Walsh’s legacy to the Niners was the draft
After former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh died on Monday, I tuned into the NFL Network and ESPN for coverage.
I must have seen The Catch, a 6-yard pass from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, about 40 times Monday night. It never gets old. As kids at recess, the final play of our pick-up game was always Montana fading back and Clark leaping into the air ” even if the pass was at your ankles.
Much has been said and written about Walsh since his death. He was a genius. Walsh revolutionized the NFL. He opened doors for minority coaches. He launched the Niners’ dynasty.
There’s also been a lot of talk about The Catch and its impact. Yes, the play was in the playbook, not Montana throwing the ball out of the end zone. It is the signature moment of the 49ers’ franchise and the start of the glory days.
But it illustrates another aspect of Walsh’s brilliance overlooked in these recent tributes. The Catch was a throw from third-round draft pick to a 10th-rounder. For all the talk of Walsh’s play-calling, impact on the game and so on, he was the master of the NFL Draft.
His ability to assess talent and maneuver on Draft Day made the 49ers what they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
Steve Fuller’s target
Making Walsh’s drafting skills all the more remarkable was his drafting position. He never had a No. 1 pick. In the 1979 Draft, the Niners should have had the top choice because of a 2-14 season, but San Francisco wisely traded that pick away to acquire a broken-down O.J. Simpson one year earlier.
The highest selection Walsh ever had was No. 8 in 1981. For the record, he picked Ronnie Lott, which seemed to work out OK. After being hamstrung by bad trades at the beginning of his tenure, Walsh later was always selecting late because the Niners had success. It didn’t matter.
After winning the 1984 Super Bowl, the Niners were sitting at No. 28. Walsh swapped three draft picks with the New England Patriots to move to No. 16. “With the 16th pick in the 1985 Draft, The 49ers select from Mississippi Valley State … Jerry Rice.”
Now, I remember him.
In 1979 without a first-round pick and needing just about everything, Walsh went to Clemson University to scout quarterback Steve Fuller. Walsh needed a receiver to catch the ball for Fuller. That ended up being Clark.
The Chiefs picked Fuller 23rd in the first round, but Walsh liked what he saw out of Clark and made him the 239th selection. Earlier in the draft, Walsh tabbed Montana, the last pick of the third round at No. 82.
Yes, the NFL Draft is an imprecise science. Late picks like Tom Brady and spectacular busts like Ryan Leaf and Tony Mandarich attest to that. But Walsh did this too often to be lucky.
By the end of the 1980 season, the Niners could score a bunch. The problem was that they couldn’t stop anyone either. Not only did Walsh take Lott in the 1981 draft, but he also got defensive backs Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson. Along with Dwight Hicks, this trio started its rookie year, and the Niners won Super Bowl XVI.
Wash was without a first rounder in 1983. No problem. Walsh nabbed Roger Craig with the 21st pick of the second round.
A myth about the Niners is that they were good because they had players like Montana, Rice and Steve Young. (Walsh got Young in a trade with Tampa Bay for two draft picks, another sign he was a shrewd dealer.) Of course, having future Hall of Famers like these three helps.
But Walsh continuously complemented his superstars with a steady flow of talent from the draft. In 1984, the Niners loaded up with Todd Shell, John Frank, Guy McIntyre, Michael Carter and Jeff Fuller. The year before in addition to Roger Craig, Walsh picked Tom Holmoe, Riki Ellison and Jesse Sapolu (who ended up with four rings as the 289th selection in 1983).
Harris Barton arrived in 1987 and in 1988, Walsh’s last draft, he found Daniel Stubbs, Pierce Holt, Bill Romanowski, Barry Helton and Chet Brooks.
These aren’t household names ” except for Romo, who turned into a psycho ” but drafting four or five starters per year on top of the Hall of Fame talent you already have makes for a dynasty.
Anytime, you pick Montana and Clark in the same year, it’s a great draft. Picking up Jerry Rice simply makes for a superlative draft. Acquiring three-quarters of your secondary is a great haul.
But the scary thing with Walsh was that none of these three was his best draft. That came in 1986. Walsh traded down for multiple picks. Larry Roberts, a very useful defensive end, came first in the second round.
In the third, he only drafted Tom Rathman, Tim McKyer (Texas-Arlington) and John Taylor (Delaware State). As an encore to that round, Charles Haley (James Madison), Steve Wallace and Kevin Fagan became 49ers in the fourth round. In the sixth, Walsh plucked Don Griffin from Middle Tennessee State.
This was quintessential Walsh. Let’s find a Hall of Famer in the fourth round from a nothing-football school in Haley, just like he did with Rice. Need a late-round special? Here’s Griffin, just like Clark and Sapolu. When Walsh picked Taylor, he found a talent and developed it. Taylor would have been the No. 1 receiver on any other team that didn’t already have Rice. (Just remember, Rice was the MVP in Super Bowl XXIII, Walsh’s last game, but Taylor caught the game-winning pass from Montana.)
They all helped the Niners to titles in 1988 and 1989, and brokered the transition from Walsh to then-new coach George Seifert. And it wasn’t a coincidence that the Niners’ decline coincided with these players retiring and Walsh no longer running the draft.
Walsh was definitely a genius on the sidelines, but it all started in the draft room.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 748-2934 or email@example.com.