- A Nearly Perfect Season: The Inside Story of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers by Chris Wills
The author of four previous books on the early years of professional football’s history, Chris Wells has shifted his focus in A Nearly Perfect Season from the sport’s origins to its more modern era. In doing so, he has delivered a detailed and readable chronicle of the [End Page 462] year between the San Francisco 49ers’ loss to the Washington Redskins in the 1983 NFC championship game and the 49ers’ decisive victory over Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins in the 1985 Super Bowl.
This is a narrative account of the team’s activities during those fourteen months, and it delivers exactly what one would expect such a project to deliver. With multichapter sections on “the team,” “training camp,” “the 1984 regular season,” “the postseason,” and “Super Bowl XIX,” A Nearly Perfect Season offers readers close descriptions of how the team used Pro Bowl free safety Dwight Hicks’s speech after the championship game loss to the Redskins as a rallying point and catalyst for the team’s historic 18–1 march to the next year’s championship. Throughout his discussions of the 49ers’ week-by-week progress and the games’ drive-by-drive (and sometimes play-by-play) twists and turns, Wells provides engaging character sketches of players, coaches, and executives, many of whom have great significance to football history, while many others do not. While A Nearly Perfect Season has the expected focus on Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, and Hacksaw Reynolds, its discussion of the 49ers’ season also allows for interesting cameos by other stars of the era, including Ken Stabler, Ron Jaworski, Lawrence Taylor, Don Shula, and Gerald Riggs. Reading about how the 49ers prepared for these luminaries is one of the highlights of Wells’s account.
The book’s focus remains, however, on the steps taken to assemble and maintain a championship-level team. Wells suggests that the 49ers’ success stemmed from several factors, on top of individual players’ talent and commitment. In arguments that are often more implicit than explicit, Wells offers valuable insight into what made this team special. The reasons varied from the structural and institutional to the personal. Everything began, in this telling, with owner Eddie DeBartlo Jr.’s commitment to doing things “first class” and his connections to players. Additionally, Walsh’s innovative mind and his attention to detail clearly contributed to the team’s victories. Most football fans will know about Walsh’s habit of scripting the first twenty-five plays of the game, but Wells reveals that Walsh hand-drew each of the plays for the week as a way of rethinking their design. Wells depicts the closeness and sheer quality of the 49ers’ coaching staff as another reason for the team’s dominance, paying special attention to the complicated schemes and the situational substitutions of defensive coordinator George Siefert. When discussing the Super Bowl triumph over the Dolphins, Wells highlights the advantages the 49ers had in playing a virtual home game in Stanford Stadium and the motivation the whole team, but especially Montana, felt when the media focused on the seemingly unstoppable Dolphin offense in the weeks before the game.
To write an engaging book on the events of a single season, Wells needed access to a variety of sources; just as importantly, he needed to use those sources to give readers a feel for the personalities in and around the locker room. He has done that. Through interviews with almost every surviving player from the team, the coaches, and many of the support and front-office staff, Wells provides the types of details that make books such as this interesting. In his chapters, we learn about how important it was that Walsh took his coaches and their families out for dinner after every victory, the ways that the spartan offices and practice facilities benefitted the team by forcing players and coaches to spend time together, the...