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Inevitably, Meyer suffers when compared to Clark, who achieved a sort of local martyrdom by sacrificing his job to his principles last spring. Well liked by his players. Clark was the 49ers' star attraction. At 6'5" and 260 pounds he was a highly visible, emotional man on the sidelines. By contrast, Meyer is quiet, and at 5'10" he seems lost in a football crowd. San Francisco fans have likened his demeanor on the sidelines to that of a cigar-store Indian.
Clark is still highly visible in the Bay Area. He and Miami Dolphin Coach Don Shula are partners in a Burger King franchise in San Jose and are planning to open another restaurant. Clark sat in the stands during the first two 49er home games, using tickets provided him under the terms of his contract, which the DeBartolos must honor through 1978. Clark says he went to Candlestick Park "surreptitiously." He arrived well ahead of the crowds, hid behind big sunglasses and lingered afterward until most of the fans had dispersed. Both outings passed without incident, which is what Clark wanted. He has steadfastly refused to be drawn into a discussion of Thomas because, he says, "I have nothing good to say about him."
When Thomas offered Meyer the coach's job, Meyer realized he would have to contend with Clark's ghost. He accepted anyway. "I had been in coaching 27 years," he says. "This was my opportunity to become a head coach." As for Thomas' reputation for being unable to coexist with head coaches once they became successful, Meyer says, "People told me that Joe Thomas had this reputation or that reputation, but one reputation he definitely has is that he gets good football players. I'd be foolish not to want to be with a man who gets me good football players."
The most frequently voiced complaint about the 49ers is that under Meyer's magic touch their ground game has disappeared. Last year Williams and Jackson rushed for a total of 1,995 yards; this year it doesn't appear that they will make 1,000. "Our running game has had problems," Meyer admitted Sunday. "We've been searching and searching for the answer. We have the same running backs. One of the best plays Delvin ran last year was called a 28 Bob. We kept the same name for that play, and we run it the exact same way, but until today it hardly worked at all."
What obviously worries the 49ers is Thomas' reputation for making wholesale changes in his new team's roster. But what they forget is that Thomas usually waits an entire season before making those moves. Thomas insists he will be patient in San Francisco. "At the end of this year, not before, I'll review our whole team, our whole operation," he says. "The most frustrating thing about this situation is that there is nothing I can do at the moment. We've got to get good football players but they come from the draft. The draft is the blood and guts of any football team."
In the past Thomas has had uncanny success with the draft—remember his Bert Jones caper in Baltimore—but San Francisco has not. Since 1971 the 49ers have had nine first-round selections, but they have just three players—Plunkett, Jackson and Webb—to show for them.
Quarterback always receives top priority in Thomas' reclamation projects. For Minnesota and Miami he drafted Fran Tarkenton and Bob Griese, respectively. In Baltimore he benched the 39-year-old Johnny Unitas, looked at backup Marty Domres, then traded to acquire the draft rights to Jones. Thomas had quarterback on the brain the morning he took over the 49ers. " Plunkett is the key here," he said. "If he doesn't come through, it will set us back a few years."
Plunkett has come through this season, even when Meyer was calling his plays. Responding to a suggestion by Clark, Plunkett trimmed 20 pounds off his 6'2" frame in the off-season by watching his diet and running long distances. He covered the 7.8 miles in San Francisco's Bay-to-Breakers race in less than 50 minutes. This summer he reported to training camp weighing 207 pounds, and at times has dipped under 200.
Despite a shaky start in the Pittsburgh game, Plunkett has now completed better than 55% of his passes and has gained an average of better than 7.7 yards a throw. "I'm a little quicker," he admits, "but every time I lose a lot of weight I hurt my ribs." A rib injury knocked him out of the Atlanta game in the second quarter, and he now plays with a protective pad over his right rib cage. "It hurts to throw," he says. "It even hurts to breathe." Nevertheless, Plunkett has thrown well enough to silence those who used to say he was what was wrong with the 49ers.
Surprisingly, the critics aren't criticizing Thomas, either. They know he has had the last laugh too many times. And who knows? Maybe for Thomas, the 49ers will be another piece of cake.