Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
There will never be another first Super Bowl win for the San Francisco 49ers. No repeat of “The Catch.” Nor will there be another Joe Montana, Dwight Clark or Bill Walsh holding court to the mass of scarlet-adorned, deafening patrons at Candlestick Park.
But we already knew that.
Former 49ers fullback and tight end Earl Cooper, who caught the first touchdown pass of the 1981 Super Bowl, knows that as well as anyone.
“To be the first, nobody can ever replace you,” Cooper told KNBR. “The first one to win a championship for the 49ers. The first one to catch Joe Montana’s first ever touchdown pass in a Super Bowl and in the 49ers’ history of the Super Bowl. The first interception, the first fumble recovery, all the stuff that we did in ’81, we were the first to do that and nobody can ever repeat that.”
But another dynasty? A new run of unrelenting glory beginning with a young team that no one took seriously? Now that sounds familiar.
There won’t ever be another 1981. But in so many ways, the 2019 season is strikingly similar. This team has a chance to write its own set of “firsts,” with a plot that, if sealed with the right ending, would go down as an all-time reboot of a once-dormant franchise.
Mentioning Kyle Shanahan without mentioning where he came from would be ignoring his deep roots in the 49ers franchise. Shanahan was a ball boy when his father, Mike Shanahan, was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator under George Seifert from 1992 to 1994, when the 49ers won their last Super Bowl.
The younger Shanahan said he was more concerned with looking like Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice back then than he was with X’s and O’s. He admitted going so far as to wearing a Sanders jersey given to him on Christmas in 1994 every day until the 49ers won the Super Bowl on Jan. 29. He claims he changed his undershirts.
Kyle Shanahan’s greatest influence in his path to the 49ers is clearly his father, whose last stop in San Francisco bookended the franchise’s five-title dynastic run. But his father’s defining career opportunity came thanks to Bill Walsh; when you connect the dots, there’s a clear path from Walsh to Kyle Shanahan.
Walsh handed the team off to his top consigliere in Seifert at the conclusion of the 1988 season with his third Super Bowl in hand. Seifert, after repeating in in the 1989 season, brought in Mike Shanahan as his second-in-command in 1992.
When Mike Shanahan left San Francisco to head back to the Denver Broncos (where he was previously the offensive coordinator on two separate occasions) and coach John Elway to back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, he brought Gary Kubiak (then the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach) with him as his offensive coordinator.
After a decade in Denver, Kubiak landed his first head coaching job with the Houston Texans and hired the then-26-year-old Kyle Shanahan as his wide receivers coach.
Kyle Shanahan had spent the two years prior as an offensive quality control coach under Jon Gruden, who was a disciple of Mike Holmgren (both in San Francisco and Green Bay), the quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator for Walsh and Seifert for a combined six years.
A year after being hired to coach wide receivers in Houston, Kyle Shanahan was promoted to quarterbacks coach. And in 2008, Kyle Shanahan, aged 28, became the Texans’ offensive coordinator — the youngest in the NFL.
Two years later, he rendezvoused with his father for four messy years with the Redskins, where he was the offensive coordinator and worked alongside future NFC head coaches Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams) and Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers).
Kyle Shanahan would not have taken this path without his years under Kubiak or Gruden, but the case can be made that the path from Bill Walsh to Kyle Shanahan has only four segments: Walsh-Seifert-Shanahan-Shanahan. You could also make that case through Holmgren and Gruden (Walsh-Holmgren-Gruden-Shanahan), though Kyle Shanahan was clearly most influenced by his father.
There’s an even clearer path from Walsh to general manager John Lynch. Lynch played under Walsh at Stanford once Walsh un-retired and ensured his final three years of coaching were in Palo Alto, coaching college football. Lynch was then drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, under Walsh disciple Sam Wyche, where he became a potentially Hall of Fame safety.
The “West Coast Offense” has a lovely ring to it. That was the menu for Joe Montana in Walsh’s San Francisco, though, as Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden wrote in Blood, Sweat and Chalk, it “should really be named the Cincinnati offense.”
