clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

49ers Year-by-Year: 1979

Fooch's Note: Howtheyscored was having issues posting this so I'm posting it on his behalf.  Normally these go up a little later in the day, but given that we're finally entering the Bill Walsh era, they definitely deserve a little more prominent placement.

What follows is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1979 season. What more needs to be said about 1979 than that it was Bill Walsh's first season as head coach of the 49ers. A turning point for a franchise that made one of the fastest turnarounds of the pre-cap era, even Walsh couldn't turn things around overnight. Read more to see what he could do in one season, though. And then, keep reading to get a little info on the great Dwight Clark.

Date: Opponent: Score: Record: Opponent's Record
Sept. 2 @ Minnesota Vikings L: 22-28 0-1 1-0
Sept. 9 Dallas Cowboys L: 21-13 0-2 2-0
Sept. 16 @ Los Angeles Rams L: 24-27 0-3 2-1
Sept. 23 New Orleans Saints L: 30-21 0-4 1-3
Sept. 30 @ San Diego Chargers L: 9-31 0-5 4-1
Oct. 7 Seattle Seahawks L: 35-24 0-6 2-4
Oct. 14 @ New York Giants L: 16-32 0-7 2-5
Oct. 21 Atlanta Falcons W: 15-20 1-7 3-5
Oct. 28 Chicago Bears L: 28-27 1-8 4-5
Nov. 4 @ Oakland Raiders L: 10-23 1-9 6-4
Nov. 11 @ New Orleans Saints L: 20-31 1-10 6-5
Nov. 18 Denver Broncos L: 38-28 1-11 9-3
Nov. 25 Los Angeles Rams L: 26-20 1-12 7-6
Dec. 2 @ St. Louis Cardinals L: 10-13 1-13 4-10
Dec. 9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers W: 7-23 2-13 9-6
Dec. 16 @ Atlanta Falcons L: 21-31 2-14 6-10


Head Coach: Bill Walsh

Key Losses: GM Joe Thomas, QB Scott Bull, DT Cleveland Elam

Key Additions: HC Bill Walsh, QB Joe Montana, DT Ted Vincent, DB Tony Dungy, DE Dwaine Board, WR Dwight Clark, FS Dwight Hicks

1978 had been a complete disaster for the 49ers and their fans. When Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., had hired Joe Thomas to run the team in 1977, there was a sense of optimism about the direction of the team. Thomas may not have been well-liked, but he was well-respected around the NFL at the time. With full power over coach and player moves, Thomas proceeded to systematically dismantle the team over the course of two seasons. Running through almost every starting skill player on the roster and three coaches in two years, Thomas' failures with staff mounted almost as quickly as the team's losses. By the end of 1978, DeBartolo knew that the fans had turned on Thomas, but, more importantly, he felt that Thomas had turned on the team. It was time for a new direction.

DeBartolo met with Stanford Cardinal coach Bill Walsh early on. Accompanied by Carmen Policy to the interview, DeBartolo didn't need much time to be impressed by Walsh. They spoke for about 40 minutes, and DeBartolo and Policy were both impressed enough to push forward. Fearful that he wouldn't be able to hire a good general manager after going after his coach first - especially considering the mess that the franchise had become so quickly under his ownership - it occurred to DeBartolo that Walsh had the presence of mind and composure to be able to handle the job by himself. Walsh hired John McVay and John Ralston to help him run the team, but primary responsibilities would be his own. He would then bring in a competent staff of coaches that would include wide receivers coach Dennis Green, quarterback coach Sam Wyche, and offensive line coach Bob McKittrick.

The differences between Walsh and Thomas were immediately apparent. Under Thomas, nobody's job was safe, even among the team's best players. Walsh worked to retain his best players and build on that base. Unfortunately for him, even the best players that Thomas had left him with were by and large not very good.

More than that, Walsh worked hard to relieve the tension of the Thomas years. He invited players to be comfortable with him and his coaching staff. He worked on projects that involved former 49ers, even though he had never been involved with them himself. More than that, he involved the team with more charities and community projects. He wanted to recover the culture of an NFL franchise, and a big part of that was restoring chemistry, restoring history, and restoring the team's relationship with its fans.

But the most important thing would always be results. And that meant improving the players and improving the gameplans. Players could tell immediately that the limp offense they had seen the previous two seasons was gone. Walsh's offense was sharp, strategic, and involving. Improving the players would be a more difficult task, and this was no secret to Walsh. He found out very quickly how bad of a position he was in, and even remarked that the situation was worse than starting with an expansion team.

But worse than simply not leaving much talent on the roster, Joe Thomas had traded away a huge number of draft picks when he was picking the 49ers' roster apart. Walsh wouldn't even get to pick his first player until the second round.

