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For one year, 1976, Walsh worked under Tommy Prothro at San Diego. Then, after two years at Stanford, Walsh got the 49er job in 1979. He knew three things: He'd been stripped of draft choices; he could put together an offense that could move the ball, but God help his defense; and he had to put in his own system and his alone. In an early interview, Walsh was asked if he would bring in a coordinator to install an offense.
"Usually that's step four," Walsh said. "Step five is toward the exit."
For two years his 49er offenses were pretty. He used the passing game as a ball-control device, not exactly a radical concept, but few coaches had refined the technique to the extent he had, or had his ability to find and work on the soft spot of the defense. His '79 and '80 teams set NFL records for passes thrown and completed. He came up with innovations every week.
"He drove us crazy when I was with the Rams and had to play against him," Reynolds says. "He'd add three hours to my practice day. You couldn't type him. You never knew what the hell he'd do. If you had films of the last three games they'd played, you might as well throw them out, because he wouldn't repeat any tendencies."
But the 49er defenses were disasters, and observers began to wonder if Walsh was just a one-way coach whose talent lay only on the offensive side of the line. He remained polite and informative, but inwardly he brooded.
"My biggest concern was 'Can this be done? Can I stay together long enough to get it done?' " he say's. "I'd taken over a team that had experienced a crushing succession of losses, a team with almost no draft choices coming up. I needed time and I needed patience from everyone. During those two years I felt that the team was a puzzle I was trying to put together, but half the pieces were missing. Those pieces were on defense. They just weren't there."
This year they arrived in the persons of Dean and Reynolds and the three rookies who injected a jolt of electricity into the secondary: Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson. All of a sudden the 49ers became a defensive team that could win the low-scoring games. For two years the Niners had scored no defensive touchdowns, but in a space of three games this season they came up with four. When they went to Cincinnati, they faced a Bengal team that had averaged 35.4 points in its last five games. They held Cincinnati to three. The Bengals had allowed five turnovers in their previous five games; San Francisco forced six. Walsh points to that game as a capsule of what he has been trying to achieve this year: a grind-it-out offense that could put together long drives, and a shocking, quick-striking defense.
"The role of the defense was to go in and hit them so hard and so quick that we'd shatter them, we'd shock them," he says. "We don't have massive people; we don't have the gigantic linemen or linebackers. But we're quick strikers, hard, punishing tacklers. Well, we did that against Cincinnati and we held the ball on offense. When you can do that, you erode their defensive game plan from the start. You attack the game plan itself. It's not like completing a 90-yard pass. That will get a defense fired up. They'll say, 'Dammit, you won't do that again!' I want them saying, over and over again, 'Dammit, we've got to stop them from making first downs. Dammit, they just completed that five-yard pass again.' "
Walsh remembers his Bengal teams that went into the playoffs happy just to be there, and he remembers their early departures. He says the motivation now is "to improve the level of our play by 15 to 20 percent, up to the level you need for sustained playoff football."
"It's almost there," he said in the locker room after the Houston game. "Are we a Super Bowl team? I think our chances are as good as anybody's. I don't know if we could thoroughly dominate anybody, but we could be in a 17-14 game we'd win. Right now there isn't anybody in the league we can't play."