Bill Walsh is one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, despite the fact that he held the position for just 10 seasons. He led the San Fransico 49ers during their dynasty in the ’80s, which means he had a number of Hall of Famers on his teams.
Leading that list was QB Joe Montana, who is one of the best to ever play the position. Walsh and Montana made a formidable combination, and they led the 49ers to great success during their time together, which encompassed Walsh’s entire tenure as the team’s head coach. Here is what Walsh credits as the secret to Montana’s success.
Bill Walsh’s NFL coaching career
Walsh became the 49ers’ head coach for the 1979 season, when they went just 2-14. A 6-10 season followed in 1980, then they vaulted up to 13-3 in 1981, earning Walsh his first playoff appearance as a coach.
The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl that season, and they would win two more with Walsh on the sidelines. Overall in his 10 seasons as the coach, Walsh led the 49ers to a 92-59-1 regular-season record, and a 10-4 mark in the playoffs, including the three titles — the last of which came in 1988, his last season as San Francisco’s coach.
Walsh was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, entering rare territory as at the time of his induction there were just 13 coaches in the Hall including fellow ’93 inductee Chuck Noll.
Giving a player direction and allowing him creativity
Bill Walsh felt that achieving success in the NFL required a combination of giving the player explicit direction while still allowing him some creativity to do his own thing. Striking that balance is the key for players to succeed in the league, according to a Harvard Business Review interview with Walsh.
When asked to name a player who exemplified that balance, Walsh named Montana as an example, calling him “a perfect combination of the two vital aspects that are necessary for developing greatness as a quarterback.”
In the interview, Walsh credits the success of the 49ers offense as having “a highly disciplined, very structured form of utilizing the forward pass.” He said that Montana needed to master the discipline to know who to throw to, when, and why.
The team’s success depended on Montana’s ability to work in that framework, according to Walsh. Having the coach utilize drills and repetition helped Montana develop his decision-making ability.
How Joe Montana excelled at Bill Walsh’s plan
Walsh talked in his interview about an extra quality that is needed for a quarterback to end up as a Super Bowl champion or, in Montana’s case, “the best ever.”
That quality is “an instinctive, spontaneous, natural response to situations” that develop in games. Walsh said some of his quarterback’s greatness was that his spontaneous instincts would break loose between 10 and 15 percent of the time, often making a “phenomenal difference” in the result of a game.
According to the legendary coach, Montana was “a perfect combination” of those two vital aspects of the game. And that might explain the success that Montana had in his lengthy career.
In 15 seasons with the 49ers and Chiefs, Montana played in 192 games, including 164 starts. In those regular seasons starts, he went 117-47, throwing for more than 40,000 yards and 273 touchdowns, with 139 interceptions.
He went 16-7 in the postseason, including a total of four Super Bowls — the last coming in the 1989 season, a year after Walsh retired — and threw for 5,772 yards in those 23 games, throwing 45 touchdowns and 21 picks. Montana was also named the league MVP twice.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference