The game summary below is taken from my e-book chronicling the 10 Bill Walsh 49ers teams, especially the championship ’81, ’84, and ’88 teams. If you’re interested, that project is available for about $10, and smaller e-books are also available covering, for example, just the ’84 season and the 1982 NFC title game. Well, here is my summary of what at the time was the 49ers’ most memorable win in many years, and a game that set the stage for the start of the franchise’s long dynasty.
The 1980 Niners’ 3-0 start had turned into a 5-8 record, but one might have expected a win at home, against an 0-13 Saints team, on Sunday, December 7, the Pearl Harbor anniversary. It isn’t at all promising early in the game: the Saints, led by Archie Manning, get 324 yards in the first half, have the ball two-thirds of the time, and score five touchdowns on 20 first downs. While the Niners gain 21 yards and get two first downs in the half, the Saints are compiling five lengthy, productive drives. Freddie Solomon provides the one saving grace with a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown halfway through the second quarter. Montana, who had begun starting games after a 59-14 debacle at Dallas in the fifth game, goes 8-12 but is sacked three times, with seven net passing yards. It’s 35-7 at the half. Walsh rallies the troops in the locker room, telling his players to keep themselves in the game even though it’s probably out of reach.
After the half, James Owens fumbles the opening kickoff and recovers it, but only gets to the 49er 12. Nonetheless, the Niners go 88 yards in nine plays, featuring a 48-yard pass to Clark, and Montana runs in the ball from a yard out. Just a few minutes later, the Niners start from their 18. After getting a first down, Montana throws a crossing pattern pass to Clark, who keeps running after the catch, gets past Dave Waymer, and runs it in for a 71-yard score. The Saints come back with a strong drive, but Jimmy Rogers fumbles the ball at the Niner 17, Gerard Williams recovers, and the Niners keep their comeback going. An 83-yard drive ends with a 14-yard throw to Solomon, and it’s 35-28. One last fourth quarter drive takes the ball 78 yards in eight plays after a second Saints fumble, and Lenvil Elliott pushes the Niners to a tie with 1:50 left on his 7-yard run into the end zone.
The Saints get the ball to begin overtime, but are stopped after getting one first down: Dwight Hicks intercepts a deep throw down near his goal line. After the exchange of a couple punts, the Niners take over at their 26, and are stopped on third down at their 39. But a late hit penalty on Steve Parker hands them a first down and the ball at the Saints 46. From there, the Niners move the ball enough to set up Ray Wersching for the game winner, a 36-yard field goal with 7:40 gone in the period.
In the second half, aside from the Jimmy Rogers fumble, the Saints have Henry Childs fumble at the Niner 13 after a 30-yard catch, and, at the end of the third quarter, with the wind at their back, the Saints fail to call timeout on fourth down at the SF 28 to kick a field goal. When the fourth quarter started, they decide to punt. Those three lost opportunities cost New Orleans the game. The Niners’ 409 yards after halftime compares to the Saints’ 195, and they have a 22-7 advantage in first downs. Elliott gains 111 yards after the half, and 125 for the game, in his best NFL performance. Ninety-one of his yards come on the Niners’ last two touchdown drives. The 38 points are the 49ers’ most since 1973, in a 40-0 defeat of the Saints.
John Brodie: “I’ve never enjoyed a football game that much.”
Saints safety Tom Myers: “This was the worst ever—worse than the Monday night last year when we blew a 35-14 lead. It was worse because that wasn’t Kenny Stabler and the Oakland Raiders out there.”
Walsh, looking back on his coaching career: “There were only two games that produced absolute euphoria—this one and the 1987 game at Cincinnati, when we scored on the very last play.”
Cross on the reason for the poor opening: “What do you think? I’ve never seen us so flat.”
Tackle Ron Singleton: “After we got those two quick touchdowns, I think they started questioning themselves. Once you get into that losing syndrome, you start doing that. You could see it on the field.”
And, on the opening of the game: “We came out thinking we were just gonna line up and do it to them. Offensively, we got surprised, and defensively, they just started taking it to us. They shocked us.”
Walsh: “I think that was an experience for all of us. I’ve never been associated with a game where a team came back so strong.”