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The San Francisco 49ers had just beaten the Los Angeles Rams 20-17 last Sunday, and now their dressing room was thinning out—a couple of equipment men collecting towels; Ray Wersching, the kicker, combing his hair; Defensive End Fred Dean, standing by his locker, slowly flipping a football in the air and catching it.
It was the game ball, naturally, the only one the 49ers awarded. It had been an inspirational victory, San Francisco's first ever in Candlestick Park over the hated Rams, after 10 losses. It gave the surprising 49ers a 6-2 record and a two-game lead on L.A. and Atlanta in the NFC West, and on these kind of occasions game balls are usually handed out in bunches—the whole defense, or the offensive line, or the coaching staff, or the grounds crew, or, perhaps, Ram Kicker Frank Corral, who missed four field-goal attempts. This time the 49ers gave out only one, and now Dean was tossing it in the air in a lazy spiral and saying he would give it back to the team.
Dean, you see, collects game balls. He earned one after he got to Danny White for two sacks and forced a third in the 49ers' 45-14 victory over Dallas three weeks ago, a game after which the world rubbed its eyes and wondered if those funny little fellows from San Francisco could possibly be for real. In his six years and change with the San Diego Chargers, Dean collected 23 game balls—that's right, 23. And now in three games with the 49ers, he has two. After his afternoon against the Rams, during which he had 4½ sacks of Pat Haden and set up another one—and made San Francisco's final tackle of the game, stopping Running Back Mike Guman to force a 45-yard field-goal try that failed—at least one 49er was wondering how in the world the Chargers ever could have traded Dean away.
"Defensive ends like Fred Dean—well, there just aren't any like that around," Offensive Tackle Keith Fahnhorst said. "I remember playing against him in an exhibition game in '75 when he was a rookie. I looked in the program and saw 6'2", 230 pounds, and I licked my chops. On the first play he flew by me so fast I never even saw him. I asked someone, 'Who the hell is that guy?' "
Right now he's the new dimension in a 49er defense that has twice been called on to bail out the offense—against Green Bay two weeks ago and against L.A. Sunday. He drives opponents' offenses crazy. They don't know how to prepare for him. In the Packer game he played as a rover, popping up in different areas as a weak-side pass rusher. The Packers countered by shifting Tight End Paul Coffman to help block on Dean. "That played into our hands," 49er Defensive Coordinator Chuck Studley said. "It took Coffman out of their passing offense, and he's a heck of a receiver."
Against the Rams, Dean appeared only on the right side of the 49er defense, which turned out to be opposite the weak side of the L.A. offense almost all the time. At first the Rams played it honest with Dean, assigning 270-pound Left Tackle Bubba France to him. The Rams aren't a gimmick team; they play me-against-you football. They beat you with personnel, and France has a couple of Pro Bowl trips on his résumé.
Dean's first 2½ sacks came on inside rushes, fighting through the traffic like a guy hacking his way through a jungle. Then he forced a misfire coming from an outside rush, and it was time to give France help. The Rams kept a back in to lend a hand, but on their last offensive series Dean sacked Haden twice more, each time splitting the back-tackle double team.
Before Dean joined them, the 49ers were an interesting team, with possibilities. Coach Bill Walsh had done an admirable job, bringing San Francisco to respectability. In the four years before he arrived, the management had traded away 20 draft choices, including four firsts, three seconds and four thirds, without a single player on the current roster to show for it. The Niners' offense, under Walsh, always had been exciting, but their defense had been a joke for four years. Now it had three high-draft rookies, including No. 1 pick Ronnie Lott out of USC, starting in the secondary. And to settle them down, there was 33-year-old Hacksaw Reynolds, the former Ram, at middle linebacker.
San Francisco started off the season 3-2, the victories coming over losers—Chicago, New Orleans and Washington. It looked as if the 49ers would come back to earth once the schedule firmed up. Two ingredients were lacking: the tough, helmet-busting runner of the kind Paul Hofer was before the Cowboys tore his knee apart last year, and the defensive superstar up front.
Oh, the young secondary was capable of big plays, all right. Cornerback Lott and No. 3 draft pick Carlton Williamson, the strong safety from Pitt, could deliver true NFL-style hits; Free Safety Dwight Hicks, a third-year pro, was an opportunist who returned an interception and a fumble for a couple of TDs against the Redskins. But it's tough to rally a unit around a defensive back; the offense can simply freeze him out by directing things the other way. What was needed was the uncontrollable element closer to the action, the Dick Butkus or Randy White type. And then along came Dean.