49ers Year-by-Year: 1972

What follows is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers's 1972 season. Would the team three-peat as division champs? How would Steve Spurrier respond to being thrust into the starting role? How could it all possibly fall apart again? And if nothng else, read the end bit to learn a little about one of the less well-remembered great 49ers: offensive lineman Len Rohde.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 17

San Diego Chargers

W: 3-34

1-0

0-1

Sept. 24

@ Buffalo Bills

L: 20-27

1-1

1-1

Oct. 1

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 37-2

2-1

0-3

Oct. 8

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 7-31

2-2

2-1-1

Oct. 15

New York Giants

L: 23-17

2-3

3-2

Oct. 22

New Orleans Saints

T: 20-20

2-3-2

0-5-1

Oct. 29

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 49-14

3-3-1

4-3

Nov. 5

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 24-34

3-4-1

5-3

Nov. 12

Baltimore Colts

W: 21-24

4-4-1

2-7

Nov. 19

@ Chicago Bears

W: 34-21

5-4-1

3-6-1

Nov. 23

@ Dallas Cowboys

W: 31-10

6-4-1

8-3

Dec. 4

Los Angeles Rams

L: 26-16

6-5-1

6-5-1

Dec. 10

Atlanta Falcons

W: 0-20

7-5-1

7-6

Dec. 16

Minnesota Vikings

W: 17-20

8-5-1

7-7

Playoffs:

Dec. 23

Dallas Cowboys

L: 30-28

9-5-1

11-4

Head Coach: Dick Nolan

Key Losses: None

Key Additions: DB Ralph McGill, P Tom Wittum

In 1972, the NFL had come out of the effects of the merger stronger than ever, and was benefitting from the first extended period of stability in the league structure since the mid-‘60s. There were a number of technical rule changes going into the NFL's 1972 season, but one of the most interesting ones was a change that allowed for kicks to be returned on punts and field goals that crossed the receiving team's goal line without crossing the backline on both field goals and punts, a rule change that had deep repercussions into how special teams were played from that point on.

For the 49ers, the future was becoming less and less certain. A number of the team's most important players were getting older, and no replacements appeared to be riding over the horizon. John Brodie was entering his twilight years, and the team hadn't been impressed with the incumbent replacement Steve Spurrier up to that point. Other key players like Charlie Krueger, Len Rohde, Dave Wilcox, Jimmy Johnson, and Mel Phillips were all moving through the wrong side of their 30s and most had roughly the football equivalent of black holes behind them on the depth chart.

It didn't help the team's future prospects that their ability to draft was falling apart. Strong drafts in the 60s had built the juggernaut that had just won two division titles in a row, but with a new scouting department in 1971, the 49ers found themselves in the unfamiliar territory of wasting draft picks. It was so bad that the first round picks in 1971 and 1972 were both cut from the team within just a few years of being selected, and neither played in any significant way during that time. The 1971 draft has been since recognized as one of the worst of all time.

The short term prospects of the team, however, were extremely good. Coming off of the two aforementioned division titles, the team again returned virtually unchanged. There was no reason to expect anything less out of the current product.

Everything started well that season as the team opened up on the road in San Diego. The Chargers didn't put up much of a fight at all, and the 49ers looked as good as ever. Three Brodie touchdowns to Gene Washington later, the 49ers emerged from the game with a 34-3 victory.

Coming home in week 2 would be bittersweet, though. The 49ers hadn't won a home opener since 1967, and 1972 would be no exception. As had been the case in many of the 49ers losses over the last few years, turnovers gave the game away, though unlike recent years the overall quality of the offense didn't help matters. The follow-up was encouraging, as the team defeated the Saints at home by 35 points. The problem was that the Saints were one of the worst, if not the worst team in the league at the time, and the win didn't indicate much.

