1981 San Francisco 49ers season

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1981 San Francisco 49ers season
Head coach Bill Walsh
Home field Candlestick Park
Record 13–3
Division place 1st NFC West
Playoff finish Won Divisional Playoffs (Giants) 38–24
Won NFC Championship (Cowboys) 28–27
Won Super Bowl XVI (Bengals) 26–21
49ers76 83.png
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< 1980 1982 >

The 1981 San Francisco 49ers season was their 32nd season in the National Football League. Under third-year head coach Bill Walsh, the team finished the regular season with a 13–3 record.The season would be one of the franchise's most successful seasons to that point.

The 49ers won Super Bowl XVI by defeating the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals. It was the first of five Super Bowl victories in franchise history, all within the next 13 seasons.

Quarterback Joe Montana began the 1981 season as San Francisco's starting quarterback. Montana produced two fourth-quarter comeback victories. Montana's signature game of the season was the NFC Championship Game, which culminated in "The Catch," a last-minute touchdown pass from Montana to Dwight Clark, propelling the 49ers to victory over Dallas, and a berth in their first Super Bowl.


NFL Draft[edit]

A turning point for the franchise was the drafting of safety Ronnie Lott from the University of Southern California. Lott would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Round # Pick # Player Position College
1 8 Ronnie Lott Defensive Back USC
2 36 John Harty Defensive Tackle University of Iowa
2 40 Eric Wright Defensive Back University of Missouri
3 65 Carlton Williamson Defensive Back University of Pittsburgh
5 121 Lynn Thomas Defensive Back University of Pittsburgh
5 122 Arrington Jones Running Back Winston-Salem State University
6 147 Pete Kugler Defensive Tackle Penn State
8 203 Garry White Running Back University of Minnesota
11 286 Ron DeBose Tight End UCLA
12 313 Major Ogilvie Running Back University of Alabama
12 322 Joe Adams Quarterback Tennessee State University



1981 San Francisco 49ers staff
Front office

Head coaches

Offensive coaches

Defensive coaches

Special teams coaches

  • Special Teams – Milt Jackson

Strength and conditioning

  • Strength and Conditioning – Al Vermeil


1981 San Francisco 49ers roster

Running backs

Wide receivers

Tight ends

Offensive linemen

Defensive linemen


Defensive backs

Special teams

Reserve lists

Practice squad

Rookies in italics
Active, Inactive, Practice squad

Regular season[edit]

With the offense in good shape, Walsh and the 49ers focused on overhauling the defense in 1981. Walsh took the highly unusual step of overhauling his entire secondary with rookies and untested players, bringing on board Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson and giving Dwight Hicks a prominent role. He also acquired veteran linebacker Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds and veteran defensive lineman and sack specialist Fred Dean.

These new additions, when added to existing defensive mainstays like Keena Turner, turned the 49ers into a dominant team. After a 1–2 start, the 49ers won all but one of their final games to finish with a 13–3 record, easily the best record in the team's history. Additionally, the 49ers defense yielded more than 20 points in only three games. Dean made the Pro Bowl, as did Lott, in his rookie season, and Hicks.

Led by Montana, the unusual offense was centered around the short passing game, which Walsh used as ball control. Both Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon had excellent years receiving; Clark as the possession receiver, and Solomon as more of a deep threat. The 49ers running game, however, was among the weakest for any champion in NFL history. Ricky Patton led the 49ers with only 543 yards rushing. The 49ers' most valuable running back, however, might have been Earl Cooper, whose strength was as a pass-catching back (he had 51 catches during the season).


Week Date Opponent Result Score Record Attendance
1 September 6, 1981 at Detroit Lions L 17–24 0-1
2 September 13, 1981 Chicago Bears W 28–17 1-1
3 September 20, 1981 at Atlanta Falcons L 17–34 1-2
4 September 27, 1981 New Orleans Saints W 21–14 2-2 44,433
5 October 4, 1981 at Washington Redskins W 30–17 3-2 51,843
6 October 11, 1981 Dallas Cowboys W 45–14 4-2 57,574
7 October 18, 1981 at Green Bay Packers W 13–3 5-2 50,171
8 October 25, 1981 Los Angeles Rams W 20–17 6-2 59,190
9 November 1, 1981 at Pittsburgh Steelers W 17–14 7-2 52,878
10 November 8, 1981 Atlanta Falcons W 17–14 8-2 59,127
11 November 15, 1981 Cleveland Browns L 12–15 8-3 52,455
12 November 22, 1981 at Los Angeles Rams W 33–31 9-3 63,456
13 November 29, 1981 New York Giants W 17–10 10-3 57,186
14 December 6, 1981 at Cincinnati Bengals W 21–3 11-3 56,796
15 December 13, 1981 Houston Oilers W 28–6 12-3 55,707
16 December 20, 1981 at New Orleans Saints W 21–17 13-3 43,639


NFC West
San Francisco 49ers(1) 13 3 0 .813 5–1 10–2 357 250 W5
Atlanta Falcons 7 9 0 .438 3–3 6–6 426 355 L3
Los Angeles Rams 6 10 0 .375 2–4 5–7 303 351 L1
New Orleans Saints 4 12 0 .250 2–4 2–10 207 378 L4



NFC Divisional Playoff[edit]

San Francisco 49ers 38, New York Giants 24
1 2 3 4 Total
Giants 7 3 7 7 24
49ers 7 17 0 14 38

at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California

The Giants were making their first appearance in the postseason since 1963. First year starting quarterback Joe Montana led the 49ers to victory in his first ever playoff game, completing 20 of 31 passes for 304 yards and 2 touchdowns, with 1 interception. His top target in the game was receiver Dwight Clark, who caught 5 passes for 104 yards.