What Walsh developed as a Bengals assistant coach from 1968 to 1975 would come to revolutionize the NFL and set the foundations for a dynasty. But the title of the “West Coast Offense,” given errantly as a description of Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” offense developed at San Diego State and used by Sid Gillman with the Chargers, stuck with Walsh in San Francisco.
The core of Walsh’s scheme entailed expanding the field horizontally — using every inch of the 53 1/3 yards that a football field stretches from sideline to sideline. As with many great innovations in NFL history, it was more an ingenuitive necessity than a paroxysm of sudden genius.
After a rotator cuff tear effectively ended the career of Walsh’s second-year quarterback Greg Cook in Cincinnati, who Walsh described as “the finest natural talent of any quarterback I have seen,” he was left with Virgil Carter, a mobile and excellent short-yardage quarterback, but challenged in the arm strength department.
As Layden describes, that was the genesis of the West Coast Offense, typified by three- and five-step dropbacks designed to set up perfectly timed short passes to receivers running exact, planned routes.
The timing required the ball to be thrown sometimes before receivers had turned for the ball. But if the route were run correctly, the ball would be there, and the defender in coverage would have no chance to make a play. The scheme incorporated numbered progressions, so Carter, and any quarterback in the system, had a clear idea of which receiver to target first, second, third, etc. as well as their hot receivers; who to throw to in the case of a blitz.
Its goal was to take advantage of linebackers, with the inevitability of wide receivers finding openings on extended routes across the field. The 1989 Super Bowl-winning play, as explained in detail below by Walsh, takes advantage of the entire field, using defensive tendencies and cues to scheme open wide receiver John Taylor from the tight end position for the game-winning touchdown.
As Randy Cross, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the 49ers, and starting center and offensive guard from 1976 to 1986 told KNBR, it was not a popular scheme outside of San Francisco at the time. The title also wasn’t all that popular with the 49ers, though Cross said he wasn’t sure what Walsh thought of it.
“The establishment in the NFL looked down their nose, just like they did at the spread offense, they looked down at our offense,” Cross said. “Our linemen weren’t ‘real linemen,’ because we didn’t just take one-foot splits, come off the ball and try to flatten our own foreheads. We would run and we’d motion, and we’d pull and we’d do all kinds of different stuff. It’s just as effective.
“But I always thought that the title of the ‘West Coast Offense’ was kind of condescending personally. It was just slightly better than being called a finesse offense.”
The connection from Walsh to the Shanahans is so notable because Mike Shanahan took Walsh’s offense to Denver and added new wrinkles. As head coach of the Broncos, Mike Shanahan incorporated seven-step dropbacks and added shotgun sets to accommodate the brilliant arm strength of John Elway.
Holmgren, with Brett Favre in Green Bay, added three wide receiver sets and zone-blocking run schemes, and his disciple, Gruden, incorporated pre-snap motions in Tampa, where Kyle Shanahan worked for two years. If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because they’re all elements of modern offenses, and Kyle Shanahan has studied what elements of them work and why they work.
To call this 49ers offense the West Coast Offense would both be incorrect and inviting the wrath of Kyle Shanahan, who’s not much a fan of that label. But it all stems from Walsh.
Shanahan’s offense now incorporates complex zone blocking schemes that set up a run game based on outside zones and counters that grind a defense to death. He uses a heavy dose of pre-snap motions and disguises to scheme players open in response to coverages with weak points that he can almost always pinpoint.
Cross said he sees malleability on both sides of the ball from Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh just as he did with Walsh and defensive coordinator Chuck Studley. (Seifert was the defensive backs coach in the early years before becoming defensive coordinator.)
“What you’re gonna see out of the defense is gonna look completely different, not even week-to-week, but quarter-to-quarter and same with the offense,” Cross said. “I know Shanahan does not hesitate to either create things or bring things back from the dead, and that’s something in common with Bill, too. Very aware of football history and guys that are like that don’t hesitate. Things that have always worked eventually get brought back and still work.”
