1979 NFL Draft was a fork in the road for the 49ers

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When the 1979 NFL Draft started 35 years ago Saturday, the 49ers didn’t have a first-round pick.

Even worse, it was the No. 1 overall selection.

The previous March, the 49ers dealt second- and third-round picks in 1978, first-and fourth-round picks in 1979 and a second-round pick in 1980 for Bills running back O.J. Simpson.

The trade worked out poorly for San Francisco. The 49ers posted the NFL’s worst record in 1978, winning just two games. Simpson rushed for 593 yards in 1978 and 460 yards in 1979. By 1980, his career was over.

But back to the ’79 draft. After sitting out Round One, the 49ers took running back James Owens at the top of Round Two (No. 29 overall), who would go on to play six NFL seasons.

The 49ers then had a 53-pick wait until exercising the final selection of Round Three, the No. 82 overall choice.

And now, the football historians can surely sing the rest of this verse: With that third-round pick, the 49ers took Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana.

In 1981, his first full season as a starter, the 49ers won Super Bowl XVI, with Montana winning game MVP honors for the first of three times. Three years later, the Niners would capture Super Bowl XIX. Then, after the Bears, Giants and Redskins won titles, the 49ers reasserted their dominance of the NFC, triumphing in Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV.

All told, the 49ers — who never won an NFL championship before drafting Montana — won five Super Bowls in 13 seasons (1981-1994).

Certainly, it wasn’t Montana alone that propelled the 49ers out of the NFL’s basement. The late Bill Walsh was a coach and a evaluator of the highest order. The 49ers’ eye for talent extended beyond quarterbacks. One example: In Round 10 in the ’79 draft, the 49ers took Clemson wideout Dwight Clark, a key part of the club’s first two Super Bowl winners. Owner Eddie DeBartolo’s commitment to building winning teams is unquestioned, too.

But as with so many NFL stories that end happily, the 49ers fortunes started to turn when they found that special quarterback.

39 responses to “1979 NFL Draft was a fork in the road for the 49ers

  1. What a great year to be looking for a QB, options in every round, and if you don’t have a special QB now, then you have no excuse if you don’t have one by the time the draft ends.

  2. ’79 was the ‘Niners watershed draft — but I think it was the ’81 draft that they landed that epic haul in the secondary (Lott, Wright, Williamson). Boom. The ‘Niners shot straight to the top – and stayed there for one hell of a long time.

    It was a little like the Steelers of the 70’s. They had some key pieces in place, but what catapulted them into legend was their ’74 draft (Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, Webby and Shell).

  3. Moral to the story, if you have good scouting and front office decision makers, you’ll find good players all over the draft. The Redskins better hope some smarter scouts are taking over with their drafts in the next few years for this very reason because this scenario sounds like what they’re facing right now, and this is supposedly a very deep draft.

  4. Didn’t work out so well for the Vikings trade for H. Walker did it?

  5. Well there’s a little known fact. Montana was once teammates with OJ (for only a season).

  6. You look at that Simpson trade, and how much they gave up, and it looks really, really awful, doesn’t it?

    But younger fans don’t know the half of it: By the time he donned a 49er uniform in September of 1978, O.J. Simpson was 31 years old.

    That’s right. They traded all of that for a 31 year old running back. It is easily one of the worst trades in NFL history. And, in the weird way the world sometimes works, it was also the best thing to ever happen to the 49er franchise.

    The trade was so horrible, Eddie DeBartolo, who had only taken over ownership the year before, proceeded to fire the GM who made it and brought in Carmen Policy and Bill Walsh. Competence replaced incompetence, and the dynasty was set in motion.

  7. the niners had the most wins in the eighties ,and in the nineties.

    too bad aikman and favre had their number in the playoffs. and while everyone remembers sf getting away with rice’s fumble in the wild card., the year before the refs blew william henderson’s clear fumble dead in the NFC title game with gary plummer with a clear path to the endzone.

  8. I’m not sure Montana was truly appreciated outside of the Bay area until the early 1980’s. Great QB, great team, great coach and a great owner.

    Sadly now they simply have a good QB, good team, good coach (maybe) and a good owner. But hey it could be worse. They could be the Vikings. They could have pftpoet for a fan. And they could have Christian Ponder for their QB.

  9. Boy that draft went poorl for one Steve DeBurgh. That’s why the Niners couldn’t win.

  10. If they had such a keen eye for talent then why did it take them 10 rounds to draft Dwight Clark? We hear this over and over again with successful late round picks. Teams get lucky and, most importantly, it is the guy who is drafted late that has the will to succeed. Stop crediting the drafting team with an “eye for talent”!

  11. The 74 Steelers had an eye for talent. They had to put off drafting a future Hall of Famer while they drafted another Hall of Famer, and another, and another.

  12. well said trollhammer20. i’m a chiefs fan and if it wasn’t for the futility of the pioli/cassel era, andy reid and john dorsey might not be running the team today. good things do occasionally come out of franchises hitting the reset button.

