49ers Year-by-Year: 1987

This is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1987 season. 1986 hadn't been a disaster, unless you hold yourself to the standards that the 49ers did. They had eeked into the playoffs and eeked out shortly thereafter. Thanks to key injuries, they had been exposed on the offensive side of the ball (of all places) and - worse yet - couldn't be sure how long Joe Montana's somewhat precarious health would hold up. How would they deal with it? Read on and find out.

Also, the Player Profile section has been replaced by the new Historical Profile section. This week I have taken the time to profile a former player. Go figure.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 13

@ Pittsburgh Steelers

L: 17-30

0-1

1-0

Sept. 20

@ Cincinnati Bengals

W: 27-26

1-1

1-1

Oct. 5

@ New York Giants

W: 41-21

2-1

0-3

Oct. 11

@ Atlanta Falcon

W: 25-17

3-1

1-3

Oct. 18

St. Louis Cardinals

W: 28-34

4-1

2-3

Oct. 25

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 24-22

5-1

3-3

Nov. 1

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 31-10

6-1

1-6

Nov. 8

Houston Oilers

W: 20-27

7-1

5-3

Nov. 15

New Orleans Saints

L: 26-24

7-2

6-3

Nov. 22

@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

W: 24-10

8-2

4-6

Nov. 29

Cleveland Browns

W: 24-38

9-2

7-4

Dec. 6

@ Green Bay Packers

W: 23-12

10-2

4-7-1

Dec. 14

Chicago Bears

W: 0-41

11-2

10-3

Dec. 20

Atlanta Falcons

W: 7-35

12-2

3-11

Dec. 27

Los Angeles Rams

W: 0-48

13-2

6-9

Playoffs:

Jan. 9

Minnesota Vikings

L: 36-24

13-3

10-7

Head Coach: Bill Walsh

Key Losses: G John Ayers, NT Manu Tuiasosopo, DE Jim Stuckey, HB Wendell Tyler

Key Additions: T Harris Barton, TE Brent Jones, DB Darryl Pollard, QB Steve Young

By 1987, the peace that had been made between the Player's Union and the owners following the 1982 strike had begun to peter out. As the players became more and more aware that, despite salary increases aided by the payroll transparency that 1982 had won (and, ultimately, the USFL), many of the same issues were still plaguing them. Owners were making unheard of sums of money from entertainment deals and stadium revenues, while continuing to hold almost complete control over the fate of a player's contract, while the players were struggling with being unable to control their careers while being burdened with the promise of inadequate severance or pension pay when those careers didn't work to an owner's liking.

For the 49ers, they were faced with a number of harsh realities that the 1986 season had thrown at them. In 1986, Bill Walsh had known that he needed to rebuild an aging defense, but it was almost taken for granted that the offense would be alright. But with an aging offensive line and the reality that Joe Montana came a shoulder-to-the-back away from never playing again, it was clear that there were still major question marks on offense to address.

For the offensive line, Bill Walsh looked to in-house options. He had stockpiled a group of young lineman including Bob McKittrick, Bruce Collie, and Jesse Sapolu, and he understood the long-term importance of getting these players on the field. But always unsatisfied to stand pat when it came to an area of trouble, Walsh also looked to the draft to rebuild his line, and he brought in young Harris Barton to take the reigns at right tackle.

He also understood that starting tight end Russ Francis was getting older and that backup John Frank had aspirations beyond football that might interfere with his career, and he drafted Brent Jones to keep a deep talent pool at the position.

Most importantly and perhaps most difficult was a decision to make at quarterback. Walsh knew that he couldn't count on Montana's health to hold out forever. He missed significant time in 1986 with his back injury, and nagging injuries had hampered him throughout his career, even contributing to a playoff loss in 1985. To ensure against the unthinkable, Walsh manufactured a trade with the Buccaneers to bring Steve Young into San Francisco. In much the same way that Montana's mobility years earlier had convinced Walsh to bring him in over Steve DeBerg, it was Steve Young's mobility - one which greatly outshone even Montana - that attracted Walsh.

But after all that, the 49ers opened the 1987 season looking bad. They lost convincingly to the Steelers in week one, and would have lost to the Bengals in week two except for a miracle fumble recovery and a last-second desperation play that saved the game.