One of those revivals is the fullback. No team in the NFL relies more on their fullback than the 49ers rely on Kyle Juszczyk. Kyle Shanahan says he likes the fullback because, “I feel like that’s the only way you can dictate your terms. When you have a fullback in the game, if you really want to run the ball, you can run the ball regardless of what the defense is doing.”
Like the read-option creates an offensive numbers advantage, the fullback is similar, providing a lead blocker for the running back regardless of circumstance. Charle Young, a tight end and Les Eshmont Award winner (provided annually to one 49ers player for “inspirational and courageous play”) in the 1981 season, described Juszczyk as the “unsung hero” of the 49ers’ team, and described his value both as a blocker and pass-catching threat as invaluable.
For Cooper, who was the fullback of choice in the 1981 season (he moved to tight end in 1983 when Roger Craig arrived), he sees nostalgia in Juszczyk.
“Oh yeah. I can tell people, ‘Hey, that’s what I did.’ That’s how they used me when I was in San Francisco,” Cooper said. “I’d run a corner route, I’d run a hook over the middle. I’d run a five-yard out from the split position, they call it the red formation, because you’re out on the back and running an option route; depends on how the linebacker’s shading you, inside or out.”
While it looks far from from what Walsh used in the 1981 season, this current scheme doesn’t exist without Walsh, nor the obvious link and knowledge pool that Mike Shanahan provided (and still provides to his son today).
“There are much more parallels to what his dad did in Denver,” said Cross. “Because what what Mike did with his offense was, not even an extension, it was a next generation to what Bill [Walsh] did. And I think what Kyle’s doing is, again, it’s an entity unto itself. The DNA is pretty similar, but it’s a breed apart right now.”
The similarities between Walsh and Kyle Shanahan reach beyond the core of their schemes. According to Layden, Walsh “videotaped all meetings” and kept a library of them even after he’d retired. Mike Shanahan told Layden that he “watched every one of those tapes” and when he went to Denver, the elder Shanahan kept up Walsh’s approach, putting cameras in each meeting room to be able to stay in-tune with his team without interfering.
According to Tim Kawakami of The Athletic, Kyle Shanahan does the exact same thing so, “I can sit and listen and know what’s going on, to where I don’t always have to be in there and make it uncomfortable.” Coaches all reserve the right to turn the cameras off.
No question, Walsh and Shanahan are stylistically different. Walsh was the glasses- and cashmere sweater-wearing “professor,” at least as he was viewed from the outside. That image wasn’t all that accurate because, as Cross put it, “They never heard the professor swear like a sailor.”
Shanahan has the same propensity to swear, though that may not be a unique similarity between head coaches. What is similar is that both Walsh and Shanahan are perfectionists with a sense of humor who expect the same from their assistants. How that manifested for Walsh was obviously a bit different than Shanahan:
“He was very intense, had a great sense of humor,” Cross said of Walsh. “He knew how to push buttons. Both players and coaches. I think he had a pretty rough coaching style when it came to assistants. Assistants took a lot of grief from him. So that was his way of motivating or instructing players. Players didn’t make the mistakes, coaches did at times.
“He would not hesitate going after you if you did something really stupid. But if there was something that pretty consistently in a practice didn’t go right or we weren’t doing some things the proper way, he’d immediately turn around and look at [offensive line coach] Bobb McKittrick or turn around and look at whoever it was, whether it was Sam [Wyche] or any of those guys and just shake their heads. He’d shake his head and go, ‘You know I guess I just haven’t been specific enough. I just haven’t taught you guys exactly what I want out of these players.’
And as a player you can’t sit there and go, ‘Hey wait a minute, I’m not a moron, I can figure this shit out.'”
Walsh was abundantly aware of how burdensome his exacting nature was. He counteracted that intensity with a unique sense of humor. As Cooper put it, “Even in his humor, he had a message.” And yes, those messages existed even when Walsh was shadowboxing or hitting a heavy bag.
