Ira Miller on the 49ers – this season and 1981, a conversation

I did an interview with Ira miller, who, as you know, was the 49ers expert in the ’80s and ‘90s. He’s retired now, living in Illinois. What follows is the full transcript of our phone interview. A shorter version ran in the Press Democrat but did not get put on the web. If it gets posted later today, I also will put that on the blog so you can see what ran in the paper. In meantime, here’s Ira unedited.

Enjoy.

Q: What years did you cover the Niners?

IRA MILLER: “On a daily basis it was basically ’80 through ’98, but I covered them on and off through 2005. I also covered them in ’77, and then I covered the Raiders the next two years.”

Q: At what point did you know the ’81 Niners was a playoff team?

IRA MILLER: “It was one of those things that sort of built. They beat the Rams 20-17 about the middle of the season. They won a lot of close games. In a space of five weeks they won four games by two points or three points. But they beat the Rams 20-17, and I remember the headline in The Chronicle said, ‘This is Serious!’ with an exclamation mark.

“They started out by losing two of the first three games, and Bill Walsh in his paranoia was later quoted as saying I was preparing a series on his firing. But then they beat the Saints at home, and they won on the road in Washington which surprised all of us. And then they came home and beat the (crap) out of the Cowboys. And that was when it looked like something was different.

“The Rams were the team they had to get past in the division, and they’d beaten them like 18 times out of 20, or some ridiculous number, and they came home and they beat the Rams. The Rams had the ball in the 49ers half of the field five different times in fourth quarter and they couldn’t score.

“They started a drive at the 49ers 38 and went three and out. They started a drive on their own 49 and went three and out. They started a drive on the 49ers 45 – got down and missed a field goal. They started a drive at the 49ers 49 and got only to the 40. And then they started their last drive at their own 34 and got down and missed another field goal.

“The 49ers did not make a first down in the fourth quarter and the Rams kept having chances, but their defense stopped them.”

Q: At what point did you think they could go to the Super Bowl?

IRA MILLER: “Probably when the playoffs started. I mean, they were 13-3. The interesting thing was they played the Giants first and they beat them – I think they had already beaten them in the regular season – and then they played Dallas. It had rained like hell in the Bay Area so they went down to Anaheim to practice, and I remember sitting around the hotel one night, just sitting in the lobby and Sam Wyche came by and we started (shooting the breeze), and the coaches were supremely – even though that 45-14 score in the regular season was such a (large) shock – the coaches were supremely confident, and I specifically remember Sam was talking about the 49ers were just too fast for the Cowboys. They thought the Cowboys were an older, slower team, and the coaches just thought that their speed would kill them.

“And in a sense it did. People tend to forget – it was a 28-27 game, but the 49ers lost six turnovers in that game. I think there’s only been one playoff game in history that a team lost more than six turnovers and still won.”

Q: How surprised were you with the way that season unfolded?

IRA MILLER: “Very. Nobody saw it coming. They’d won a couple games at the end of the previous season, but Dallas was still good, the Rams were still the best team in the division allegedly. Nobody at all could have foreseen that coming.”

Q: What did Dwight Clark say in Pittsburgh about Joe Montana?

IRA MILLER: “It was – and I’m paraphrasing – they’d beaten the Steelers in the game where Carlton Williamson was knocking out the receivers, and I can’t remember why, but I was looking for something different, and I asked Clark, ‘What would you write about this game?’ And he said, ‘I’d write about Joe Montana, about how beat up he was.’ I think it was his ribs that were hurting, and how he was in such pain and helped them win the game.

“On the winning drive, Montana got them out of a first and 20. Montana to Solomon for 22. And then Montana ran for a first down on third and eight. They scored with 5:35 to go. I’m sorry, what was the question?”

Q: What did Dwight Clark say in Pittsburgh about Joe Montana?

IRA MILLER: “Oh, that was what he said, that he would write about how hurt and beat up he was. We didn’t know that.”

Q: The general thinking is that was an offense-oriented team, but you disagree.

IRA MILLER: “Yeah, that’s what people think. Like, ‘Oh! It was Joe Montana!’ He was good – he was on the cover of Time and he was on the cover of Newsweek and all that (stuff), but that team finished second in the league in defense and 13th in offense.”

Q: So you would characterize that team as a defensive team?

IRA MILLER: “Well, the defense was the strength of the team – the defense and a great quarterback. They couldn’t run the ball, although they did run it on that last drive against the Cowboys.”

Q: They were ranked 19th in rushing that season.

IRA MILLER: “That’s a (heck) of a lot better than they were the following year – they couldn’t run it across the room. The worst rushing since World War II as I recall – in that strike season. But yeah, once Fred Dean came along the defense carried the team. Look at all those close games they won.”

