SAN FRANCISCO — Virgil Carter was never what you would call an accomplished quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was not exceptionally mobile, his throwing range was roughly 15 yards in any one direction, and the only way he will ever get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is to pay his four bucks at the front door like the rest of us.
But Carter, or "Virg" as he was known during his Bengals days in the early '70s, can make one claim to fame. He can accurately boast that it was his throwing arm, as meager as it might have been, that ultimately made the San Francisco 49ers the dominant team in the NFL today.
With little debate, the 49ers have been the class of the league since 1981. They won their first Super Bowl that year, completing a 16-3 season with a 26-21 victory over Cincinnati. They rebounded from a 3-6 record during the 1982 strike year to reach the NFC Championship game in 1983 (losing to Washington, 24-21). And they capped it all off with their second Super Bowl title in four years last January, whipping a talented Miami team, 38-16.
And, in a roundabout way, the 49ers have Carter to thank.
Carter had a quarterback coach at Cincinnati by the name of William Walsh, who had spent the 1969 season, just the second year for the expansion franchise, weaning a young potential superstar in Greg Cook. Walsh knew the kid was destined for success. "Cook was just a great quarterback," said Walsh. "Maybe the best to ever play the game."
But Cook was not long for the starting lineup. A shoulder injury sent him to the sideline early in the 1970 season, and when Walsh looked down the bench for a backup, Carter was all he could find.
"The only choice we had," Walsh remembered, "was to build our offense around what Virgil could do. And believe me, the short pass was all he could. He was a great competitor, and a great team leader, so we just played into his strength."
Using the short pass as his bread-and-butter play, Carter became a master at the ball-control offense--wracking up lots of first downs, although not necessarily a lot of points, and giving the defense plenty of time to rest. After the Bengals started 1-6, Carter made the system work and rattled off seven consecutive victories. The Bengals finished with an 8-6 record and their first divisional title.
Encouraged by the results, Walsh maintained the system with every new quarterback he coached. When a rookie named Ken Anderson arrived in 1971 from tiny Augustana College, Walsh tried the experiment all over again with much the same success. As offensive coordinator at San Diego years later, he turned Dan Fouts into a franchise. As head coach of Stanford, he guided Guy Benjamin and Steve Dils to back-to-back NCAA passing titles.
And finally, four months after taking the reins of a hapless (2-14) 49er franchise in January of 1979, Walsh drafted Notre Dame's Joe Montana in the third round and went to work again.
The results have been well documented. Relying mainly on the same ball-control offense developed at Cincinnati, Walsh and Montana overcame rebuilding years in 1979 (2-14) and 1980 (6-10) by leading San Francisco to its two NFL championships in the past four years.
And credit it all to Virgil Carter.
"It really isn't a complicated philosophy," Walsh explained. "We try to control the ball and build up a number of first downs. If we can get 25 or 30 first downs, it generally means the defense has had time to regroup. It's a systematic ball-control style of offense."
The results on the scoreboard were reflected in the statistics. In 1984, the 49ers ranked second in the NFL in average points per game (29.7), second in offensive yards (397.9), third in rushing yards (154.1), fourth in passing yards (243.8), second in fewest sacks allowed (1.7) and first in fewest turnovers (1.4).
"I don't know that it's a unique idea," Walsh said of his system. "We have a lot of contemporaries and they all have their own systems and style. But it came to us out of necessity. You can develop a high-percentage passing game without great personnel. It doesn't mean you can play great defense, and it doesn't mean you're going to score a lot of points. But it does mean you'll have a grip on the game at least until the fourth quarter. That's pretty much how our lean years were spent."
The lean years (which included a 59-14 loss to Dallas in 1980) were not necessarily lacking in approach and effort, but were simply short of talent. Of the 24 defeats the team suffered in those two years, 11 were by a touchdown or less.