Monday, July 30, 2007

Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh, who died today after a long battle with leukemia, was the most important figure in the history of the San Francisco 49ers football franchise. Until the arrival of Walsh in 1979, the 49ers had never achieved anything beyond sporadic success, and were probably best known for ending up on the short end of two of the greatest NFL playoff collapses in the history of the league - against Detroit in 1957, and Dallas in 1972.

A decade later, the 49ers were the consensus choice for team of the decade, and had reached a level of consistent, sustained excellence that few teams of any era have matched.

San Francisco was lucky to get Walsh. When Paul Brown stepped down as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals following the 1976 season, his choices as successor were Walsh, who had been his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and Bill Johnson, who had been the team's line coach. In what was the probably the worst decision he ever made, Brown went with Johnson, who lasted less than two seasons.

His treatment at the hands of the legendary Brown was a source of longtime resentment for Walsh, who once commented, "all the way through I had opportunities, and I never knew about them. And then when I left him, he called whoever he thought was necessary to keep me out of the NFL." Considering that Walsh had developed one of the most innovative offensive schemes the league had seen, it's difficult to understand what motivated Brown to work against him in this regard. There's a story there, but I have no idea what it is.

Following a season as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers and two successful seasons coaching Stanford, Walsh was tabbed by 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo as the man who would finally lead the 49ers to the promised land. At the time, DeBartolo was considered somewhat of a buffoon as an owner; Walsh was the Niners' fifth coach in a period of roughly four years. After a 2-14 inaugural season, fans couldn't be blamed for wondering if Walsh was just another flash in the pan. But DeBartolo wisely showed patience, and after a 6-10 season in 1980, Walsh's 1979 third round draft pick, Joe Montana, led the 1981 49ers to their first Super Bowl championship, in what was one of the more remarkable seasons in the league's history. The 49ers succeeded that year despite having virtually no running game. Thanks to the brilliance of Montana and the genius of Walsh's scheme, which in essence created a "horizontal" passing game that was just as, if not more effective than a solid running game, it didn't matter. It may have been a fluke, but it was a glorious fluke.

After a hiccup during the strike-shortened season of 1982, the Niners made the playoffs during every one of Walsh's remaining years, and won two more Super Bowls.

Where Walsh will fall in the NFL coaching pantheon is a subject for lively debate, but that he will end up near the top is a given. He was a true offensive innovator, and a remarkable judge of talent. It is notable that of the 49ers superstars, only Ronnie Lott from USC truly came into the league as a "sure thing." Just on the offensive side of the ball, Joe Montana was considered too small and too frail, few had heard of Dwight Clark, Roger Craig had spent his college career at Nebraska blocking, and Jerry Rice was hardly a household name. The list goes on and on.

Walsh was also expert at identifying exactly the point at which holding on to a player would result in diminishing returns; this could be painful if you were a fan of a particular player, but rarely was Walsh incorrect - the only gaffe in this regard was Lott, who went on to play outstanding football for several seasons.

Of the coaches during the time I've actively watched pro football (say, 1970 on) on, the only ones I would clearly put in the Walsh category are Tom Landry, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, and Bill Belichick. Pretty heady territory. In any event, the stature of Walsh is secure - he will be long remembered as one of the all-time greats.



MC said...

I'd put 4 time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll in that company.

Jeff said...

I can't argue with that. He would have been the fifth on the list, and I only left him off because of a somewhat arbitrary notion that he wasn't quite as innovative as the other four.

MC said...

The reason I would put him high on the list is like Walsh, he was also a remarkable judge of talent, as their run of success in the 1970's came about because of the draft.

But I still think Walsh was better nonetheless.