clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

49ers Year-by-Year: 1973

What follows is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1973 season. Coming off of three consecutive division wins, the aging team was headed for an eventual let-down. Shockingly, it came earlier than anybody could have predicted. Read on to see just what went wrong in 1973 that led to such a sharp decline. More importantly, read on to see the striking similarities between the beginning of the end for Dick Nolan and, eventually, the beginning of the end for Mike Nolan. But most importantly, read on to learn a thing or two about Frank Nunley, another true 49er great.





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 16

@ Miami Dolphins

L: 13-21



Sept. 23

@ Denver Broncos

W: 36-34



Sept. 30

Los Angeles Rams

L: 40-20



Oct. 7

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 13-9



Oct. 14

Minnesota Vikings

L: 17-13



Oct. 21

New Orleans Saints

W: 0-40



Oct. 28

Atlanta Falcons

L: 17-3



Nov. 4

@ Detroit Lions

L: 20-30



Nov. 11

@ Washington Redskins

L: 9-33



Nov. 18

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 13-31



Nov. 26

Green Bay Packers

W: 6-20



Dec. 2

Philadelphia Eagles

W: 28-38



Dec. 9

@ New Orleans Saints

L: 10-16



Dec. 15

Pittsburgh Steelers

L: 37-14



Head Coach: Dick Nolan

Key Losses: DT Earl Edwards, LB Ed Beard, G Elmer Collett, DB Johnny Fuller

Key Additions: LB Willie Harper

In 1973, the NFL adopted a numbering system for the league by which certain positions would be identified by a limited range of numbers. The new system allowed the use of the numbers 1-89, but 0, 00, and 90-99 would not be issues. The same year, a rule was written that would make it illegal for a player to step, stand on or otherwise catapult themselves off of the body of another player in the effort to block a kick.

For the 49ers, the mood was somber. Despite winning the division for an unprecedented third year in a row in 1972, they were also kicked out of the postseason for the third time year in a row by Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys. The successes and the failures of the last 3 years were finally coming to a head, as enormous pressure was on Dick Nolan to break through the ceiling before an aging team ran out of years. With the pressure mounting, Nolan took the defensive  playcalling responsibilities from linebacker Frank Nunley in an effort to have a more direct impact on the game. At the same time, he lost Jim Shofner, his offensive coordinator of each of the three playoff seasons. A defensive-minded coach who stayed away from the offense if he could, Nolan turned to offensive line coach Dick Stanfel to call the offensive plays, but his predictable playcalling would only hurt the team.

Meanwhile, the team's drafting had been miserable in the 70s, and their 1973 draft was as mystifying as their last two had been unsuccessful. With a growing number of positional needs coming up on the horizon, including quarterback for the future, a running back for the present, or any number of increasingly pressing needs on the defensive line and linebacker positions, the 49ers used their first pick to draft an athletic defensive back named Mike Holmes. Holmes missed his entire rookie season and never made an impact on the team. Trades made in desperation had also stripped the team of many of their draft picks during this time, and the only impact player taken in 1973 ended up being second round pick Willie Harper, who would last with the team long enough to win a Super Bowl.

The question in 1973 was, how much time was left before it all fell apart? The signs were all there for an impending collapse, but the team wasn't changed enough to expect a significant drop-off.

Unfortunately, the cards seemed stacked against the team. Their first game of 1973 came against the Dolphins, who had just completed a Super Bowl winning season in which they went completely undefeated. Against such an intimidating opponent, the 49ers wouldn't manage to break the Miami winning streak. Hope was returned a week later, though. Playing a solid Denver Broncos team, the 49ers took advantage of six forced turnovers to eventually out-gun the Broncos 36-34.

Warning signs were looming, though. Question marks were beginning to appear around the health of John Brodie's arm. He had struggled through arm problems in the past, and if his injury problems were back again, then it would be trouble for the whole offense - especially in the absence of a real running game. Furthermore, Frank Nunley and Charlie Kreuger both appeared to have lost a step, Nunley still recovering from an injury plagued 1972 and Kreuger struggling with age.

These were all problems that reared their heads again in a week three loss and then became exacerbated in week four win in which they lost starting fullback Larry Schreiber to a knee injury for the season.

Then, after a loss to the Vikings, the 49ers seemed to shed their demons in the first convincing win of the season against the Saints. Behind a balanced, efficient offensive attack and a stellar defensive effort, the 49ers held the Saints to 82 total yards in a 40-0 rout. The game brought the team back to .500 and helped to loosen a tight atmosphere.

And then the wheels came off. Over the next four games, the 49ers were never close. The state of Brodie's arm had been bad enough that the team was working Steve Spurrier into what seemed like as many games as possible in the hopes that he could replicate his effective 1972 production. His level of play in 1973 was never high enough to completely unseat the deeply struggling Brodie. Injuries across the offensive line weren't helping, and the defense was taking more and more lumps as star Jimmy Johnson struggled with a lingering knee problem and safety Mel Phillips played most of the season with a cast on his arm.

Dealing with the ineffective play of their top two quarterbacks, the 49ers even turned to third stringer Joe Reed on a number of occasions, going so far as to give him three starts. The results weren't any better. Even with the extreme struggles, the 49ers managed to break off two wins in a row to give themselves a chance at least of having a .500 season. It wouldn't happen, though, and they lost their last two games to end the season at 5-9, their worst since 1969.

Player Profile: Frank Nunley

Frank Nunley was drafted by the 49ers in the third round of the 1967 draft, and was a major contributor for the team over his entire ten-year career. He was lovingly given the nickname "Fudge Hammer" by teammate Stan Hindman (for looking like he was made of fudge, but hitting like a hammer), and the nickname stuck.

A determined competitor, Nunley was known for being a tough player who played through some intense injuries. In the first play of his rookie season, he suffered a torn ligament in his left knee and blew up the cartilage in the same knee. He didn't miss a game that season. Over the course of his career, he struggled with knee injuries on what was almost a year-to-year basis, and rarely missed time because of it.

Ultimately, his career ended because of a knee injury. He tore his ACL trying to block a kick against the Rams in a preseason game in 1976 and, though he characteristically played through the pain during the season, it would be his last.

During his time with the 49ers, Nunley always seemed to be fighting for his job. Between draft picks and offseason signings, his job was never safe. Year after year, though, he continued to outplay the competition to hold onto his starting role.

Despite the innumerable problems that he faced with his knees during his career, Nunley continues to live in relative comfort and good health, maintaining a regular walking regimen of up to nearly 20 miles a week.

Primary References:

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 of course, thanks to the knowledgeable help of our very own Grumpy Guy.