After the 49ers
won their first Super Bowl, in 1981, Walsh used his first draft choice to
select Paris. Bubba was meant to be the solution to Walsh's biggest problem,
the need to protect Montana's blind side. "At 300 pounds or less," said
Walsh, "Bubba would have been a Hall of Fame left tackle. He was quick,
active, bright, and he had a mean streak." Bubba also had a history of
putting on weight, but, as Walsh said, "we felt we could deal with that.
And we did. Briefly."
In Bubba's first
four seasons his weight jumped around, but the trend line pointed upward.
Offered many choices between carrots and sticks, Bubba reached every time for
another jelly doughnut. The 49ers won the Super Bowl again after the 1984
season. But the next three seasons they went into the playoffs with high hopes
and were bounced in the first round. In '85 and '86 they were beaten badly by
the Giants, and in both games Taylor wreaked havoc. He was too quick for Bubba.
The 49ers offense, usually so reliable, scored only three points in each of
those games. Montana was knocked out of the '86 game with a concussion. The
hits didn't always come from the blind side, the turf Paris was meant to
secure, but the blind side was the sore spot.
It was at the end
of the 1987 season that Walsh's frustrations with his promising left tackle
peaked. Bubba just kept getting fatter, and slower, and less able to keep up
with the ever-faster pass rush. During the regular season his weight hadn't
mattered very much. He had waddled onto the field at well over 300 pounds, and
the 49ers had still cruised through the season. They'd finished with a record
of 13-2. Amazingly they had the No. 1 scoring offense and the No. 1 overall
defense in the NFL. Going into the playoffs, they were viewed as such an
unstoppable force that the bookies had them as 14-point favorites to win the
Super Bowl, no matter who they played. They appeared to be a team without a
weakness; but then the regular season is not as effective as the playoffs at
exposing a team's weaknesses. The stakes are lower, the opponents generally
less able, their knowledge of opposing teams less complete. It's when a team
hits the playoffs that its weaknesses are revealed, and in the '87 playoffs
Walsh discovered that his seemingly perfect team had an Achilles' heel.
The first game
was against the Minnesota Vikings, and it was supposed to be a cakewalk. But
the Vikings had a sensational 6'5", 270-pound young pass rusher named Chris
Doleman, and he came off the blind side like a bat out of hell. He was fast, he
was strong, he was crafty, he was mean. He wore Taylor's number, 56, and when
he was asked who in football he most admired, he said, "The one guy who has
the desire to be the best, and the tenacity, is Lawrence Taylor."
Doleman had been
drafted as an outside linebacker, but in the Vikings' 4-3 defense, the outside
linebacker wasn't chiefly a pass rusher. Finally it occurred to the Vikings'
coaches to try him as a right defensive end-that is, to make him a pass rusher.
To give him the role in the 4-3 that Taylor played in the 3-4. Doleman was an
instant success. Thus Walsh received another lesson about the cost of not
having a left tackle capable of protecting his quarterback's blind side. He had
built the niftiest little passing machine in the history of the NFL, and this
one guy on the other team had his finger on the switch that shut it down.
Montana early and often, but even when he didn't hit Montana he came so close
that Montana couldn't step into his throws. Steve Wallace, Paris's backup,
watched from the sideline. "He never let Joe get his feet set," Wallace
said later. What Doleman did to Montana's feet was minor compared with what he
did to his mind. "Every time Joe went back, he was peeping out of the
corner of his eye first, then looking at his receivers," said Wallace. The
pass rush rendered Montana so inept that in the second half Walsh benched him
and inserted Steve Young. Young was lefthanded, which enabled him to see
Doleman coming. Young was also fast enough to flee-which he did, often. Against
a team they were meant to beat by three touchdowns, the 49ers lost 36-24.
Afterward Vikings coach Jerry Burns told reporters that "the way to stop
[the 49ers] is to pressure the quarterback. Our whole approach was to pressure
A football game
is too complicated to be reduced to a single encounter. Lots of other things
happened that afternoon in Candlestick Park. But the inability of the 49ers'
left tackle to handle the Vikings' right end, in Walsh's view, created
fantastically disproportionate distortions in the game.
was so shattered that he walked out of Candlestick Park without pausing to
speak to his players. He coached football just one more season and decided to
hang his fortunes on something more dependable than the Bubba Paris Diet. But
Bubba had no obvious replacement. Wallace hadn't been trained as a left tackle.
He'd been drafted by the 49ers in the fourth round in 1986 and was known
chiefly for having blocked for running back Bo Jackson at Auburn. Wallace had
to teach himself how to pass-block, but he was a student of the game, willing
to pay a steep price to play it, and the recipient of Walsh's highest
compliment: nasty. As in: " Steve Wallace was a nasty football
A year after
their loss to the Vikings, the 49ers found themselves in exactly the same
place: in the playoffs, facing Minnesota. The 49ers weren't as good as they had
been the year before, and the Vikings were better. They, not the 49ers, now had
the NFL's No. 1 defense. It was led by Doleman, who was, if anything, even
better than before at sacking quarterbacks.
The night before
the game Wallace didn't sleep. The inability to fall asleep on the night before
a game had become a pattern for him. Apparently it came with the left tackle
position. Will Wolford, who protected Jim Kelly's blind side for the Buffalo
Bills, had exactly the same experience. He started out his career as a guard
(and slept), then moved to left tackle (and didn't). Late in his career he
moved back to guard, and, presto, he could sleep again. The left tackle
position, as it had been reconceived for the modern pass-oriented offense,
presented a new psychological challenge for the offensive lineman. A mistake at
guard cost a running back a few yards; a mistake at left tackle usually cost
your team a sack, occasionally the ball and sometimes the quarterback.