Joe Montana, O.J. Simpson, and the 1979 San Francisco 49ers

Joe Montana, O.J. Simpson, and the 1979 San Francisco 49ers
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How one of the NFL’s worst trades resulted in one of the League’s biggest Dynasty’s

The 1979 49ers had just moved on from their coach, turning to Bill Walsh, a now legendary coach who’s fame transcends the franchise. The team also drafted its Franchise quarterback, and one of the best players to play the position Joe Montana in the third round of the draft. These two moves will go down in history but the fortunes of the team may have been completely different but for an awful trade of their first pick of the 1979 draft for a running back the previous year.

Himself a former 1st pick in the draft 10 years earlier, O.J. Simpson is probably as well known for his misdemeanours off the field as he is his superb performances on it. Simpson was traded after starting only 7 games for the Bills in 1977 and fared no better in the 1978 season with the 49ers, starting 10 games for 593 yards. In his 2 seasons before retiring he would barely hit 1000 yards for the team and only scored 4 rushing touchdowns.  

Simpson was thrilled to be moving to San Francisco, having grown up as a 49ers fan, “Obviously, I’m ecstatic, I was a 49er fan when I was a kid and I’ve never stopped being a 49er fan.”

Simpson was traded to the 49ers for a 2nd and 3rd round pick in 1978, the 1st round pick in 1979, and 2nd & 4th round picks in 1980. The trade today looks huge, at the time the teams did not know that the 49ers would be trading away the first pick of the draft, though by today’s standards, players aren’t often traded for first round draft picks. In recent history there were only 10 players traded for a first-round pick between 2004 and 2014, and certainly none of them were running backs, (2 quarterbacks, 1 tackle, 4 receivers, 2 defensive linemen and 1 corner*).

Today running backs aren’t undervalued, but are understood to have shorter careers, and can be found much later on in the draft and often free agency, you only have to look at the Patriots success with a list of quite varied names to see that you don’t need to trade your entire draft for a Ricky Williams in the modern NFL.

It is heavily rumoured that the Simpson trade only happened to increase ticket sales at the 49ers Candlestick stadium, which was virtually empty for home games. The capacity at the time was 69,732, with the average attendance 1977 – 42705, 1978 – 41660, 1979 – 44308. If the move was purely financial, it didn’t work. General Manager Joe Thomas was quoted as saying “O.J. will be most important on the field; if we get the job done there the box office will take care of itself,”

Joe Montana wasn’t a success throughout college, he gained a reputation a s a ‘comeback kid’ before finally becoming a starter in his 4th year, leading Notre Dame to an 11-1 record and the National Title. This still didn’t mean a guaranteed high selection in the 1979 draft though, in which he fell to the third round because of perceived concerns over his athletic ability and arm strength.

New coaches often mean new quarterbacks and despite not having a first round pick Bill Walsh got his man. Montana was the ideal player for Walsh’s west coast offence, and the rest is history,

But what if the 49ers hadn’t made the huge trade for O.J. Simpson? If the 49ers had drafted a quarterback at #1 they may have gone for Jack Thompson of Phil Simms. Thompson played just 6 seasons in the NFL, making the playoffs once in 1981. Simms fared better with the Giants, a 2-time Superbowl Champion and First Team All-Pro in 1986.

History really is a funny thing, kicker Russell Erxleben was taken with the 11th pick in the first round of the same draft Joe Montana had to wait until the third round, parallels to Russell Wilson who was also picked in the third round behind former Jaguars punter Bryan Anger.

And so, what of the 49ers original 1st pick of the draft? The Bills used it on linebacker Tom Counsineau who turned down the Bills and played for Montreal in the Canadian Football League, on his return to the NFL he was traded to the Browns for a pick they used on quarterback Jim Kelly, funny how these things have a habit of coming back around…

*The players traded for first round picks between 2004 and 2014 were Randy Moss, Deion Branch, Jared Allen, Roy Williams, Jason Peters, Jay Cutler, Richard Seymour, Carson Palmer, Darell Revis and Percy Harvin. check out an awesome article on National Football Post for a comprehensive history of first round draft picks –

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