clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

49ers Year-by-Year: 1983

What follows is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1983 season. How would the team recover after their devastatingly poor 1982 season? What impact would the offseason additions of Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig have on the team? Who was, and what became of, Riki Ellison? Read on to find out all of this and more.





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 3

Philadelphia Eagles

L: 22-17



Sept. 8

@ Minnesota Vikings

W: 48-17



Sept. 18

@ St. Louis Cardinals

W: 42-27



Sept. 25

Atlanta Falcons

W: 20-24



Oct. 2

@ New England Patriots

W: 33-13



Oct. 9

Los Angeles Rams

L: 10-7



Oct. 16

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 32-13



Oct. 23

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 45-35



Oct. 30

New York Jets

L: 27-13



Nov. 6

Miami Dolphins

L: 20-17



Nov. 13

New Orleans Saints

W: 0-27



Nov. 20

@ Atlanta Falcons

L: 24-28



Nov. 27

@ Chicago Bears

L: 3-13



Dec. 4

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

W: 21-35



Dec. 11

@ Buffalo Bills

W: 23-10



Dec. 19

Dallas Cowboys

W: 17-42




Dec. 31

Detroit Lions

W: 23-24



Jan. 8

@ Washington Redskins

L: 21-24



Head Coach:
Bill Walsh

Key Losses: TE Charle Young,

Key Additions: RB Wendell Tyler, RB Roger Craig, LB Riki Ellison, DB Tom Holmoe, G/C Jesse Sapolu

Coming off of the 1982 player's strike that resulted in a shortened season, a modified playoff schedule, a new salary agreement, and - most significantly - a loss or revenue on all sides, the NFL was enjoying its newfound stability heading into the 1983 season.

For the 49ers, things were somewhat less certain. The team's talent was largely unchanged from its Super Bowl winning team of 1981, but it was also the same team that struggled so desperately in 1982 - albeit with a number of key injuries dragging it down. Perhaps more importantly was the question of Bill Walsh's dedication to the team. 1982 had been particularly difficult for the coach, and he spent a good portion of the offseason deciding whether or not he would even return for 1983. During that time, he lost a number of coaches to other jobs around the league. Sam Wyche accepted the head coaching position at the University of Indiana, and Milt Jackson, Billie Matthews, and defensive coordinator Chuck Studley all accepted positions with different teams.

When Walsh decided around the time of the Senior Bowl that he would return for 1983, he already had his work cut out for him. The most important coaching decision he would make was replacing Studley with former defensive backs coach George Seifert. Seifert would bring his own innovations to the defense, largely pioneering the situational use of defensive specialists within the modern context.

The 49ers most glaring roster need was at running back, a position they had struggled to fill since Delvin Williams. The untimely end of Paul Hofer’s career was a crushing blow to the 49ers long-term plans at halfback, and Bill Walsh pursued the position aggressively. Before the draft, he traded his second- and fourth-round picks to the Rams for Wendell Tyler, the Rams’ leading rusher the previous season, Cody Jones, and a third-round pick. The Rams were willing to trade their leading rusher because they were confident that they would land Eric Dickerson in the same draft – which, of course, they did. Then, in the draft, Walsh used his second-round pick on Roger Craig. He would focus on defense for the rest of draft, finding a fifth-round steal in linebacker Riki Ellison, who would assume a starting role immediately. He would later score again, landing center Jesse Sapolu.

With the offense's only real weakness retooled and the overwhelming depth of talent on defense, the 49ers started the season with the same kind of disappointing loss that had riddled the 1982 season. The 49ers moved the ball well against the Eagles and played quite well on defense, but three turnovers and a crushing third quarter led to the eventual 22-17 loss. After that, though, the offense exploded.

In week two against the Vikings, Montana threw four touchdowns, Tyler ran for over 100 yards, and Craig tacked on a score of his own. In week three, Montana went for another three touchdowns and Tyler ran for another 100+ yards including a touchdown. All the while, the defense was stellar, even recording six turnovers against the Vikings. The 49ers came out looking like the team that won the Super Bowl two years earlier, and were ready to take on their division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.

Dwight Clark caught two Joe Montana touchdown passes to get the team a first-half 14-0 lead. The Falcons narrowed the score to 14-13 by the middle of the third quarter, but that was as close as they got. Going back on the road the next week, the 49ers kept rolling against the New England Patriots.

At this point, the 49ers had won more games than they had in all of 1983, looked brilliant on offense and as strong as ever on defense. Even so, they hadn't really been tested since catching fire in week two, and the upcoming match against a very respectable Rams team would be an important test.

For the first time all season, the San Francisco offense was completely stifled. Despite throwing the ball for over 315 yards and getting chance after chance to put a very low scoring game away, the 49ers simply couldn't find the end zone. Roger Craig finally pushed through a three-yard run in the fourth quarter, but it was too little too late and they lost the game.

