It was great to read this morning that Fred Dean is finally on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Though Dean’s contributions to the San Francisco 49ers’ success of the 1980s are rarely mentioned in the same breath as those of Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig, the team’s acquisition of Dean early in the 1981 season was a pivotal turning point in the transformation of the team from laughing stock to “Team of the 80s.”
The first game that Dean played for the 49ers was one of the greatest defensive performances I’ve ever seen (the only one having a greater impact on my memory was a game Derrick Thomas played against the Cleveland Browns during his rookie season). The 49ers had started the 1981 season with hopes of making the playoffs in their third year under the stewardship of Bill Walsh, but got off to a difficult start, losing 2 of their first 3 games. But then things started to turn around – two straight victories, though hardly in dominating fashion. And with a 3-2 record, the 49ers prepared to host the 4-1 Dallas Cowboys, the team most folks considered the league’s best.
And on that day, Fred Dean was an absolute force of nature. The Cowboys had no answer for Dean, who played like a man possessed, and ate Cowboys quarterback Danny White alive. On the same day, the 49ers offense finally hit high gear. It was glorious – I remember watching the game in my dorm room at Berkeley, and then trying to convince someone down the hall (who had spent the afternoon studying) that the final score really was 49ers 45, Cowboys 14. A dynasty began to take root that October day, in large part due to Fred Dean.