That much became clear the next two weeks. The 49ers dropped two straight as they continued to struggle to find a consistent rhythm on offense. But perhaps the biggest loss over those two weeks was the loss of John Brodie, who went down with a severe sprained ankle and would remain questionable for the rest of the season. The season would ride on the shoulders of unproven Steve Spurrier.

Spurrier got his first chance in New Orleans against the winless Saints. The results weren't nearly as good as when the teams first played, and despite two impressive touchdowns, Spurrier still appeared unpolished and unready. He was only able to muster a tie in the game, and hopes for the 49ers were fading fast.

But then something remarkable happened. Spurrier found himself and began to blow teams away. Over the next 7 games, he threw 14 touchdowns, including 3 in a win over the Falcons and 5 in a win over the Bears. The 49ers won 5 of those games to save a season that at one point seemed lost to many. That stretch included a huge win over the Dallas Cowboys on November 23. Playing for revenge against the team that had ended their seasons in each of the previous two years, the 49ers jumped ahead early and never let go.

Spurrier's high level of performance even began to earn him starts over an increasingly healthy John Brodie, and Spurrier remained the starter through the last week of the season, when Brodie was healthy and ready to go. For the third year in a row, the 49ers had to win the final game of their season to secure a division title.

For three quarters, the game was a complete disaster. Spurrier ended up going 7-14 for 64 yards and 3 interceptions, and left the game at the end of the third quarter trailing 17-6. Starting the fourth quarter, Brodie didn't look any better as his first two possessions both ended in interceptions. Dick Nolan stuck with his star, though, and Brodie rewarded him handsomely. Halfway through the 4th quarter and backed up all the way on their own 1 yard line, Brodie led the team on a thrilling 99 yard touchdown drive. Still down by 4, though, the 49ers were running out of time and still needed at least a touchdown to win. Then, with less than 2 minutes to go, Brodie did it again and the team won 20-17 to clinch the division.

A thrilling season would have familiar ends, though, as the 49ers found themselves again facing the Cowboys in the playoffs. The 49ers appeared poised for victory in this game to finally rid themselves of the team that had been their own personal Sisyphusian trial for two consecutive seasons. Leading comfortably in the 4th quarter, San Francisco was up 28-16 with as little as two minutes to go in the game. Roger Staubach threw two last minute touchdowns to steal the game and crush the 49ers' hopes for a third year in a row.

Player Profile: Len Rohde

The San Francisco 49ers selected Len Rohde in the fifth round of the 1960 NFL draft as an offensive tackle, and played with the team for 15 years until 1974. During that time, he established himself as one of the most durable and reliable players in team history.

Taxed with the burden of protecting star quarterback John Brodie's blindside, Rohde never got the glory, but he always got the job done. The offensive line's the Rohde was a part of were some of the best in team history. He began his career backing up hall of fame lineman Bob St. Clair, and within a few years was splitting time with the legendary giant. He was also an integral part of a unit in 1970 that only allowed 7 total sacks for the entire season. At the time, that was an NFL record, and it held up for almost 20 years until the Dolphins broke it in 1988 by allowing only 7 sacks on the season.

In many ways, though, Rohde's greatest gift was his health. As a pro, he never missed a game due to injury - and that includes the preseason and the playoffs for a grand total in excess of 300 games. During the regular season, he appeared in 208 games, all consecutive. That number set a team record.

Though he was never a glorified player and to this day isn't remembered in the same breath as many of the team's other great stars, Rohde was nonetheless recognized during his time. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1970 and was honored with the team's award for showing exemplary inspiration and courage, the Len Eshmont award, in 1974.

After his retirement, Rohde went into business and eventually became the majority owner of a number of fast food establishments. Living happily today, and over 30 years removed from his playing career, Rohde continues to root heart and soul for his San Francisco 49ers

Primary Reference:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1972_NFL_season
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1972.htm

Glenn Dickey, San Francisco 49ers: The First 50 Years. Turner Publishing Inc. 1995
Matt Maiocco, San Francisco 49ers: Where Have You Gone?. Sports Publishing LLC, 2005

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