1-2 at home and 3-0 on the road, the 49ers had exhibited a disturbing discomfort at home and were having most of their success on the road. This pattern would continue over the next few weeks. A two-game road trip ended in two 49er wins. Then, a three-game homestand resulted in two more losses. After a November 13 victory over the Saints, the 49ers were 7-4 with two road games looming. It would be the perfect opportunity to put the rest of the division miles behind them. In week four, the Falcons had given the 49ers a little trouble in San Francisco. On November 20th, they would give the 49ers a lot of trouble in Atlanta. Never establishing a real rhythm on offense and taking a rare drumming through the air on defense, the 49ers and Falcons traded leads all game before the Falcons finally put it away with their second fourth quarter touchdowm. The next week in Chicago the offense disappeared completely, and the 49ers suffered another loss. Suddenly, the upstart 7-4 team from a few weeks ago was 7-6 team in need of wins.

But any fears that anybody had were quickly allayed. The good 49ers returned to finish off the season, creaming the Buccaneers, Bills, and Cowboys to finish the season 10-6, winning the division by one game, and getting into the playoffs for the second time in three years. Unfortunately, they would have to do it without the injured Dwight Clark

On December 31, the 49ers hosted the Detroit Lions. By the third quarter of the game, it appeared that the 49ers had the game in hand. Up by two scores turning the Detroit offense away time and again, the Lions had a long hill to climb to make the game competitive. And then the fourth quarter happened. Billie Sims ran all over the 49ers defense and punched two runs across the goal line in the fourth quarter to take an unlikely late six-point lead. Unfortunately for the Lions, that was when Montana was at his best, and the 49ers retook the lead for good on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Solomon to advance to the Conference Championship game against the ridiculously good Washington Redskins.

The Redskins were building a dynasty based around their signature, imposing offensive line. Not just big, but also extremely skilled, the Washington offensive line could singlehandedly control a game, and the Redskins entered the game as heavy favorites.

For the first three fourths of the game, they looked as good as advertised and had built a 21-0 lead by the start of the fourth quarter. The lead seemed insurmountable and it was difficult to fathom how the 49ers could possibly get back in the game - but many people had been underrating the 49ers from the start. The 49ers stormed back. A seemingly inconsequential Montana touchdown pass to Mike Wilson opened the door for the subsequent 76-yard Freddie Solomon score, which led to the final, unbelievable, game-tying 15 yard touchdown pass to Mike Wilson. It was a stunning comeback - and there was still time to play!

The Redskins next possession came to a sputtering stop on the 49ers' 45-yard line. On fourth and 10, Joe Theisman threw a desperation pass in the direction of Art Monk. The ball sailed well over everybody's head, and the 49ers were prepared to take the ball back for a game winning drive. Except that a penalty had been called. Eric Wright was flagged for pass interference on Monk, even though the pass had been completely, unquestionably uncatchable. It was a crushing blow, but even with the penalty, the 49ers had a chance to shut down the Redskins. Washington marched well within field goal range, but wanted to knock as much time off the clock as possible. On third and five from the 13 yard line, the Redskins caught another break. Theisman threw an incomplete pass, but Ronnie Lott was called for holding a receiver away from the play and the Redskins got another first-down and whittled the clock to under a minute before taking a chip-shot field goal to take the lead.

There wasn't enough time left for the 49ers to score again, and their season ended under the shroud of controversy surrounding Eric Wright's so-called pass interference.

Player Profile: Riki Ellison

Riki Ellison was drafted by the 49ers in the fifth round of the 1983 draft. After three knee surgeries at USC and a failed pre-draft physical, Ellison wasn't even expecting to be drafted at all. However, 49ers coaches had been impressed by him at one of his workouts, and the 49ers took their chances. He would make the team as a starter in his rookie season, go on to make the NFL All-Rookie Team, and play for seven years in San Francisco before ending his nine year career with the Raiders in Los Angeles.

Ellison played in two 49er Super Bowl wins and sat out a third with a broken arm. Twice, he led the team in tackles and proved to be an integral member of the 49ers' fearsome defenses from 1983 to 1989.

After retiring, Ellison took some time off in New Zealand before returning to the United States with a new passion: national defense. He has dedicated himself specifically to missile defense with the same devotion and zeal that he dedicated himself to football in his younger years.

His involvement in the missile defense cause has made him one of the leading experts on the subject, and he's been hosted by congressmen, senators and various members of the White House and Pentagon, among others to explain his view and his cause. He heads a non-profit organization known as Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, all in the name of helping to create a better, safer world for future generations.

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

Thanks as always to Grumpy Guy. His undying dedication to 49ers history is an amazing boon to my own endeavors in this series.