Pro Football / Bob Oates : Walsh Is Least Appreciated in Hometown

Share via

One of the ironies of the 1980s is that Bill Walsh, the 49er coach, has been so widely unappreciated in San Francisco.

Although his teams have won two Super Bowls and more regular-season games in this decade than any other National Football League club, Bay Area fans seem to focus on 49er failures.

This has Walsh thinking of retiring--or at least leaving town--after another division-winning performance this season, an achievement that the 49ers followed with a 34-9 playoff victory over Minnesota on New Year’s Day.


They will play the Bears in Chicago Sunday for the National Football Conference title and a place in Super Bowl XXIII against the champion of the American Football Conference, Cincinnati or Buffalo.

In an era of increasing parity, Walsh keeps demonstrating that he remains perhaps the most shrewd and probably the best of the nation’s football coaches.

That, of course, is harder to prove to everyone in the 1980s than it was in, say, the 1960s, when Vince Lombardi coached football’s dominant team, the Green Bay Packers.

There is so much power in the NFL today--so many clever defensive teams and so many effective passing attacks--that it has become impossible for Super Bowl champions to repeat.

Lombardi’s place at the top is secure, and Walsh’s is still insecure even in San Francisco, but the difference is largely a difference of eras. Walsh is winning in tougher times.

Joe Montana’s 3 touchdown passes to Jerry Rice knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs Sunday. How much of that was 49er talent and how much 49er coaching?


Here are some evolutionary facts:

--In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the NFL, influenced by the old American Football League, was a zone-defense league. This eventually forced the game’s offensive coaches to develop zone-type pass patterns.

--When Philadelphia Coach Buddy Ryan reintroduced heavy blitzing in 1985, his last year as Chicago’s defensive coach, he also brought back man-to-man pass defenses. Still, the NFL’s offensive coaches tended to stay with the pass patterns that had worked so well against zone defenses.

--Walsh countered Minnesota’s Bear-type blitz with a new series of man-to-man patterns that enabled Rice to outmaneuver some of the league’s best defensive backs--including the Vikings’ Pro Bowl cornerback, Carl Lee--one on one.

On one such play, Rice ran a post-square-out route to a touchdown. Lining up left that time, he slanted hard to his right, selling a single-covering Minnesota defensive back that he was en route to center field.

Then Rice abruptly reined in and raced to his left, straight to the sideline. At the same time, Montana, after pretending to search for a receiver to his right, abruptly wheeled left and threw to Rice just before he sprinted out of bounds.

The evidence is persuasive that in Candlestick Park, the team with the better coach outplayed the team that had the larger number of exceptional players.


Bear Coach Mike Ditka, when informed that Chicago would be favored over San Francisco at Soldier Field Sunday, said: “It isn’t the Bears who are favored, it’s the weather.”

He had that right. On a pleasant day, the 49ers could be expected to strike with too much firepower for Ditka’s injured team, but in the second week of January it isn’t likely to be pleasant in Chicago.

Although the Bears turned back San Francisco 3 months ago, 10-9, these are now somewhat different teams. For two things, Rice has proved that he’s well again, and Richard Dent hasn’t.

When sound, Dent, a Chicago end, is perhaps second in the NFL only to Chicago linebacker Mike Singletary as a defensive force.

The Bears are still alive only because the Philadelphia Eagles self-destructed in a dense Soldier Field cloud Saturday, 20-12.

On 10 possessions, the Eagles were inside the Chicago 25 and in position to score 70 points. On 5 possessions, they got inside the Bear 11. On 2, they were inside the 5. And they never made a touchdown.


It wasn’t the Chicago defense that stopped them, it was Eagle playoff jitters, which led to critical penalties, dropped passes and other errors of execution by a young team.

Offensively, the Bears capitalized only twice on Philadelphia’s surprisingly inept pass defense but two big plays were enough.

The 49ers will be tougher.

In the AFC, the Cincinnati Bengals made the NFL’s final four Saturday with a first half in which they looked like a pro football team should look.

Before ousting Seattle, 21-13, the Bengals opened a 21-0 lead with brilliant no-huddle plays that were seldom hobbled by Seattle Coach Chuck Knox’s fake-injury defense.

The Seahawks faked their injuries only before third-down plays on a day when the Bengals drove to their 3 touchdowns on mostly second-down plays.

The purpose of Coach Sam Wyche’s no-huddle offense in Cincinnati is to prevent situation substitutions by the defense.


Knox’s fakes were called to give him time to make such substitutions. Technically, faking injuries is illegal. But most pro athletes hold that all is fair in love or war or football. Or baseball.

For example, most outfielders and most wide receivers routinely pretend that a trapped ball is a catch.

In any case, Knox got by with a novel defense for a day, which was the whole idea.

He simply didn’t have enough team under him.

Wyche not only attacks with the most advanced offensive scheme in football, he does it with extraordinary blockers, backs and receivers.

In Buffalo Sunday, the Houston Oilers--like the Eagles on Saturday--self-destructed.

The difference was that leadership problems took Houston out of the playoffs, 17-10, whereas young-team jitters had beaten Philadelphia.

Coach Jerry Glanville has both experience and talent on the Houston team--more of either than Buffalo--but on offense, the Oilers again used the league’s best power personnel to play finesse football.

And this time it cost them.

With three or four Pro Bowl blockers and three fast, hard-running backs--Alonzo Highsmith, Allen Pinckett and Mike Rozier--the Oilers are ideally suited to run off tackle, around end and up the middle with either power plays or counter plays, or misdirection.


Instead, in their basic scheme, they again lined up four receivers and called either long passes or draw plays and other fake passes.

This wasn’t good enough.

The Oilers also suffered a blocked punt and a blocked field goal--another sign of leadership problems. Kicks are seldom blocked in well run organizations.

Worst of all, Houston lost a touchdown on an option misplay, a wild lateral.

The fact is that the option doesn’t belong in the NFL. There isn’t enough time in a practice week for a pro team to polish, along with everything else, option plays. Or wishbone plays of the kind Indianapolis uses.

Houston’s only weakness is a rather weak pass rush. And speaking of leadership as a factor in football, Buffalo Coach Marv Levy, obviously aware of the one Oiler trouble area, came out throwing with Jim Kelly.

Using passes to set up runs, the Bills scored just often enough to win.