As we approach the 2018 49ers season, I couldn’t help but see a similarity between the season we’ve just finished (or is it escaped?) and another time our beloved team went 6-10.
Not 2010, when Mike Singletary’s smashmouth style was shown the door and poor old Jim Tomsula had to guide the ship into port. Not 2000, when Steve Mariucci was rebuilding the team into something halfway respectable.
I’m talking about 1980. The second year of the Bill Walsh era. Before Super Joe, The Catch, The Drive, The Dynasty, The Add Your Own Description Of What Made San Francisco Football Legendary.
Okay, it was almost 40 years ago, and the fact that some things are coincidental between this era and now doesn’t mean next year is necessarily the year we bring a sixth Lombardi trophy to Santa Clara. But here are some things worth noting about 1980 and 2017 that make a case for optimism.
Stability. There wasn’t a massive turnover in the front office in 1980, and there wasn’t any in 2017 either. Eddie DeBartolo Jr. owned the team in 1979 and in 1980, and the York family owned it in both 2016 and 2017. (Yeah, yeah, we could roll out the remarks here about Jed being a doofus, along with all the condemnations of Trent Effing Baalke, but leave that aside for the moment.) Also, John McVay was the Director of Football Operations in both 1980 and 1981, and John Lynch was the general manager in 2017 and will be again this year. In both cases, no one was/is coming in and changing the business side of the team, which meant that the people who knew/know football could and can (mostly) keep doing their jobs.
Improvement by the numbers. 6-10 isn’t anything to write home about, but without even getting into the reasons for the better record than the previous one, that is a 300% improvement in wins. In ‘80, the Walsh system was taking root and getting results — the touchdown percentage, QB rating, number of sacks to opposing QBs and number of total touchdowns all went up from the 1979 season. The overall feel of the 2017 team was better than it was in 2016 (which I know is hard to quantify, but I don’t think I’m wrong); for those interested in proof: the passing yards per game, total number of points, and yards on interception returns all went up last year, and the number of sacks allowed by the offensive line went down.
New quarterback to the team. In 1980, the Niners had gotten hold of Joe Montana, a Notre Dame alumnus who had led the Fighting Irish to victory in the Cotton Bowl the previous year and who was drafted at the tail end of the third round. Midway through that year, Montana took over as the starter, replacing Steve DeBerg, and…well, if I have to explain the rest of the story to you, you need to go back to school. Montana passed for 1,795 yards and 15 touchdown passes against nine interceptions, and led the NFL in completion (64.5%) that year. Fast forward to 2017, and we have Jimmy Garoppolo, another quarterback of Italian extraction who has a couple of years of NFL experience (unlike Montana in 1980) and a 7–0 record in his first seven starts (including his two starts for the Patriots). With Garoppolo under center last year, the 49ers scored on 62 percent of their offensive drives — that’s 11 percent more that Garoppolo’s former team in New England. Jimmy G’s numbers last year: 1,560 passing yards, 7 passing touchdowns, five interceptions, 67.4% completions. Pretty impressive, when you consider that Joe Montana is in a universe by himself.
Made history both times. On December 7, 1980, San Francisco was losing by 28 points at halftime to the New Orleans Saints, who had not won a game all that season. The 49ers were still losing by 14 by the end of the third quarter, but they tied the game by the end of regulation and won it with a Ray Wersching field goal in overtime. It was the greatest come from behind victory in the history of the NFL’s regular season, and it was largely engineered by that Montana fellow I just spoke of. Last season, in addition to the numerical improvements mentioned above, our beloved 49ers became the first team in NFL history to start a season 0–9 and finish with more than three wins. (I take it back. Maybe 6-10, set in context, really is something to write home about.)
Relatively new, intelligent coach. By the time Bill Walsh rolled into town, he had already been a coach or an assistant in Oakland, Cincinnati, and San Diego, and had coached Stanford to two bowl victories. Maybe more important, he’d developed an offensive scheme that emphasized short passes, ball control, and clock-killing that became known as the West Coast Offense. Within three years, Walsh had made the 49ers Super Bowl champions and started a reign of terror for San Francisco that lasted throughout the 1980s and into the mid-1990s. One of the assistant coaches in those years was an offensive coordinator named Mike Shanahan, who raised his son Kyle in and around football. Kyle Shanahan had hung his hat in Tampa Bay, Houston, Washington, Cleveland and (most notably) Atlanta before coming to the Bay Area. Shanahan’s philosophy: “I studied every potential Xs and Os play and issue possible. I spent my whole life working on that. My goal was that any question any player could have about anything on the field, I’d be able to answer it.” Anyone still think this guy Shanahan (who is not yet 40 years old) isn’t as dedicated as Walsh?
I’ve been a history buff all my life, and I am very qualified to tell you that history does not happen in straight lines, no matter what your textbooks say. So I can’t predict with absolute accuracy that the 49ers will win the Super Bowl, the NFC, or even their division next year. Neither can anyone else.
But the circumstances are more than just mildly similar between the two eras I’ve discussed here. The foundation for greatness was there in 1981…and it is here again in 2017. I hope you are as optimistic about the 2018 season as I am, my friends, because there is every reason to be so. The Teach has spoken.