“There were times he cracked jokes or he’d act like Muhammad Ali and dance around boxing and different kinds of stuff like that,” Cooper said. “He did things to keep the team loose, as opposed to us just being uptight, because he was uptight.”
Shanahan’s sense of humor is apparent, but it’s more of a wry, off-the-cuff delivery than physical comedy. His high expectations for his assistants also don’t manifest in quite the brusque way that Walsh’s did, according to Saleh:
“There’s a difference between attacking and challenging, and Kyle is phenomenal at challenging his coaches to always achieve more,” Saleh said. “I’ve been around coaches who attack people and they get nothing. Kyle’s art and the way he coaches is he challenges you to do more and look beyond the box, look outside the box, look outside what you’re comfortable with so you can continually get better.
Much different than the tone that a lot of coaches that I’ve been around where they just attack you and demean you for one reason or another. It’s fully expected from Kyle. He’s been that way his entire career. He expects greatness, and you’re not being great unless you’re challenging yourself.”
Both use that harshness toward their assistants as a way to draw excellence from their players. One of the common coaching points that stands out is their edict that everyone — running backs, tight ends and most importantly, wide receivers — be involved in the run game. In scouring the internet, there is a copy of Walsh’s 1985 offensive playbook with one page containing an inspirational message to hammer home the value of wide receivers blocking.
The first few paragraphs of these wide receiving blocking instructions read:
“Attitude: The success of our outside running game and the number of runs over 10 yards depends a great deal on the execution of our perimeter blocks by the WR’s.
- You are very important in our running game, and you must approach your job with this in mind.
- The effectiveness of our running game will improve our play action passes. Effort and speed on running plays will help you get open when we fake the run and throw play action passes.
- It requires concentration, self-discipline, willingness to pay the price, and personal pride geared to perfection.”
I read those blocking instructions to Dante Pettis and asked if they sounded familiar to Shanahan’s instructions.
“I don’t know if you got that from Walsh or from Kyle,” Pettis said. “Because that sounds exactly like what Kyle tells us… all the receivers, whenever someone makes a big block, we know it. It pumps us up.”
The failure, and the build
More evident than any similarity between the 1981 Super Bowl campaign and the season at hand is the path that both teams took to get to a point where they could compete. Walsh’s 49ers went 2-14 and 6-10 in his first two seasons, respectively, before finishing 13-3 in the 1981 regular season.
Shanahan’s 49ers are on an eerily similar trajectory, finishing 6-10 in 2017 and 4-12 in 2018, before going 13-3 this season. The first two seasons were products of Jimmy Garoppolo’s presence — coming in to win five-straight games as a starter — or absence — tearing his ACL in the third game of the 2018 regular season.
Walsh inherited a 2-14 team from 1978 … exactly like the 2-14 team Shanahan inherited from 2016.
When he was hired, Walsh was the sixth 49ers head coach in five years. Shanahan was the fourth in four years.
At the start of the 1979 season, Cross said players were expecting that wheel of misfortune to continue.
“His starting base, as he explained in our first meeting, you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, ‘Ugh, I’ll just outlast this guy,'” Cross said. “And he looked out at us and he goes, ‘Look, this is the worst team in the NFL. If you can’t play for me, who the hell else can you play for?’
“And we all kind of sat there like, ‘Hmm, he may have a point.'”
The ways the 1981 roster and 2019 roster were built are somewhat dissimilar. Much of the 1981 roster was composed of free-agent signings and draft picks from the previous two seasons. The 49ers of 2019 made three key acquisitions — Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander, Tevin Coleman — in free agency (along with adding Jason Verrett and Jordan Matthews) and trades, with most of the rest coming from the draft — Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd, Mitch Wishnowsky, Dre Greenlaw, Justin Skule.
The overwhelming majority of players at the very least experienced the disappointment of the injury-riddled 2018 campaign, which is now paying dividends. The season-ending injury to Garoppolo equated to Bosa, a potentially generational talent who was game-ready from the jump.
While the 1981 roster leaned heavily on free agents, they created a secondary almost from thin air through the draft — Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright joined the third-year Dwight Hicks to create a youth-filled group that would eventually combine for 18 Pro Bowls and seven first-team All-Pro nods.
