere around the NFL
* The defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders have dropped three games in a row, climaxed by Monday night's 17-14 loss to Seattle, and could be in danger of not making the playoffs if they don't get their act together.
Right now Miami, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Seattle are well ahead in the race for the five AFC berths, leaving the Raiders, New England, and possibly the New York Jets to scramble for the last one.
With its talent plus an easier remaining schedule, L.A. still may earn the difficult position of trying to become only the second wild card team ever to win a Super Bowl. That prospect doesn't daunt the Raiders too much, though, since they were the team that did it four years ago while still in Oakland.
* The latest proof that extra points aren't automatic occurred Sunday when a blocked kick with 1:52 left gave Miami a 24-23 win over Philadelphia. It was no fluke either. Defensive end Doug Betters said the Dolphins had noticed a weakness while studying films. ''We've been working on this,'' he said. 'Three or four guys wedged together to open the lane for me. I caught it right on my fingertips.''
* Walter Payton is the all-time rushing leader, but Eric Dickerson won their head-to-head duel handily in the Los Angeles Rams' 29-13 victory over Chicago. Dickerson romped for 149 yards and two touchdowns (becoming the first runner all year to exceed 100 yards against the Bears) while Payton was limited to 60.