Q: What did the addition of Fred Dean and Hacksaw Reynolds mean for that team?

IRA MILLER: “Hacksaw taught them how to play, how to prepare. The great Hacksaw story Ronnie Lott tells – Hacksaw had all these pencils and he sharpened them all and he had all this preparation. He put on his uniform in the hotel. I mean Hacksaw was a character. But Ronnie Lott showed up for a meeting once and he didn’t have anything to write with and he asked Hacksaw if he could have one of his pencils, and Hacksaw said no. And Ronnie learned to be better prepared.

“And that was the thing about Hacksaw – he was not a great player but he was a really good player and he understood the game. He was a smart player. I don’t know if you’d characterize him as an overachiever, but the point was he worked at his craft. He was a no-nonsense, no-(b.s.) guy. He taught them how to practice and how to prepare.

“And Fred Dean, when he arrived, gave them that pass rush that Walsh always thought was so important – the pass rush in the fourth quarter.

“And the rookie DBs were out of this world, of course.”

Q: What did Ronnie Lott bring to that team?

IRA MILLER: “Talent! I mean I remember the first time I saw Ronnie Lott on the practice field up at Rocklin. I’d never seen anything like that. He didn’t look anything like what they’d had. I mean it was like a different world.”

Q: At what point did you realize that Joe was great?

IRA MILLER: “I think it just sort of built. I mean you go back – he started those games at the end of the 1980 season, and the big game there was against a New Orleans team that went 1-15. New Orleans had them 35-7 at the half and they came back won 38-35, and that’s still the biggest come-from-behind victory in league history in the regular season, coming from 28 points behind.

But he just seemed to be able to make plays. It wasn’t, ‘Joe Montana!’ – one word with an exclamation point at that point.”

Q: Did he get to that point in 1981 or was that later?

IRA MILLER: “That was later. That just sort of built. The thing about Joe Montana is he was a great quarterback for a number of years, but what ultimately made his reputation I think is the years he came back after the back surgery. That was the best stretch of his career in ’88, ’89 and ’90. You look at those numbers – he was otherworldly.”

Q: What made him so good in ’81, considering he didn’t have Jerry Rice or Roger Craig?

IRA MILLER: “Well he had Bill Walsh. Bill was great at not asking him to do things he couldn’t do. He put him in position. And again, to go back to ’80, he put him in in games in positions where he could call plays that gave him a chance to succeed. That built. And then when he struggled in ’80 he got him the (heck) out of there and put DeBerg back in there as the starter so he wouldn’t lose his confidence. And then later in the year he put him back him – he had that comeback against New Orleans.

“And then they beat New England late in the 1980 season. They were playing New England at home, and I can’t remember why DeBerg was in the game, if Montana had started. I just remember sitting in the press box and turning to somebody and saying, ‘This is about the time when DeBerg usually throws an interception.’ And he threw it and it was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. And that was the last pass he threw for the 49ers.”

Q: Would you say Montana was a game manager in ’81?

IRA MILLER: “Not really, no. They won all the close games in the fourth quarter. I don’t know if the word “game manager” had been invented yet. But he was also the league’s top-rated passer, and when he had to throw – they got into a shootout with the Rams for instance, down in L.A., and he brought them back to win that game on the last drive. Drove them down for a field goal. And as I said, he drove them down against the Steelers in the fourth quarter.”

Q: When did you realize Bill Walsh was great?

IRA MILLER: “Probably one of the times he told us. No, I’m kidding. I don’t know. That’s a good question. I can’t say it was one day where I realized, “This is pretty good.” Sometimes you hear coaches say that when you’re going through something you don’t really think about the whole thing. And I think that was part of it – we were just going through this and it was building week by week. And it’s not until you get to the end where you realize, ‘Hey, this is something pretty special.’

“But they had fourth quarter comeback victories that year against the Steelers on the road, against the Rams on the road and against New Orleans on the road. So that was pretty good. And then they also had that comeback victory in the championship game.

“Montana only got credit for two of those regular season comebacks. He didn’t finish the Saints game – that was the last game of the season. That was Guy Benjamin. Walsh took Montana out when he was sure he’d thrown enough passes and done enough to lead the league in passing. He had his P.R. guy on the phone checking his passer rating throughout the whole first half.”

Q: What was it like to cover that ’81 team?

IRA MILLER: “It was fun. It was new. It had never happened. The town was excited. And the guys were good to deal with – even Montana was pretty good to deal with then.”

Q: What was he like that season?

