One year ago at this time the San Francisco 49ers were the surprise team of the NFL. Powered by Running Backs Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson and sack-happy defensive linemen Cedrick Hardman and Tommy Hart, the 49ers had a 5-1 record and led the hated Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West. Their young rookie head coach, Monte Clark, was the toast of the Golden Gate.
All that is ancient history. Until they upset the Detroit Lions 28-7 last Sunday at Candlestick Park, the 49ers were the No. 1 flop of the 1977 NFL season. Now they probably share that distinction with the Cincinnati Bengals. Powered by nobody, the 49ers had an 0-5 record before they beat the Lions and their coach was the whipping boy of the Golden Gate. Not Monte Clark, mind you. He was fired by San Francisco's new owners last spring, and he spent Sunday afternoon flying to a convention of Burger King owners in Colorado. The new coach is a fellow named Ken Meyer, and before the Detroit game there was heavy speculation around San Francisco that he would soon be looking for a hamburger franchise himself.
On Sunday, though, the 49ers finally played like their old selves. Williams exploded for 106 yards on the ground. Quarterback Jim Plunkett, calling his own plays for the first time all season, completed eight of 12 for 130 yards and hit Gene Washington with a pair of touchdown passes. And the dormant San Francisco defense rose up to record eight sacks and intercept its first and second passes of the year. Best of all for Meyer, the vote of confidence he had received from his bosses the previous Sunday not only did not turn into an instant kiss of death, but he went home with the game ball.
Still, the 49ers, who finished with an 8-6 record in 1976, were only 1-5—and the schedule gets no easier. What in the sainted name of Frankie Albert is going on here?
Simple. Joe Thomas, the NFL's most controversial general manager, has set up light housekeeping in San Francisco. And if past be prologue, Thomas' 49ers, their present record notwithstanding, are well on the way to becoming a juggernaut.
Spectacular shakedowns, followed by spectacular turnarounds, have been the rule in Thomas' turbulent career. His shrewd personnel decisions helped convert both Minnesota and Miami from ragtag expansion teams into Super Bowl clubs. At Baltimore Thomas inherited a championship squad growing long in the tooth, traded it in for a bunch of college kids and promptly sank to the bottom of the NFL. But just when Thomas' critics were gloating the loudest, the Colts grew into frisky racehorses and won the AFC East championship the last two seasons. Thomas could not savor his triumph; indeed, he lost a power struggle with Coach Ted Marchibroda, whom he had imported from the Redskins, and was fired last January by owner Robert Irsay.
Thomas took over as general manager of the 49ers on March 31st after helping the Edward J. DeBartolo family acquire the team. Predictably, Thomas got off to the bumpiest of starts by precipitating the firing of the popular Clark. Clark's contract gave him powers over all personnel decisions, the same powers that the DeBartolos had assigned to Thomas. So Thomas won that power struggle, then hired Meyer, who was the offensive coordinator for Los Angeles.
On the whole, the 49er situation didn't seem to offer Thomas the dramatic possibilities he encountered with his previous teams. Under Clark the 49ers had already launched their turnaround after three straight losing years. With Williams and Jackson, San Francisco had a powerful ground game, and with Hard-man. Hart, Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb it had one of the NFL's best front fours—The Gold Rush. A little spit here, a little polish there, and the 49ers would be in the playoffs—a piece of cake for an old pro like Thomas.
That cake crumbled quickly. During the preseason the once-potent 49er offense went into eclipse. San Francisco lost to Houston 17-3, then was shut out on successive weeks, 33-0 by Oakland, 20-0 by Denver, and, in the season opener on Monday night TV, 27-0 by Pittsburgh. In all, the 49ers went 19 quarters without a touchdown. They finally scored, but proceeded to lose four more. So much for the playoffs. Niner fans wrote the season off in a barrage of letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. "How would one go about having the TV blackout on 49er games extended from 75 to 200 miles so we wouldn't be forced to sit through this?" read one.
Most of the heat for the collapse of the 49ers has fallen on Meyer. In addition to the "We want Clark" chants at games, "Fire Meyer" bumper stickers have become popular around the city. Two weeks ago a newspaper column, headlined A QUESTION OF WHEN, NOT IF, Stated, "The question is no longer whether [Meyer will] be back next year but whether he'll even survive this one." However, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the 31-year-old club president, assured local writers that Meyer's job was not in jeopardy.