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Lesson from Bill Walsh

How did Bill Walsh turn around the doormat 49ers? 

In 1979,  Bill Walsh was named head coach of the pitiful San Francisco 49ers.  And in two years, he won a Super Bowl Championship.  What was his recipe for success?  Besides being an offensive genius, Walsh was an excellent evaluator of talent.  He used the draft to build his team. Walsh called the draft, “the very foundation of the National Football League”.  From the book The Genius written by David Harris, Walsh’s uncanny ability at picking players was his secret to success.  Predicting success in football, as Walsh did, was a three dimensional process, requiring not only an assessment of athletic talent but also the ability to project a player into the situation in which he would be used. And, at this, no one was better than Bill, aided immeasurably by the fact that he wasn’t picking players for someone else to coach but players he would put to use himself.  After a disappointing 2-14 season in 1979, the 49ers in 1980 finished with a 6-10 record.  Despite making strides, Walsh was distraught with the play of his defense. “Nothing is quite so discouraging to a team”,  Bill pointed out, “as knowing no lead is safe because the other team can score so quickly through the air.”   

After what happened to the Giants in 2009, does this sound familiar?  A parallel can be made between the current Giants squad and Walsh’s team from 1980.  From Sports Illustrated,  Last year San Francisco allowed the third most passing yards in NFL history (3,751). Even worse, opponents’ receivers were allowed to cruise free and easy. Although Walsh’s system of offense can compensate for lack of talent;  however, defense is a different story.  According to Walsh,  talent on defense was essential and could not be compensated  for. What did Walsh do in 1981?  He acquired physical and talented players on defense.  Adding Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson, and Eric Wright through the draft improved a weak secondary. Subsequently, Walsh acquired veterans  Jack Reynolds and Fred Dean.  With this infusion of talent, Walsh finally had his type of defense.  During the 1981 season, Walsh told Sports Illustrated,  “The role of the defense was to go in and hit them so hard and quick that we’d shatter them, we’d shock them.”  

At this moment, the Giants are not a  physical defense. After the dismal 2009 campaign was over,  management and coaching staff echoed: this team was not physical enough.   Translation:  physical is the buzzword for toughness.  Recently, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin was in attendance at the University of Alabama’s pro day.  Asked about the Alabama draft prospects which includes linebacker Rolando McClain, Coughlin replied, “Quite a few of them are,” he said. “How can they not be? That’s the way it is. Good football team. Well coached. Physical. Plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”   

Because the Giants are drafting 15th in the first round, McClain may be off the board.  Even if the Giants cannot get McClain, they are zeroing in on adding physical defensive players who can improve their defense. Like Walsh in 1981, it is conceivable, the Giants will select defensive players with their first three picks. As a matter of fact, Walsh had a total of  eleven picks, six of those picks were defensive players.  Unimpressive?  Not really- The first 5 picks were all defense.  Earlier this month, the Giants added veteran safety Antrel Rolle to their roster.  As a result of the release of starting middle linebacker Antonio Pierce and the injuries and inconsistent play from Michael Boley and Gerris Wilkinson,  they need to address their middle and weak outside linebacker positions.  Furthermore, to add depth to the defensive backfield, a hard hitting safety is also an area of need.  Hopefully, with a new defensive coordinator and the addition of physical players, the Giants will turn things around in 2010.  Those key additions in 1981, without question, put the San Francisco 49ers over the top.  Remember rule 27:  Defense wins championships.