IRA MILLER: “He was a kid. I remember during the playoffs, they were still in Redwood City, and it’s getting dark at 5:00 because it’s late December and January, and he would stand there – there was a rec building next to where they were, a city building or a parks building – and he’d stay on that lawn until 5:30, 6:00, 6:30 in the dark talking to anybody that wanted to talk to him. And I remember thinking, ‘He’s never going to change.’ Boy, was I stupid.”

Q: Did he change as soon as they won the Super Bowl?

IRA MILLER: “No, it was kind of gradual. We didn’t really notice it until ’84 when it just sort of became obnoxious. He’d drive his car onto the practice field so he could get out without talking to anybody. That sort of thing.”

Q: Was the ’81 team a great team or a team that caught lightning in a bottle?

IRA MILLER: “I think it was a team that caught lightning in a bottle. I don’t think it was a great team. It had some players – Montana, Lott, Clark, some of those guys…Fred Dean. Well, Fred Dean was already a great player. But they had some other players who really became great players as they developed. But they were just kids. They didn’t know what they hell they were doing.

“And Walsh did a great job keeping them on an even keel, I remember Keith Fahnhorst talking about that, because with a young team you can get a little excited, and they never got to high and they never got too low. And of course Bill was really good at diverting the attention from the players onto himself with the things he would say.

“There was the time he took on Howard Cosell over the halftime highlights. They beat the Cowboys 45-14, and I think Dallas was going to be on Monday night the following week. My memory is they didn’t show the highlights of that game – that was when Cosell did the halftime highlights on the Monday night games. It was before ESPN got involved. I think they didn’t show the 49ers-Cowboys highlights if I remember right. But the point was Walsh went off in his Tuesday press conference about the New York media, the elite and all that. He went on that rant.

“And when they went to Cincinnati to play during the regular season – not the Super Bowl – he of course had coached at Cincinnati, and he was still angry at Paul Brown for passing him over for the head coaching job. In public it was never anything he would admit to. It was only afterwards that you would hear about it. The players would tell you how important that was to him.”

Q: Does the focus of the 2011 team seem similar or different than the focus of the 2011 team?

IRA MILLER: “I think the idea is probably the same. I mean, you win by keeping the other guys from scoring. I don’t think the current coach is as charming. And the era has changed so much that I don’t know about the fun part of it, if you follow what I mean. There’s all this baggage now around this team, with the stadium and the money issues and the Yorks, although certainly John being out of the picture has helped.”

Q: Both teams used the West Coast offenses. From what you’ve seen are the offenses similar?

IRA MILLER: “Yeah, one of the games I was at this year I remember looking at plays that I recognized. So yeah, there would be a lot of similarities.”

Q: Which team is better? ’81 or ’11?

IRA MILLER: “That’s a hard one. I would say that team was probably better relative to its competition, which is the only way I can judge – it’s a whole different era. This team could prove me wrong on that. I think this defense clearly has the best defense going into the playoffs, and getting New Orleans at home is a big help as opposed to having to go to New Orleans. I would give them no chance of beating the Saints in New Orleans. I wouldn’t be surprised if they beat them at home, particularly if the weather’s an issue.”

Q: Which team was more talented?

IRA MILLER: “That’s hard to say. With the ’81 team it all emerged at once. This current team, Frank Gore is already a known quantity, Willis is a known quantity. This team has players who have been around. That team all came out of the blue.”

Q: Would you say the 2011 Niners are a more surprising team than the 1981 Niners?

IRA MILLER: “What surprises me is that Harbaugh has been able to make Alex Smith a functional quarterback. The other thing that surprises me is we knew they had crappy coaching the last two years – we all knew that. But I also didn’t the talent level was all that good, and it clearly was better than anybody realized, so that means their personnel people had been doing a better job than most of us realized the last two years.”

Q: Now I have a question comparing Alex Smith and Joe Montana. Don’t laugh.

IRA MILLER: “They’re both right-handed.”

Q: Alex Smith’s 2011 regular season was comparable statistically to Joe Montana’s 1981 season. They both averaged 11.5 yards per completion. Smith had a slightly better QB rating – 90.7 as compared to Montana’s 88.4. Montana threw 19 TDs and 12 INTs while Smith threw 17 TDs and 5 INTs. And Montana had two fourth-quarter comebacks, Smith technically had five. What do you think of that?

IRA MILLER: “I think you can make almost any case you want out of statistics. Smith has Frank Gore. Joe didn’t have Frank Gore. Smith has the league’s No. 1 defense. Although Joe had the No. 2 defense, surprisingly. You can twist the numbers anyway you want – we know about Joe Montana. I think we’ve seen enough of Alex Smith to know – I don’t want to say this year’s an aberration and he’s going to revert – but I’m not convinced. This may be his career highlight.

