The San Francisco 49ers, in 25 years of pro football seldom a bridesmaid and never a bride, looked last Sunday as if they were determined to follow their familiar pattern: early success followed by sudden collapse. After having played superbly the week before in beating Los Angeles 20-6, they were tied by lowly New Orleans 20-20.
But, in this case, the wedding hasn't been called off just yet. This isn't a typical San Francisco club bursting with nonchalance, going for broke on offense and breaking down on defense. Under Head Coach Dick Nolan, the 49ers are all fired up, and the tie with the Saints still leaves them only half a game behind the Rams in their division, with another game against L.A. in Kezar Stadium coming up at the end of November.
"We have a real good shot at it this year," says Running Back Ken Willard. "I'm tired of hearing about how we have all the personnel and still can't win. That's never been true. We didn't have the kind of people we have now and we've never been as deep as we are."
But the biggest improvements in the 49ers are the kicking game and the defense. "In 1969 we lost three or four games because we didn't have a capable kicker," Nolan said last week at the team's training grounds in Redwood City. "That's why we traded for Bruce Gossett. And it wasn't just placekicking. Our special teams cost us games, too. That's not happening this year."
Special teams are usually manned by youngsters waiting to move up to either the offensive or defensive units and by veterans who aren't quite good enough to do anything else. But, as Nolan points out, no team can win a championship with ordinary specials. To improve his, Nolan hired Doug Scovil, who was head coach at the University of Pacific, and he named Ed Beard, a San Francisco middle linebacker until injured and supplanted by Frank Nunley, captain of the special teams.
Beard has made it an honor to be picked for the specials. "When he comes to you and asks you to play on one of the special teams, he makes you feel like he's doing you a favor," one player says. "You don't feel like you're in there as cannon fodder. You feel like you're making a real contribution."
Ironically, in the 49ers' one-point loss to Atlanta three weeks ago—their only defeat of the season—it was a special team that failed. Gossett, who rarely misses from inside the 40 on field goals, blew one from the 19.
It is a mark of the new spirit of the 49ers that on the plane from Atlanta to San Francisco every player on the squad went up to Gossett and consoled him. Lou Spadia, the president of the club, called Gossett when he got home. "Don't get your dauber down," Spadia said. "That happens to everyone. You're the best placekicker we have had here in 25 years, just remember that." The following week Gossett kicked two field goals to help beat the Rams.
Spadia has been with San Francisco since 1946, when the team originated as a member of the old All-America Conference, and he is keenly aware of the difference between this team and those of the past. "You think back on all the All-Pro players we've had," he said last week. " Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, Y.A. Tittle, Gordy Soltau, Billy Wilson. I could go on for a long time, but the significant thing is that they were all offensive players. We had a fine team in 1952 and I'll bet you can't remember any defensive player with the exception of Leo Nomellini. We've always been offense oriented and I finally figured that no club ever wins a title without a great defense."
Nolan came to the 49ers from Dallas, where he was defensive coach under Tom Landry, who was himself once a defensive coach. Nolan has almost completely rebuilt the San Francisco defense, only four starters being left from the club he took over two seasons ago.