San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh has a straightforward philosophy for drafting: You've got to improve where you're weak. As for the Best Available Athlete theory—well, that Russian decathlon man isn't ever going to play for the 49ers.
Last year San Francisco allowed the third most passing yards in NFL history (3,751). Even worse, opponents' receivers were allowed to cruise free and easy. The 1981 draft was overloaded with defensive backs, not only cover guys but hitters, big stickers. So on the first round Walsh took Ronnie Lott of USC, on the second he chose Eric Wright of Missouri, and on the third he picked Carlton Williamson of Pitt, defensive backs all. "Which one will start?" the writers asked him. "All three," Walsh said.
Imports Fred Dean, from the Chargers, and Jack Reynolds, from the Rams, put the finishing touches on a defense that now ranks second in the NFC, but the tone was set by the three baby backs, who team with holdover Free Safety Dwight Hicks to form the feared Gang of Four. Lott and Wright were both safeties in college; now they man the left and right corners. The prevailing drafting theory is that you take cornerbacks and make safeties out of them, but Walsh says colleges often put their best athletes in the middle, and there's no reason why they can't play outside. Williamson was a strong safety at Pitt, and that's what he plays now. His role is essentially the same as it was in college; he's the big hitter whose resounding shots are an inspiration to his buddies, as long as he doesn't go overboard and incur a yellow flag.
"At Pitt we had something called the Ding Dong Award, for best hit of the week," Williamson says. "Hugh Green and Ricky Jackson collected most of them, but I got my share."
Lott was a star in the USC secondary, where you don't play if you don't hit. He's a super athlete who can break up a screen pass as easily as he can scoop up a shoe-top interception and run it in for a score, as he did in the 49ers' 45-14 romp against Dallas on Oct. 11 in Candlestick.
Wright, who says he was never a particularly ferocious hitter at Missouri, mentions that after workouts on the Wednesday before the Oct. 25 victory over the Rams, 20-17, the coaches paid the Gang of Four the ultimate compliment. "They told us to take it a little easier in practice," he says. "They said we had a tendency to be too aggressive."
In Walsh's first two years in San Francisco the 49ers would win with finesse, with silk handkerchiefs in the air and rabbits popping out of a hat. Now they're getting down in the mud and winning the slugfests—low-scoring games against physical teams like Atlanta and Green Bay and L.A. and Pittsburgh. That's the difference.
Joe Delaney zipped into Arrowhead Stadium on little cat feet, and the Chiefs told him, yes, yes, you're a terrific little runner but this is the NFL, see, and you just have to have more respect for the tacklers; you can't keep taking them on the way you do. And they told the public, this was a hell of a second-round pick for us, and then they labeled Delaney a spot performer—a "situation" player—which is what coaches always do with halfbacks who are no bigger than 5'10", 184.
It took an injury to Ted McKnight in the season's fifth game to turn Delaney into a full-timer, and his 193 yards last Sunday against Houston gives him 920 yards, within striking distance of Mike Garrett's alltime single-season club rushing record of 1,087 yards. This blockbuster from Northwestern (La.) State may be the Chiefs' best runner ever. Delaney, you see, knows exactly what he's doing. When he cuts away from the sidelines, back into the flow of traffic—a daring and almost suicidal move, when he takes on the tackier ("Get him before he gets me"), he's merely putting into practice in public what he has studied in private.
"I study the linebackers and defensive backs, how hard they come, what kind of angles of pursuit they take," says Delaney. "Is he a good tackier, an overpursuer? I look at their balance. I try to judge what kind of shape they'll be in if I hit the crease in the line quickly and take them on before they're really ready. Of course, I know I'm leaving myself open for some real shots. That's where peripheral vision comes in; you have to keep the searchlights going."