San Francisco fullback Earl Cooper rushed for 39 yards and caught a touchdown pass in the 49ers' win.
49ers Strike It
January 24, 1982
When Bobby Layne flipped the coin for the start of Super Bowl XVI, it logically followed that the game between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals would be played along unconventional lines.
As a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s, the Texan Layne frequently delighted in unorthodox strategy while en route to National Football League championships.
Super Bowl XVI was played to an improbable script. Three turnovers cost the Bengals 17 points in a 20-point first half that set a Super Bowl record; the 49ers staged a dramatic goal line stand that might have saved the game, and Ray Wersching kicked a record-tying four field goals.
The location of the game also set a precedent. After 15 games in warm weather climates, the 1982 championship contest was played in the Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome, 25 miles from Detroit. While surrounding areas shivered in below zero chill factors, 81,270 enjoyed 72-degree comfort in the huge, 5-year-old stadium.
That the 49ers and Bengals were in the Super Bowl was remarkable in itself. For more than 30 years, the 49ers had strained and struggled in a bid for distinction, but their best efforts produced only three division titles. On each occasion they were eliminated by the Dallas Cowboys.
The Bengals, admitted to the American Football League in 1968, won a Central Division title in the realigned NFL in 1970, but succumbed to Baltimore in the playoffs. In 1973, the division-champion Bengals were beaten by the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.
The emergence of the two teams into title form was unexpected and unprecedented.
During their nonproductive years, the 49ers finished last six times, including the 1978 season when they won only two games and lost 14 under the split leadership of Pete McCulley and Fred O'Connor.
In January of 1979, owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr., reached across the backyard fence to Palo Alto and secured the coaching services of Bill Walsh, who had compiled a 17-7 record in two seasons at Stanford University. His teams also won postseason games in the Sun and Bluebonnet Bowls. Previously, the 47-year-old Walsh had served as an assistant coach under Al Davis at Oakland and Paul Brown at Cincinnati, where he was instrumental in the development of Ken Anderson as a premium quarterback in the NFL.
When Brown retired as coach, Walsh moved on to the San Diego Chargers, serving as assistant to Tommy Prothro and tutoring Dan Fouts in the same fashion as he had Anderson.
Walsh's coaching talents were not immediately discernible at San Francisco in the fall of 1979. For the second consecutive season, the team finished with a 2-14 record. His initial draft yielded only two players who remained with the Niners into 1981, but they were prize picks -- quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Dwight Clark.
In 1980 the 49ers drafted two players who stuck for more than one season, signed two key free agents, and added another key player by trade -- tight end Charle Young.
Their 1981 "gold strike" included five rookies, five more acquisitions by trade and 10 free agents. Three of the rookies earned starting assignments-cornerbacks Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright and safety Carlton Williamson.
The influx of new talent helped transform the Niners from a 6-10 team in 1980 into a 13-3 team in 1981, when they compiled the best record in the NFL.
While the 49ers were foundering with 2-14 records in 1978 and '79, the Bengals were posting 4-12 records and finishing at the bottom of the AFC Central Division.
Although they finished last again in 1980, the Bengals improved their record to 6-10 under the first-year leadership of Forrest Gregg. The former offensive tackle of the Green Bay Packers in the heyday of Vince Lombardi had served as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League before succeeding Homer Rice at the Cincinnati helm in 1980.
Gregg, once described by Lombardi as "the finest player I've ever coached," appeared with the Packers in Super Bowls I and II and the Dallas Cowboys in VI. So when the Bengals defeated Buffalo, 28-21, and San Diego, 27-7, in the AFC playoffs, Gregg became the first ex-player to coach in the Super Bowl.
Walsh, a graduate of San Jose State -- where he also earned a master's degree in education -- was without professional playing experience. He also was without extraordinary optimism. In the club's 1981 media guide, Walsh was quoted as saying: "We have been able to add slowly potentially better athletes to our squad, especially with this year's draft, and that's working to make us potentially better overall.
"There is still a long way to go, but I am certain we have turned the corner and are becoming a well-based, more versatile team that will be a consistent contender in the years to come."
