In '81 Dean was the catalyst, the loose cannon, "capable of winning a game all by himself," coach Bill Walsh says. This season Dean was a holdout. It wasn't until Nov. 11 that his representatives, 49er officials and Willie Brown, the California State Assembly Speaker acting as mediator, hammered out a deal in a motel room as the 49ers were crushing the Browns 41-7. For the rest of 1984 and the next four years, Dean, now 32, will receive close to $2 million in salary and bonuses.
Dean's appearance on the practice field last week was electric. "It raised the whole level of practice," right guard Randy Cross said. "It was like a karate competition where the star is a brown belt from Redwood City, and all of a sudden a fifth-degree sensei from the Far East shows up."
"What would you have said," someone asked Walsh, "if I told you that after 11 games you'd be 10-1 and you'd have Fred Dean fresh and healthy without a single bruise on him?"
"I'd have said, 'Merry Christmas,' " Walsh said.
On Sunday, Dean appeared in a few long-yardage situations in the first quarter and nothing much happened. Early in the second, he lined up for the first time next to tackle Gary Johnson, his former All-Pro teammate at San Diego who became a Niner this year. He and Johnson tried an end-tackle stunt, tripped over each other and fell down.
"We come to the sideline and Fred said, 'C'mon man, you're in my way,' " Johnson said. "I told him, 'Just go outside and do what you want to do.' "
When it became clear that Dean was planning a full day's work, the Bucs flopped their tackles, taking Gene Sanders away from Dean's side and replacing him with Ron Heller. Heller is an unusually aggressive rookie, a fist-in-the-throat guy, "an unsportsmanlike conduct kind of player," Dean said after the game. Dean made a big play against Sanders in the first half, forcing an interception on a cat-quick inside move, which set up the Niners' first score. It was a little tougher going against Heller. In the third quarter, tailback James Wilder popped Dean, and Heller finished him off, driving him to the ground and nailing him with his helmet. Dean got up slowly, and the Bucs drove for a TD that kept them within striking distance.
The game, for all purposes, ended with just under five minutes left. The Bucs were on the Niners' 38. Second-and-10. A TD would tie it. But Dean finished off those hopes. He beat Heller with an outside rush and an arm-over and forced an incomplete pass. Next play he took a wide route and then a quick swoop. Heller grabbed him and dragged him down and got a flag, but still Dean had somehow crawled in, grabbed Steve DeBerg's legs and toppled him for the 49ers' only sack of the game. The Bucs punted. End of contest.
Maybe the old magic is gone, but right now the 49ers are an awfully good-looking team.