Everson Walls remembers the beginning of the end with vivid clarity. On Oct. 11, 1981, the Cowboys stepped onto the rain-soaked grass at Candlestick Park expecting to administer their usual whipping to the hometown 49ers. Instead they walked off shell-shocked by an offensive scheme destined to change the game. "They caught us completely off guard," recalls Walls, then a hotshot rookie cornerback on a team that had played in five Super Bowls during the '70s. "We were slipping and sliding around, and their receivers were open by five yards on some passes." With innovative Niners coach Bill Walsh calling the plays and quarterback Joe Montana executing them with uncanny precision, San Francisco ripped apart the Cowboys' secondary like a warm loaf of sourdough and rolled to a 45-14 victory.
The game not only marked the first sign of the demise of Dallas's Doomsday Defense but also served as a dramatic coronation of Walsh's system, which came to be known as the West Coast offense. San Francisco used that victory as a springboard to a 13-3 season and an epic 28-27 triumph over the Cowboys in their rematch in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick. The winning play in that game—the Catch by Dwight Clark—was the pivotal NFL moment of the '80s, propelling the 49ers to the first of their four Super Bowl triumphs in that decade and starting Dallas on a steady slide that culminated with a 1-15 season in '89. But before that stunning regular-season rampage over the utterly confused Cowboys, nobody, not even the Niners themselves, took their team seriously.
"The Cowboys' defensive guys kept calling for help," recalls Mike Shumann, then the 49ers' third wideout. "One guy'd say, 'Get over here,' and the other'd say, 'No, no, no—you've got to take him.' We sort of ambushed the league that year, and that game was when we realized we had something wild going. You had slow, white guys like me and Dwight making defenders look like they didn't have a clue. Man, it was heaven."
Until then Walsh, who had developed many of his ideas during his years as an assistant under Paul Brown in Cincinnati and Sid Gillman in San Diego, seemed more like a mad professor than a genius. He went 8-24 in his first two seasons in San Francisco and was hell-bent on vindicating himself and his system. "Bill thought he would be the successor to Paul Brown, but he was passed over, and that drove him to build a champion," says former Niners tight end Charle Young.
Walsh's scheme centered on two basic principles: Give the quarterback as many specifically timed options on pass plays as possible, and let receivers adjust their routes to exploit weaknesses in the coverage. "If Dwight Clark was facing man coverage," says former Walsh assistant Sam Wyche, "he knew to turn, plant and slide hard to the outside to get instant separation."
The system required the quarterback to make instant reads and, if pressured, to dump the ball to his outlet receivers. Montana's poise, field vision and patience elevated the offense to an ethereal level. The Cowboys' flex scheme was particularly vulnerable to the 49ers' quick timing patterns. "It was brutal for defensive backs," Walls says, "because our linemen were trained to play the run first and then react to a pass block. We had [end] Ed Jones sitting a half yard off the ball, and I'd end up trying to tackle Dwight Clark or Freddie Solomon before our [pass rushers] even crossed the line."
In the NFC tide game Walls was the player covering Clark when the receiver, using a broken-route adjustment taught by Walsh, slid across the back of the end zone and soared to make his famous fingertip grab of Montana's pass. "We had them on the ropes that day," Walls says. "Joe had thrown three interceptions. But on that last drive, Bill outsmarted us."