And then the Player's Union went on strike. Though not completely united in their conviction, the Union was at least united in their actions. The strike caused the third week of the season to go unplayed, which would have continued in subsequent weeks if not for the league's insistence on at least playing games. The following week, the league schedule continued as drawn up, except that the teams themselves were virtually unrecognizable, being filled with replacement players. Many teams did not believe these games would count against their records. These teams were wrong.

But the Union was unprepared for a lengthy strike and with dissenting opinion even within their own ranks, the strike quickly began to fall apart. By the third week of the strike, many players including Joe Montana had crossed the picket lines to get back on the field. By the week after that, the strike was all but over with a proposed resolution from Gene Upshaw that basically called for everything to remain the way that it had been until further notice.

The time off had done the 49ers good, though. For a team that was so unified and functional from the ownership down to the very last player, the strike had not caused much internal strife with the 49ers. This is not to say that there was no tension. It was a long time before the players felt particularly comfortable with each other again, but the positive in-house environment that started with the DeBartolo's meant that any strife the 49ers were facing was less than just about any other team in the league.

And that unity paid off when regular play resumed. For the rest of the season, the 49ers appeared as close to their dominance from 1984 as they ever had. It was the kind of dominance that picked up steam as the season rolled on, and that was so unstoppable by the end of the year that the team won their final three games by a combined score of 124-7. And that was largely without Joe Montana, as Steve Young got the start in all three games.

With a first round bye and a second round matchup against the 9-7 Minnesota Vikings, the 49ers were heavy, heavy favorites to win the game and many people's clear-cut pick to win the Super Bowl. Instead, the game would be something of a disaster. The team came out flat and Joe Montana played particularly poorly. The Vikings had an answer for everything the 49ers did, and jumped out to an easy 20-3 lead by halftime. Intolerable of Montana's struggles, Walsh looked to Steve Young to salvage a game that was already essentially lost. Walsh valued Young's legs as much as his arm, and believed that he would be able to make plays against Minnesota's pass rush that Montana never could.

He was right. Young played exceptionally well and, if not for fighting a nearly insurmountable uphill battle, he might have salvaged the game yet. As it stood, his performance couldn't dent the Viking lead, and all it brought the 49ers was, undeservedly, a playoff loss and, unexpectedly, a quarterback controversy.

Historical Profile: Wally Yonamine

In the new and improved "Player Profile" section, we will now see a "Historical Profile" section. In today's case, you won't notice much of a difference because Wally Yonamine was, after all, a player. However, with the new format I won't feel obliged to profile players from the season being summarized, nor will I feel obliged to profile players. In the future I have plans for a profile of Kezar Stadium and more than one member of the Morabito family.

To start the new segment, though, I thought it would be prudent to go back as far into 49ers history as I dared. Wally Yonamine wasn't significant for the 49ers or for the league as a player. He was significant as a precedent, being the first Asian American athlete to play professional football. The 49ers had broken not the color barrier, but a part of the color barrier that had remained untouched to that point.

Wally Yonamine only played one season of professional football, in 1947. A running back for the 49ers, amassing a total of 74 yards on 19 carries, he never amounted to much on a football field. A two-sport athlete, he actually broke his wrist playing baseball in 1948, and the injury ended his football career. The 49ers released him and he devoted himself to baseball full time.

As a baseball player, Yonamine made a much more significant impact. Though he played for a San Francisco Seals' minor league affiliate, Yonamine was a longshot to make the major leagues and ultimately signed a contract with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan.

Again, his impact was felt: Yonamine was the first American to play baseball in Japan since World War II.

But when it came to baseball, Yonamine was good. A star in the Japanese league, Yonamine helped to revolutionize the way the nation played. He almost single-handedly introduced sliding on the basepaths to the Japanese league and, subsequently, the tactic to slide through second base to break up a double play. He led an extremely distinguished career as a player in the Japanese league, and went on to follow that with an equally distinguished career as a coach, manager and scout.

In 1994, he became the first American to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

And it all started with one almost insignificant season with the 49ers. Go team.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1987_games.htm
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1153/is_n8_v111/ai_6710058/pg_6/?tag=content;col1
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1987_NFL_season
http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Wally_Yonamine
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/Y/YonaWa20.htm

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

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