The "long way to go" that Walsh foresaw was covered in six months. The team that ranked 26th in the NFL in points allowed in 1980 soared into second place in 1981, trailing only Philadelphia. After losing two of its first three games, the team breezed the rest of the way, with only a 15-12 loss to Cleveland marring the last 13 weeks of the season. One of its victories was over Cincinnati by a 21-3 score.
Playoff wins over the New York Giants, 38-24, and the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27 on a last-minute Montana pass to Dwight Clark, earned the 49ers a trip to the Silverdome.
Meanwhile, the Bengals lost two of their first five games, then bowed only to New Orleans, 17-7, and San Francisco the rest of the way.
The 49ers, who lost 12 of 26 fumbles in their NFC title march, opened their first Super Bowl game on an inauspicious note.
Amos Lawrence, after returning the kickoff 17 yards, fumbled on the 26, where John Simmons recovered for the Bengals.
The AFC champions advanced to a second-and-goal on the 5-yard line before Anderson was sacked for a six-yard loss by Jim Stuckey. On third-and-11, Anderson fired a pass intended for Isaac Curtis, but Dwight Hicks intercepted and returned the football 27 yards to the San Francisco 32.
In 11 plays, the 49ers traveled 68 yards.
Two of the plays were passes, for nine and 14 yards, to wide receiver Freddie Solomon, a doubtful quantity in the 49ers' pregame plan because of a knee injury suffered three days earlier.
The second pass carried to the 1-yard line, from where Montana dived across for the first touchdown.
"This was for the world championship and there was no way I was going to miss it," explained Solomon, who caught four passes for 52 yards during the game.
On their first possession of the second quarter, the Bengals mounted another drive. They had progressed to the San Francisco 27 when Anderson completed a 19-yard pass to Cris Collinsworth. The wide receiver fumbled when tackled by Eric Wright, however, and Lynn Thomas recovered on the 8-yard line.
"I was pivoting and trying to make more yards when Wright stripped the ball from me," reported Collinsworth. "The 49ers have been doing that all season and are pretty good at it."
Again the opportunistic 49ers capitalized on the turnover. Eleven plays carried the Niners to the Cincinnati 11, from where Montana passed to Earl Cooper on the 3. The second-year running back out of Rice barreled into the end zone, completing a Super Bowl record 92-yard march.
Explaining his role in the TD play, Cooper said, "It was a fake up the middle to the fullback. The wide receiver on the left clears out so I can come underneath the zone coverage."
Cincinnati's horrendous luck continued in the ensuing series of plays. Wersching's squib kickoff was fielded by David Verser on the 5-yard line. By the time Verser completed his lateral sprint, the ball was on the 4. An illegal chuck set the Bengals back two more yards and, six plays later, Pat McInally's punt set the 49ers up on their own 34.
With Montana passing and Cooper and Ricky Patton running, the Niners advanced to the Cincinnati 5 with 18 seconds remaining before intermission. With Montana holding, Wersching kicked a 22-yard field goal, increasing the Niners' lead to 17-0.
Wersching's kickoff was another squibber. Archie Griffin touched the ball at the 15, but failed to grab it and watched the ball bounce to the 4, where it was downed by Milt McColl of the 49ers. An illegal procedure penalty cost five yards, but Wersching, refusing as always to look at the goal posts, got his bearings from Montana, the holder, and booted a 26-yard field goal, boosting the San Francisco lead to 20-0.
The two scoring plays within the space of 13 seconds set a Super Bowl record.
Bruce Coslet, the special teams coach for Cincinnati, welcomed the squib kicks. "I'd like to see teams squib kick against us all the time," he said. "Nine times out of 10 we'd wind up with good field position."
Griffin, who said he was surprised that the Niners would try a squib kick, revealed that "I used to have a theory on that kind of kick, that the first two bounces would be funny and the next bounce would be high. Today they all were funny."
Walsh's halftime oration to the troops emphasized that "I wasn't comfortable with the lead. I told them what to expect. We knew we were playing a great team. Maybe if it had been 24-0, the Bengals might have caved in, but not with the score 20-0."
