Bill Walsh, A Baseball Mind in a Football World

Bill Walsh passed away today, after a four-year bout with leukemia. He was 75 years old.

Bill Walsh was to the NFL what Google is to the internet of today. He came to his first and only head coaching job late in his career (47 years of age), but reinvented the offensive game with such simplicity and elegance, people hardly knew whether to praise, badmouth, or fear it. Heavily schooled in the so-called vertical game, he knew its holes and how defenses prepared for it. He not only found the players who could help him punch holes in defenses tolerant of short passing gains (most notably Joe Montana and Jerry Rice), but also drafted equally formidable defensive players like Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley.

So, how many Super Bowls in how many years as head coach? Three in ten years. The 49ers also won the Super Bowl the year after Walsh's departure, with Walsh's long-time defensive coordinator George Seifert as head coach. I consider Seifert largely underrated by football fans, owing to Walsh's long shadow, but still I think giving Walsh a silent assist on that season by no means suggests Seifert coasted through it; only one program was ever so good it didn't matter who was coaching. (It's worth mentioning, by the way, that the Seifert's 49ers came close to a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, but for the New York Giants.)

Like many people who share his caliber of intellect, Walsh had a hard time suffering fools, idle second-guessing, and simply not getting his way when convinced he was right. Success notwithstanding, individual brilliance only goes so far in a team/corporate environment before people want to work in some different way. Today it is Walsh's impact on the game, rather than the 49er franchise, that stands out. Counting the number of Walsh disciples who have become head coaches takes up more than a few fingers. Every major change in defensive strategy over the last 25 years responds to the West Coast Offense. There was a time when it became common wisdom to use six defensive backs in must-hold situations against the 49ers. That's the equivalent of triple-guarding a key player, or shifting your outfielders in center and left field only.

When I saw Walsh's teams play, I saw baseball on a gridiron. It was unbelievable on several levels. It was fruitless to try and explain what I meant by this to anyone, so I had to be content to be amazed on that point. But Walsh did not see the game strictly in terms of position, movement, speed, and player tendencies. He saw the intention of opposing defenses, and fed them something they were eager to eat -- a sense of what would happen next. Then he'd beat them, soundly, on execution. In the ensuing frustration, his team would dart everywhere you wanted them to be 10 plays ago. As was sometimes said of the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970's, many opposing teams didn't feel so much beaten as they did tricked. Come to think of it, if you want to see a likely prototype for Bill Walsh and Joe Montana in the 1980's, you could do worse than consider Tom Landry and Roger Staubach.

Bill Walsh was a fiercely bright man, methodical, prepared, sometimes rigid, but never fearful of his instincts. I loved listening to him speak, partly because he often delivered the unexpected, brilliant insight so casually. At a ceremony for Joe Montana some years ago, for example, Walsh introduced John Madden as a "true American." Hell yes! now that you mention it, but I would never have thought put it that way.

To Bill Walsh, one of the greatest ever to coach professional football.


Skylers Dad said...

Some of the talking sports heads said he lacked the fire in his belly to ever be a winner. I guess 3 super bowl wins doesn't matter because he doesn't throw things and spit out obscenities on the sidelines.

Michael said...

There are days in any broadcast when you just have to fill up the air or the page with something. Anything. So it's inevitable that sportscasters will complain about athletes and coaches who don't give them the Long Bomb, the Immaculate Reception, the back-to-back 100+ yard touchdown returns. I think it demonstrates how little most of those talking heads have to offer. No real insights. They feed on the carrion facts of the day and squawk their most immediate reactions to them.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Whatever. 49ers suck. Football sucks. Hockey is where it's at. What's up with the Sharks this year?

Michael said...

Sharks? What are these 'Sharks' of which you speak?