Bill Walsh is enshrined in professional football history for the success he crafted as head coach and architect of the San Francisco 49ers.
But for all the accolades Walsh so richly deserves, he also is tagged in NFL “ignominy” for the greatest one season collapse by an organization in the annals of the game. OK, it was at the end of the strike shortened ’82 season and seven NFL regular season games were lost, but the defending Super Bowl Champion 49ers posted only 3 wins in comparison to their 13 the previous season. That goes down as the worst collapse in NFL regular season history.
Here are the Top 5 Tailspins.
-10 San Francisco 49ers ’81 (13-3) to ’82 (3-6)
Walsh’s 49ers were coming off the first of his three Super Bowl conquests when the season was abruptly interrupted by the player strike. All three wins came on the road, but San Francisco wasn’t able to defend Candlestick Park in ‘82. Passing Efficiency remained solid under Montana, actually increasing from 9th to 3rd in the League rankings. There was a slight bump in Interception & Sack % by the offense, but it was the defensive collapse that couldn’t withstand the shortened season. The 49ers dropped from 3rd to 23rd in defensive pass efficiency, 17th to 25th in sack %, 6th to 25th in interceptions. The swing in turnovers from +23 to -8 put the defending Super Bowl Champs one game ahead of the lowly Rams and out of the playoffs.
-10 Houston Oilers ’93 (12-4) to ’94 (2-14)
Where do I start? The Oilers had finished their 7th straight season in the playoffs with no Super Bowl birth to show for it. The “run & shoot” was the center of plenty of controversies, not to mention Buddy Ryan’s punch of Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the last week of the ’93 NFL regular season. Ryan left the Oilers to take over the Arizona Cardinals in ‘94, Pro Bowl QB Warren Moon moved on to the Minnesota Vikings, and Jack Pardee would be fired in the middle of an 11 game losing streak. “Luv Ya Blue” dropped from 11th to 24th in Passing Efficiency and Jeff Fisher would take over for a franchise that eventually wore out its welcome in Houston and was sent packing to Tennessee.
-9 Atlanta Falcons ’98 (14-2) to ’99 (5-11)
1998 found Dan Reeves and the Dirty Birds in their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history after upsetting the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship. Atlanta capitalized on the unexpected balance of Chris Chandler’s #2 ranking in Pass Efficiency (despite 45 sacks) and Jamal Anderson’s 1846 yards rushing. But after an 0-2 start the following season, Anderson tore his right ACL & MCL and missed the remainder of the season. The Falcons running game dropped from 10th to 29th in yards per attempt. Atlanta’s only consecutive wins came at the end of the season and kept the Birds from the dirty record of the NFL’s all-time single season collapse.
-9 Chicago Bears ’01 (13-3) to ’02 (4-12)
The Bears bypassed yours truly selecting Jerry Angelo as GM in 2001 and the resulting record made Ted Phillips’ decision look pretty good. Chicago captured the NFC Central and a resulting bye before falling to Philadelphia at home in the divisional playoffs. The Monsters of the Midway were carried by their defense in 2001 that masked an offense ranked at the bottom of most categories. But the loss of two longtime starters in the secondary, Walt Harris (IND) and Tony Parrish (SF), dropped the Bears defense from #1 to #24 in a single season; defensive pass efficiency from #14 to #25, Interception % #15 to #32. The offense didn’t pick up the slack. If not for the dependable Detroit Lions (3-13), the Bears would have landed “first to worst”.
-9 New York Giants ’63 (11-3) to ’64 (2-10-2)
Even the “throwbacks” weren’t immune to monumental collapses. The legendary Y.A. Tittle had taken New York to the brink of an NFL Championship in 1963, only to fall to the Chicago Bears on a Billy Wade 1 yard rushing TD in the 3rd quarter. Did I mention it was only 4 degrees? Tittle teamed up with Frank Gifford, Phil King and Joe Morrison for the NFL’s #1 Offense, and the G-Men’s defense was equally stingy ranking #5 overall. But without King and Morrison in the backfield the following season, New York’s offense fell to #13 and the point differential of +168 in 1963, swung a total of 326 to -158 in 1964. The Giants finished dead last in the NFL East.
One interesting note – 4 Super Bowl winning head coaches finished just out of the TOP 5 at -8; Bill Parcells, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick and Steve Mariucci. Go figure….