Scoring Summary

1st Quarter

SF- Charle Young 8 yard pass from Joe Montana (Ray Wersching kick) SF 7–0

NYG- Earnest Gray 72 yard pass from Scott Brunner (Joe Danelo kick) TIED 7–7

2nd Quarter

SF- Ray Wersching 22 yard field goal SF 10–7

SF- Freddie Solomon 58 yard pass from Joe Montana (Ray Wersching kick) SF 17–7

SF- Ricky Patton 25 yard rush (Ray Wersching kick) SF 24–7

NYG- Joe Danelo 48 yard field goal SF 24–10

3rd Quarter

NYG- Johnny Perkins 59 yard pass from Scott Brunner (Joe Danelo kick) SF 24–17

4th Quarter

SF- Bill Ring 3 yard rush (Ray Wersching kick) SF 31–17

SF- Ronnie Lott 20 yard interception return (Ray Wersching kick) SF 38–17

NYG- Johnny Perkins 17 yard pass from Scott Brunner (Joe Danelo kick)SF 38–24

NFC Championship Game[edit]

San Francisco 49ers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27
1 2 3 4 Total
Cowboys 10 7 0 10 27
49ers 7 7 7 7 28

at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California

The 49ers were making their third appearance in the NFC Championship Game. Their opponent was their opponent for the two previous NFC Championship Games-the Dallas Cowboys. In both previous matches, the 49ers had lost the game. The game is remembered for "The Catch". The play, remembered in 49er lore as "Red Right Tight—Sprint Right Option" had called for both the primary receiver, Solomon, and Dwight Clark to line up on the right. Montana was supposed to roll to his right and find Solomon. Clark's pattern called for him to cut left across the end zone, stop, and immediately reverse his path to the right. If Solomon were covered, it would be up to Montana to find Clark. Due to the pressure, Montana's pass was high, but Clark was in position to make his memorable grab. Future New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady who grew up in the Bay Area, attended the game as a four year old.

A photograph of the catch, with Clark at the height of his leap and Everson Walls reaching out to try to block the ball, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.

Scoring Summary

1st Quarter

SF- Freddie Solomon 8 yard pass from Joe Montana (Ray Wersching kick) SF 7–0

DAL- Rafael Septien 44 yard field goal SF 7–3

DAL- Tony Hill 26 yard pass from Danny White (Rafael Septien kick)DAL 10–7

2nd Quarter

SF- Dwight Clark 20 yard pass from Joe Montana (Ray Wersching kick)SF 14–10

DAL- Tony Dorsett 5 yard rush (Rafael Septien kick)DAL 17–14

3rd Quarter

SF- Johnny Davis 2 yard rush (Ray Wersching kick)SF 21–17

4th Quarter

DAL- Rafael Septien 22 yard field goal SF 21–20

DAL- Doug Cosbie 21 yard pass from Danny White (Rafael Septien kick) DAL 27–21

SF- Dwight Clark 6 yard pass from Joe Montana (Ray Wersching kick) SF 28–27

Super Bowl XVI[edit]

San Francisco 49ers 26, Cincinnati Bengals 21
1 2 3 4 Total
49ers 7 13 0 6 26
Bengals 0 0 7 14 21

at Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan

Scoring summary:

1st Quarter

  • SF – Joe Montana 1 yard run (Ray Wersching kick) 7–0 SF

2nd Quarter

  • SF – Earl Cooper 11 yard pass from Joe Montana (Ray Wersching kick) 14–0 SF
  • SF – Ray Wersching 22 yards 17–0 SF
  • SF – Ray Wersching 26 yards 20–0 SF

3rd Quarter

  • CIN – Ken Anderson 5 yard run (Jim Breech kick) 20–7 SF

4th Quarter

  • CIN – Dan Ross 4 yard pass from Ken Anderson (Jim Breech kick) 20–14 SF
  • SF – Ray Wersching 40 yards 23–14 SF
  • SF – Ray Wersching 23 yards 26–14 SF
  • CIN – Dan Ross 3 yard pass from Ken Anderson (Jim Breech kick) 26–21 SF

Awards and records[edit]


  1. ^ San Francisco 49ers. ""2008 Media Guide". p. 372.
  2. ^ 2010 NFL Record and Fact Book (PDF). National Football League. p. 385. Retrieved February 25, 2011. 

External links[edit]