clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

49ers Year-by-Year: 1981

What follows is a brief historical summary of the 49ers 1981 season. 1981 needs no introduction. Just three years into Bill Walsh's tenure as head coach, the 49ers not only reach the Super Bowl, they win it. Read on to see exactly how it happened. And then learn something about Fred Dean.





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 6

@ Detroit Lions

L: 17-24



Sept. 13

Chicago Bears

W: 17-28



Sept. 20

@ Atlanta Falcons

L: 17-34



Sept. 27

New Orleans Saints

W: 14-21



Oct. 4

@ Washington Redskins

W: 30-17



Oct. 11

Dallas Cowboys

W: 14-45



Oct. 18

@ Green Bay Packers

W: 13-3



Oct. 25

Los Angeles Rams

W: 17-20



Nov. 1

@ Pittsburgh Steelers

W: 17-14



Nov. 8

Atlanta Falcons

W: 14-17



Nov. 15

Cleveland Browns

L: 15-12



Nov. 22

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 33-31



Nov. 29

New York Giants

W: 10-17



Dec. 6

@ Cincinnati Bengals

W: 21-3



Dec. 13

Houston Oilers

W: 6-28



Dec. 20

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 21-17




Jan. 3

New York Giants

W: 24-38



Jan. 10

Dallas Cowboys

W: 27-28



Jan. 24

N: Cincinnati Bengals

W: 26-21



Head Coach: Bill Walsh

Key Losses: QB Steve DeBerg, T Ron Singleton, DT Jimmy Webb, DB Ray Rhodes, T Jean Barrett

Key Additions: LB Jack Reynolds, DB Ronnie Lott, CB Eric Wright, S Carleton Williamson, DE Fred Dean, NT/DE Pete Kugler, LB Milt McColl

In 1981, the NFL took an important step by banning the use of foreign substances on the hands to aid in catching the ball. This became known as the Fred Biletnikoff Rule and, alternately, as the Lester Hayes Rule, because both players were notorious for the practice.

However, greater changes were happening within the league. Unknown to anybody, the balance of power in the NFC was about to change, and it all started in the San Francisco 49ers' backyard. The 49ers had come a long way in two seasons. After a 2-14 season in 1979 that saw Bill Walsh struggling with a depleted roster full of Joe Thomas leftovers, the 49ers had almost completely rebuilt their offense. The additions of players like Freddie Solomon, Dwight Clark, Earl Cooper, Charle Young and - most importantly - Joe Montana, had turned the offense from an embarrassment to a force to be reckoned with.

The problem was the defense. In his two years as head coach, Bill Walsh only found himself satisfied with a few select players on the defensive side of the ball. Dwaine Board, though injured in 1980, was a force to be reckoned with on the line. Dwight Hicks had surprised everybody by coming from a job as a store manager to play at an elite level in the NFL. Jim Stuckey and Willie Harper were adequate role players, and Keena Turner showed legitimate promise at linebacker. Other than those five players, there wasn't a lot of talent on the 49ers' defense. The defensive backfield, especially, was a huge mess. Bill Walsh had cycled through what seemed like countless corners and safeties trying to put together a decent secondary, but to no avail.

So it is no surprise that when Walsh looked into the draft, he teamed up with defensive backs coach George Seifert to set his sights firmly on drafting for the secondary.

They were so dedicated to the cause, in fact, that they spent four of their first five picks on defensive backs. In the first round, they drafted cornerback Ronnie Lott. In the second round, they drafted cornerback Eric Wright. In the third round, they drafted safety Carleton Williamson. And in the fifth round, they drafted nickel back Lynn Thomas. Except for Lynn Thomas, all three players were immediately slated to start. Walsh and Seifert believed this would result in continued defensive struggles in 1981, but hopefully pay significant dividends in 1982 and beyond.

Two months after the draft, the 49ers bolstered their linebacking corps by signing Los Angeles Rams' castoff Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds. Reynolds had been too costly for the Rams, but he still had plenty left in his tank and he immediately improved the 49ers.

