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49ers Year-by-Year: 1986

This is a brief historical recap of the San Francisco 49ers' 1986 season. Following the disappointment of the frustrating 1985 season, how would the 49ers respond in 1986? What exactly did Bill Walsh do in the draft that made it stand out even against a history of great drafting? With Joe Montana's career on the line, what would come of the team? And why, exactly, haven't I figured out how to fill the gap left by the now defunct Player Profile?





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 7

@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

W: 31-7



Sept. 14

@ Los Angeles Rams

L: 13-16



Sept. 21

New Orleans Saints

W: 17-26



Sept. 28

@ Miami Dolphins

W: 31-16



Oct. 5

Indianapolis Colts

W: 14-35



Oct. 12

Minnesota Vikings

L: 27-24



Oct. 19

@ Atlanta Falcons

T: 10-10



Oct. 26

@ Green Bay Packers

W: 31-17



Nov. 2

@ New Orleans Saints

L: 10-23



Nov. 9

St. Louis Cardinals

W: 17-43



Nov. 17

@ Washington Redskins

L: 6-14



Nov. 23

Atlanta Falcons

W: 0-20



Dec. 1

New York Giants

L: 21-17



Dec. 7

New York Jets

W: 10-24



Dec. 14

@ New England Patriots

W: 29-24



Dec. 19

Los Angeles Rams

W: 14-24




Jan. 4

@ New York Giants

L: 3-49



Head Coach:
Bill Walsh

Key Losses: WR Freddie Solomon, HB Joe Cribbs, FS Dwight Hicks, FB Earl Cooper, DE Fred Dean

Key Additions: DB Tim McKyer, DB Don Griffin, OLB Charles Haley, FB Tom Rathman, DE Larry Roberts, T Stave Wallace, WR John Taylor, DE Kevin Fagan

In 1986, the NFL continued to push further and further into the world of modern technology. The league adopted an instant replay rule by which an independent official in a booth would stop the game to review crucial or controversial plays. Only this official could decide which plays were reviewed, and he could take as much time as he wanted to review them. When he made his ruling, he would radio to the field officials, who would announce the call. The system was innovative and state-of-the-art, but it was also new, and deeply flawed. The most glaring flaw would emerge often over the next few years, as game after game suffered obnoxiously long delays at the whim of this special official.

The 49ers were also in something of a transition period. It's strange to say about a team that won the Super Bowl two years earlier and made the playoffs the year before, but the 49ers were actively rebuilding by 1986. The offense, as it had been, was in fantastic shape. Even with the retirement of Freddie Solomon and the decline of Wendell Tyler, it was likely to continue to be in fantastic shape as long as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark, Randy Cross, Bubba Paris, and an assortment of role players and developing talent continued to produce anywhere near the level that they were so clearly capable of. And since the unit was fairly young as a group, any fears to the contrary were strictly irrational.

Where problems were cropping up was the defense. The 49ers defense had been exposed in 1985. After facing a small amount of turnover the previous offseason and a number of key injuries during the season, the need for youth and depth on the defense was made plainly obvious. And the problems were only getting worse. Eric Wright was continuing to struggle with an injury he suffered toward the end of 1985.

Walsh was aware that part of the problem with the defense was that many of the veterans were in decline. He made it a point to give them a chance to retire when he saw their careers coming to an end with the team, and many did just that. Other players, who didn't share these views, would have to be dealt or released. 1986 was only the very beginning of this. Fred Dean retired during the offseason, and the team said goodbye to Dwight Hicks, who would play one more season in the league with Indianapolis.

Meanwhile Walsh began to look at the draft, and he must have taken a good, long look at it because, though it was considered a weak draft class by many, he managed to fill a number of holes with excellent talent. With his first pick, which ended up being in the second round after a trade, Walsh made what was arguably his worst pick of the draft by selecting defensive end Larry Roberts. Roberts would only be a regular contributor on the team for the next eight seasons. After that, Walsh caught fire, drafting Tom Rathman, Tim McKyer, and John Taylor all in the third round. McKyer, even, would start for the team that year. Then, in the fourth round, Walsh picked up Charles Haley, Steve Wallace, and Kevin Fagan, all future starters. Later on, he would select Don Griffin in the sixth round, who would join McKyer in the defensive backfield as a rookie starter.

It was one of the single best drafts in NFL history.

Then, the unthinkable happened. The 1986 season started on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were an extremely poor team, and the 49ers treated them like one on their way to an easy 31-7 victory. However, bad news awaited the team after the game. Joe Montana would need surgery on his back. Montana had played through back pain for most of the previous two seasons, and the fatiguing effects of the injury had begun to show by the end of 1985. Now, with the surgery, he would likely miss the season. Many were worried about his career. In the meantime, this meant that the 49ers would have to turn to backup quarterback Jeff Kemp.

The Kemp era began roughly. Though he played capably against the Rams in Montana's stead, he didn't have Joe's cool and threw two key interceptions in the eventual loss. But he was far, far from a disaster as a replacement, and actually ended up stringing together three consecutive victories following the loss, putting the 49ers at an almost unthinkable 4-1 on the Montana-less season.

But Kemp wasn't Montana and the 49ers couldn't play losing teams every week. That reality set in against Minnesota when, again, even with a strong effort from Kemp, the team simply couldn't close the deal, eventually losing in overtime. And then the unthinkable happened.

While playing Atlanta to a rare tie, Kemp went down. It seemed as though the 49ers' hopes would rest in the hands of third-stringer Mike Moroski.

Amazingly, Moroski played capably in Kemp's stead, at least insofar as the expectation for a third-string quarterback are concerned, defeating the Packers in his first start. The reality is that this victory had as much to do with the Packers being a terrible team as it had to do with the quality of any of the offensive players (as none played particularly well), but the win was still a win and, somehow, the 49ers were sitting pretty in the division at 5-2-1.

Even better than that, the team doctor had cleared Joe Montana to practice. Following a surgery for an injury that had been slated to keep him out for the season at a minimum, Joe Montana was ready to be back on the field after only seven games. Walsh wasn't so eager to test his star quarterback's back, though, and held him out that week, a loss to New Orleans.

Montana's return against the St. Louis Cardinals was a triumph. Throwing for three touchdowns and over 250 yards, he looked as sharp and as crisp as ever. And the team responded by scoring more points than they had all season in the 43-17 victory.

It wasn't all Montana magic after his return, though. Over the next three games, the 49ers looked again like a flawed team, alternating between losses and wins while struggling to find the offensive rhythm that would complement the surprising proficiency of their newer, younger defense. But under Montana the team had always been resilient, and after struggling to 7-5-1, they finished off the season by winning three in a row - including a critical game in the final week of the season against the Rams. A loss would have kept them out of the playoffs. The win pushed them through.

The playoff run in 1986 was a short one, though. Coming up against the New York Giants, who they had defeated in the playoffs in 1984, and lost to in the playoffs in 1985. The Giants had become one of the absolute best teams in the league and the 49ers, despite the sheer talent of their core players, were still trying to rebuild. The game was a disaster. Joe Montana was knocked out with a concussion, again putting his future in jeopardy, and the 49ers were humiliated 49-3.

New Section:

There is no new section. I've had a very stressful week, and I didn't have the time or, more accurately, the inclination to really figure it out. I'll absolutely have this issue resolved for next weeks installment. As before, any and all suggestions are welcome.

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