49ers, filthy hippies & pigskin passology

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 14, 2009



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts doctor of passology
 
San Francisco is known for many things: the sheer physical beauty of its hilltops that overlook the gorgeous golden gateway to the Pacific, great beer, awesome garlic fries, filthy hippies who still infect the city like hideous black buboes, and one of the nation's top football franchises.
 
It's a franchise that provides your friendly neighborhood pigskin passologist, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, a cadaver to dissect and study the all-encompassing importance of the air game when it comes to success in the NFL. It also provides us a window into San Francisco's prospects for the future as they struggle to recover from their 45-10 loss to Atlanta last week and struggle to return to prominence as a pro football powerhouse.
 
(Sorry, San Fran, can't help you with the filthy hippies ... we suggest blood-sucking leeches or a nice shower and a haircut. We're doing our part: note the image of the Troll on a humanitarian trip to Haight-Ashbury to hand out soap and toothpaste to the locals.)
 
Our discoveries prove fairly definitively that success in the NFL comes from success in the passing game on both sides of the ball.
 
In fact, not even analysts like Merril Hoge and the other "establish-the-run" classicists, whose idea of pigskin medicine is to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius or Nagurski, can refute the findings you're about to see.
 
An enviable history
The 49ers have been associated with gleaming offenses, and great passers specifically, since their very founding in 1946.
 
Frank Albert, a T-formation pioneer, ripped up the old AAFC in the 1940s – leading the league in TD tosses twice in its four-year history – before San Francisco joined the NFL in 1950. Albert ceded the starting role in 1952 to Y.A. Tittle, who went on to a Hall of Fame career.
 
Tittle moved on to the Giants in 1960, handing the reins over to John Brodie, who was consistently among the league leaders in passing yards and touchdown passes. Brodie's career fizzled out in the early 1970s, leaving a void at quarterback and leading to the franchise's dark days of the 1970s. But the 49ers rebounded famously in the 1980s and into the 1990s behind the Hall of Fame quarterbacking tandem of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
 
It's an enviable track record. In fact, two years ago, we named San Francisco the No. 5 franchise in NFL history.
 
It's also a track record that proves, in pretty stark terms, the No. 1 maxim of the Cold, Hard Football Facts: the passing game means everything in the NFL.  
 
Victories follow the ebb and flow of passing success
We wanted to know what San Francisco did well in its glory days and what it did poorly in its more recent sad-sack days. You already know that 49ers had a great passing game behind Montana and Young. But the Cold, Hard Football Facts also knew the story that's been so often overlooked by the pigskin "pundits" – the 49ers were also dominant on pass defense throughout the glory years.
 
So we decided to compile all the numbers.We looked at just a couple of Quality Stats throughout the past three decades of 49ers history: Passer Rating, Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential.
 
It was a fascinating and educational exercise. Put most simply:
  • The 49ers won when they had success in the passing game on both sides of the ball.
  • The 49ers lost when they had failure in the passing game on both sides of the ball.
We also discovered that success in the passing game and success in standings move almost in lockstep, like the ebb and flow of tides through the golden gate moving in lockstep with the pull of the moon.
 
In fact, passing success and victories move together so tightly that we can probably tell you, with only a tiny margin of error and with only one or two exceptions here and there, what the team's record was given nothing more than its offensive and defensive passer ratings.
 
Here's a look at the 49ers through the window of their passing game, starting with their last pre-Bill Walsh season in 1978.
 
49ers Offense/Defensive Passer Rating & Rating Differential (1978-present)
(* denotes Super Bowl champion)
Year
Record
OPR
DPR
NFL Avg.
PRD
1978
2-14
33.0
74.0
65.0
-41.0
1979
2-14
73.5
88.5
70.4
-15.0
1980
6-10
76.2
95.7
73.7
-19.5
1981*
13-3
87.7
60.2
72.9
+27.5
1982
3-6
88.6
82.0
73.4
+6.6
1983
10-6
94.9
78.0
75.9
+16.9
1984*
15-1
101.9
65.6
76.1
+36.3
1985
10-6
88.8
68.9
73.5
+19.9
1986
10-5-1
81.1
55.8
74.1
+25.3
1987
13-2
106.2
53.8
75.2
+52.4
1988*
10-6
83.5
72.2
72.9
+11.3
1989*
14-2
114.8
68.5
75.6
+46.3
1990
14-2
89.4
67.8
77.3
+21.6
1991
10-6
96.2
74.5
76.2
+21.7
1992
14-2
105.0
77.3
75.3
+27.7
1993
10-6
98.9
74.0
76.7
+24.9
1994*
13-3
111.4
68.1
78.4
+43.3
1995
11-5
93.6
64.1
79.2
+29.5
1996
12-4
88.0
68.4
76.9
+19.6
1997
13-3
93.6
63.6
77.2
+30.0
1998
12-4
101.2
74.0
78.3
+27.2
1999
4-12
70.7
99.8
77.1
-29.1
2000
6-10
97.0
86.4
78.1
+10.6
2001
12-4
95.0
70.3
78.5
+24.7
2002
10-6
86.0
80.9
80.4
+5.1
2003
7-9
84.0
78.6
78.3
+5.4
2004
2-14
69.9
96.5
82.8
-26.6
2005
4-12
53.6
94.2
80.1
-40.6
2006
7-9
74.4
90.9
78.5
-16.5
2007
5-11
64.3
89.9
80.9
-25.6
2008
7-9
81.4
85.0
81.5
-3.6
2009
3-2
80.2
76.3
82.5
+3.9
 
The Findings
The numbers are pretty amazing:
  • The 49ers have suffered a negative passer rating differential in nine seasons since 1978. They suffered losing campaigns every single one of those seasons.
  • The 49ers have enjoyed a positive passer rating differential in 23 seasons since 1978 (including their 3-2 mark here in 2009). They enjoyed winning campaigns in 20 of those 23 seasons.
But there's so much more to be pulled from these numbers.
 
