October 21, 2011

1979: 49ers Beat Falcons for First Win Under Bill Walsh

In his first season as head coach/general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh had suffered through seven losses without winning a game as they prepared to face the Atlanta Falcons on October 21, 1979 at Candlestick Park. To be sure, not much had been expected, for he had inherited a club that was a mess. From a team that had played for the NFC Championship in 1970 and ’71, the 49ers had dropped to a league- and franchise-worst 2-14 record in 1978. New owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. had hired Joe Thomas as general manager in ’77, and after two seasons of wheeling-and-dealing, and going through three head coaches (one interim), Thomas had been sent packing. In that period, QB Jim Plunkett had been let go (to resurface with the Raiders), as well as popular veteran WR Gene Washington, and productive players such as RB Delvin Williams, DE Tommy Hart, and G Woody Peoples were traded away for little return. Meanwhile, over-the-hill RB O.J. Simpson came to the 49ers from Buffalo at a big price – well beyond what he was now capable of producing as his career slid downward.

The 47-year-old Walsh had most recently been head coach at Stanford University and was known for having an innovative approach to the passing game. As an assistant with Oakland in the mid-60s and then, more prominently, under Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals, he had begun to develop what came to be known as the West Coast offense, which featured a short-to-medium passing game, characterized by low-risk throws spread around to several receivers. He developed QB Ken Anderson into a precision passer and, as an assistant with the Chargers for a year before accepting the position at Stanford, played a significant role in the growth of QB Dan Fouts.

San Francisco had drafted QB Joe Montana out of Notre Dame in the third round of the 1979 NFL draft, but for the first year it would be Steve DeBerg (pictured at right) behind center, a second-year pro who threw 22 interceptions in ’78. The team was in early rebuilding mode – and played like it.

The 49ers were the last still-winless team in the NFL as they hosted the Falcons (3-4). They started things off in exciting fashion in the first quarter as WR Freddie Solomon scored a 56-yard touchdown on a reverse, thanks to a block by G John Ayres.

In the second quarter, and following a fumble recovery by LB Robert Pennywell, Tim Mazzetti kicked a 23-yard field goal to put the Falcons on the board. Atlanta took advantage of another San Francisco turnover, this time an interception by CB Rolland Lawrence, and WR Alfred Jenkins scored on a seven-yard pass from QB Steve Bartkowski. The extra point attempt was missed, but the Falcons took a 9-7 lead into halftime.

The 49ers got back in front late in the third quarter. HB Paul Hofer scored on a two-yard run with 2:36 remaining in the period and San Francisco held a 14-9 lead. But a lapse on special teams worked to Atlanta’s benefit. Lawrence ran 41 yards with a punt blocked by DB Frank Reed to score for the Falcons in the fourth quarter, putting them back in front. Mazzetti had his second extra point attempt of the game blocked, leaving the tally at 15-14.

Following the Atlanta touchdown, the 49ers drove 70 yards for the winning score in the fourth quarter. DeBerg completed all six of his passes along the way and Hofer capped the drive with his second TD, this time from three yards out, with 5:30 to go. The extra point was no good (it was not a great day for the kicking game on either side), but the Niners nevertheless held a five-point lead.

The Falcons still had a chance, but CB Gerard Williams batted down a Bartkowski pass at the San Francisco 25 that would have given the Falcons a first down and followed that up with an interception to seal the 20-15 win.

The 49ers led in total yards with 397, to Atlanta’s 214, and also had the lead in first downs, 22 to 13. Both teams turned the ball over twice, and there were just three penalties called (two on San Francisco, one on the Falcons).

Paul Hofer (pictured below) was a hero of the game for the Niners. Even though he ran for just 33 yards on 10 carries, two were touchdowns, and he caught 7 passes for 84 yards, several coming in key situations. Steve DeBerg completed 24 of 37 throws for 245 yards with no TDs and one intercepted. Freddie Solomon, with the long scoring run on the reverse, led the club in rushing with 68 yards on two attempts. FB Wilbur Jackson gained 29 yards on 13 carries and O.J. Simpson added 10 rushes for 21 yards.

Steve Bartkowski was successful on just 13 of 27 passes for the Falcons, for 126 yards and a touchdown as well as an interception. RB Lynn Cain gained 58 yards on 11 attempts. FB William Andrews was the top receiver with 6 catches for 41 yards while rushing for 36 yards on 12 carries. WR Wallace Francis gained 71 yards on his 5 receptions.

“We’ve been working too hard and losing too many close ones to let this one get away,” said Steve DeBerg afterward.

“I'm trying to be casual about this,” a smiling Walsh said when it was all over, “but it was great to win. I knew sooner or later this would happen. I hope it’s the start of a solid finish. No question, this was our best performance of the year.”

San Francisco returned to its losing ways with a one-point loss the next week to the Bears. In fact, the Niners lost six straight before winning another game and finishing again at 2-14 and at the bottom of the NFC West. The Falcons went 6-10 to place third in the division.

While it was another poor finish for the 49ers, things would improve in 1980, at which point Montana supplanted DeBerg, and in ’81 the pieces were in place for a championship. Walsh would direct the team to three Super Bowl victories before stepping aside, and his West Coast offense would quickly become popular throughout the NFL.

As a footnote, Steve DeBerg prospered in ’79 as he set league records with 578 pass attempts and 347 completions. He ranked third with a 60.0 completion percentage and threw for 3652 yards with 17 touchdowns. While he still tossed 21 interceptions, it was one less than he threw in ’78 on 276 fewer pass attempts. His future would not be in San Francisco, but he went on to play 17 years in the NFL with six different teams.