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49ers Year-by-Year: 1980

What follows is a brief historical summary of the San Francisco 49ers' 1980 season. Bill Walsh was taking the team into his sophomore campaign. Joe Montana was slowly wresting the starting job from Steve DeBerg. The defense was ... awful. 1980 was a transitional year, as the team shed the last bitter memories of the Joe Thomas era and began to develop into the core group that would define Walsh's teams of the '80s. Read on to learn about the game that sealed Steve DeBerg's fate. Read on to learn about the game that ushered Montana into the annals of history. Read on to see why the history of the franchise may have been completely different with defensive lineman Jim Stuckey.





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 7

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 26-23



Sept. 14

St. Louis Cardinals

W: 21-24



Sept. 21

@ New York Jets

W: 37-27



Sept. 28

Atlanta Falcons

L: 20-17



Oct. 5

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 26-48



Oct. 12

@ Dallas Cowboys

L: 14-59



Oct. 19

Los Angeles Rams

L: 31-17



Oct. 26

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

L: 24-23



Nov. 2

@ Detroit Lions

L: 13-17



Nov. 9

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 16-23



Nov. 16

@ Miami Dolphins

L: 13-17



Nov. 23

New York Giants

W: 0-12



Nov. 30

New England Patriots

W: 17-21



Dec. 7

New Orleans Saints

W: 35-38



Dec. 14

@ Atlanta Falcons

L: 10-35



Dec. 21

Buffalo Bills

L: 18-13



Head Coach: Bill Walsh

Key Losses: HB O.J. Simpson, HB Wilbur Jackson, TE Ken MacAfee, DE Cedric Hardman, S Tony Dungy

Key Additions: FB/TE Earl Cooper, TE Charle Young, DE Jim Stuckey, DB Ray Rhodes, DE Lawrence Pillers, LB Keena Turner

Before the 1980 season began, the Oakland Raiders proposed a move that would relocate the team to Los Angeles. When the league refused the request, it set off a heated antitrust suit between the Raiders and the NFL that would last for two years before reaching a resolution. Meanwhile, in an otherwise quiet offseason, the league was strengthening its rules to protect the safety of the players, making any aggressive hit to the head, face or neck punishable as a personal foul.

For the 49ers, the focus turned to the defense. 1979 had marked a significant improvement on the offensive side of the ball. During that season, the 49ers had secured a second capable quarterback to back up Steve DeBerg in Joe Montana. The future of the position would depend on the performances of the two players as the year wore on, but DeBerg had a firm hold on the starting job over the inexperienced Montana going into the year. More than that, Freddie Solomon had blossomed into the receiver that the Dolphins had seen him becoming when they drafted him, and late-round pick Dwight Clark had emerged in the coaches' eyes as a legitimate possession option. Comfortable with the strength of the offensive line, the only real weakness on offense was in the backfield, where O.J. Simpson was gone after two disastrous seasons and not much depth was left behind him.

More pressing, though, was the defense. Defensive lineman Cedric Hardman had retired and safety Dwight Hicks, along with second-year defensive lineman Dwaine Board, had established themselves as legitimate NFL starters, but the rest of the unit was almost altogether bereft of talent. So when the draft came around, Bill Walsh dedicated himself to the defensive side of the ball. Trading around from round to round, the 49ers ended up with 11 draft picks in 1980, including two first-rounders, and eight of those picks were used on defense. The only real deviation from that was with the team's first pick, when they filled their only offensive position of desperate need by selected fullback Earl Cooper out of Rice.

Despite having 11 picks, the 1980 draft wouldn't yield significant talent to the 49ers. Each of their first three picks, including standout second-round pick Keena Turner, would become at least serviceable players, but nobody else would stick for very long. But Walsh's draft was also about his trades, and he used future picks to acquire even more defensive depth, including deeply talented, though troubled linebacker Hollywood Henderson from Dallas.

Going into the year, the defense was still the biggest question mark by far, but a plethora of new faces offered a sense of possibility.

And when the season began, the work seemed to be paying dividends. Even in the early games, the secondary - a particular problem area from 1979 - was clearly overmatched, but this was offset by the strong defensive line play. Led by Dwaine Board, the defensive line looked as good as it had in a long time, and the improved defense helped propel the 49ers to wins in the first three games of the season. Even as Walsh was working Montana situationally into the early games, the strength of DeBerg's performances were keeping him firmly in the starter's role.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, that third win, against a winless Jets club, was a turning point in the season. During the win the team lost Board for the season to a knee injury. Walsh somberly admitted after the game that he would have rather lost the game than lose Board. His worries were warranted.

