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Our first play," San Francisco 49er Coach Bill Walsh was saying last Saturday, looking at a little piece of paper, "will be a screen pass to the fullback. Then we'll throw wide to the fullback, then we'll run dives on our third and fourth plays, knock 'em off the ball, surprise 'em, and then we'll come back to Earl Cooper on a quick pitch."
The Houston game was still 18 hours away, but the first 20 plays, virtually the entire first quarter, were neatly penciled in. "We'll change formations on them," he said, "and run our fullback in motion, strong side, and run quick-hitting patterns against the zone. We'll run Dwight Clark on an end-around on about the 12th play, and then we'll go deep to Freddie Solomon out of slot formation."
Neat, clean, everything was accounted for but the score. You could almost hear the click of tumblers as the intricate mechanism was set into motion. Then an old story came to mind, the one about the coach who told his quarterback to "run three plays and punt." So the quarterback ran three plays, which carried down to the opponent's one-yard line, and then punted the ball out of the stadium. "What if things don't go exactly as planned?" Walsh was asked.
"Things never go as planned," he said, smiling at the obvious question. "But sooner or later we'll come back to everything that's down here. Listing them like this makes me feel more secure, and it makes my quarterback feel more secure."
Sunday broke gray and rainy. Upset weather. The fans didn't mind. They gathered early at Candlestick Park, setting up their tailgate parties in the drizzle. Hey, these are our 49ers. The first NFL team to clinch a division title, the first playoff team for San Francisco in nine years, an 11-3 team, tied with Dallas for the best record in pro football. And they've beaten the Cowboys by 31 points. That morning the San Francisco Examiner had printed the results of a fan poll to pick an alltime, 36-year 49er team. Walsh, in his third season, was voted the coach; Defensive End Fred Dean and Left Inside Linebacker Jack Reynolds both made the squad even though neither has completed one full season in San Francisco.
The 49ers started their first series on their 12-yard line. The screen from Quarterback Joe Montana to Cooper, the fullback, gained 41 yards. A Montana pass to Cooper picked up six more. Two running plays gave San Francisco nine more and another first down. It was all down there on Walsh's little sheet of paper. Click went the tumblers. A sweep for seven more yards, a quick pitch to Cooper for 21. First down on the Oilers' four. Click.
It was at this point that the argument began in earnest. The Oilers are an aging, flawed team, but still dangerous. And they can still rise up and play goal-line defense. When they stopped the 49ers inches short of a touchdown and then took over and moved the ball back up-field, to the San Francisco 37, you could almost hear the Niners' bubble burst. You had to wonder whether by clinching their division so early—two weeks before—the 49ers had dulled the edge of the sword and set the stage for a case of the playoff blahs.
And as the two teams swatted each other around in a dreary, scoreless first half, you began to wonder whether Walsh's creation was really as sound as he would have you believe or just the product of the parity era in the NFL, in which the teams are so close that a few breaks here or there can produce an 11-3 club out of ordinary clay. That's the trouble with a coach like Walsh, whose appeal is cerebral, who will answer questions logically and directly, cutting through the clichés in proper English. He is so atypical he is suspect. When he talks about his "system"—which is nothing more than finding the proper people to do precisely what he wants them to do, and then using them in ways most suited to their particular talents, and then supplying his own intellect to use them in exactly the right manner to home in on an opponent's weaknesses—he makes it seem so simple that he appears to be tampering with a coaching image. The snarl and the scowl. Closed practices. Woody Hayes and the grapes of wrath.
The 49ers put the Oilers away in the third quarter, which went 21-0. The final score was 28-6, Houston averting a shutout in the last 47 seconds. Walsh had gotten around to all 20 plays on his sheet. He had used that deep pass to Solomon out of the slot on the 49ers' 17th play, and it had gained 34 yards. The end-around to Clark came later than planned, in the third quarter actually, but it picked up 18 yards and launched San Francisco on its second TD drive. And so, the 49ers, now 12-3, had scored their second straight thumping big win when, logically, they could have been expected to come up with those blahs. The week before, they had gone to Cincinnati and put away what was then the NFL's hottest team, 21-3. Somehow the cerebral approach of the 50-year-old Walsh has created a team that not only can run a precise attack—it seems that Walsh's teams have always been capable of that—but can also knock the hell out of you. It is time to take a closer look at this curious coach with as good a record as there is in the NFL.
The system that produced him—the one taught by Bob Bronzan at San Jose State in the early and mid-1950s—was unsung and largely unrecognized in college football, but it produced Walsh, Philadelphia Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil and Tampa Bay's highly talented defensive coordinator, Tom Bass. "Bob Bronzan was a man ahead of his time," Walsh says. "He was a great theorist, a highly detailed football coach. He coached it as a science, a skilled sport.