49ers Year-by-Year: 1978

What follows is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1978 season. This season doesn't require much in the way of introduction. It was, simply put, the worst season in franchise history. How did it all go wrong? Exactly how psychotic was Joe Thomas? What was the turning point of Freddie Solomon's career? All of these questions are answered within.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 3

@ Cleveland Browns

L: 7-24

0-1

1-0

Sept. 10

Chicago Bears

L: 16-13

0-2

2-0

Sept. 17

@ Houston Oilers

L: 19-20

0-3

2-1

Sept. 24

@ New York Giants

L: 10-27

0-4

3-1

Oct. 1

Cincinnati Bengals

W: 12-28

1-4

0-5

Oct. 8

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 10-27

1-5

6-0

Oct. 15

New Orleans Saints

L: 14-7

1-6

3-4

Oct. 22

Atlanta Falcons

L: 20-17

1-7

4-4

Oct. 29

@ Washington Redskins

L: 20-38

1-8

7-2

Nov. 5

@ Atlanta Falcons

L: 10-21

1-9

6-4

Nov. 12

St. Louis Cardinals

L: 16-10

1-10

3-8

Nov. 19

Los Angeles Rams

L: 31-28

1-11

10-2

Nov. 27

Pittsburgh Steelers

L: 24-7

1-12

11-2

Dec. 3

@ New Orleans Saints

L: 13-24

1-13

6-8

Dec. 10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

W: 3-6

2-13

5-10

Dec. 17

@ Detroit Lions

L: 14-33

2-14

7-9

Head Coach: Pete McCulley / Fred O'Connor

Key Losses: HC Ken Meyer, QB Jim Plunkett, HB Delvin Williams, WR Gene Washington, TE Tom Mitchell, G Steve Lawson, G Woody Peoples, DE Tommy Hart, LB Skip Vanderbundt, LB Dave Washington, DB Ralph McGill, DB Bruce Taylor, DB Mel Phillips, P Tom Wittum, T Cas Banaszek

Key Additions: HC Pete McCulley, QB Steve DeBerg, O. J. Simpson, WR Freddie Solomon, C Fred Quillan, DE/DT Archie Reese, LB Dan Bunz

In 1978, the NFL extended its season from 14 to 16 games, and enlarged its playoff pool from 8 teams to 10. Theoretically, a longer season and more playoff slots would help to add drama, excitement and, most importantly, revenue to the end of the season. The 49ers wouldn't exactly experience these benefits right away.

Joe Thomas' first season making the 49ers' roster and personnel decisions had been just short of a disaster. His inception had thrown the front office into disarray. Furthermore, he had an unprecedented amount of power over the everyday operation of the team. His first choice as a head coach, Ken Meyer, had been a victim and, ultimately, a casualty of this power. Under Meyer, the players never felt a sense of stability or structure from their head coach, and the team culture went down the drain because of it. Thanks to Thomas' haphazard, impulsive lineup changes, the team never got into a rhythm, nobody felt comfortable in their roles, and it showed in the results - a disappointing 5-9 season.

If Joe Thomas' power trip had crippled the team in 1977, it decimated what was left of the team in 1978.

He started shortly after the 1977 season by firing head coach Ken Meyer. The problem was that he replaced him with Pete McCulley, a coach who would be an even bigger tool in his system. As the draft approached, he began to systematically dismantle the team in order to better build it in his own image.

One of his early moves was actually widely considered a positive at the time, when he traded five draft picks for popular star O.J. Simpson. Simpson was entering his age 31 season and coming off of knee surgery, but he had long been one of the best backs in the league.

Then he went on to trade Delvin Williams, Tommy Hart, Tom Mitchell, Dave Washington, Skip Vanderbundt, and Ralph McGill, many of them for hardly any more reason than to get draft picks back (though he did wrangle Freddie Solomon away from the Dolphins along the way). All had played key roles on the team for years, and had been important parts of the team's near resurgence in 1976. To make matters worse, he also released starters Gene Washington, Bruce Taylor, and Woody Peoples, and none of them with adequate replacements on-hand.