John Ayers revealed that the coach had instructed the Niners to treat the second half as though the score was 0-0.
"He told us we would have to score at least two more times," reported the left guard. "He told us we couldn't let their offense on the field too long or eventually Anderson would burn us."
Gregg's halftime pitch to the Bengals scaled no emotional peaks. "I reminded 'em," said the coach, "that we had been behind before. I referred to our first game of the season when we came from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to beat Seattle. We didn't do anything different in the second half. We just played better."
The improvement was noticeable immediately after Wersching's second-half kickoff. Nine plays, plus two Niner face mask penalties, carried Cincinnati to the San Francisco 5-yard line, from where Anderson, after dropping back to pass, sprinted into the end zone.
Two possessions later, the Bengals were at midfield with 6:53 remaining in the third period. The Bengals were pushed back to their own 41 and Fred Dean, the defensive end obtained from San Diego, made matters worse by tackling Anderson for another four-yard loss, one of four Niner sacks during the game. But Anderson, on a third-and-23 situation, connected with Collinsworth for 49 yards to the San Francisco 14.
Five plays, including Johnson's fourth-and-one plunge from the 5 that netted two yards, resulted in a first-and-goal at the 3. Johnson hit center for two yards and then left guard, where he was stopped by John Harty for no gain. On third down Anderson passed to Charles Alexander in the right flat, but linebacker Dan Bunz came up fast, grabbed the receiver around the waist, and hurled him backward before he could break the plane of the goal line. Had Bunz tackled him low, Alexander's momentum would have carried him into the end zone.
Disdaining a field goal, the Bengals gave the ball again to Johnson, who was stopped by the entire defensive line for no gain.
"It was the first time all season we were stopped on that play," asserted Forrest Gregg. "If I had to do it again, I'd still give it to Pete."
Concerning the decision to pass up the field goal, Gregg said, "I figured that even if we didn't make it, it would put the 49ers on the 1-yard line. It worked out that way. We held and they punted to us. Then we scored to make it 20-14."
According to offensive coordinator Lindy Infante, "It was a staff decision to go for the touchdown. We had run twice to the left, and David Verser missed a block on the second call because of the crowd noise. He failed to pick up an audible blocking change.
"Rather than run to the same place three times, we felt we could go to the right. We had great success with that play all season, but the 49ers got great penetration."
In Cincinnati lineman Dave Lapham's opinion, "We just didn't move anybody off the ball. Their defense would shift as late as possible before the snap of the ball and we often didn't know who or where a guy would come into the gap. They forced us to change quite a bit on every play."
Johnson, the 249-pound battering ram who spearheaded the Cincinnati offense that ranked second best in the NFL, "saw the 49ers rise up at the snap of the ball. I figured I could go underneath. It just didn't work."
Middle linebacker Jack Reynolds, in his 12th consecutive playoff season, "thought Johnson would carry the ball in all those short-yardage situations."
As Bunz handled lead blocker Alexander on the fourth-down smash, Reynolds led the charge that snuffed out Johnson.
While Bill Walsh regarded the fourth-down stop of Johnson as "the play that won the game for us," Chuck Studley considered Bunz' tackle of Alexander more significant.
"Dan had to make a perfect tackle in the open, noted the defensive coordinator. "Here's a guy (Alexander) who weighs 220 pounds and can run and he has only a yard to go for the end zone . . . Bunz had to hit him perfectly to stop him."
Bunz thought at first that "Alexander would come up inside. I don't get but four or five good pops a game and I wasn't going to miss my chance."
Studley explained further: "The Bengals tried to shield Danny off and make him run around, but he hit Alexander quick in the flat. We worked like hell on that play."
The Bengals' second-down play from the one-yard line did not surprise Studley. "They double-teamed Archie Reese, but did not block John Choma (tackle) and ran right at the double team," said Studley. "They figured Choma would overpenetrate. What they didn't know was that we worked our tails off all week on that play, too."
Much of the post-game talk centered on the 49ers' goal line stand and the general belief that they had only 10 men on the field for two of the plays. But it was later discovered that only once did the 49ers play short-handed -- and that occurred on the fourth-and-one from the 5.
