The San Francisco 49ers pulled a fast one on draft day. They traded away three draft picks for the rights to select Mississippi Valley State receiver Jerry Rice, who was so extraordinary in his senior year that his statistics read like misprints.
This was not good news to 27 other National Football League teams. Is it possible for the best to get even better?
Soon enough, Walsh plans to replace veteran starting receiver Freddie Solomon, who caught an eye-popping 10 touchdown passes last season, with the angular, acrobatic Rice.
In Rice's senior season he caught 112 passes for 1,845 yards and 28 touchdowns. His nickname, naturally, is "World."
"They started calling me 'World' as a freshman because they said I could catch any ball in the world," Rice says. "Yes, I believe I can, too."
For the second time in four seasons, the 49ers enter a new season as defending Super Bowl champs. Bill Walsh, the team's president and coach, says, "This is the deepest and the best we've ever been." And who can doubt him?
The Packers won five titles in a decade and are called "The Team of the '60s." The Steelers won four titles in a decade and are called "The Team of the '70s." The 49ers have Super Bowl diamonds on each ring finger and still have a full half-decade left to become you know what.
"This team did something last season -- 18-1," says all-pro cornerback Eric Wright. "That hasn't been done and it won't be done again. Historically, naturally it will go down in the Hall of Fame record books. This year, though, will tell the story if we're the Team of the '80s.
"We've won two Super Bowls. Winning three of five wouldn't be bad. But the point is, can we get that same fire going again this year?"
No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since Pittsburgh in 1978-79. The 49ers say they learned their lessons from 1982, the last time they were defending champs. They did a 3-6 strike-season kerplunk. The culprits, it is said, were injuries, drugs, youth and helium-inflated egos.
In the offseason following that first Super Bowl victory over Cincinnati, all-pro guard Randy Cross broke his knee falling off a rope during a charity gig at a Bay Area amusement park. He spent six weeks in a cast and played injured most of the 1982 season.
During the same offseason, all-pro cornerback Ronnie Lott went out and hired a public relations firm to handle his offseason affairs.
Even though he tried, Lott confesses, "In no way was I Billy Dee Williams or Bryant Gumbel." Lott admits that he was not in shape when he reported for the 1982 season.
"It's a lot different team here now," Cross says. "We're not a bunch of 23-, 24- and 25-year-olds who did a lot of stuff in the offseason and will keep doing it all year long."
Walsh says, "I think our problem in 1982 was directly related to the injury factor. We just weren't deep enough to deal with those things. I'm not sure that we don't indulge ourselves in examining why we didn't do well in '82. We look to the injury factor more than anything."
The point can be made, of course, that the 49ers face a more turbulent course this season than last. Now that league rosters have been pared four players, down to 45, Walsh will not have the luxury of keeping the nine defensive linemen (he says he'll keep seven) and the eight linebackers that helped his defense take the pedestal from under Dan Marino's feet in the Super Bowl victory over Miami.
Walsh says, however, that young, developing teams will be more affected by the smaller roster than the 49ers will. He does admit, though, "The success of our team has come from a group of individuals, welded in units, like the pass rush, the quarterback-receiver or a center-guard combination."
Nor will the 49ers have the pleasure of skipping through the daisies of the AFC Central as they did in 1984. Now, instead of playing Houston, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh (the Steelers did inflict the 49ers with their only loss last season, 20-17), the 49ers are matched against four teams in the AFC West: Seattle, Denver, the Raiders and Kansas City.
That the 49ers also must play the Redskins, Dallas and Chicago was enough to make Lott say, "Those three teams alone are like playing six teams."
Lott added, "When you are a champion, though, you only worry about yourself. Marvin Hagler proved that. Just take care of yourself. That's what he did. He didn't worry about Duran or Hearns. No, it's not arrogant. It's just the way a champion in every sport should do it."
Yet, the case also can be made that the waters will be even less turbulent for the 49ers than last year. For one thing, the 49ers will not have to endure an 11-week holdout by defensive end Fred Dean, a Hercules among pass rushers. Neither will the defense, in all likelihood, have to endure the injuries that all but ravaged the secondary.