For the 1981 team, their key midseason acquisition was All-Pro defensive end Fred Dean. In 2019, it was Emmanuel Sanders. Both trades took good teams and raised their ceilings and confidence through both the tangible value of the talent acquired and the message that the trades sent (more on them below).
The youth-veteran recipe
Like Joe Staley, who’s seen more valleys than peaks in his career, Cross was on the wrong end of four-straight losing seasons before the 1981 campaign. Aside from tight end Garrett Celek (injured reserve), Staley is the only player on the 49ers roster remaining from their 2012 Super Bowl run.
Cross said he first met Staley at the Senior Bowl in 2007, when he was working for Sirius XM radio, and immediately had a positive feeling about him.
While Staley was part of that three-year run of success in the first half of the 2010s, most of his career has been spent losing. It’s why beating the Seahawks in the final game of the season, in Seattle, had Staley in tears.
“I don’t know, there was something about the kid I liked,” Cross said. “He’s been an amazing player his whole career but yes, it’s one thing to be on a winning team, how great that feels. But when you’re a guy that has been both in a successful situation before and in a really bad situation before record-wise, when it gets really good, you enjoy it. You don’t waste it.”
The offensive line is the oldest position group on the 49ers’ roster, but there are veterans spread at every position: Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward in the secondary, Dee Ford and Earl Mitchell on the defensive line, Emmanuel Sanders and Jordan Matthews in the wide receiver room, and Celek with the tight ends.
All of those veterans have pointed to the stockpile of youth on the 49ers’ roster as a source of energy and inspiration. Sanders revealed this week that Kyle Shanahan gave a speech in appreciation of that synergy and the selflessness he’s witnessed in the locker room this season:
“Last week Kyle, he pretty much gave a speech to the team and sometimes in this league, you come to work and you clock in, you clock out, and truthfully, I enjoy being around these guys. The speech that Kyle gave was that there’s so much love between this team and how much we care about each other.
And I looked around, I looked at Deebo, I looked at KB, I looked at the receiver corps. I said, ‘Man, I genuinely do love these guys.’ It’s a great group of guys to go to work with every day; a fun group of guys to go to work with. I feel like when you have that kind of chemistry, and it’s all throughout this team and all throughout this organization, I feel like when you have that, the sky is the limit. We’re not in this position — it’s not a coincidence, you know. We worked our butt off on the field and off the field and I feel like we are deserving of this moment and we got to take advantage of it.”
Sanders told KNBR on Friday that his first impression of Kendrick Bourne and Deebo Samuel was how infectious their positivity was, and while he’ll always have love for the Denver Broncos, this might just be his favorite team of all time.
“Man, they a fun group. They’re always laughing, always dancing, always smiling and it’s contagious,” Sanders said. “The energy is contagious. It definitely uplifted me. I got a lot of love for Denver, but at the same time, I was looking forward to a new environment and a winning environment, so when I came here, they definitely uplifted me quick.”
Samuel and Bourne have both credited Sanders for helping them both improve.
“I always knew he was good, honestly, but the knowledge and everything that he brings to the room is pretty cool,” Samuel said. “I’ve learned a lot since he’s been here.”
Jordan Matthews, who was with the team in training camp before being cut and bouncing between Santa Clara and Philadelphia with the Eagles, told KNBR he encouraged Bourne, who looked up to Odell Beckham Jr., to aspire to carve his own path. He said he could see Bourne’s talent from the jump in training camp, but he also saw those lapses in concentration.
While not evaporated, those lapses have lessened significantly for a player Matthews views as a “gamer.” In the regular season, Bourne caught 76.7 percent of his passes for first downs, 10th-best in the NFL.
He and Samuel, along with the Hot Boyzz linebacker group led by two rookies (Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair), the second-year Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander (still just 25 years old), bring a tactile level of positivity to the team. Cross said the same thing was true in 1981, and he can see it now.
