by Frank Cooney

Eureka! 49ers may have found it

October 4, 2023
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by Frank Cooney (Originally published in San Francisco Examiner, October 12, 1981)

Some people just never learn. Now the 49ers have really done it. Right there in front of a record-breaking Candlestick Park crowd and a Northern California television audience, they totally blew their cover. 

They couldn’t just satiate the fans with a mild upset. Oh, no. They had to go and cream the Dallas Cowboys, 45-14, yesterday in what already is being rated as the most significant shocker in the franchise’s history.

Woe is them. Gone are those blissful Sunday outings where the 49ers are expected to bumble their way to defeat or luck into a close victory. After giving “America’s Team” one of its worst defeats ever (ninth Worst to be exact and worst since 1970), the 49ers must now live with pressure so old to them that it is new.

49ers Bill Walsh
QB Joe Montana confers with coach Bill Walsh
© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dare it be said after these many years of Waiting? Can it be be that Oct. 11, 1981 will go down in NFL annals as the day the 49ers arrived from their extended journey to the land of perennial underdogs?

“We tried to prove to doubters today that we have a competitive team,” boasted 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who will now have to live with the consequences of success. “This is the greatest win we’ve ever had.

“As you probably know, it hasn’t been that way for us in recent years,” he added, no doubt recalling last year’s 59-14 loss at Dallas. “The team is maturing We saw this coming.”

And there certainly didn’t appear to be anything flukey about the way the 49ers upped their record to 4-2, good for a first place tie with Los Angeles in the NFC-West.

Talent and teamwork was the old fashioned combination with which the 49ers perplexed the famed Dallas flex defense and hexed the Cowboys’ shotgun offense. So complete was the 49ers’ domination that they outgained the Cowboys in yards, 440 to 192.

On offense, the 49er front line was superb, giving quarterback Joe Montana enough time to hit 19 of 29 passes for his second highest career total of 279 yards and two touchdowns.

And there was wide receiver Dwight Clark catching four passes for 135 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown. Not to be outdone, wide receiver Freddie Solomon grabbed five for 74 yards, including a one-yard TD, and added a 25-yard pass of his own to Clark off an end around. 

The running game featured someone old and someone new to make the Cowboys’ defense blue. Paul Hofer looked the best he has since suffering a severe knee injury against Dallas last year. He gained 40 yards in 11 carries, including a four-yard touchdown. And rookie Amos Lawrence showed dazzling speed while going 27 yards in six carries, including an all-too easy one-yard sweep for a touchdown.

But 49er Faithful took this in stride because, after all, Walsh has long been known as an offensive wizard who works wonders with his passing attack. As the fans exited Candlestick yesterday they were abuzz over a new bunch of darlings for whom they are learning to cheer.

The New Name Defense.

–There was Ronnie Lott, the first-round draft choice from USC. He recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown, and grabbed two interceptions. One interception set up a field goal, the other he returned 41 yards for a touchdown. 

–There was Fred Dean, who had only two hard days of practice after signing with the 49ers following his trade, blasting Dallas quarterback Danny White for three sacks and numerous scares.

–And there was linebacker Jack Reynolds, who helped Dean and Lott by leading a first- and second-down defense which crushed Dallas’ running game so effectively that the great Tony Dorsett totalled only 21 yards.

49ers Ronnie Lott
Ronnie Lott
© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

That helped put the Cowboys into must-pass situations, which allowed the 49ers to counter with a nickel defense — and Dean.

The 6-2, 230-pound defensive end showed 49er fans quickly why he was an All- Pro for San Diego the past two years. On his first play since coming to the 49ers in a trade with the Chargers, Dean teamed with Lawrence Pillers to sack White.

It was a harbinger of a long hard day for three Cowboys offensive tackles Pat Donovan, Steve Wright and Andy Frederick who failed to stop Dean, even when they grabbed his face mask. All they received for their efforts were three penalties.

On one sack. Dean looped up the middle and ran over center Robert Shaw so rudely that the Cowboy was sidelined with a pulled hamstring and blurred vision.

It was later determined there was nothing the matter with his vision. The blur was Dean.

“If you are not happy, you can’t get into it,” Dean said of his early season performances at San Diego, where he was being paid a base of only $75,000 this year.

“If you are not happy, you can’t get into it,” Dean said of his early season performances at San Diego, where he was being paid a base of only $75,000 this year. “You saw my happiness with the 49ers out there today,” he added, meaning he was inspired by a new contract that calls for more than $100,000.

“There has been pressure on me all week, what with the trade and the negotiating for the new contract.  And I felt a little bad sitting out last week while my new team played at Washington. I love my new teammates. This reminds me of when I first as at San Diego, on a team that had been down but knew it was getting ready to fly high.”

Ronnie Lott, Drew Pearson
49ers Ronnie Lott and Cowboys Drew Pearson

“We knew Dean would be in there, but we didn’t realize how effective he would be,” said Donovan, one of the Cowboys offensive tackle. “He’s the kind of guy you have to prepare for. “I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses, but I like to look at a guy; on film and we had no film on him with the 49ers, of course.”

The 49ers took control of yesterday’s game before the Cowboys were even in the saddle, scoring on their first two possessions with the one-yard pass to Solomon, coming out of a full-house backfield, and Hofer’s four-yard run. 

“I feel good, there’s no pain,” said Hofer, who required extensive surgery to his knee after his last encounter with Dallas. “I feel I’m as aggressive as I’ve ever been, although I might be lacking in cutting ability.”

“I knew Hof was ready last night because he was real bitchy and that’s the way he used to be before a good game,” offered guard John Ayers, who rooms with Hofer on pregame’ nights.

The next two 49ers’ scores were set up by Lott’s recovery of Preston Pearson’s fumble (on the Dallas six), and then Lott’s first interception of the day.

“I thought Pearson was running away from me because I went for the ball and both it and he got by me,” Lott said. “Then I saw the ball pop loose. I guess it hit an official (line Judge Dick McKenzie) and that kept it inbounds long enough for me to get.

Four plays later, fullback Johnny Davis pounded in from the one and San Francisco was ahead, 21-0, with 1:14 left in the first quarter.

On the Cowboys’ next play from scrimmage, White tried to pass to Pearson.

“I think White thought Pearson was going to go all the way to the sideline, but he stopped and the ball came right to me,” said Lott, who returned the gift 12 yards to the Dallas 16

49ers Dwight Clark
WR Dwight Clark

Six plays later the 49ers stalled on fourth and goal at the one. Kicker Ray Wersching, on injured reserve with a pulled hip flexor muscle since the opening game, came in and converted an 18-yard field goal. Wersching did not do well on his kickoffs, mostly bouncers to about the 20, but he did make all his PATs, that one short field goal and missed a 40-yard effort at the end of the first half when the ball hit the right upright.

“I felt a little nervous before the game,” Wersching admitted. “My right leg feels pretty good now. It’s Just a matter of getting my concentration and timing back.”

After leading 24-7 at half time, the 49ers put the game away with two startling plays in the third quarter — Clark’s 78-yard catch and run and Lott’s 41-yard interception return.

And so it seems many things are coming to the 49ers. First a good draft Then a couple of good trades. And now, perhaps, credibility as a viable NFL football team once again. But be not too hasty to celebrate. Take heed. . . 

“We were here before, 3-0 last year, and everybody was excited,” Walsh said. “We’re better this year, yes. But give us another draft or two, then we will be where we want.”

Too late, coach. After yesterday, it is only natural for expectations to run high. And since disappointment is the difference between expectations and results, the 49ers may find it tougher and tougher to please. 

Such is life in the NFL’s fast lane.

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