Crazy Eddie D, Jr., otherwise known as "Mr. D," said the other day that the 2011 49ers are better than the 1981 super bowl team. My first reaction was 'you're a wacho.'
That's actually a lot more polite than what the old NHS would have said, the 49er-Haters Society, which at the end of Eddie’s reign in 1998, used to document the sins of the 49er "family", and loved to remind everyone that Eddie Debartolo's new suffix is, "convicted felon". That, following a conviction in 2000 on charges he bribed Louisiana Guv Edwin Edwards with $400,000 in small bills.
As you know that cost Mr. D his ownership in a franchise that has never been quite the same. The stigma has never quite come out in the wash; only another super bowl ring could remove it.
But forget all that. Here was Eddie – now 64, and felon or not, worth close to $2 billion — saying something that seems ludicrous, even after an open-and-shut win over the Steelers.
As you'll remember the 1981 49ers included these names: Montana, Clark, Cross, Lott and Hicks. Those were the pro bowlers. And then somebody named Walsh. Add Keena Turner, Eric Wright, and Freddie Solomon for good measure.
The featured running back that year, however, was an invisible journeyman named Ricky Patton, who was taken in the 10th round, the 257th pick overall.
This year’s team includes these names: Gore, Willis, Crabtree. And somebody named Harbaugh.
If I ask you those names in 30 years how many will you remember? Gore and Willis. And I’ll bet you, Harbaugh.
Did I leave anybody out? Don't call to say, what about Ted McGinn or Vernon Davis? Or even the two kickers.
But yes, I suppose if you’re a true fan, you have to include Justin Smith on the list of memorable heroes.
Okay, but let’s do a casual comparison. Take the top three players from the 1981 team — according to pro-tooball-reference.com, plus coaches and owners, and match them up with the corresponding people in those positions now.
Here the competition is between one of the greatest to play the game versus a hard luck case who needs some post season victories to be thought of as more than an unlucky, better-than-average journeyman.
But wait a minute....
In 1981, Montana threw for 3,565 yards and 19 TDS. Completion rate: 63.7 percent
In 2011, Smith has thrown for 2,565 yards and 15 TDS. Completion rate: 61.7 percent. Through 13 games.
If you look through the fat end of the telescope you might say they look approximately the same. But since the question here is which is the better team, you might have to look at the leadership role each played on their respective teams.
As sharp as Alex Smith looked last night against the Steelers he missed a TD throw to Kyle Williams in the first quarter, another TD to Crabtree in the second. He played very well, but does he have the consistent accuracy of Montana? Can he go the last mile to a championship?
No. Regrettably, he can't.
Edge to 1981 49ers.
In 1981, Dwight Clark, best known for "the catch" the year before, caught 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and four TDs. That was in the regular season. He was good for an average of 13 yards each time he had the ball, which was about 5.1 times a game.
This year Michael Crabtree has caught 55 balls for 668 yards and 2 TDs. Good for an average of 12 yards a catch. He gets about 4.6 receptions per games — through 12 games. Yards after the catch? Around 4, as of mid November and that was down from the year before. Make of it what you will.
Who is the better wide receiver, all things considered? Clark was not the athlete Crabtree is, nor as fast, but he was a steady possession receiver and had more yards per game in the comparison year than Crabtree. In the end, 1981 was a pro-bowl year for Clark. Would you say that so far Crabtree is having a pro bowl year? I don't think so.
Edge to the 1981 49ers.
In five seasons, Ricky Patton ran for 885 yards and scored 5 TDs. His career long was 28 yards; career rushing yards per game: 17.
He had one good year, 1981, in which he ran for 543 yards and scored 4 TDs.
In seven seasons, Frank Gore has run for 7,468 yards and score 41 TDs. His career long is 80 yards. Career rushing yards per game: 77. Think about that and over 97 games.
This year Frank has run for 1,054 yards and scored 6 rushing TDs, through 13 games.
Gore is clearly the better and one could argue his talent is so great that he makes up for mediocrity at many other positions.
Edge to the 2011 49ers.
The problem here is to tease out legend from fact, and to remember where Bill Walsh was in 1981. He was in his 15th year as an NFL coach, his second as a head coach, having spent 2 seasons down on The Farm. He played Q for two years at the College of San Mateo; he transferred to San Jose State, played defensive end and wrote his master's thesis on Flank Formation Football -- Stress: Defense. He learned from Paul Brown. He was into Xs and Os. He was always first and foremost a coach. He was coach of the year in 1981 (and again in 1984).
Jim Harbaugh will be coach of the year, this year. And he has the same Stanford part of his arc, not to mention high school in the Bay Area. But his background is as a player. Star at the University of Michigan. Star in the NFL. Few NFL coaches know the game as he does. Played in 177 games. Pro Bowl. AFC Player of the Year. Ring of Honor at Indy. A player's coach. Less Xs and Os. Less restrained than Walsh. Less introspective perhaps. But clearly a winner. Considering this is his first year, he has exceeded most expectations. He's brought back true pride — and competence — and done more with less.
Edge to 2011 49ers.
(Courtesy of Pro-football-reference.com)
Record: 11-3-0, Currently 1st place in NFC West
Season summary (doesn't include Steeler game):
Scored 307 points (23.6/g), 14th of 32 in the NFL.
Allowed 182 points (14.0/g), 1st.
Differential of 125 points (9.6/g), 4th.
Takeaway/Giveaway Differential +21 (1.6/g), 1st.
Record: 13-3-0, Finished 1st in NFC West
Scored 357 points (22.3/g), 7th of 28 in the NFL.
Allowed 250 points (15.6/g), 2nd.
Differential of 107 points (6.7/g), 3rd.
Takeaway/Giveaway Differential +23 (1.4/g), 1st.
The real difference between these two teams is less the talent at this or that position, or even the difference between Eddie DeBartolo and his nephew "Jed" York — what separates them is five super bowls, luck, legal problems, and a different devotion to the team and the game.
Recently, Steve Young made the point that Eddie put the fear of God in the locker room. After a while losing was barely possible. If it happened it was a malfunction. A statistical error.
No, the real difference between these two teams are the times. I would argue that San Francisco needed the 49ers more twenty years ago than the city needs the team now. And a win meant a lot more then than now.
One thing is for sure, in 1981 it would have been absolutely unthinkable that the 49ers would play anywhere other than at Candlestick Park. Or certainly anywhere other than in the city of San Francisco. Now the team is leaving for the suburbs and no one cares. San Francisco has become older and younger at the same time. It's a boutique city. Distinguished by physique only. The people here now no longer need a team to keep their confidence up. Football itself seems different. It's something you merchandise, it's an event, it's a hipster's afternoon, out of one eye, at a bar, looking at a screen
From an owner's perspective, Eddie created, for better and for worse, and granted the end may have justified the means, the better club. Edge to the 1981 49ers.
Overall, which is the better team, in the broadest sense? The one that meant the most to the community.
Edge to the 1981 49ers.