“It was contagious because there was so much enthusiasm,” Cross said. “It’s like watching some of these young guys on the Niner D play. How can you not be influenced by that?
“How can you not have your level of play raised when the young guys are playing the way they are? And that was kind of what it was like for us. The young defensive guys were making all these plays and going crazy. We had to do at least our part.”
To leave Joe Montana and Garoppolo this far down the list is an acknowledgment of the factors that needed to align to put them both in a position to succeed. Montana was in his third season in 1981 and first full season as a starter, just as Garoppolo is now. Aside from both being Italian-American quarterbacks who had to wait a few years for their chance (Garoppolo more than Montana), both bring a sense of ease to the huddle.
“Unflappable, you know that Joe Cool thing?” said Cross of Montana. “He just was nonplussed. It didn’t matter if it was a playoff game, regular season game, a preseason game, championship game. He didn’t look much different. He didn’t act much different. In fact, he might have gotten a little calmer the bigger the spot got. So that’s contagious, especially coming from coming from a guy like that.”
In no way is this a suggestion Garoppolo will become the next Montana, or is on that same path. But he’s got a similarly calm disposition to Joe Cool, and he’s proven, with his astounding 21-5 record as a starting quarterback, that he has a knack for winning, and rarely shows a sense of unease in situations when he needs to be perfect, as is evidenced by his four game-winning drives and four fourth-quarter comebacks this season.
“We’re never surprised,” said center Ben Garland. “Jimmy’s an incredible quarterback, an incredible leader, and we’re lucky to have him. So every time he makes a play, that’s basically expected from us, because he just balls out every day works really hard. The way he works in practice, off the field, you see him one of the first guys in here studying, so you know he’s on top of this stuff and that makes you want to push even harder and know your stuff even better.”
“He’s a stud, man. We know what we have in 10,” said right tackle Mike McGlinchey. “Everybody else around the country doesn’t seem to credit him for what he is. I mean he’s one of the best quarterbacks in football.”
It wasn’t until the 1989 season that Montana had more than three game-winning drives in a season, but he’ll probably take his four Super Bowl rings and iconic comebacks over Garoppolo’s regular-season quartet. One of those comebacks in particular instilled belief that the dream of the 1981 season wasn’t far-fetched (more on that below).
When I spoke to Charle Young, it was not a normal conversation. He’s provocative and insightful; prying, asking, discussing, pontificating, teaching. He asks you the questions. Jim Stuckey described him as: “The most philosophical guy. He could have been some guru sitting up on the mountain.”
Young asked me to define “greatness,” for which my response received a “C-plus” grade.
I prefer his definition.
“In order to be great, one must overcome great obstacles,” Young said. “If you don’t overcome, you won’t be great. You’ll be a footnote.”
His example of greatness this season was Dre Greenlaw’s inch-perfect goal-line stop of Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister, which ensured the 49ers an NFC West title and No. 1 seed in the conference.
“Greatness is on the last play of the game and you stop the opponent an inch away from scoring,” Young said.
That's how you become legendary, @DreGreenlaw.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 30, 2019
Of the six alumni from the 1981 season interviewed, Young was the only one to disagree that Greenlaw’s hit, the one he deemed evidence of greatness, did not remind him of the hit by Dan Bunz in the 1981 Super Bowl to save a touchdown. That was less an indictment of Greenlaw’s hit and more an appreciation of the Super Bowl circumstance of Bunz’s.
Stuckey said he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such a hit.
“That was a great stop. Great stop,” Stuckey said. “In fact, you’ve got to have some power everywhere, through your whole body, to be able to do that. Absolutely incredible hit. In fact, I hadn’t seen a hit like that in a long, long time from any team. It doesn’t come around that often, just stop a guy dead in his tracks like that.”
"Oh yeah, it came to mind instantly."
-Randy Cross compares Dre Greenlaw's tackle to Dan Bunz' legendary stop in Super Bowl XVI pic.twitter.com/kzW05VWW52
— KNBR (@KNBR) December 31, 2019
Greenlaw told KNBR he went back and watched the hit after hearing its similarity to the one Bunz laid.