  13. I didn’t know the 49ers gave up that much for O.J. Looking at it from a pure football move the Bills fleeced the 49ers. But like someone said that bad trade brought in Policy and Walsh and off went the 49ers. It’s kinda like what happened to the 2nd best team of the 80’s, my Redskins. In 78 under Jack Pardee the Redskins started 6-0 but finished 8-8. In 79 they finished 10-6 and just missed the playoffs. In 80 they went 6-10 and Pardee thought it was just a bad year and they would bounce back. GM Bobby Beathered didn’t think so and wanted Pardee fired. Pardee lost the power struggle mainly because of that 6-10 record. Had he posted a better record he might have saved his job and the Redskins would have never hired Joe Gibbs and we all know what he did.

  14. I can not do anything but take my hat off to Walsh and what he put togather. While I will always stand behind Lombardi as the best head coach in the NFL, I think Walsh was the best genius in the Head Coaching chair. Look at the greats he set out from the 49rs. The Superbowl’s won by the Packers, Tampa Bay, and others. A total of 6 more super bowls to date are from his coaching tree. Even today his stamp is seen in almost all the NFL’s offensive schemes.

  15. Not only did the Steelers have an historic ’74 draft, they also signed a couple undrafted free agents who were instrumental in the organization’s unprecedented success: Safety Donnie Shell and tight end Randy Grossman.
    It should be noted that the Steelers had been 10-4 and in the playoffs in ’73, which means they drafted late in each round of the ’74 draft.

  16. I say this as a Dolphin and Shula fan: Bill Walsh was the best head coach in NFL history. He should rightfully be credited with 5 SB victories, and his innovative West Coast offense is still influential today, 35 seasons later. And his scouting and drafting was arguably the best of his time. See the 1986 draft as an example.

  17. I hate the Niners today, now that we’re playing in their division, but I’ll always respect Bill Walsh and his talent evaluation back then. I believe he drafted his whole Super Bowl secondary in 1981.

  18. Walsh could be canonized in the Bay Area and anyone there or from there would be handing out St Bill medallions to all…heck, give ole Montana sainthood someday and this ex-Bay kid would buy a few St Joes, myself!

  19. All part of the Niners master plan to give up a first for OJ and use the third for Montana – genius!

    Great history footnote. Though you do have to wonder if Montana and the 49ers would have been as successful in the free agency era

    Would Montana have won 4 SBs without those incredible receivers etc, all of whom would have been lost to free agency and cap pressures?

    Probably not – which is what makes the wins and long term winning percentage of Brady and Belichick that much more impressive (though Montana still gets my GOAT vote until Brady gets #4)

  20. Just goes to show the importance of the quarterback position. While the Patriots had Drew Bledsoe, it was Tom Brady who took them to the championship level.

    (Spygateretards, keep it to yourselves.)

  21. Didn’t realize the 49ers gave up so much to get OJ, I used to think the Hershel Walker trade was the worst in NFL history but in reality, that trade has to be discounted because it was the Vikings, they are forever doing something stupid.

  22. So what did the Bills do with the #1 pick they got from the 49ers? They drafted LB Tom Cousineau, who never signed with the Bills because the Montreal Alouettes offered double what Buffalo was offering. Boy has the league changed. Cousineau ended up playing for the 49ers in 1986 and ’87.

  23. As great as Walsh was, 49ers fans fail to realize something. In 1980 the 49ers hired John McVay as the VP/Director of Football Operations, he retired in 1996. It’s interesting that from the time they hired McVay until he retired in 1996 the 49ers were one of the top teams in the NFL, but starting in 1997 it was all downhill until Harbaugh showed up.

    That trade for Simpson was a joke and it makes you wonder how good Walsh really was in that regard. McVay had a lot to do with putting together all those winning seasons, as a matter of fact they won more games from 1989 to 1996 (8 years 98-30) than they did when Walsh was there (10 years 92-59-1).

  24. On paper, the OJ trade was a disaster, but it didn’t damage the 49ers that badly – it got Joe Thomas fired eventually, which was definitely a plus, and the 49ers won their first SB less than 3 years later. The Bills made out like bandits on paper, but they refused to offer the guy they drafted with the #1 overall pick in 1979, Tom Cousineau, enough to keep him from joining the CFL. The Bills did get Joe Cribbs with one of the OJ picks, however – Cribbs was an excellent offensive threat with the Bills for a few years before he left for the USFL – apparently the Bills of that time didn’t pay very well.

    As for the 49ers, you have to wonder what Walsh might have done with that first pick in 1979. It wasn’t an impressive first round, but Kellen Winslow was taken in that ’79 first round, as were Dan Hampton, Kent Hill (5 time Pro Bowl OT for the Rams) and the Giants’ Ottis Andersen.

  25. This was a good history lesson for current Santa Clara fans who have only read about Montana, didn’t know OJ ever played for them, and still don’t know what position Lott played.

  26. Somehow, this post caught 17 down votes so far:

    “cometkazie says: May 3, 2014 5:33 PM
    1981-1994 is fourteen seasons.”

    Great math skillz, America!

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