Without Board, the defensive line was nothing more than an average unit at best, and that gave opponent's a chance to take advantage of the rest of the defense. Though many thought that the loss would expose the pass game, it actually caused the biggest problems for the 49ers on the ground - which is not to belie the problems they continued to have defending the pass.

It also changed the offensive dynamic. Playing in close games each of the first three weeks, the 49ers' offense had been balanced and efficient. With the defense putting the team in early deficits and failing to protect any leads that the team did have, the focus turned back to the pass, and this was a development that would actually come to spell the end for Steve DeBerg.

With opposing defenses keying in on the pass and DeBerg, his lack of mobility became a huge disability. This could not have possibly been more apparent than in a week six loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Under constant pressure from the Cowboy's defense, taking vicious hit after vicious hit, DeBerg threw five interceptions. For context, he only even completed 12 passes on the game. Randy Cross remembers Joe Montana's reaction to the abuse DeBerg was taking, saying anecdotally that Montana actually hid from Walsh so that he wouldn't have to play in those conditions. The 49ers lost the game 14-59. And that's how things would continue to go for the foreseeable future.

After a close loss to the Buccaneers in week eight, the 49ers traveled to Detroit in what would be a pivotal game for the future of the franchise. Montana started the game, and despite the team appearing outmatched throughout, the 49ers took advantage of six Lions' turnovers to be in a position to win the game at the end. By this point, DeBerg had replaced Montana. On the game's critical play, DeBerg dropped back to pass and, under pressure from the Detroit pass rush, threw a wild pass incomplete. He had missed tight end Charle Young wide open in the end zone, and Walsh realized that day that with DeBerg, he would lose on that play nine out of 10 times. He needed Montana, who could roll away from a rush and extend a play, to get the team over the hump.

DeBerg's future was decided that day. He had lost the confidence of the coaches to carry the team through close games, and more and more responsibility would be given to Montana over the rest of the season.

That decision didn't change the reality of the team, though, and the losing streak continued, extending to an excruciating eighth game. Walsh opined to the team during this stretch that he didn't get into coaching to experience this kind of futility. It was the most personally difficult stretch of his coaching career.

Wins couldn't come soon enough, and the 49ers got three just as the pains of true exasperation were setting in, including their first - and only - win against a team with a winning record in their November 30 victory over the Patriots. More importantly, though, was one week later. At home against the Saints, the 49ers suffered a miserable first half, falling behind 35-7 and looking as bad as ever. The situation was so bad that fans were walking out of the stadium. Those that stayed were in for a treat. Joe Montana furiously led the team back from the brink of sure defeat, throwing two touchdowns and almost single-handedly manufacturing scoring drive after scoring drive. The 49ers won on a field goal in overtime to cap the greatest comeback in NFL history up that point. It was only a small a taste of things to come from Montana.

The 49ers would ultimately finish the season a disappointing 6-10, crippled by a both a battered and talentless defense and a quarterback situation that took most of the season to resolve.

But even so, things were continuing to become more hopeful. The 49ers had won more games in 1980 than they had in 1978 and 1979 combined. Joe Montana had ultimately emerged as the team's unquestioned starter. Each of the last two offseasons had brought hope through a structured and disciplined approach to team building and community building. Things were looking up.

Player Profile: Jim Stuckey

Drafted out of Clemson by the 49ers with the 20th pick of the 1980 NFL draft, Jim Stuckey was never the sexiest 49er. A defensive lineman, he played seven years in the NFL - more than six of them with the 49ers - and collected two Super Bowl rings in the process. Stuckey was a full-time starter for most of his first three years in the league, but took more of a back seat as the 49ers collected more and more talent (talent such as Fred Dean and Charles Haley) throughout the ‘80s.

Stuckey's career as a player was solid, if unspectacular. He led the team in his rookie season with 8.5 sacks, but eventually proved more valuable against the run. However, for all of his years in the NFL, his career is largely defined by a single play.

It was the 1981 NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys. Joe Montana had just thrown a touchdown pass to Dwight Clark to give the 49ers the lead with just enough time left on the clock for the Cowboys to march right back down the field and take the game back. And they marched. They got all the way to the 49ers' 44 yard line and were just looking to get into field goal range - maybe 10 more yards altogether. As Danny White dropped back to pass, Lawrence Pillers and Jim Stuckey run a stunt on their way to the quarterback. Pillers plowed through the line and knocked the ball out of White's hand. Stuckey, trailing closely behind, dove on the ball and wrapped it up to secure the victory.

The 49ers were going to the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

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 without the help of Grumpy Guy, this would be nowhere near the quality that it is.