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Bill Walsh and Joe Montana Must Change to Succeed

Lots of stats, but few wins have defined the Walsh/Montana era

Lots of stats, but few wins have defined the Walsh/Montana era.

The San Francisco Times
September 23rd, 1981

I’m not here to tell you that Bill Walsh is a bad coach.  And I’m not here to tell you that Joe Montana can’t possibly succeed in the NFL. It’s just that if they want to still be here in two years, some changes are in order.

Walsh comes from the great Paul Brown coaching tree, and like his mentor, Walsh likes to throw the ball. That strategy, while unconventional, can work well when you have a Hall of Famer like Otto Graham or even a great talent like Ken Anderson. It doesn’t work when you have a scrappy young player like Montana. And lest you forget, Brown never won anything without Graham, and Brown’s Bengals went 55-56-1 with zero playoff wins.

Undeterred by that evidence, Walsh went about bringing Basketball On Cleats to Candlestick Park. Was his first year a success? San Francisco finished third in passing yards, 4th in first downs, and 6th in total yards. Quarterback Steve DeBerg led the NFC in completion percentage, too. But while Walsh’s horizontal passing game led to lots of yards and first downs, the team won only two games.  Running backs Paul Hofer and Wilbur Jackson each caught 50 passes, but to what end?

They were two of only nine running backs to hit the 50-catch plateau in 1979, but what good is it passing to your running backs when you can’t attack a defense vertically? In a telling statistic, Baltimore was the only other team to have two running backs catch 50 passes, and the Colts went 5-11. The 49ers ranked 3rd from the bottom in rush attempts that season, but were above average in yards per carry.  Maybe somebody should tell The Genius that San Francisco could have benefited from more runs and fewer passes.

The man who thinks he’s the smartest person in every room surely was going to learn from his 1979 failures, right? In 1980, Montana was handed the reins.  How did he do? Walsh continued with his horizontal offense: Montana completed 64.5% of his passes, the 4th highest by a quarterback in NFL history (behind the great Ken Stabler and two Brown robots, Anderson and Graham). But the team went just 2-5 in Montana’s starts.

Fullback Earl Cooper was a nice player at Rice, but he was drastically overused by the 49ers last season.  In addition to a team-high 171 carries, he caught 83 passes — but for only 567 yards.  Cooper became the first player in NFL history to catch 80 balls and not get 700 yards, much less 567 yards. Cooper averaged an anemic 6.8 yards per reception, and prior to last year, no player with fewer than seven yards per catch had come within 20 passes of Cooper’s 83 grabs. In other words, the 49ers relied more heavily on a player doing so little more than any team in NFL history.  Sure, the 49ers ranked 5th in passing yards, but they ran just 415 times, the second fewest number in the league. The team led the NFL in pass attempts and went 6-10 with an eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season. Genius.

After two years, some were ready to say the results are in: at 8-24, the 49ers have the worst record of any team since Walsh came to town. Is it all his fault? No, this team was bad when he came here, and I think he’s done some good things.  But the outside-the-box thinker needs to get with the tradition of pro football if he wants to win.  I thought that was going to happen this year.  Sadly, I’m afraid I may be mistaken.

Through three weeks, the 49ers are 5th in passing yards. Montana is leading the NFL in completion percentage.  The problem: the team is 1-2, and Montana’s pick six against Atlanta is one of the reasons why.    When Jim Plunkett led the Raiders on a magical run a few months ago, he didn’t do it by throwing short passes.  Plunkett completed just 53% of his passes, but he averaged 17.1 yards per completion in those four playoff games. For his career, Montana has completed 64% of his passes but averaged a pitiful 10.5 yards per completion.  Which approach do you think works better, the one that won the Super Bowl or the guy who has a career record of 3-8?

More importantly, the Raiders ran 141 times in the 1980 playoffs, an averaged of 35.25 per game. Through 35 games of Walsh’s tenure, the 49ers have averaged 37 pass attempts per game and 28 runs. The team is 9-26. Walsh may still be the answer. Heck, Montana may be, too. But the 49ers need to run much more if they want to win. And when they pass, it wouldn’t hurt if they actually threw it downfield.

  • And what’s the deal with computers? Seems like every office thinks they need one of these huge, clunking monstrosities! Mark my words, these clumsy devices are nothing more than a fad, and any calculations humans need to do can be done with some #2s and a whole lot of paper.

  • Red


  • Time will make fools of us all. Some more than others though.

  • Tim Truemper

    Too bad the myopic “analysis” did not make comparisons of the 49’ers before Walsh or the defensive deficiencies that were rectified in the draft for 1982. And did the author of this article ever go back and self-evaluate?

    • Malene, CPH

      My sarcasm-meter is broken I think. I can’t figure out if you don’t realize this is satire, or if you do, and your comment is playing along.

      • Nick

        No, it’s not

  • JD

    The 49ers’ offensive production didn’t actually change that much from 1980 to 1981, but their defense went from 26th to 2nd in points allowed. I wonder if that had anything to do with it?

  • David

    Good read. Try not to pick on the author too much, hindsight is 20/20.

