49ers Year-by-Year: 1974

What follows is a brief historical summary of the San Francisco 49ers' 1974 season. After the retirement of John Brodie, how would the offense respond? Who would emere, if anybody, as the new quarterback of the future? For a team coming off of a 5-9 season and only appearing to get worse, could there be such a thing as a step forward? And it's always worth it to learn about the great 49ers of the past. This time take a step back in time with Delvin Williams, a mere rookie in 1974, but a player who would make a lasting impression on the 49ers, on the league, and, eventually, for society at large.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 15

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 17-13

1-0

0-1

Sept. 22

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 16-10

2-0

0-2

Sept. 29

Cincinnati Bengals

L: 21-3

2-1

2-1

Oct. 16

St. Louis Cardinals

L: 34-9

2-2

4-0

Oct. 14

@ Detroit Lions

L: 13-17

2-3

1-4

Oct. 20

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 14-37

2-4

4-2

Oct. 27

Oakland Raiders

L: 35-24

2-5

6-1

Nov. 4

Los Angeles Rams

L: 15-13

2-6

6-2

Nov. 10

@ Dallas Cowboys

L: 14-20

2-7

5-4

Nov. 17

@ Chicago Bears

W: 34-0

3-7

3-7

Nov. 24

Atlanta Falcons

W: 0-27

4-7

2-9

Dec. 1

@ Cleveland Browns

L: 0-7

4-8

4-8

Dec. 8

Green Bay Packers

W: 6-7

5-8

6-7

Dec. 15

New Orleans Saints

W: 21-35

6-8

5-9

Head Coach: Dick Nolan

Key Losses: QB John Brodie, RB Vic Washington, RB Ken Willard, DT Charlie Krueger, WR Dick Witcher

Key Additions: QB Tom Owen, QB Dennis Morrison, QB Norm Snead, RB Wilbur Jackson, RB Delvin Williams, TE Tom Mitchell, DT Bill Sandifer, T Keith Fahnhorst

After the NFL-AFL merger in 1966, the NFL had been the only major professional football league in the United States. Though short-lived, that distinction was broken in 1974 by an upstart league known as the World Football League. The WFL was one of a number of competitive leagues developed by Gary L. Davidson, who had been one of the driving forces behind the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association. None of the leagues survived, but the ABA and the WHA both had teams absorbed by their superior leagues upon their dissolution. The WFL only lasted two seasons and made no such impression, but its presence nonetheless had an immediate impact on the way football was played in the NFL.

Partly in response to the WFL, the NFL enacted a number of key rule changes that were designed to make individual games more exciting and competitive. Most visible was the movement of the goalposts from the goal line to the end line, which made field goals more difficult and increased the incentive for teams to drive farther downfield. Also important was the addition of a single overtime period to help reduce the number of ties, and the enactment of defensive penalty which made it illegal for a defender to make contact with a receiver more than once beyond 3 yards of the line of scrimmage. Kickoffs were also moved back five yards from the 40 yard line to increase the number of kick returns per game.

Ultimately the WFL would put much more pressure on the NFL than a few rule changes, though. A big reason for the original AFL-NFL merger had been that competition was driving player salaries to previously unheard of levels. By 1974, not even a decade after the merger, the average NFL salary was among the lowest of the professional leagues. The WFL was a free-spending league that changed that immediately. By 1975, the WFL was giving out record contracts and drawing a large number of NFL stars away from the predominant league, including such players as Larry Csonka, Ken Stabler, and 49ers' long-time TE Ted Kwalick. Ultimately the league spent too much money too fast while making far too little in the process. But the NFL was permanently changed nonetheless.

For the 49ers, 1974 was a year of unbelievable overturn. Quarterback John Brodie had retired following a disappointing, injury plagued 1973 season, and his number was promptly retired. He maintains that he still had a few years of football left in him, but that he could tell the team was headed in the wrong direction, not getting better anytime soon, and didn't want to spend the last seasons of his career on a losing team. He wasn't the only loss, though. Charlie Krueger also retired. Dick Witcher retired. Ken Willard was traded away. Vic Washington ended up in Houston. All of these players had been important contributors during the years that Dick Nolan and the 49ers had enjoyed their greatest success.

