San Francisco 49ers
By now we all know that Bill Walsh's white sweater is on its way to Canton, Ohio and his 1981 playbook has been preserved in a time capsule and sunk deep into the earth, and a film of his life story is underway, with Robert Redford in the title role and George C. Scott playing Joe Thomas.
We know that Walsh did it all last year with the intricate swoops and swerves of his pass offense and the tricky strategy that kept him one saber thrust away from the opposition at all times—plus some mighty good studs on defense. What we don't know is what the 49ers will do for an encore. But you know something? Right now a lot of Niner fans don't care. It's too early for that kind of talk. They're still preserving the memory of Super Bowl XVI, taking it out of the closet every day and polishing it like a piece of fine crystal.
The Super Bowl season was one of those magical times when everything went right. There were a few injuries, but none to the defense, a magnificent unit that finished second in the NFL and, yes, carried the offense when things didn't exactly go as planned. All the pieces fell into place. Inside Linebacker Jack Reynolds and undersized Defensive End Fred Dean weren't burned out by January. They'd been used just right, as situation players. Five rookie defensive backs, led by Ronnie Lott, didn't suffer from the mental dizzies. They played like terrors. The offense, patchwork in spots, lacking a keynote running back, was saved because Joe Montana chose exactly the right time to come of age.
And now the '82 draft has provided some benefits, and that's not supposed to happen when you choose last. Two picks went to New England for Tight End Russ Francis, who joins the champs after a year's retirement. The Niners' first selection, in the second round, produced an instant starter at left tackle, 290-pound Bubba Paris. The 49ers also won the bidding war for hurdle champ Renal-do Nehemiah, showing the league that if Walsh wanted a guy, then owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. would spend anything to get him.
All 49er fans want now is for everything to be as it was a year ago, but change is ever present. Gone are two defensive stalwarts from '81, Middle Guard Archie Reese, who ate his way out of a job, and Inside Linebacker Craig Puki, who went through a drug rehab program. Gone temporarily is the starting right guard. All-Pro Randy Cross, who broke his left leg and tore ligaments in his left ankle in the off-season. He could be back in late September. The search for a halfback to team with Earl Cooper may well produce little Amos Lawrence, who never got a long look at the position in '81. Nehemiah, who's learning, seems a natural for the four-man taxi squad, and Francis, who suffered from back trouble in camp, has spurred the incumbent tight end, Charle Young. Don't forget that in 1981 Young had his most productive year since 1975, when he was a Pro Bowl choice with the Eagles.
Montana signed a new four-year contract that begins at $325,000 and ends at $425,000. Everyone's raving about a 6'3", 210-pound second-year man, Mike Wilson, as a budding star at wide receiver. Walsh will rescue Dean from the wear and tear of double-team blocking with occasional stints as a stand-up linebacker, and in general the defense should be as good as, if not better than, last year's.
The 49ers are now everyone's target. The schedule is tougher than in '81. But euphoria reigns.
The smart money had Atlanta as a Super Bowl team last year. The Falcons finished at 7-9. The year before, everyone had Atlanta battling San Francisco for last place in the division (that was the year New Orleans was going to make its move, remember?). So the Falcons won nine straight, finished 12-4 and almost beat Dallas in the playoffs.