The Bill Walsh Effect
The Wizard of Washington High arrived on the scene in San Francisco in 1979 and had an immediate impact.
 
The 1978 49ers had the worst passer rating (33.0) and the worst Passer Rating Differential (-41.0) in the NFL. Not coincidentally, they also had the worst record in the NFL (2-14).
 
A change was needed, and Walsh, a student of all-time offensive mastermind Paul Brown, provided it.
 
The 1979 49ers improved dramatically on offense, from the 33.0 passer rating of the year before to a very respectable 73.5 – a shade above the league-wide average of 70.4.
 
The improvement was clearly a function of the Walsh System. Sure, Joe Montana was drafted in 1979. But Steve DeBerg, the starter as a rookie for that dreadful 1978 team, was still the starter for the vastly improved 1979 offense (In fact, DeBerg would not cede the starting role to Montana until the end of the 1980 season).
 
However, the team continued to struggle on defense in both 1979 and 1980. In fact, San Francisco's pass defense was the worst in football both years (88.5 DPR, 95.7 DPR).
 
As a result, the 49ers continued to struggle in the standings, winning just 8 of 32 games those two seasons (2-14 again in 1979 and 6-10 in 1980). The 49ers were in desperate need of a major overhaul on defense, much like the major overhaul they enjoyed on offense in 1979.
 
The Ronnie Lott Effect
Walsh, like any good coach (and unlike Detroit management in recent years), knew that the passing game mattered on both sides of the ball, and knew that his team would never win without wholesale changes to the worst pass defense in football.
 
So in the 1981 draft, he devoted his first five picks to defense, led by spectacular USC cornerback/safety Ronnie Lott (No. 8 overall pick). Four of those five top picks were defensive backs. Three of them would earn starting jobs as rookies in the remodeled San Francisco secondary (Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson).
 
The turn-around in pass defense was dramatic and instantaneous. A team mired with the worst pass defense in football in 1980 (95.7 DPR) fielded one of the best pass defenses in football in 1981 (60.2 DPR).
 
And, it's no coincidence, the 1981 49ers ended the season with a franchise-record 13 victories and with the franchise's first-ever pro football championship.
 
The genius of Bill Walsh is not just that he built one of the greatest passing offenses the game has ever seen – that's the sole media storyline. The genius of Bill Walsh is that he also built one of the most consistently great pass defenses the game has ever seen.
 
(All those factless and clueless Patriots fans who have criticized us over the past two years for pointing out the irrefutable fact that Bill Belichick has lost his defensive mojo, a fact stated by CHFF most recently this week on Boston's WEEI.com, should pay careful attention to the lessons of Walsh's 49ers.)
 
An unbeatable combination
The 49ers now had a virtually unbeatable combination: a spectacular pass offense led by Joe Montana and a spectacular pass defense led by Ronnie Lott.
 
The organization was off and passing like no other team in history.
 
In the 18 seasons from 1981 to 1998, the 49ers enjoyed 10 or more wins every single year (except for the strike-shortened season of 1982). They won Super Bowls in 1981, 1985, 1988, 1989 and 1994.
 
The 49ers dominated the passing game on both sides of the ball throughout that stretch, with a positive passer rating differential every year of this run – a streak unmatched in NFL history.
 
In fact, it wasn't even close. In the 18-year stretch of dominance:
You might  have noticed in the chart above that San Francisco's Super Bowl champions were generally those that were most dominant in the passing game (with the obvious exception of the 1988 49ers, who overcame a humble 10-6 season to win it all).
 
The 1984, 1989 and 1994 Super Bowl champions were San Francisco's most dominant teams in the passing game (with the exception of the 1987 strike team ... but the fact that the '87 team dominated with replacement players is probably further tribute to the greatness of Walsh).
 
We all know about San Francisco's great passing offenses. But the 49ers enjoyed nearly two decades of non-stop success because, year after year, they paired a great passing offense with a great passing defense.
 
The 21st century
San Francisco's 18 years of dominance died with the 4-12 season of 1999.
 
Naturally, the death of the San Francisco dynasty can be measured in the passing game. The 1999 49ers produced the franchise's worst passing rating (70.7) since the pre-Walsh year of 1978 and the worst pass defense (99.8) since the pre-Lott year of 1980.
 
The team rebounded in 2001 and 2002 when its passing game rebounded. But since then, the organization has suffered six straight losing season. Dysfunction in the passing game is the reason why the 49ers have lost so consistently this decade: the 49ers have finished in the red in Passer Rating Differential in the last five losing seasons. It's a stark change from the years of dominance in this indicator during the championship days.
 
The tide has started to turn ever so slightly here in 2009. But if the 2009 49ers (3-2 and +3.9 in PRD) are to recapture the glory days of the past, they will, naturally, have to recapture dominance in the passing game.

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