But worst of all, there was nobody to replace them. The 49ers hedged their bets on the success of Steve Spurrier to succeed John Brodie, and didn't so much draft a QB until the 13th round. Meanwhile, the last few years of bad drafts had left the team barren in the running game and lacking depth across the board. The team used the draft to try to address many of these needs, drafting two promising tailbacks in Wilbur Jackson and Delvin Williams. Likewise, Bill Sandifer was drafted to ease the departure of Krueger, though injuries would slow his rookie campaign and, eventually contribute to an early end to a once promising career.

And then in the preseason, disaster struck. In the team's final preseason game, against the Los Angeles Rams, Steve Spurrier suffered a severely dislocated shoulder that would sideline him for months. With essentially three completely unknown active quarterbacks, the 49ers went into the season with Joe Reed - the only one of the three with any NFL gametime experience - as the starter.

Despite what seemed like extreme odds, the 49ers came out strong early and won their first two games. Neither the Saints nor the Falcons were particularly good teams at the time, but two road wins to open the season was nothing to sneeze at. The good news between the two games was that the running game looked as strong as it had been in a few years, and the defense was playing extremely well. The bad news was that Joe Reed was not getting the job done. With just 128 passing yards combined in the first two weeks, things would have to improve for the season to continue at its initial hot clip.

But then the 49ers came home to face the Bengals. The passing game was as bad as it had been from the start, and the running game was as good as it had been, but the defense faltered and the results were ugly. After a week 4 loss under similar circumstances, Joe Reed had played his way out of a job and the reigns were handed - briefly - to second year player Dennis Morrison.

Morrison threw a touchdown against the Lions in his first start of the season, and it would be the only touchdown pass of his short-lived career. The game was close and it was the first time all season that the offense looked reasonable through the air, but the improvement wouldn't last and the 49ers continued their free-fall. Losses to Oakland and Dallas, and two losses to Los Angeles later, and the 49ers had rolled through Morrison, desperately traded for 35-year-old journeyman Norm Snead, rolled through him, and were onto giving rookie, and 13th round draft pick, Tom Owen a serious chance.

Owen had played sparingly throughout the season, and had demonstrated some improvement leading up to the final stretch of the season. Then, after a franchise record seven straight losses, he proved to be the season's savior. In week 10, the 49ers traveled to Chicago and, behind a suddenly resurgent defense and their best offensive game of the season (including nearly 300 passing yards - more than the total for their first 4 weeks), finally won another game, in a shutout no less.

In week 11, the good times kept on rolling. Owen threw two more touchdowns and the defense was as good as ever in another shutout that continued to set the tone for the rest of the season. To finish the season, the 49ers won 2 out of 3 and, amazingly, finished with an even better record than they had the year before.

Player Profile: Delvin Williams

Drafted by the 49ers in the second round of the 1974 draft, Delvin Williams only played four seasons with the team, but he made them count nonetheless. Brought in to help revitalize the running game of a team that featured a proud history of great runners, Williams didn't end up play much during his rookie season. Over the next three years, though, he would have one of the best individual seasons for a running back in the franchise's history to that point, and many of the best individual performances in the franchise's history.

In 1976, Williams was given the reigns of the running game for the first time, and he responded by running for 1,203 yards, breaking Joe Perry's single-season rushing record with the team. The new mark would stand until Wendell Tyler broke it in 1984, but even then only because of the more recent 16 game schedule that Tyler played. The mark was later eclipsed by Roger Craig and Garrison Hearst, but remains one of the great accomplishments in team history.

He also set the team's single-game rushing record at 194 yards, which stood for the next 22 years until Garrison Hearst broke it with a 198 yard performance. Frank Gore currently holds the franchise record at 212 yards.

In 1978, Williams was traded to the Miami Dolphins for Freddy Solomon and a draft pick, but he hadn't finished making his mark on the league. That very season, he broke Miami's single season rushing record, previously held by Larry Csonka and became the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards with two different teams. By 1981, after only 8 years in the league, his career was derailed by chronic substance abuse, which had started during his time in San Francisco and escalated to dangerous levels later on in Miami.

He fondly remembers his playing days with the 49ers, and recalls missing the atmosphere and the team during his time with the Dolphins.

Since his retirement, Williams has cleaned up and dedicated himself to raising awareness and providing services in order to help and prevent substance abuse victims among the youth. Delvin Williams was a very, very good 49er, but he is also a great person, who has dedicated his life to better the lives of others.

Primary Sources:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1974.htm
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/W/WillDe01.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1974_NFL_season
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Football_League#1975_season_2

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

And my deep thanks, as always, to Niners Nation's own Grumpy Guy for all of his help.

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