Walsh and his coaches had their sights set early on Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana, but they believed that he would fall to them in the third round and used their first pick to select running back turned receiver James Owens. The move was a risk, as the 49ers wouldn't pick again until the end of the third round, and Montana wasn't even a remote guarantee to last that long. In fact, Montana very nearly went to the Cowboys only a few picks before the 49ers would make their second choice, but Dallas, which had Roger Staubach entrenched at quarterback, couldn't commit themselves to drafting a player in a position of such strength, and Montana fell to Walsh and the 49ers.

The move would very nearly single-handedly change the entire franchise.

There wasn't much else to Bill Walsh's first draft until the 10th round. Nobody knew it at the time, but Clemson wide receiver Dwight Clark would easily be the second most significant acquisition of Walsh's inaugural campaign.

Having done most of his work to bring stability on offense, Walsh struggled with a defensive unit that was almost completely bereft of any remaining talent. Aside from longtime starter Cedric Hardman, there wasn't an honest impact player on the entire unit. Walsh did his best, bringing in Ted Vincent, Tony Dungy, and Dwaine Board, but the moves wouldn't do much to help the unit's performance in 1979 - one of the worst in the league.

Optimism aside, it would be foolish for anybody to believe that the team was any good. And they proved early on that they weren't. They would lose their first seven games. It's not very natural to say that seven straight losses to start the season wasn't a complete disaster, but the losses, for the first time in a long time, were mostly competitive losses, and that was an improvement from the previous season. Steve DeBerg had Walsh's offense smoothly, and was even on his way to a record breaking season. He struggled with interceptions, often rushing throws behind a semi-porous line, but the improvement was obvious to anybody with eyes. Most importantly, the offense was exciting. It's just too bad that the defense was so bad. An earl-season injury to Tony Dungy didn't help matters.

The perfect losing season would be avoided in week eight, when Walsh got his first career win as an NFL head coach. The Falcons were not a good team that year, but the 49ers had lost to worse teams already, and the win was an oasis of competent defense and a dominating run game in a season filled with games where the team was trailing early and passing often.

And the 49ers would quickly go back to their losing ways, railing off six more losses in a row. Just like in the early season, this period was marked by a competitive offense forced to chase a desperately deficient defense. The 49ers defense got so bad by the middle of the season, they brought in a former NFL player and failed prospect from his job managing a health food store in Michigan. This desperate move to acquire Dwight Hicks would end up being another one of the moves that ultimately distinguished Walsh's genius as a talent evaluator and team builder.

Catching a strong Tampa Bay team at home in week 15, a frustrated 49ers team put together their best performance of the year. As the defense held strong and DeBerg avoided throwing any killer interceptions, they 49ers had time to play with the clock and completely frustrate the Buccaneers. The win would ensure that the 49ers wouldn't experience the first one-win season in franchise history. And the win couldn't have come at a better time, since they would lose again in week 16.

By the end of 1979, it was safe to say that Bill Walsh's first season as head coach of the team was a mixed bag. The clubhouse atmosphere and the franchise's relationship with its fans and community were almost infinitely repaired. Walsh had even succeeded in filling some of the roster's gaping black holes and making a 2-14 season about as exciting on a game-to-game basis as it possibly could be.

But on the other hand, it was still a 2-14 season. With four wins in two seasons, things needed to turn around fast for the 49ers. There were indications that things were beginning to turn, but absolutely nobody could have predicted just how quickly they would.

Player Profile: Dwight Clark

Dwight Clark was drafted out of Clemson by the 49ers in the 10th round of the 1979 NFL draft. Clark originally caught the eye of Bill Walsh by accident. Walsh was recruiting Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller at the time. Trying to reach Fuller by phone at his dorm, Walsh had his call taken by Clark, who he then invited to run routes during Fuller's workout.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Clark played nine seasons with the 49ers, and distinguished himself as one of the team's most important players during that time. He would haul in 85 receptions for more than 1100 yards in 1981, the highest totals of his career in both categories. He would set a career high in touchdowns in 1985 with 10. He would retire with 506 receptions, 6,750 receiving yards, and 48 receiving touchdowns. At the time of his retirement, those 506 receptions were a franchise record.

Even to this day, he ranks fourth in team history in receptions, third in receiving yards, and sixth in receiving touchdowns. He was elected to the Pro Bowl in 1981 and 1982, and was named Sports Illustrated's player of the year in 1982. The 49ers retired his jersey number only one season after his retirement.

But even for all of his accomplishments, many fans know him primarily as the player who made "The Catch" to defeat the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. What many don't remember about that play is that Clark was lucky to even be available on the final drive of the game. He had been ridden with the flu for two weeks leading up to the game, and was exhausted after playing through the game. Even being on the field was a chore, so making the jump in the back of the endzone that allowed him to pull down the decisive catch was an accomplishment in and of itself.

After retiring from the team as a player, Clark spent years in the 49ers' front office before following Carmen Policy to the Browns for a few less than stellar seasons in the front office there. He hasn't been in football for years now, but he always considers himself a 49ers.

In his own words: "I'm a 49er until the day I die."

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, as always, the unbelievable help of our very own Grumpy Guy.