When the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers finished the 1982 season 3-6 and out of the playoffs, there were charges of complacency, rumors of drug abuse and an admission of "burnout" on the part of Coach Bill Walsh. While all of the above no doubt contributed to the 49ers' collapse, the chief indictment of the team on the field was that, in keeping with recent San Francisco history, it had only 10 men on offense. Five linemen. A tight end. Two wide receivers. A quarterback. A blocking back. But no running back.
Not since the 1976 salad days of Delvin Williams have the 49ers had a back rush for 100 yards a game, something the Raiders' Marcus Allen did three times last year as a rookie. And the wonder of the Niners' Super Bowl season was that their top rusher, Ricky Patton, gained a mere 543 yards—a bad month's work for George Rogers or Billy Sims. In fact, Patton was cut by the 49ers last year when their leading running back, Jeff Moore, gained all of 281 yards—on 31.1 yards a game.
Walsh's best clutch runner in '82 was his quarterback, Joe Montana, but all too often Montana was running for his life. His play-run fakes didn't fool anyone; he had to keep the ball himself because he didn't have a running back to hand off to. Worse still, the 49ers' offense became so predictable—opponents concentrated on Wide Receiver Dwight Clark, gang-tackled Montana and forgot about everyone else—that people no longer were calling Walsh a genius.
So Walsh pursued a runner. In a ghostwritten column bylined Bill Walsh in the Houston Chronicle on April 11, Walsh fairly salivated at what great deeds the 49ers might accomplish with a Joe Cribbs, a Curtis Dickey, a Chuck Muncie, a Sims, a Wendell Tyler or an Earl Campbell working out of their backfield. The hometown Oilers took offense at that last mention and wrote a letter of protest to the NFL. The Niners paid $10,000 on a tampering charge. " Houston protested," Walsh says, "but they were trying to trade Campbell to us at the same time."
All speculation ended on April 25 when Walsh gave the Los Angeles Rams a No. 2 and a No. 4 pick in the 1983 draft in exchange for Tyler, Defensive End Cody Jones and a No. 3 draft choice. To listen to Walsh, the acquisition of Tyler alone was a stroke of, well, sheer genius. "If I had my choice of any available back," he says, "or perhaps any back, period, I would have taken Wendell Tyler."
While Montana no doubt was as ecstatic as his coach about the Tyler deal, the happiest 49ers had to be the members of the defense. Tyler, you see, ran for five touchdowns in two games against San Francisco in 1982; on the other hand, the 49er running backs managed a total of six touchdowns in nine games.
Of course, the real question is this: Why did the Rams suddenly deem expendable a 28-year-old runner who had a 1,109-yard season in 1979, a 1,074-yard season in 1981, a 564-yard season in strike-torn 1982 (project that total over 16 games and you get 1,008 yards), had scored a total of 30 touchdowns in his last two seasons and had eight 100-plus yard games on the books? True, the 5'10", 205-pound Tyler fumbled a bit too often, but he had a nose for the goal line.
"When we traded Tyler," says John Robinson, the rookie coach of the Rams, "we had the chance to get Eric Dickerson in the draft, and we feel Dickerson's going to be great."
The trade came as no great surprise to Tyler, who went to UCLA and played against Robinson's 1976 USC team. "I talked with Robinson when he got the job and I knew I was gone," Tyler says. "I was a workhorse in L.A., and with Dickerson around, there wouldn't have been enough of the football for both of us."
The rub is, there wasn't enough of the football for Tyler during the 49ers' four-game preseason that concluded last Saturday afternoon with a 20-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park. Walsh is one coach in the NFL who uses the preseason schedule as a time to test rookies and bring his veterans along slowly. No sense getting the vets banged around in some no-account August game.