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The Path Back To The Top: The 1980s 49ers The Seahawks arch rival offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead

Just seven teams have repeated as Super Bowl Champs in NFL history. This series will examine how teams similar to the 2013 Seahawks fared the following season. Some flourished. Some failed. We will explore the keys to their success and their failure and look for clues for what lies ahead for this 2014 Seahawks team.
Written by: Brian Nemhauser

Rivalry, Drought, Elation

Thirty-six years is a long time to wait. Thirty-six years of losing more often than winning. Thirty-six years of irrelevance. Then, a new coach, with a new way of doing things joins the franchise, and the team suddenly finds itself (13-3) with a home game against their arch rival (12-4) for the NFC Championship. The game is a heavy-weight bout. History favors their rival, who leads at halftime, and takes the game down to the final moments. Then it happens. The Play. The moment where a franchise's history transforms from agony to ecstasy. It had to be this way, against their rival, in a game that neither side gave an inch. The ball fluttered toward the back of the endzone. The game would be won or lost on this play. Dwight Clark reached into the heaven's and plucked the football from the sky before landing just inside the endzone for a game-winning touchdown that put the 49ers ahead of the Cowboys 28-27 with barely any time remaining. Before Richard Sherman etched his name in football lore with The Tip, Clark had The Catch. The build-up, the significance, the outpouring of pure joy from their respective fan bases were inescapably similar. Both teams went on to win their franchise's first Super Bowl. San Francisco won three more Super Bowls that decade.

Both franchises waited a long time for their first Super Bowl win (38 years for Seattle vs 36 for San Francisco). Both teams featured young, golden boy, quarterbacks who were all about winning. Both teams had tough defenses and efficient offenses. Bill Walsh brought more than winning; he changed the way the game was coached and played. Pete Carroll has his sights set on a similar legacy. As bitter as the current rivalry is between these two franchises, their kindred nature is undeniable. There may be no better way for Seattle to torture San Francisco fans than to take their history and make them watch the Seahawks re-live it.

Before they were titans

San Francisco is known as one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. It was not always that way. The franchise had a losing record heading into the 1981 season, had gone through six coaches in five years, and had made the playoffs just five times in thirty-six seasons, dating back to their days in the AAFC (All-American Football Conference).

They had not had a quality quarterback for 22 years, when Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle was taking snaps in the 50s. Before Bill Walsh joined in 1979, the team had gone five straight seasons of ranking 14th or worse on offense and defense, capped by a 1978 season where they ranked 28th in offense and 27th in defense. There were 28 teams in the NFL that year.

The rivalry with the Cowboys was largely built from 1970-1972 when Dallas ousted the 49ers three straight times in the playoffs, twice in the NFC Championship

Fortunes really started turning in 1977 when Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. purchased the team from the Morabito family. Two years later, DeBartolo hired Bill Walsh as the head coach and general manager. Walsh had been coaching at Stanford for two seasons, leading them to bowl wins each year and Top 20 national rankings. His first season in San Francisco was similar to Jimmy Johnson's in Dallas. The team went 2-14, but there were glimpses even then of the offensive genius Walsh would become. San Francisco lept to #1 in the NFL is pass attempts and #3 in passing yards.

The seeds for The Catch were planted in the first Walsh draft as they drafted both Joe Montana and Dwight Clark. They also made a fortunate signing in safety Dwight Hicks, who had played in the CFL in 1978, and would become a four-time pro bowler. Montana did not become a full-time starter until 1981. The 1981 draft included Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright, who became one of the most feared cornerback tandems in NFL history before Lott eventually became a Hall of Fame safety.

People remember names like Jerry Rice, Tom Rathman, John Taylor, and Charles Haley when thinking about the 1980s 49er dynasty, but the team had already won two of their four Super Bowls before any of those players came aboard. Roger Craig and left tackle Bubba Paris were key draft choices in 1983 that helped the team to their second Lombardi Trophy in 1984.

Rice super-charged the last half of the decade for the 49ers

One of the keys to the longevity of the 49ers run was their ability to infuse the roster with new Pro Bowl talent throughout the decade. They drafted at least one Pro Bowl player every year except for 1982 during the 80s. It was not about quantity with the 49ers, as a number of their drafts only included one or two good players, but the quality of their good picks was extremely high. There was also some good fortune involved.

Just as Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon were winding down at receiver, the team found Jerry Rice and John Taylor. As Dwight Hicks neared the end of his career, San Francisco drafted cornerbacks Tim McKyer and Don Griffin, which allowed them to shift Lott to safety. Fans want to believe champions are built purely by genius, but luck always plays a role.

Style of play

Walsh is known as the father of the West Coast Offense. He is credited with revolutionizing the passing game by introducing higher-percentage passes that could replace runs and have the potential for bigger gains. What many fail to realize is how committed to the running game Walsh was. His 49ers ran the ball more than the 2013 Seahawks in six of eight seasons from 1981-1989 (excluding the 1982 strike season).

The 49ers averaged 517 rush attempts per season from 1981-1989 (minus 1982). The Seahawks ran 509 times last year.