    • JeremyDe

      Unless it’s Steve Spurrier’s hindsight, and then it’s 50/50.

    • Charlie

      For sure – just getting published at that age is impressive.

  • Goddamn, even in 1981 they didn’t know the difference between “reins” and “reigns”.

    • Alex

      They got it right. To hand someone the reins is to give that person control, as in to give them the reins to the horses. You don’t hand someone “reigns.” That would be silly. SILLY!

    • Chase Stuart

      Good catch. I’ve fixed the article.

  • Jeff

    Is this even real? I ask because I don’t believe there has ever been a publication called “The San Francisco Times”

    However, this does seem exactly like a column Glenn Dickey or Lowell Cohn would write

    • Chase Stuart


    • Richie

      OK, that was one of the things that seemed out of place to me. I also felt the article was way too good at complaining about “broken” things that clearly aren’t broken from our modern eyes. Also, I don’t think anybody said “pick six” in 1981.

      Fun to read though.

  • John Sudzina

    This article smells fishy to me.

  • Steve in Iowa

    The tell is in “…Montana’s pick six against Atlanta…” That wasn’t common football slang in 1981.

    • Nick

      Yes, it was. It absolutely was

  • Steve in Iowa

    Other than that it is brilliant.

  • Tim Truemper

    Very convincing and yet…. but at least we got to pick apart a straw man and feel good about it.

  • Andy Barall

    Very clever.

    It’s got nothing, however, on this (real) one:

    “The truth is, the Giants aren’t going anywhere if they do make the playoffs- they’re simply not good enough to beat a division-winning team on the road in the postseason in January. Making the playoffs for the third straight year might still be enough for the team’s front office to convince itself that the franchise is heading in the right direction.

    That would be a mistake. Taking that attitude would allow the franchise to make only moderate changes to the roster this off-season and to continue pretending that everything is fine with coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning. In reality, this team needs to be rebuilt.

    … it’s crystal clear now that Coughlin is never going to get the team to take the next step. The Giants need a coach who can motivate the players without alienating them.

    The second tough decision will be choosing another quarterback to acquire in the off-season… The Giants either need to draft a quarterback next year or bring in a free agent who can compete with Manning for the starting job.

    There aren’t enough playmakers anywhere on the field, and there won’t be until something shakes up the Giants’ front office and forces the team to make radical changes. That’s why a Giant collapse that ended with the team missing the playoffs wouldn’t be a complete disappointment. It might, in fact, be a step in the right direction.”

    -Michael David Smith (Football Outsiders)
    New York Sun
    December 19, 2007

    • Tom


    • Ajit

      In his defense, I think he had a legitimate argument at the time. I remember Coughlin was basically a lame duck coach that last year. Plax looked like the team’s only legitimate offensive weapon and Eli was still a below average quarterback for most of that season(he led the league in ints that year too). The giants in fact had the 22nd ranked pass offense.

      Now here’s where he went wrong and what was hard to predict. The giants o line stayed healthy and was very strong. We still don’t have effective stats to measure line play and certainly didn’t then in 07. We also didn’t know that Tuck was going to be a big star and that he along with Strahan and Osi would form a nightmarish pass rush.

      Even still, with all that, they barely made the playoffs and went on a highly improbable run.

  • cuhullan89

    The world is flat…

  • sanbrunamo

    So the author complains Walsh isn’t thinking out of the box, while complaining that Walsh isn’t coaching his team exactly as the Steelers and Cowboys were coaching theirs in the 70’s.

    And nevermind that the 49ers were a bad team with all sorts of problems, they were 2-14 before hiring him for a reason. Walsh had to throw to his receivers because it took a while to rebuild his line. He also threw because it spread out the defense, which eventually did allow for a running game. Walsh was chided as the “genius” by the author, but one of his innovations was to establish the running game via the passing game, the conventional wisdom at the time was “the running game establishes the passing game.”

  • Brian

    Hilarious send-up of what passes as sports analysis in nearly every paper and publication. I don’t think anyone was calling Walsh “The Genius” yet in 1981, though.

  • Nick Bradley

    sorry but sports journalism wasn’t nearly this is this sophisticated in 1981

  • Jason Winter

    Where did you get that picture of Montana wearing a #19 49ers uniform? Was that preseason of his rookie year?

  • Gary Rosen

    I was living in SF at the time and there was no such publication as the “San Francisco Times”, this is fake. However I *have* seen a genuine film clip of local sportswriting loudmouth Ray Ratto standing up with a mic right after the 1981 draft saying, “The 49ers needed to draft a player who makes a difference. Ronnie Lott is a good player. But Ronnie Lott won’t make a difference” [Lott was the 49ers 1st pick that year, #8 overall].

    Also, I *do* remember considerable grumbling at that point with the team 1-2 just before the 49ers went on a 7-game winning streak that included a 45-14 stomping of their longtime nemesis the Dallas Cowboys. There were probably real articles in the local rags questioning the direction of the franchise that week.

  • Paul Ghiglieri

    Sounds like Alex Smith was running the offense back then with those anemic, horizontal passing yards…

  • John

    Here is what fans were saying about Walsh in 1980 in the SF Chronicle: