Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 19 Fred Dean, originally published on Jan. 30.
It’s rare when one player kick-starts a dynasty, rarer still when that player isn’t a quarterback, and practically unheard of when that player is an undersized, situational performer.
Yet Fred Dean, a pass-rushing savant, was credited by the San Francisco 49ers’ brain trust with being the critical piece that launched San Francisco’s championship run, beginning in the early 1980s.
“While it cannot be said that Fred Dean’s greatness as an NFL player began when he came to the 49ers in 1981, I can say as the owner of the team that the greatness of the 49ers began with Fred Dean’s arrival in San Francisco,” former Niners owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. said in Dean’s Pro Football Hall of Fame introduction in 2008.
“I was blessed to have had the magnificent good fortune to be represented by an organization of players, coaches and executives that won five Super Bowls,” DeBartolo added. “We wouldn’t have won five if we hadn’t won the first two. I assure you we would not have won the first two if it weren’t for Fred Dean.”
Dean was already a star when San Francisco acquired him from the San Diego Chargers midway through the 1981 season. But after a contract dispute with the Chargers, he welcomed a change of scenery. He helped the Niners to their first Super Bowl win that year over the Cincinnati Bengals and then three years later against the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
Dean, who grew up in Ruston, La., was a second-round pick out of Louisiana Tech in 1975. He was a productive, every-down defensive end almost immediately, despite being just 6-3 and 230 pounds.
“It’s a pretty simple deal,” Dean was quoted on the Pro Football Hall of Fame website. “First, I get the guy in front of me out of the way. Then I go after the quarterback.”
When Dean arrived in San Francisco, coach Bill Walsh made him a situational pass rusher, using him more judiciously. He flourished in that role. Just three days after joining the Niners, he sacked Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White three times and knocked down two passes. Two weeks later, he sacked Los Angeles Rams quarterback Pat Haden five times.
Defensive coordinator Bill McPherson said in a Niners Illustrated History: “I’ve never seen opposing linemen turn away from the huddle like they did with Fred, just to see when he was coming onto the field. He could dominate a game.”
Dean helped control Cincinnati’s high-powered offense in Super Bowl XVI, as the Niners won 26-21. Three years later, the Niners’ staff made a defensive adjustment that shut down Miami and quarterback Dan Marino in a 38-19 win. Dean played more frequently on a four-man line, and the Niners sacked Marino four times and pressured him constantly, while Joe Montana and the San Francisco offense carved up the Dolphins.
Dean was a freakish blend of speed and power, the precursor to players such as Derrick Thomas, Andre Tippett and Dwight Freeney.
“Every now and then I get an urge to lift weights,” Dean said on the HOF website, “and I just go somewhere and lie down until I get over it.”
Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz said, “Still, he’s the strongest guy I’ve ever faced.”
Dean’s strength came naturally as he grew up and when he returned home. According to the Niners Illustrated History, he chased wild rabbits in the woods near his home. He also rolled 500-pound barrels of tar for roofing projects, hoisted 24-foot sections of pulp wood onto trucks, and hauled bales of hay.
“That was my means of working out without even being aware of it,” Dean said in the Illustrated History. “You’d never think that it was actually building you up for life.”
Or for history and a Hall of Fame career.
Above: Defensive end Fred Dean and teammate Carlton Williamson #27 of the San Francisco 49ers try to bring down running back Pete Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl XVI on Jan. 24, 1982, at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. The Niners won, 26 -20. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Middle: Fred Dean was an All-Southland Conference defensive tackle at Louisiana Tech. (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Tech University)