49ers dare to compare: 1981 vs. 2011

49ers dare to compare: 1981 vs. 2011
January 13, 2012, 8:45 pm
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Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. has been watching his former team -- every minute, of every game. That is, unless he gets to nervous and has to get up and walk around before coming back to the television.

Im having so much fun following it, DeBartolo said recently.

He talks to his nephew Jed York regularly, has given him advice (dont get the yips yet -- theres plenty of time for that) and lauds him for minding his own business and staying out of Jim Harbaughs way. He cringed when the lights went out at Candlestick How right was I when I called it a pigsty? he said referring to his 1985 remark -- and suspects Jed of pulling the plug.

And DeBartolo feels the vibe in the air -- one that brings back memories of 1981.

There are a lot of parallels, he said.

But DeBartolo thinks this 49ers team may be even better than his group.

Three-quarters of the guys on the 81 team are pissed off at me for saying this, he said, But position by position, all in all, this is a better football team.

Is he right? It sounds almost like blasphemy but is this a better football team than the 1981 team that started the dynasty and won the first of five Super Bowls?

I asked Randy Cross (@randycrossFB) on twitter Friday. He responded: In todays FB world I think today's players are the most talented ever but a TEAM wins a Championship, that remains to be seen. He added that this version of the 49ers has much more recognized Stars that's for sure. O-linemen of course not being Stars but overall yes.

So he agrees with DeBartolo though I would dispute that this version of the 49ers has more stars than that version did. Maybe the stars were young, back in 1981 but they were getting national attention.

Todays players are super-athletic, bigger and faste. Its hard to compare eras. But is this team, position by position in the context of its era, better than the 1981 team?

Lets take a look:

OFFENSE
The 2011 49ers are ranked 11th in overall offense, 29th in passing and 8th in rushing. In 1981, the offense ranked 7th overall, 7th in passing and 19th in rushing.

QUARTERBACK: Sorry Eddie. Everyone knows the 81 team was superior at the all-important position. Alex Smith has done a solid job and defied expectations. But Joe Montana is a once in a lifetime quarterback, a Hall of Famer who may be the best of all time.
EDGE: '81 49ers

OFFENSIVE LINE: Dan Audick, John Ayers, Fred Quillan, Randy Cross and Keith Fahnhorst made up the 1981 team. Audick, one of the original undersized left tackles, protected Montanas blind side until 1984. Cross was a six-time Pro Bowl selection. He along with Ayers, Quillan and Fahnhorst formed the rock of one of the best offenses in history for close to a decade. Anthony Davis, Joe Staley, Jonathan Goodwin, Mike Iupati and Adam Snyder have come together nicely. But get back to us in 2017 before we can say they were as good as that 81 unit.
EDGE: 81 team.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Since the current 49ers can barely field a full wide receiving squad the nod is automatically going to the 81 team. Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn, Jr. and Kyle Williams cant compete with Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon and a young Mike Wilson.
EDGE: 81 team.

RUNNING BACK: OK, Eddie this one absolutely belongs to the 2011 team. One of the most amazing things about the 81 team was what Bill Walsh did with virtually no running game. Ricky Patton? Bill Ring? Lenvil Elliott (who was awesome on the drive leading up to the Catch but did little leading up to that)? Frank Gore is one of the best in the league, a warrior, a player for the ages.
EDGE: 11 team.

TIGHT END: Though Bill Walsh was an innovator with this position, he didnt have the right weapon in Charle Young -- serviceable but not outstanding. Walsh would have loved to have Vernon Davis.
EDGE: 11 team.

DEFENSE
Both the 2011 49ers and the 1981 49ers were the second-ranked defenses in the league. The 2011 team is first at stopping the run, 16th against the pass. In 1981 the team was third in the league against the pass and 12th against the run.

DEFENSIVE LINE: In 1981, Jim Stuckey, Archie Reese, Lawrence Pillars and Dwaine Board were a formidable front and they made the play that sealed the 81 win, when Pillers sacked Danny White, forcing a fumble, and Stuckey recovered the ball. Ray McDonald, Justin Smith, Issac Sopoaga have been fabulous. Its hard to compare, because 1981 was the last year that the NFL did not keep defensive statistics on sacks. But we know the 49ers current front is excellent at getting pressure and better at stopping the run. The 49ers front seven is the best in football and it starts with these guys.
EDGE: '11 team.

LINEBACKERS: The 49ers linebacker corps Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith -- may go down as one of the greatest units in linebacking history. The 81 unit anchored by veteran Jack Reynolds and rookie Keena Turner, with Craig Puki and Willie Harper, was good but not all-world.
EDGE: '11 team.

SECONDARY: The 2011 defensive backfield has been opportunistic. Corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers and safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldon have held their own. But Dwight Hicks and the Hotlicks Hicks and his three rookies was a tremendous backfield. Ronnie Lott would go on to be a Hall of Famer, and was playing corner, on the other side Eric Wright was the best cover corner in his day and Carlton Williamson took care of business.
EDGE: '81 team.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Ray Wersching and punter Jim Miller were solid in 1981. The 49ers were 4th in kicking and punting. But Andy Lee and David Akers are indispensible, and field position and field goals have been a huge reason behind the 49ers record.
EDGE: '11 team

COACH
Bill Walsh. Jim Harbaugh may go to the Hall of Fame someday. Hes a fantastic coach. But in 1981, Walsh was changing the game forever.

VERDICT: Its very close. With the benefit of hindsight we can see the longevity and long-term greatness of 1981 team. But its pretty clear that -- aside from the running game and tight end -- the 1981 49ers were superior on offense. And that aside from the secondary (which will obviously be in the spotlight against the Saints) the 2011 49ers are superior on defense.

We know how the 1981 teams journey played out. The 2011 team is about to write its story.

Freelance writer Ann Killion is a regular contributor to CSNBayArea.com and Chronicle Live.

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