Many of these losses could have been remedied by a successful draft. Joe Thomas had been known as a strong drafter from his time in the league before he came to San Francisco, and he had two first round picks to work with. Those picks went to TE Ken MacAffey and LB Dan Bunz. Those acquisitions would set the tone for the whole draft - largely a group of disappointments and underachievers.

The icing on the cake would be the eventual release of starting quarterback Jim Plunkett just before the start of the season. With only Scott Bull and newcomer Steve DeBerg on the roster behind Plunkett, the move was as much a mystery as it was a death blow for the season. Plunkett was both disappointed to be out of a steady job and relieved to be out of Joe Thomas' oppressive line of fire.

Come opening day, the team was almost completely unrecognizable.

Seemingly, the only reason to be optimistic for the season was that anything could happen once you start playing the games. What did happen, though, didn't please anybody. The 49ers let their fans know what kind of season to expect early, losing the first four games and looking bad doing it. They finally caught a break against the winless Bengals, but that would be little consolation over the next nine miserable weeks.

The only consolation of the losing came on November 27th and wasn't even known to fans until after the season. As the season wore on, Thomas' egomania and paranoia grew to unheard of levels. He would send security guards around the stadium to confiscate signs calling for his release. He got into a fight with a beat reporter. He fired McCulley midseason and replaced him with Fred O'Connor. To top it all off, he tried to cancel the November 27th game, which was the same day that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone was assassinated - not out of respect for Moscone, but because he thought it was a conspiracy that would lead to his own assassination!

In 1977 and early 1978, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., had been a fairly hands-off owner, running his own business from the east coast. As 1978 became more and more dismal, the state of the franchise took hold of his attention more and more. Fiercely dedicated to his employees, DeBartolo was not prepared to fire anybody under anything but extreme circumstances. Joe Thomas' extreme actions on November 27th proved to be the final straw that broke DeBartolo's will. He continued to support Thomas publically, but DeBartolo decided that day that Thomas would not return in 1979.

The 49ers would get their only other win of the season two weeks later, barely coming out on top in a battle of who-could-score-less with a characteristically bad Tampa Bay team. The final game of 1978 would be as meaningless as it was strange. Over the course of the game, both Steve DeBerg and Scott Bull would get injured, providing Freddie Solomon with the only chance of his pro career to play quarterback. Bull would never play again. Solomon, who had been bitter for a long time that the color of his skin virtually prohibited him from playing under center in the pros, lost his will to play the position after running for his life all day. A disappointment as a receiver to that point, he would rededicate himself to the position and become a very successful player going forward.

And that was a strange, fitting end to the worst season in franchise history.

Player Profile: Freddie Solomon

Freddie Solomon was drafted out of the University of Tampa in 1975 by the Miami Dolphins with the 36th overall pick. Solomon had starred as a quarterback before being drafted and hoped to get a chance to play the position in the NFL. The Dolphins had other plans for him, in part because he was an African American player and the idea of a successful African American NFL quarterback was almost unheard of at the time.

They played him as a receiver instead, where he languished as a huge disappointment during his three years with the team, putting up the worst numbers of his career by far in 1977, which would prompt the Dolphins to trade him to the 49ers in the offseason for running back Delvin Williams.

In 1978, Solomon enjoyed the best season of his young his career, but that wasn't saying much. He led all 49er receivers with 458 yards and 2 touchdowns. The season was also a turning point in his career. From a mental standpoint, he finally learned to accept his role as a receiver, however unfair it was that he had to play the position. His new attitude would pay immediate dividends.

In 1979, his catch totals and yards would both nearly double, and his touchdown totals would more than triple as he became the legitimate receiving threat that he was supposed to be when he was first drafted. He would enjoy similarly successful years in 1980. 1981, 1983, and 1984, playing in 2 Super Bowls before his retirement following the 1985 season.

As a 49er, Solomon would accumulate 4873 yards and 43 touchdowns, which put him third on the franchise's all-time list in both categories. Solomon was a complementary receiver for most of his career, but he played a key role during the 49ers' early glory years in the first half of the ‘80s.

Primary References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1978_NFL_season
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1978.htm
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/S/SoloFr01.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freddie_Solomon

Glenn Dickey, San Francisco 49ers: The First 50 Years. Turner Publishing Inc. 1995

And thanks, as always, to Grumpy Guy for being so helpful.

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