With the defense rebuilt in a fashion, the 49ers went into the 1981 season. There were still holes on both sides of the field and, despite visible improvement, the 49ers were given preseason Super Bowl odds as low as 100-1. It would be a rebuilding season, but the prospects for 1982 were extremely bright.

And then the season started. And for three games, the 49ers looked like the team that people expected them to be. After a hard-fought loss to the Lions, an offensive explosion against the Bears, and a pummeling at the hands of the Falcons, the 49ers were at 1-2, inconsistent, dynamic on offense, and vulnerable on defense. The week three loss to the Falcons embarrassed the team, and they vowed that day that they wouldn't be pushed around again.

They got started against a couple of pushovers in New Orleans and Washington, during which time they swung a major trade with San Diego, sending a second-round draft pick in 1983 for Fred Dean. Dean would change the dynamic of the defensive line for years to come.

Then, in week six, the 49ers new attitude got its first real test against a typically strong Dallas Cowboys team. In the early ‘70s, the Cowboys had made a habit of making life miserable for 49ers' fans, eliminating San Francisco from the playoffs all three seasons they made the postseason. Then, in 1980, the Cowboys had shellacked the 49ers to the tune of 59-14. The 49ers and their fans held no love for the Dallas franchise.

But things were different now. The 49ers jumped out to a 21-0 lead and never looked back. Joe Montana threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns. 135 yards and one of those touchdowns went to Dwight Clark. With an easy 45-14 victory, the 49ers officially announced their presence as a legitimate power.

From there, they kept rolling, and put together wins in each of the next four weeks, including a win over the Falcons, who had inspired San Francisco so greatly in week three. The only hiccup came in week 11, as the 49ers lost a frustrating matchup with the struggling Browns. With wins in the ensuing weeks against the Rams and the Giants, expectations for the 49ers had skyrocketed, and many saw the Super Bowl as a legitimate goal for the first time in nearly a decade.

And the team didn't slow down. In the final three weeks of the season, the 49ers plowed through the Bengals, the Oilers, and the Saints on their way to a playoff appearance and a first round bye.

On January 3, the 49ers took on the New York Giants at home. The Giants had surged into the playoffs as much as they had stumbled into them, but with Phil Simms, Rob Carpenter, Johnny Perkins, and rookie phenom Lawrence Taylor on the roster, they were still a force to be reckoned with. Teams had been trying to take Taylor out of games by running against the Giants, but this had worked to the Giants' benefit, creating third and long after third and long, at which point Taylor would run rampant on the quarterback.

Walsh approached the game differently. He assigned offensive guard John Ayers to block Taylor and proceeded to throw the ball on 17 of the team's first 23 plays. The Giants had no answer to this, and the 49ers never trailed in what turned out to be an easy 38-24 victory.

As if by destiny, the 49ers found themselves facing off against their bitter rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. Even with the earlier in-season victory, the 49ers had not defeated the Cowboys in a truly meaningful game in years. The Cowboys had dubbed themselves America's Team, and were riding a high coming into San Francisco, having just shut out the Buccaneers 38-0 in the second round of the playoffs. The Cowboys and their Doomsday Defense were the resounding favorites.

The so-called Doomsday Defense would actually give the 49ers their best chance to win. The Cowboy's defense was very predictable in its playcalling, and Walsh used deceptive formations to disrupt its rhythm. The 49ers's offense came out sharp, scoring first on an eight-yard pass from Montana to Solomon. Dallas stormed back to take a 10-7 lead by the end of the first quarter, but in the second quarter Montana threw another touchdown to Dwight Clark to reclaim the lead. Just as quickly, Dallas put together another scoring drive capped by a five-yard Tony Dorsett run.

The game would continue this way for most of its duration. Back and forth, forth and back. Despite their efficiency moving the ball, the 49ers turned the ball over six time over the course of the game, including three Joe Montana interception. The game remained close as a result, and the lead had changed four times by the fourth quarter, when the 49ers 21-17.