It was on that play that the 49ers replaced their pass defense with their goal-line alignment. But linebacker Keena Turner never got the message as defensive coordinator Chuck Studley's call was lost in the Silverdome noise.
Fellow linebacker Craig Puki later said that he thought Turner had missed two plays, but he was in his stance and evidently did not see Turner race onto the field at the last instance for the first-down play from the 3.
"What happened," revealed Studley, "is that I called for our goal line defense to go in, but Keena Turner thought I said 'giant' defense and didn't go in.
"The coaches upstairs spotted it. I kept asking myself, 'Who's missing?' Finally Keena realized I'd called for the goal-line defense."
The touchdown denied the Bengals in the third period was scored at 4:54 of the fourth, when Anderson passed four yards to tight end Dan Ross.
With their lead pared to six points, the 49ers turned to their time-consuming ground attack. In 10 plays, seven of them rushes, the Niners advanced 50 yards and, with 5:25 remaining, Wersching kicked his third field goal, a 40-yarder that raised the NFC club's lead to 23-14.
The Bengals' next-to-last possession of the game endured for just one play, on which an Anderson pass, intended for Collinsworth, was intercepted by Wright on the Cincinnati 47 and returned to the 22, where he fumbled when trying to lateral the ball to a teammate. Willie Harper recovered, however, for the 49ers. A 16-yard drive, eating up three minutes, moved the ball to the 6 and, on fourth down, Wersching kicked a 23-yard field goal with only 1:57 to go.
That was enough time for Anderson to complete six consecutive passes, none of which was run out of bounds to stop the clock.
Anderson's final pass was a three-yard heave to tight end Ross which, with Jim Breech's third extra point, narrowed the Cincinnati deficit to 26-21. When Breech's onside kickoff nestled in the arms of Dwight Clark, however, all that remained to seal the 49ers victory was for Montana to take a snap, retreat four yards and kneel gently on the synthetic turf as time expired.
After Commissioner Pete Rozelle's presentation of the Vince Lombardi Trophy to 49ers Owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr., a telephone was thrust into Walsh's hand.
Clapping his other hand over an ear to muffle the shrieks of exuberant players, Walsh said, "I thought it might be you calling."
On the other end of the line, President Ronald Reagan said, "I wanted to congratulate you. Tell the fellows they really did win one for the Gipper."
Reagan, a Californian, had portrayed legendary George Gipp, a Notre Dame star of more than six decades earlier, in a 1940 movie version of the life of Knute Rockne.
"I think Joe was thinking of the Gipper when we won. Thank you very, very much," said Walsh.
Montana, selected the game's most valuable player, completed 14 of 22 passes, ran for 18 yards in six carries and scored a touchdown.
At 25, Montana was the same age as Joe Namath when Broadway Joe led the New York Jets to a stunning upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
"Montana will be the great quarterback of the future," said Walsh of his third-year field general. "He is one of the coolest competitors of all time and he has just started."
Walsh and Montana denied allegations that the 49ers turned conservative during the third quarter when they had the ball for only nine plays in three possessions and failed to get beyond their 15-yard line.
"The Bengals were throwing every conceivable blitz at us," said Walsh. "We didn't want to get stopped by those blitzes. We went to our running game and our trapping game and that made the difference."
"We had our backs to the wall and bad field position hurt us," added Montana. "The only thing we could do was run the ball and hope we could get it out and punt."
Reviewing the game and the season, Gregg found much to engender optimism.
"We weren't even picked for third in our division," he noted. "We lost, but there is lots to be proud of. The team was loose all week and never tensed up. I think the players started thinking about what could have been instead of what was. After that it looked as if they were trying not to make mistakes."
The difference in the game, said Gregg, "was the four turnovers. You don't help a team like San Francisco with four turnovers. You can't spot 'em 20 points."
Paul Brown, founder and long-time coach of the Bengals, attributed the defeat to "too many mistakes early against a good team."
Then, turning to Gregg, he said: "Congratulations, you had a fine, fine season."