Fred Dean: Trade to 49ers proves beneficial for player and team

Jim Thomas

It’s been called the trade of all in-season football trades by NFL Films’ Steve Sabol. Not that there have been many in-season swaps between NFL teams.

But the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Year for a second-round draft pick and the option to reverse the order of No. 1 picks? Steal of the century?

Yes, getting defensive end Fred Dean from San Diego in 1981 was a deal that helped earn San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh his genius label.

San Francisco was 3-2 when it acquired Dean from the Chargers. The 49ers lost one more game — 15-12 to Cleveland — the rest of the season en route to their first Super Bowl victory.

“We were 6-10 the year before. We were just trying to get to .500 (in 1981),” said Chuck Studley, San Francisco’s defensive coordinator then. “We were very cognizant of the fact we didn’t have a dominant pass rusher. In training camp, Bill Walsh said we had the chance to get Fred Dean. I said, ‘What’s the problem? Is he hurt? Did he get in trouble?’ ”

Not the kind of trouble today’s athletes seem to find. It was financial trouble — with Chargers owner Gene Klein. Dean had sat out two months of training camp the previous season. He wanted a raise for his nine sacks in 13 games. He helped San Diego to its first title of any kind in 14 seasons, and he knew his star was on the rise after four productive years in the league.

“A lot of people were getting paid more money,” Dean said. “I had a problem with that.”

After ending his holdout, Dean played like a man possessed to make his point. He had 10 1⁄2 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl. The NFLPA made Dean its Defensive Player of the Year in the AFC, and the Chargers won their second West Division title, advancing to the AFC championship game.

Then San Diego shipped Dean to San Francisco. Dean posted a dozen sacks in 11 games with the 49ers to become the NFLPA’s first, and only, player to win Defensive Player of the Year in both conferences.

“Fred didn’t have to leave,” former Chargers QB Dan Fouts said. “The owner got rid of him. When Fred left, John Jefferson also left for Green Bay. Nobody ever left San Diego for Green Bay.

“If (owner) Gene Klein had treated those players like they treat players today, they never would have left.”

And Walsh might not have had his man to assist the kids. Walsh had three rookies brimming with talent on the San Francisco defense — safeties Ronnie Lott and Carlton Williamson and cornerback Eric Wright. But without a pass rush, even Lott and Wright would have been hard-pressed to light up receivers.

“You put a great secondary with a great pass rush, and you have a great defense,” Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman said. “That’s what happened.”

Prior to Dean, the 49ers were perennial also-rans. From .500 to a Super Bowl championship — that’s what Dean meant to the 49ers. They had never won an NFL title.

“In San Diego, I felt we would have won a Super Bowl,” Dean said. “But I had to go somewhere else to get it.”

The only thing that could have been better is Dean almost got to play San Diego to win it. The Chargers came a step short, losing to Cincinnati in the AFC Championship game in January 1982.

“That would have been something,” he said. “The team that let you go. Looking at your friends across the line from you. That would have been some kind of game, I tell you.”

It sure was some kind of trade.

The Repository