San Francisco's three-year rise from 2-14 to 6-10 to 13-3 and the Super Bowl championship is the stuff to move poets to dreamy images of glory always possible. Bill Walsh, the 49er coach, said today, "Our accomplishment is unique," and nary a dissenter rose. Tired of Steelers? Wish the Cowboys ill? Hitch a ride to the stars with the 49ers.
These guys aren't through yet. Of the 45 men on the roster, 20 arrived only this season: five came in the draft, five in trades and 10 came from the nowhere land populated by free agents. Also, 20 of the 49ers are under 25 years old. They won 16 games this year, twice beating the Bengals, twice beating that team from Texas.
To the question, "Are the 49ers the next dominant team in the NFL?" the San Francisco coach, Bill Walsh, supplied a circuitous answer that seemed to say yes-maybe-I hope-if the Cowboys/Eagles/At- lanta/LA drop dead tomorrow.
"I don't think there'll be two new teams in the Super Bowl next year," he said, referring to this Cinderella Bowl in which two teams made their first appearances ever, and after finishing last in their divisions a year ago.
"We were clearly the two best teams in 1981. Cincinnati has great talent, some of it very young. I don't think Cleveland or Pittsburgh is going to catch them in the AFC . . . In the NFC, we're going to have a tough time. Dallas has a great team, Atlanta is good, LA will be when they get straightened out, and Philadelphia will be back."
A case could be made that the presence of San Francisco and Cincinnati in the championship game is the ultimate proof of maddening parity in the NFL. It is a case not worth making, though. These teams came from 6-10 to championship level on merit, not on Tex Schramm's "creeping socialism."
Cincinnati has 11 first-round draft choices in uniform, finally directed by a first-rank coach, Forrest Gregg. The wonders of Walsh started a long time ago, at Cincinnati in fact, and the ascension of the 49ers, while a surprise, is not inexplicable.
One hesitates to bring up the name, for fear he will leap from the bushes, but the 49ers are examples of the George Allen philosophy. The losing-is-dying martyr believes a coach must be general manager, too, so he can choose the players whose character and heart can't be measured by personnel men clicking away at computers.
Bill Walsh is both coach and general manager of the 49ers, and to hear him yesterday was to know he holds in no high regard the personnel wizards rattling computer printouts in his ear.
"Many personnel men around the league, when asked, picked Cincinnati because all they had to do was get computer sheets," Walsh said. The computers showed Cincinnati bigger, stronger, faster with 11 first-round draft choices to San Francisco's four.
"But players picked us," Walsh said, "because they knew the chemistry of our team."
It is the job of personnel men to get the facts, Walsh said, and then it is the coach's job to use the information as best he sees fit. Sometimes that means ignoring it. For instance, if Walsh must sign a lesser athlete, he'll go for the one most intelligent and thereby most able to put up with the six months of wear that goes with special-team work.
As creator of the remarkable Cincinnati passing offense of the mid-'70s, Walsh set the style for the '80s. He didn't blink today when someone referred to him as a genius. He said Joe Gibbs and Ray Perkins had come to him, picking his brain. Now, instead of an "AFC style," Walsh said, the 28-team NFL is of a kind. He didn't say it wasn't his doing.
Not to stretch this too far, but the 49ers won Super Bowl XVI with the kind of good work the majestic Steelers once did. They came at the Bengals early with as diversified a passing game as you could draw on a chalkboard. Then, with a 20-7 lead and poor field position the second half, the 49ers turned the game over to the defense. Discretion is the better part of valor, even in Roman numeral games, and Bill Walsh knows it.
A casual observer of pro football might have expected the 49ers, in that second half Sunday, to start winging the ball downfield. After all, quarterback Joe Montana didn't get on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated the same week by handing off to Ricky Patton and Earl Cooper. But the 49ers, specifically head brain, turned prudently cautious.
"We didn't try to put on a demonstration for the public," Walsh said. "We looked for calculated ways to win."
So while Cincinnati gained momentum's favor with an early third-quarter touchdown, the 49ers didn't make a first down on three possessions. Of nine plays from scrimmage, Montana threw only two passes, only one deep.
"We wanted to make the Bengals use time to score, and we did that," Walsh said. "Some of our better offensive strategy was left on the drawing boards . . . When we got better field position (in the fourth quarter) we opened up again."
Even then, though, the 49ers often ran the ball, daring the computer favorites to stop them. "Our offensive line outmanned them," Walsh said. "We took them apart."
Someone asked if he'd mentioned the computer-versus-heart argument to his players. "We said it to them directly, emotionally," Walsh said. He smiled slyly. "We overstated it," he said.
Of such are dreams made real.