“It was cool to experience it, man,” Greenlaw said. “It was a great play and just going back, watching it a few times, man, just proud of everything from snap to whistle. I’m just happy I got to put my team in this position that we’re in now, so we’ll go out here and get one more win and head to the Super Bowl.”
The moments it “clicked”
Greenlaw’s hit will go down as a defining moment of this season and will only grow in reverence if the 49ers win the Super Bowl. But for the 1981 team and the 2019 team, there were two moments — one midseason trade and one game — that cemented the belief that their aspirations were attainable.
That game for the 1981 team was actually in 1980, in Montana’s second year and the first time he was given a chance to start. After three-straight losses in the early half of the season to the Rams, Buccaneers and Lions, Montana didn’t start again until Week 13, when he and the 49ers beat the New England Patriots. The following week was the first NFL hint at who Montana would become (the Chicken Soup game when he was in college at Notre Dame was the true first example).
Against the New Orleans Saints, Montana and the 49ers trailed 35-7 at the half. But one thing Walsh said about that moment at the half was that he had hope because his team sprinted to the locker room rather than halfheartedly moseying over.
In the second half, the legend of Montana came to life. His one-yard touchdown rush cut it to 35-14. Then, he hit the not-so-fleet-of-foot Clark for the rare 71-yard touchdown pass (the third-longest of Clark’s career). Freddie Solomon was next, catching a 14-yard touchdown pass. And with a seven-yard rush from Lenvil Elliot, the 49ers and Saints were suddenly tied at 35.
With 45 seconds left, Archie Manning was picked off by Dwight Hicks (20:15 mark), and the once-dead 49ers led a raucous Candlestick crowd into overtime. After stopping the Saints, Elliot and Don Woods ran riot, and Ray Wersching capped off Montana’s first masterpiece with a game-winning field goal to win 38-35.
Cross said that was the first time the 49ers found out whom they had at quarterback.
“Nothing was too intense, and the first time we really found that out was that New Orleans game,” Cross said. “When you’re with a quarterback and you’re on an offense that does that, pretty much from that point forward … you don’t look at those kind of deficits as something you can’t overcome because you’ve done it. And once you’ve done it, that’s something you always have.”
The 2019 version of that was no comeback. It was an old-school, 20-7 beatdown of the Rams in Los Angeles in Week 6 after coming off an early bye week (after struggling following bye weeks in the two seasons prior). With the LA Coliseum infiltrated by mostly 49ers fans, it immediately became a home game. The Rams hit the 49ers first with a seven-play, seven-run touchdown drive, and from then on, nothing.
The 49ers responded with a touchdown of their own, and while that methodical, 12-play drive happened, Saleh isolated himself, looking at game film on a tablet for at least five minutes. And the defense adjusted, sacking Jared Goff four times and shutting out the Rams, while the 49ers offense at times sputtered, but managed a 20-point total.
Shanahan identified that win, against the defending NFC and NFC West champion Rams, as crucial.
“I felt after a bye week, going down to LA, I think it was our fourth game beating the Rams, I think that was a big one for us,” Shanahan said. “I’d say it started out probably with the Rams game just because the way the three went before and then having to get over that hump, which we hadn’t yet.”
Greenlaw told KNBR that win was a point of realization.
“When we was 5-0,” Greenlaw said. “No lie, I was like, ‘We got a little chance here.'”
For as much grey area as there can be in history, Charle Young said there was no questioning when it clicked for the 1981 49ers, a team that had started off 1-2: the acquisition of All-Pro defensive end and reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Year Fred Dean in exchange for a second-round pick and first-round pick swap with the San Diego Chargers.
That trade brought Dean onto a 3-2 49ers team that was facing off against the Dallas Cowboys, a team that had beaten the 49ers in the two years prior and in each of their past four meetings. The most recent meeting, in 1980, was a 59-14 beatdown by the Cowboys. Dean immediately brought optimism heading into that Week 6 meeting in 1981.
