Last year the Chargers paid Dean $67,500 for a season that ended with his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. No question, he was a terrific player. John Madden, whose Raiders had to face Dean twice a year, used to say he was the finest defensive end in football, bar none. But the Chargers had a lot of big names on their front four—Louie Kelcher, Big Hands Johnson. It was an embarrassment of riches. This year Dean's Charger salary would have been $75,000. By 1984, the final year of his Contract, he would have gotten up to $125,000—at age 32. So long, career.
The Chargers already had showed the world how they stood on renegotiating contracts when they traded away their best offensive player, Wide Receiver John Jefferson, who wanted to have his contract done over. That move caused San Diego Quarterback Dan Fouts to sink his head into his hands and moan, "It's like trading away Willie Mays in his prime." Now it was time to unload Dean, the Chargers' defensive star, and like Jefferson, a walkout. The 49ers were first in line. They traded a No. 2 draft in 1983 and agreed to swap No. 1 drafts that same year, if the Chargers so choose. San Francisco signed Dean for roughly double what he was making in San Diego and told him to start collecting sacks.
Since Dean's arrival the 49ers have gone 3-0. The Dallas game was a laugher. They beat Green Bay 13-3 in a typical NFC Central game, a frosty, drizzly slug-fest in Milwaukee County Stadium. That was a dull game for the fans, but an exhilarating one for Walsh, because it was exactly the kind of game his 49ers had never been able to win. And then they beat the Rams in a game that, as Reynolds said, "We were very, very lucky to win."
It took those four missed field goals by Corral to do it, every conceivable kind of miss: wide left from 49 yards; a 26-yarder that was blocked; another miss from 32 on which Corral hit more bars than Kenny Stabler, right upright, crossbar, bonk, bonk and out; and finally the 45-yarder, wide left, with 13 seconds left.
But the point is that when things got hairy in the fourth quarter—when the 49ers were running five straight offensive series of three-downs-and-out; when the Rams were driving, driving, and Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers' owner, said, "I kept reaching into my pocket for my St. Jude's medal and was having trouble finding it among my rosary beads"—the 49ers found a force to rally around. Fred Dean. There's no hot dog in him. He does no sack dance when he upends a quarterback, no hollering, no finger-pointing. He just plays.
"I kept watching him in the huddle," Lott said. "He was calm, he was like ice. But my God, when the ball was snapped—I've never seen a pass rusher like that in my life, so fast, so strong. And he never got tired."
"The fourth quarter is when a pass rusher earns his money," Walsh said. "The offensive line is somewhat tired, the quarterback's not what he was. When I was an assistant with the Bengals [offensive coordinator, 1967-75], there were so many times we had the Raiders beaten with two minutes to go and we couldn't put the game away because we weren't able to get to their quarterback. A great pass rush late in the game is the key to NFL football."
Dean, who stands a shade over 6'2", weighed 227 the day before the Rams game. He says that in his senior year at Louisiana Tech he was timed in 4.48 for the 40. But when opposing tackles put on their track shoes and get ready for the footrace, they get a shock because they find out that that little shrimp across the line has ungodly strength. He's a thrower. He got his two sacks against Dallas by simply flinging 250-pound Pat Donovan out of his way. His sacks against the Rams came on muscle.
"I never lifted weights in my life," Dean says. "My strength is farm-boy strength. I didn't get it in a gym. I baled hay when I was a kid, hauled logs. And I did some good eating."
The 49ers are treating their prize pass rusher very carefully—and intelligently. He's a situation player, a pass-rush specialist when their 3-4 defense turns into a 4-3 or a 4-2 nickel. "Fred'll play 30 snaps a game, give or take a few," Studley says. Dean has a history of muscle pulls. The 49ers are handling him like a finely tuned thoroughbred.