In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys bore down and put together a comeback. After closing in to one point with a field goal, Danny White threw a 21-yard pass to Doug Crosbie to give the Cowboys a 6-point lead. And then the game stalled. Neither offense could move the ball. Both defenses laid held strong drive after drive. Finally, with a little less than five minutes to play in the game, the 49ers got the ball on the their own 11-yard line.

Then it happened. Opening the drive with a balanced attack, the 49ers march efficiently downfield on a combination of Lenvil Elliott sweeps and Joe Montana magic. Three and a half minutes later the 49ers were on the Dallas 13-yard line. The 49ers take a shot at the endzone, but Montana overthrows Solomon. Then, Elliott takes another sweep and pushes through to the six-yard line. Third down. Less than a minute to go.

The 49ers lineup and Montana takes the snap. Rolling right, he falls under heavy pressure from the rushing Dallas defense. He seems to rollout forever, but finally, just before getting hit, throws the ball into the endzone. The pass is high. It sails over Dallas's defenders. But just before it sails out of the endzone, Dwight Clark leaps and makes a fingertip catch, brings his feet down in the endzone, and gives the 49ers six critical points. After the extra point, the 49ers have the lead with less than a minute to play.

But Dallas won't go down without a fight and charge to within 15 yards of field-goal range. With the game on the line, the 49ers run a stunt play. Lawrence Pillers breaks through the line and slaps the ball out of Danny White's hand. Jim Stuckey recovers and the 49ers win! For the first time in franchise history, San Francisco was going to the Super Bowl to play the Bengals in Detroit!

After defeating the Cowboys, the 49ers were loose and confident. Even after fumbling the opening kickoff, they remained confident. The Bengals drove down to the 49ers' 11-yard line and appeared poised to score the first points of the game. Then, Dwight Hicks picked off a Ken Anderson pass and returned it to the 32 yard line. The 49ers turned the drive into seven points and never looked back. The Bengals pushed hard on offense, but ultimately couldn't crack San Francisco's defense. With less than 30 seconds left in the game, the Bengals pulled within five to make the game 26-21. After a failed onside kick, recovered by none other than recent hero Dwight Clark, that was the score that the game would end on.

For the first time in franchise history, the 49ers had won a championship!

Player Profile: Fred Dean

Drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the 1975 draft, he played his first five seasons, and part of his sixth with the Chargers. In 1981, he was traded to the 49ers for a draft pick, and he played in San Francisco until his retirement after the 1985 season. Dean was an important member of the 49ers, including their 1981 and 1984 season Super Bowl wins.

A devastating pass rusher with a combination of speed and strength, Dean's career as a rusher was highlighted when he recorded 15.5 sacks in 1978 and 17.5 sacks in 1983. He made the Pro Bowl four times in his career, in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1983. In 1981, he even named the NFL Defensive Lineman of the year. His unofficial career sack total sits close to 100 over 11 seasons.

During his time with the 49ers, Dean became a beloved figure among the fans. It was even common to see "Dean-Fence" signs throughout the stands. His peers recognize him as one of the great pure pass rushers of his time. One of the most amazing things about Dean, though, was that he rarely worked out with the team and often smoked. His gift was natural, and he barely needed to work on it to remain successful.

Today, Dean is a tragic example of the NFL's sorely lacking health care program for retired players. During his career, Dean suffered migraines that were likely exacerbated over time by multiple concussions. Since his retirement, he's struggled with the bills associated with his escalating medical issues, which include migraines, cluster headaches, post-traumatic headaches and acute back problems. It reached the point that he eventually had to sell both of his Super Bowl rings just to make his medical payments.

Today, Dean lives in Louisiana, where the weather is more agreeable with his physical conditions.

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

Special thanks go to Grumpy Guy this week, who went particularly out of his way to help me with this particular, critical entry.