This time, the 49ers brought the beatdown, crushing Dallas 45-14.
“The acquisition of Fred Dean was a huge benefit to us, a bona-fide, badass pass rusher,” said Jim Stuckey. “With Fred, when we beat Dallas, the first time Fred had been with us for three days, I mean, he just ransacked [Cowboys quarterback] Danny White back then. So it was really, really good that we felt we were a viable force in the NFL. Then we started winning, and winning breeds winning.”
Of course, Dean wasn’t even supposed to play more than a handful of snaps. At least, that’s what Walsh had told him.
“I didn’t think I was going to play that much against the Cowboys, because what coach Walsh had told me — because I had just gotten in and gotten involved— he said, ‘I might use you a few times,’ and I ended up basically playing the whole game,” Dean told KNBR. “And at the end of the game, I said, ‘Coach, you said it was just going to be a few plays and it was almost the whole game.’
“Then coach Bill and I had a laugh on that. He caused a lot of good things to happen out of that… He did that all the time. To me, he was a funny character the way he did things and the way he’d say things. It was just one of those moments in time that you can look back and see him causing you to be joyful, and have a really good time.”
Dean said when he came into that 49ers locker room for the first time, ‘It was strange, it was weird,” and not just because it was a new locker room. Dean said his new teammates consistently played pranks on him, like having him lifted up during meetings. When he hosted the defensive line group at his house for dinner — he said he could “do it all,” but did a lot of Louisiana cooking — which was sparsely furnished given that he’d moved in on short notice, they would make fun of him for his furniture, or lack thereof.
“I bought just what I had needed at the time,” Dean said. “I didn’t have a lot of furniture. I don’t know if I had enough chairs in there for all of them, but they all had a plate.”
Sanders said he hasn’t had to deal with any sort of pranks from his teammates, which might be a product of his younger wide receivers looking up to him. When the 49ers acquired him from the Broncos before their Week 8 matchup against the Carolina Panthers, the defense had carried the majority of the load.
The offense wasn’t poor, but without a clear No. 1 wide receiver, there was more pressure on George Kittle to be double-teamed, and an even heavier pressure on the young receiving corps, which, at that point, was still waiting for players to stand out. When Sanders came in, that immediately changed. He had four receptions for 25 yards and one TD (the 49ers ran for 232 yards that game) against the Panthers, followed by a seven-catch, 112-yard, one-TD performance against the Arizona Cardinals when he fractured his rib.
In his first four games, Samuel averaged three catches for 33.6 yards per game and 0.6 rushes for 1.6 yards. He had one receiving touchdown on the season. From the Carolina game on, he averaged 4.2 receptions for 63.4 yards along with one rushing attempt for 15.1 yards. He had two receiving touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns from that point on.
Kendrick Bourne averaged 1.5 receptions for 23.2 yards before Sanders, and had zero touchdowns on the year. After Sanders, he averaged 2.3 receptions for 24.3 yards and had all five of his touchdowns.
“It gave us a big pick-up when we needed it,” said Shanahan of Sanders’ acquisition. “Emmanuel came in and allowed, most importantly, our other receivers to grow. I don’t know how ready all those other guys were quite yet, and Emmanuel came in and took a lot of pressure off the guys right away.
“His first game was Carolina and I think his second was Arizona, where he probably had his best game there versus Arizona, at least statistically, and during that time it took pressure off the other guys and allowed those guys to get a lot better, too. It’s been great having Emmanuel in there, where guys like Deebo and Bourne can watch him because I think since he’s gotten here, those guys have gotten a lot better.”
From Charle Young’s perspective, the 2019 and 1981 trades are mirror images.
“That’s exactly what we did with Fred Dean. Until we got Fred Dean, we were just an average team,” Young said. “When we brought Fred Dean in, then all of those defensive backs became Pro Bowl, because it’s hard to throw the ball on your back.”
These 49ers have the recipe, track record, talent, moments, mentality and coaching, just as the 1981 49ers did, to prove they should win the Super Bowl. Now, they just need to do it.