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49ers Year-by-Year: 1985

This is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1985 season. Following the unprecedented success of 1984, how would the 49ers respond as defending champions? What impact would rookie wide receiver Jerry Rice have on the course of the season? Why do I, after all these weeks, need you help again to improve these posts going forward? Read on to answer all of these questions.

To view any past entries in the series, please check out our NinersNation Year-by-Year section.





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 8

@ Minnesota Vikings

L: 21-28



Sept. 15

Atlanta Falcons

W: 16-35



Sept. 22

@ Los Angeles Raiders

W: 34-10



Sept. 29

New Orleans Saints

L: 20-17



Oct. 6

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 38-17



Oct. 13

Chicago Bears

L: 26-10



Oct. 20

@ Detroit Lions

L: 21-23



Oct. 27

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 28-14



Nov. 3

Philadelphia Eagles

W: 13-24



Nov. 11

@ Denver Broncos

L: 16-17



Nov. 17

Kansas City Chiefs

W: 3-31



Nov. 25

Seattle Seahawks

W: 6-19



Dec. 1

@ Washington Redskins

W: 35-8



Dec. 9

Los Angeles Rams

L: 27-20



Dec. 15

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 31-19



Dec. 22

Dallas Cowboys

W: 16-31




Dec. 29

@ New York Giants

L: 3-17



Head Coach: Bill Walsh

Key Losses: DE Lawrence Pillers, OLB Dan Bunz, ILB Jack Reynolds

Key Additions: WR Jerry Rice, G/T Bruce Collie

Things were going extremely well for the 49ers coming out of 1984. They had just put together one of the greatest individual seasons in NFL history, capped by a convincing Super Bowl victory over the heavily favored Miami Dolphins. They had their immediate and long-term solutions at nearly every position on the roster. They had an offense that stymied defenses and a defense that punished offenses. What more could they need?

For Bill Walsh, the answer was simple - Jerry Rice. It would be the execution that would prove tricky. A highly touted receiver out of Mississippi Valley State, a Division I-AA college, Rice was slated to be drafted anywhere from the first ten picks to the late first round, depending on what scout you talked to. Walsh, personally, didn't believe that he would be able to trade high enough in the first round to get his man.

But there are two other receivers slotted for the first round, and before you know it the Jets have taken Al Toon and the Bengals have taken Eddie Brown, pushing Rice out of the top ten and into the realm of Walsh's possibility. Rice fell out of favor with many scouts because of the level of competition that he played in college and the slow sprint times that he recorded on the practice field.

This played right into Walsh's hands, and he wouldn't have had it any other way. After the Bengals picked at 13, Walsh had John McVay get on the phone with the Patriots about possibly trading up to 16. The trade was made, and the rest is history. The rest of the draft was quiet, with the possible exception of offensive lineman Bruce Collie in the fifth round.

However, the selection of Rice did leave holes where the team had lost some veteran talent - namely on the defense. Linebackers Jack Reynolds and Dan Bunz had both been lost over the offseason, and defensive end Lawrence Pillers joined them. The team had in-house replacements for these losses, but they would be hurt more by losing the depth that these veterans afforded them than by anything else.

But one of the biggest hurdles for the 49ers going into 1985 would turn out to be the success they had enjoyed in 1984. 1984 had seen the 49ers turn into a nearly unstoppable force, but the momentum that had carried them through the season had been buoyed and maintained by a surge of energy between the players that had been fueled by their struggles in the year before. Everybody knew that the 49ers could respond to adversity. They had proven it with a Super Bowl win.

How would they respond to success?

Things started out quite well. For about three and a half quarters, that is. In the season opener against the Vikings, the 49ers spent most of the game dominating Minnesota, wearing them out with a beautifully balanced attack. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the work began to pay dividends and they started to pull away. But up 21-14 late in the game, Wendell Tyler fumbled the ball and the Vikings took advantage of the turnover with a touchdown. Then, on the kickoff, Derrick Harmon fumbled and the Vikings scored again.

Three and a half quarters of sheer dominance, two bad plays toward the end of the game, and an L in the record books.

Luckily for 49er fans, the home opener would work out a little better. Facing the Falcons in week two, the 49ers brought all of the offensive balance from week one with none of the costly errors. Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler each ran for two touchdowns, and Montana threw for a fifth while the 49ers rolled to their first win of the season. They would win again in week three before suffering the slings of inconsistent, sloppy play again in week four.

And inconsistent, sloppy play would be the 49ers modus operandi for most of the season. One week, they would beat an opponent senseless behind two well-oiled units, and the next week they would suddenly run out of oil. By the middle of the season, this pattern found them at 3-4 and staring down a bitter second half schedule in which they would have to face the division leading Rams twice.

Part of the problem was actually Bill Walsh's prized rookie receiver. Jerry Rice was getting plenty of playing time over incumbent starter Freddie Solomon, but his production wasn't justifying the sacrifice - particularly when it came to dropped passes. The problem got so bad that newspapers began to keep track of his drops on a week to week basis.

The first matchup with the Rams went the 49ers way, and they used the victory as a springboard to launch them the rest of the way. Again facing adversity, under the threat of missing the playoffs altogether, the 49ers responded. In fact, their only loss over the next six weeks came in Denver under circumstances that many 49ers fans would like to forget.

Playing in the snow in Denver, the 49ers and the Broncos found themselves pitted in a low scoring battle that put both Joe Montana and John Elway at a disadvantage. Under these conditions, it's only fitting that the game came down to a field goal. What's less fitting is how that field goal attempt played out. Down 17-16 late in the game, 49er kicker Ray Wersching lined up for what would be the winning kick. As the play began, a snowball flew down from the stands and landed just in front of the kicker. He missed and the 49ers lost.

It wouldn't be their only loss the rest of the way, though. They would also suffer a defeat to the Rams late in the season. A pins and needles game that came right down to the wire, this game only counted as a loss for the 49ers in the history books. In reality, this was the game in which Jerry Rice broke though his season-long struggles and showed the world at long last what he was capable of at the professional level. The ten catches he made for 241 yards was a statement that Jerry Rice had arrived.

And even with the loss, the 49ers had a full head of steam going into the final two weeks of the season. What they didn't have was a healthy roster. Among others battling fatigue and injury, Eric Wright had suffered a groin injury that would never complete go away. Even Joe Montana was feeling the physical strain of a particularly punishing season.

Which is how the 49ers limped into the playoffs. Momentum was on their side, but fatigue and pain were fighting tooth and nail against sheer inertia. In the first round of the playoffs, facing the New York Giants in New York, fatigue and pain won out. The 49ers simply did not have enough left in the tank to put together another playoff run. Losing 17-3, they barely even made it out of the beating with a whimper.

Player Profile: Tentatively Expired

I've put down the player profile for the week while I iron out a few details as far as how to proceed with the section. I realized as I was putting this season together that, heck, who am I going to profile at this point? Joe Montana? Jerry Rice? Roger Craig? Ronnie Lott? I can't tell you anything about these guys that you don't already know. The idea of the player profile has always been education, but now that we're getting into the seasons and players that we all know rather well, I'm looking to move this section in a slightly different direction to best accomplish that same goal.

Any suggestions are always welcome.

Primary References:

Glenn Dickey, San Francisco 49ers: The First 50 Years. Turner Publishing Inc. 1995

This is another season that could not have been written with the same attention to detail if not for the help of Grumpy Guy.