Cleveland Elam was the last player on the San Francisco 49ers to make it to the Pro Bowl.
That was in 1977, which was one year after the 49ers' last winning record and five years after they last made it into the playoffs.
In 1979, Bill Walsh left Stanford University to become the coach and general manager of the 49ers. He is a man of offense, some say a genius. But even for him, taking over this team was like entering the huddle on third down and 65 on a rain-soaked field.
In 1978 the team had finished 2-14. Then with Walsh it finished 2-14 in 1979.
"We had a long, long way to go then," said Walsh. "When I came here I said it would take us four drafts. We've had three now, but the first one was virtually nonexistent. All of our picks in '79 were used to get O.J. Simpson the previous year."
Actually, to get Simpson, the 49ers gave Buffalo a first- and a fourth-round pick in 1979 and a second-round pick in 1980. Simpson ran the football on pained legs for 1 1/2 years, then retired.
But the 49ers recovered from an eight-game losing streak, including a 59-14 loss at Dallas, to lurch to 6-10 in 1980. It did not exactly make people recall the days of John Brodie and the playoffs and it did not exactly bump the Oakland Raiders off the Bay Area headlines, but it did warm some hearts in cold Candlestick Park.
Now it is 1981 and the San Francisco 49ers are 2-2, they have a quarterback of consequence and a defense that, very often, functions as planned. For a long time they have been a team riveted to losing and now they're slowly, patiently attempting to loosen some of the bolts.
"Right now we haven't found ourselves," said Walsh, before hustling off to look at some game films of the Redskins, the team his 49ers will face Sunday in RFK Stadium. "We haven't developed good enough talent yet to be a playoff contender year after year. We are very young. We have 17 new names on the roster . . . We have some weaknesses still. It can be very disconcerting."
Walsh, who made the offenses work as an assistant coach in Oakland (1966), Cincinnati (1967-75) and San Diego (1976), never has been a nickle-and-dime promoter. He knows his team is young and flawed. He says, "The NFL has no pushovers and if it does, then we might be one of them."
"We're on schedule this year," he said. "But we're certainly not ahead of schedule."
The 49ers opened with a 24-17 loss at Detroit. Then, they rebounded at home to beat Chicago, 28-17. In the third week, they were ambushed in Atlanta, 34-17. And last Sunday, Bum Phillips got his cowboy hat stolen and his New Orleans Saints beaten by the Bay team, 21-14.
"We expended almost all of our draft picks this year on defensive players. We're reaping the profits now, I think," said Walsh.
Cornerback Ronnie Lott of Southern Cal, a first-round choice, intercepted a pass, then ran 26 yards for the fourth-quarter touchdown that made it 21-7. Second-round choice Eric Wright (Missouri) is the other cornerback, and he also intercepted a New Orleans pass. Third-round pick Carlton Williamson, a free safety from the University of Pittsburgh, is the other first-year starter.
While the defense has given up 352.5 yards per game, the offense is pushing forward to 352.25 yards per game. It is the balance, you might say, of a .500 team.
"Offensively, we are out of sync," said Walsh.
Joe Montana is throwing the football with precision. He has completed 78 of 116 passes (67 percent) for 931 yards and seven touchdowns in four games. Steve DeBerg, who started most of last year, was sent to Denver, so now Montana can look ahead to the defense and not over his shoulder to the sidelines.
"Many people say that because Joe Montana is only 25 he is far too young to be a competitive quarterback in this league. Don't tell him that," said Walsh, whose reserve quarterback is Guy Benjamin, who led the NCAA in passing in Walsh's 1978 season at Stanford.
With wide receivers Dwight Clark (23 catches, 245 yards) and Freddie Solomon (18, 322, four touchdowns), the passing game has worked with Walsh-like wizardry.
The running game, however, has not.
"We have been rotating people, which we prefer not to do, of course. The running game has not been good. We haven't put it together as a good offense does. Paul Hofer's being hurt has made a big difference," said Walsh.
Walsh in enamored with a running back who can also catch passes, which is why he likes Hofer. In 1979, Hofer ran for 615 yards and caught 58 passes for 662 more yards. But he was out much of last year with a knee injury and is now suffering with a hamstring pull. If he plays Sunday, he will be restricted.
Meanwhile, Earl Cooper, who caught 83 passes coming out of the backfield in his rookie season last year, is gaining more boos than yards (37 carries, 128 yards). Now, Johnny Davis (11, 45) is scissoring Cooper away from playing time.
Ricky Patton, with his third team in four pro years, has gained a team-high 211 yards in 55 carries. The team recently acquired the unsigned and unhappy rookie back Amos Lawrence (North Carolina) from the San Diego Chargers.