“And let’s face it. His coaches came into this season not-to-sure about him. I still go back to the Dallas game when they took that 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to go up by 10 instead of the 15-yard penalty which would have given them a first down and a chance to try and go up by 14 because he didn’t want to put the ball back in Alex Smith’s hands. That’s all you need to know about what Jim Harbaugh thought about Alex Smith.”

Q: And it’s not like Bill Walsh ever pulled that move with Joe Montana.

IRA MILLER: “Yes. He got rid of DeBerg before the season, but he wasn’t worried about Montana’s psyche so he brought in a backup that he had coached at Stanford. My guess is Harbaugh has to worry about Alex Smith’s psyche too, and he doesn’t want a backup who could be perceived as any kind of a threat.

“Walsh built something that was lasting. Years after he was out of the organization they were still doing his thing. And for all of Walsh’s issues, he didn’t have this guy’s…I think this guy’s a little paranoid. He closes practices, does things like that. Walsh didn’t give a (crap) who was watching him practice.”

Q: Why not?

IRA MILLER: “Because he was supremely confident. Walsh was concerned with his things. He was worried about his team. He wasn’t worried about…he liked to screw with the writers –don’t get me wrong. He liked to throw out false things and get you chasing things and talking about things that didn’t matter. But deep down he didn’t worry about any of that (crap).”

Q: You alluded to Walsh’s charm. Could you describe it?

IRA MILLER: “With Walsh you could have a conversation. He never read the paper quote unquote, but he always knew what everybody wrote. He was great for starting off an answer, ‘Some people said we’re a finesse team,’ or, ‘Some people said we couldn’t win this game,’ but you never knew what you were going to get when you sat down to a press conference with Walsh.”

Q: You didn’t know the mood he was going to be in?

IRA MILLER: “No. He would never show that mood. You never knew where he was going to go with anything. The impression I get of Harbaugh is he is a bitter former player.”

Q: Mike Ditka threw him under the bus one too many times?

IRA MILLER: “Yeah. Ditka hated him, and it’s like he’s carried that with him.

“I think next year’s going to be very interesting. You’re going to be looking to see whether Alex Smith can improve. To use the cliché, can he take his game to the next level? Because he’s not an elite quarterback, and you look at the schedule they’ve got next year it’s going to get a little tougher.

“I think Seattle’s going to get better. St. Louis may get better. The division may get better. So it may not be quite the same cakewalk. Plus the expectations are going to be so different all of a sudden. Remember the 49ers went from winning that first Super Bowl to missing the playoffs.”

Q: How did Montana and Walsh handle those expectations in ’82?

IRA MILLER: “Not particularly well. They had a whole raft of drug problems on the team. It started in the offseason – Randy Cross broke his leg at an appearance at an amusement park. Things happen. As George Seifert was always fond of saying: ‘You don’t just pick up the next year from where the last year ended. Every year is new.’”

Q: Do you think Harbaugh would be able to handle losing like that?

IRA MILLER: “He should be able to – he’s lost before. From a distance, he just seems to me to be a very private person. I had very little dealings with him when he was a player, and I don’t remember him being particularly pleasant – although I know some of the Chicago writers liked him.

“I can’t tell if he gets any enjoyment out of this.”

Q: In ’81 you could tell Bill Walsh got a ton of enjoyment out of it?

IRA MILLER: “Yeah.”

Q: Harbaugh talks about the great thrill of victory but he doesn’t show it on his face.

IRA MILLER: “Harbaugh doesn’t seem like a joyful person.”

Q: Do you think that suggests he may not last a full ten years like Walsh did?

IRA MILLER: “Ten years is a long time for an NFL coach. He’s going to have to fix some things. I don’t think they’re going to be a consistent winner with this quarterback. Now, I might be wrong. I’ve never seen a guy who suddenly emerges in his seventh season.

“The thing that bothered me about Alex Smith last year – well, a lot of things bothered me about him other than the fact that I didn’t think he was the guy they should draft. Last year, that first game of the season when they had all that trouble getting the plays in. It was almost like he was pouting and blaming them for not getting the plays in. Here’s a guy who was the first pick in the draft in his sixth NFL season – you’re the freaking quarterback. Get up to the line of scrimmage and call a play. I had a real problem with that. But he seems to be a nice kid and he’s having a great year and good for him.”

Q: So you’re saying Montana would have called his own plays if they were coming in late?

IRA MILLER: “Yes. It looked to me like Alex missed out on the leadership gene. And again, it’s just an observation from a distance.”

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