Potent offenses & a floundering defense: The 1981 NFL season

In 1981, the NFL saw the birth of a new power in the West, while several stalwarts struggled to stay afloat. Let’s take a quick look at that year’s story and key numbers.

Fast facts

The 60th NFL season.

Number of teams: 28

Regular season length: 16 games

Super Bowl venue: Pontiac Silverdome (Pontiac, Michigan)

Super Bowl champion: San Francisco 49ers

Season summary

Perhaps the greatest story thread of the 1981 regular season was that of the San Francisco 49ers, who posted 13-3 mark behind a 25-year-old Joe Montana. It was by far the club’s best season, going all the way back to its 1940s roots in the All-American Football Conference, and it provided a beacon for a decade of success.

A few other teams also made the playoffs after years of futility, like the New York City franchises, both of which returned to the postseason for the first time since the 1960s. The Buffalo Bills made their second-straight playoff appearance after only one postseason berth the 13 years prior, and the Cincinnati Bengals won the AFC Central after three consecutive losing seasons.

The success of lesser teams singled a changing of guard for those up top. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders—combined victors of six of the seven Super Bowls before 1981—failed to achieve winning records and fell short of reaching the Promised Land of the NFL postseason. While the Raiders would win the title in 1983, neither franchise has since returned to its same dominant form of the ’70s.

The playoffs themselves provided plenty of drama. In the divisional round, the Chargers beat the Dolphins 41-38 in an overtime marathon dubbed the “Epic in Miami”. A week later, San Diego swapped the Florida heat for the Ohio tundra in a 27-7 AFC championship loss to Cincinnati in minus-9 degree weather. That same day in San Francisco, the 49ers clinched a Super Bowl spot over the Cowboys thanks to Montana’s heroics and Dwight Clark’s closing-minute snag (now famously known as “The Catch”) in a 28-27 thriller.

In Super Bowl XVI, Montana orchestrated San Francisco to its first Vince Lombardi Trophy, as the 49ers staved off a second-half rally to beat the Bengals 26-21.

For the year’s honors, Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson picked up the regular season’s MVP award, while San Francisco’s Bill Walsh was coach of the year. Montana was named MVP of the Super Bowl.

I just sat back there but I didn’t think I was going to get to the ball. It was way up high and I just stretched as high as I could stretch.

Dwight Clark
49ers receiver on his historic catch that won the NFC championship game

Notable numbers

6: How many single-season worsts the Baltimore Colts defense set: fewest punt returns (12), fewest sacks (13), most touchdowns allowed (68), most first downs allowed (406), most points allowed (533), and most yards allowed (6,793). The offense wasn’t much help either, and the team split up their two victories with 14 straight losses. The punt return, touchdown, first down, and point marks are still records as of 2019.

7: The number of touchdowns Dan Fouts and Chuck Muncie threw against the Oakland Raiders as the visiting San Diego Chargers romped to a 55-21 win over their AFC West rivals in Week 12. Fouts tossed the first six and Muncie tacked one in the fourth quarter. The total tied a league record.

Dan Fouts during overtime of the “Epic in Miami” (NBC/YouTube).

73: How many minutes it took for the Chargers to beat the Dolphins in the “Epic in Miami” during the AFC divisional round. After jumping out to 24-0 first-quarter lead, San Diego let Miami creep back into the contest, which ultimately reached a 38-38 tie by the end of regulation. In overtime, both teams—tired and dehydrated—missed a field goal before Rolf Benirschke booted a 29-yarder through the uprights to give the visitors a 41-38 victory.

Numerous postseason records were set during the game, including most combined points (79) and combined yards (1,036). Dan Fouts set an individual playoff record with 433 passing yards, while his tight end, Kellen Winslow, caught an all-time postseason best 13 receptions.

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89: The number of yards Joe Montana drove the San Francisco 49ers to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC championship game. Begun with 4 minutes, 54 seconds remaining, the 14-play drive culminated with Montana hitting the outstretched arms of Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown pass. “The Catch”, as Clark’s grab is now called, gave the 49ers a 28-27 win.

2,462: The number of career carries Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris had by the end of the season, a then-NFL all-time record. In Week 13 against the Los Angeles Rams, Harris rumbled with the rock 18 times, vaulting him 15 past O.J. Simpson’s mark of 2,404 career attempts. Harris also posted 10,339 career rushing yards by season’s end, joining Simpson and Jim Brown as the only rushers in the NFL’s 10,000-yard club.

Memorable media

The most enduring image of the 1981 season by far is the one showing Dwight Clark’s hands reaching towards the heavens, set on bringing Joe Montana’s pass down to safety:

Source: Marky Billson/Medium.

The NFL has also made the entire San Francisco-Dallas game available to watch on YouTube (here’s the direct link as the NFL doesn’t like embedded content):

Another video worth watching (and also much shorter), is NFL Films’ recap of the 1981 season (direct link):


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