Also, this is the team that has 10 -- that's right, 10 -- Pro Bowl players from last season, including quarterback Joe Montana. Montana is the guy who won the most valuable player award in the Super Bowl, the guy with what coaches call "escapability" and what league standings call win-ability.
"Joe's athletic ability helps us salvage a lot of plays," says Paul Hackett, the 49ers' quarterbacks coach.
"Nothing Joe does amazes me," Cross says. "Maybe we've all become jaded and take him for granted. We do know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Joe is the best. Ask Dan Marino or Joe Theismann and I'll bet they'll tell you the same thing. Maybe even Jim Kelly would say it."
The 49ers' roster losses from last season have been minimal, which is why they'll do just fine as the 45ers. Double-digit veterans such as Louie Kelcher, Billy Shields and Mario Clark -- bit players, all, in 1984 -- are history. Starting linebacker Jack Reynolds, 37, was asked not to return and has been replaced by the younger, quicker Mike Walter. Defensive lineman Lawrence Pillers was traded and special-teamer Blanchard Montgomery is gone, too.
Wide receiver Renaldo Nehemiah, who caught a career-best 18 passes in 1984, has been placed on injured reserve with a back injury. Nehemiah is the three-year project who is now in his fourth year. It seems he is finished with this team. He'll collect his $176,000 guaranteed contract this year, and "World" Rice will take the deep threat role that once seemed perfectly sculpted for Nehemiah.
Now that Marino, the Rams' Eric Dickerson and other league stars are holdouts seeking renegotiated contracts, it should be recalled that the 49ers renegotiated and/or extended the contracts of nearly half their team last season. Can it be that the road to the Super Bowl in the '80s runs through renegotiation?
Montana received more than $6 million over six years (No wonder some teammates call him Steve Austin). Wide receiver Dwight Clark reportedly earns more than $650,000 per season. Even Walsh received a reported multiyear deal late last season that will pay him between $850,000 and $1 million per season.
Walsh says the 49ers were forced to renegotiate en masse for several reasons, mainly because of the presence of the U.S. Football League, because many 49ers contracts ran out at the same time and, "because when we won the Super Bowl (over Cincinnati) we had one of the two lowest salary bases in the league. We just increased the base."
Team owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. says he will not renegotiate contracts of the dozen or so players who are entering the final year of their contract. He will wait until those contracts expire before talking.
This philosophy irks Cross, a 10-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl player who is set to earn $330,000 in the final year of his contract in 1985.
Although Cross won't threaten a holdout this season, he will say, "You see guys who are making more money than you and the only way they will make it to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu is if they go to the American Airlines counter and buy a ticket . . . But I'm comfortable that we'll get something done."
Walsh says he hopes to avoid a controversial situation with Cross. The fact is, the 49ers have had a mostly trouble-free offseason, resting quietly at their facility, which sits amidst a calm residential area on a street called, fittingly enough, Madison Avenue.
Soon the 49ers will sign a long-term contract to remain in Candlestick Park through the 2008 season in return for a $30.8 million stadium facelift.
The 49ers had what several players termed their easiest training camp in Walsh's six years as coach. Montana has developed some back trouble, but the injury is not considered severe. Montana also married actress/model Jennifer Wallace in February, then bought a house near the beach in southern California.
The 49ers added radio outlets in Phoenix, Anchorage and in DeBartolo's home town of Youngstown, Ohio. The season ticket waiting list has swelled by several thousand to nearly 10,000. Meanwhile, NFL Properties reports that the 49ers have become the second most popular team in terms of sales of paraphernalia bearing a team's logo, behind Dallas.
Players say that Walsh warns them away from evils such as drugs and complacency with greater frequency than ever. They say they listen, primarily because Walsh has a 48-17 record over the past four years and he must know what he's talking about, right?
About the only real post-Super Bowl turmoil came when the team's 1985 media guide came back from the printer, praising Walsh for his "vastly futile mind." It was supposed to read "fertile mind."
No matter. The 49ers made a revised media guide and Walsh, in all good humor, asked for two of the fouled-up versions. Then he sent them to his parents.