Walsh won his first Super Bowl with his lowest-scoring offense of this stretch. The 1981 team scored just 22.3 points per game. As prolific as his offenses were known to be, they produced almost the exact same output as the Seahawks from last season (26.2 vs. 26.1). And he also won with great defense. His 49ers finished in the top five in opponent scoring in seven of eight seasons during the 1981-89 stretch.

Excludes 1982 strike season

Once again, the Seahawks bear a striking resemblance to a former dynasty. They are ahead on defense, and nearly identical on offense. Digging deeper shows the similarities are more than superficial.

Excludes 1982 strike season

Both teams ran the ball roughly the same amount of times and produced at the same rate. Seattle even comes out a tiny bit ahead in net yards per attempt when being stacked up against a historic NFL passing offense. Where the teams differ slightly is the amount of run versus pass calls.

Walsh started out in 1981 and 1984 (both Super Bowl winning seasons), running 51% of the time, very close to the Seahawks 52%. The team went pass heavy in 1985-86 when just 45% and 46% of the plays were called runs. By the time they won their last two championships of the decade in 1988 and 1989, they were back up to 49% and 48% called runs. That 1989 team had a remarkable 8.1 NY/A, and had their full compliment of passing weapons from Rice and Taylor to Brent Jones and even fullback Rathman who registered 73 catches that year.


Toss out the strike season, and the 49ers made eight straight playoff appearances from 1981-1989, four of which ended with rings. It remains one of the most dominant stretches of football in NFL history. Walsh led the team in all but the 1989 season, when assistant George Seifert took over, and started his stretch of six playoff appearances and two Super Bowl wins in seven years. He gave way to Steve Mariucci who went to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. In all, the 49ers made the playoffs 16 out of 19 seasons and won five Super Bowls.

It all started in the 80s with Walsh finding a young franchise quarterback in Montana, who was a winner wherever he went. He was the same age, 25, as Russell Wilson when he won his first Super Bowl in 1981. Both players featured lethal efficiency. Montana threw for more yards, on average, but had only one season where he eclipsed Wilson's gaudy 8.5 yards per attempt from last season. Both were clutch performers, but Montana had only one season where he registered as many fourth-quarter comebacks (4) and game-winning drives (5) as Wilson registered last year.

Young quarterbacks who win a Super Bowl generally do it again

Like other Super Bowl teams we have studied, losing balance on offense was a telltale sign the team was good, but not built to win a championship. Montana had one of his most prolific yardage seasons in 1983 when he threw for 3,910 yards, but the team went just 10-6 and lost to John Riggins and the Redskins in the playoffs.

The 1980s 49ers never had to deal with free agency, but their run would have likely wound down after their 1984 championship if they had not reloaded in the draft so consistently.

Schneider and Carroll have drafted well enough to fuel a run similar to the 1981-1985 run of the 49ers where they won two Super Bowls, but will need to keep adding to the pile each year to have a chance to compete for a championship every season for a decade. As great as the 49ers defense was, none was as good as the group the Seahawks ran out last season. Where Walsh was an offensive mastermind, Carroll has a gift for defense. This young Seahawks offense may be more dangerous than any Seattle has seen in many years, but this era of Seahawks football will be known for defense.

Pete Carroll's legacy is being written

An underappreciated part of the 49ers dynasty was the coaching continuity and grooming. Walsh brought along Seifert who taught Mariucci. There were so many good coaches that came up through the organization that they were able to absorb the losses of names like Mike Holmgren, Jim Fassell, Dennis Green, and Sam Wyche. Seattle has already lost Gus Bradley, and is certain to lose more assistants along the way. It will be crucial that they continue to develop a coaching farm system to succeed Carroll when he moves on.

It is not hard to imagine Carroll having a similar impact on the way the game is coached and played in the NFL as Walsh did. Where Walsh brought expertise is offense, passing and quarterback play, Carroll is challenging convention in discipline, defense and secondary play. We have already seen the league move to larger cornerbacks, and free agents choose to come to Seattle for less money because of the atmosphere. Even Montana has recognized the impact having fun can have on a franchise, as he recently discussed the potential for a Seahawks dynasty.

How long Carroll chooses to remain the head coach is one of the keys to Seattle enjoying multiple titles in the coming years. Another will be how they fare in a far tougher NFC West than what the 49ers dealt with in the 80s when the Rams, Saints and Falcons were the combatants. It was rare for there to be more than one other quality team in the division during that decade, and Seattle now finds itself in a division without a patsy to beat up on.

No franchise can identify with the moment the Seahawks enjoyed last season more than the 49ers. Beating your arch rival at home with a signature play that propelled you to your first Super Bowl title is the stuff of Hollywood scripts for most, but was a reality show for Seattle and San Francisco. The strike in 1982 makes it hard to know whether there was anything that happened the year after their first trophy for Seattle to learn from. Two rings in three full seasons, though, would be an outcome most Seahawks fans would be happy to repeat. And there just so happens to be a Super Bowl in Santa Clara next year. The next championship chapter in the almost genetic connection between these two franchises appears imminent.

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