49ers Year-by-Year: 1966

I hope you'll enjoy this historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1966 season. 1966 was the season of the NFL-AFL merger. More important for the 49ers, though, was the emergence of multiple stars on offense in 1965, including the long-awaited breakout of quarterback John Brodie. How would they follow-up? Read on to find out. Also included is a short profile of former 49ers running back Ken Willard, a true star on the team for 9 great seasons.

*     *     *

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 11

Minnesota Vikings

T: 20-20

0-0-1

0-0-1

Sept. 25

@ Baltimore Colts

L: 14-36

0-1-1

2-1

Sept. 30

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 3-34

0-2-1

3-1

Oct. 9

Green Bay Packers

W: 20-21

1-2-1

4-1

Oct. 16

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 44-7

2-2-1

0-6

Oct. 23

Detroit Lions

W: 24-27

3-2-1

2-5

Oct. 30

@ Minnesota Vikings

L: 3-28

3-3-1

2-4-1

Nov. 6

Los Angeles Rams

W: 13-21

4-3-1

4-5

Nov. 13

@ Chicago Bears

T: 30-30

4-3-2

3-4-2

Nov. 20

Philadelphia Eagles

L: 35-34

4-4-2

6-5

Nov. 24

@ Detroit Lions

W: 41-14

5-4-2

4-7-1

Dec. 4

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 7-20

5-5-2

10-2

Dec. 11

Chicago Bears

W: 14-41

6-5-2

4-7-2

Dec. 18

Baltimore Colts

L: 30-14

6-6-2

9-5

Head Coach: Jack Christiansen

Key Losses: DT Karl Rubke, DB Jerry Mertens

Key Additions: TE Bob Windsor, DB Al Randolph, DB Mel Phillips, WR Dick Witcher

As the AFL finally emerged into a serious competitor with the NFL, first as a financial institution and ultimately as a talent draw, the so-called war between the two leagues reached a head in the mid 1960s. In June of 1966, in the best interests of both leagues, the AFL and the NFL reached an agreement on a merger.

At the time of the merger, the two leagues weren't fully integrated into each other. They had an uneven number of teams and retained separate schedules at first, meeting only one time at the conclusion of the season in what was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Other provisions of the merger included an agreement that where the leagues had competing markets, the AFL team would pay the NFL team an indemnity (for instance, the Raiders would pay the 49ers an indemnity for existing in a competing market with San Francisco), that both leagues would draft in a common draft instead of competing for talent, and that the merged league would regularly expand until it had 28 total teams. The NFL also expanded by one team that year by granting a team to an ownership group in Atlanta, and naming the new team the Falcons.

1965 had been a relief for 49ers fans. After almost half a decade of floundering with the bottom feeders, they had turned a corner. They finally got consistent production out of the backfield thanks to newcomers John David Crow and Ken Willard. They found a playmaker in the passing game with electric wide receiver Dave Parks. Perhaps most importantly, though, John Brodie had a breakout season and finally won over the fans who had been struggling to accept him since the day he took over the starting job.

The beginning of the 1966 season was like a splash of cold water on all the warm and fuzzy feelings that had built up over the past year. As the offense struggled to find a rhythm, having a particularly difficult time on the ground, and as the defense remained typically awful, they opened the year with a tie and two losses. The difficult stretch was capped by a miserable 34-3 loss to the Rams in which they ran for a total of 53 yards and gave up 5 turnovers on offense.

Winless at 0-2-1, the last team that anybody would want to face had to be the perennially strong and currently undefeated Green Bay Packers. For the 49ers, it was exactly the matchup that they needed to kick start the season. With John Brodie struggling, the 49ers started third year player George Mira, but it wasn't the passing game that kept the 49ers in this game. In fact, it was by far the least productive game the 49ers had in the air all season, and George Mira didn't sniff another start for the rest of the year. The big difference this time was in the running game and the defense. Controlling the pace with 154 rushing yards, the 49ers rode 2 John David Crow touchdown receptions out of the backfield and one Matt Hazeltine fumble recovery and return for a touchdown to eek out a 21-20 win against one of the best teams in the league.

With that shot of confidence, the 49ers went forward swinging. They crushed the Falcons in Atlanta the following week, and then squeezed by Detroit at home to jump over .500 for the first time all year. And then a crushing visit to Minnesota reminded everybody that this was still the same team that went winless for nearly the first full month of the year.

The next week, the 49ers came out to exact sweet revenge on the Rams, who had humiliated them earlier in the season. From that point on, the offense kept rolling, and showed up again against the Bears. Unfortunately, no matter how good their offense was, the team still played awful defense, and they came away with their second tie of the year in a 30-30 shootout.

It was the same story the following week against the Eagles. Despite doing almost everything right on offense with a couple of touchdowns out of Brodie touchdowns and a dominating rushing attack, the defense gave everything back to Philadelphia and more, resulting in a 35-34 loss to drop back to .500.

Already out the race to the Championship game, the season was effectively over. After handling a bad Lions team, the 49ers had a chance to play spoiler against the Packers, who they had already beaten once. The Packers were simply the better team, though, and the 49ers fell without putting up much of a fight. They split their final two meaningless games to get out of a disappointing season at .500.

Player Profile: Ken Willard

Ken Willard was halfback/fullback who was drafted by the 49ers in 1965, and remained with the team for all but one year of his ten year career. A constant presence in the lineup during his time with the team, he only missed 8 games during the nine years he played for the 49ers.

For his career, Willard ran for 6105 yards, 5930 of which were with San Francisco. A strong runner and a capable pass catcher, Willard also had 277 career receptions for 2184 yards.

When he retired, his 5930 yards in a 49er uniform were good for second on the team's all-time list. To this day, he remains third behind only Joe Perry and Roger Craig. His 45 rushing touchdowns are also third on the team's all-time list behind only Perry and Craig.

Willard enjoyed his greatest season in 1968, rushing for a career high 967 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4.3 yard average. He was elected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 1965, and three times later in 1966, 1968, and 1969. To this day, Willard ranks among the all-time great 49ers, and should be remembered among the likes of some his more famous teammates.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1965_roster.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AFL-NFL_Merger
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_NFL_season#The_AFL-NFL_merger_agreement
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1966.htm
http://www.databasefootball.com/teams/teamleaders.htm?tm=sfo&lg=nfl
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/W/WillKe02.htm

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