1984: The Year Before Jerry Rice
Jerry Rice is arguably the greatest player in NFL history, but the year before the San Francisco 49ers drafted him, they enjoyed a 15-1 season and won the Super Bowl. Their core of wide receivers was a massive part of that great season. Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, Mike Wilson and Renaldo Nehemiah each contributed to the 49er’s success in their own unique way. Though none of these receivers made it to the Hall of Fame, their production helped perfect the West Coast Offense and helped launch a dynasty. In 1984, the offense was in full bloom with a solid running game and an effective passing attack. It seemed like each week one or more of their receivers made a play that won them the game. This is their story.
Freddie Solomon was born on January 11, 1953 in Sumter, South Carolina. After starring at Sumter High School, Solomon accepted a scholarship to the University of Tampa. Though he was a quarterback in college, Freddie Solomon switched to receiver when he was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the 1975 NFL Draft. In three seasons as a Dolphin, Solomon caught 61 passes and scored six total touchdowns. Following the 1977 season, he was traded to the 49ers who were going into their worst season in franchise history. In his first season as a full time starter, Freddie Solomon caught 31 passes for 458 yards and two touchdowns. The next year, Bill Walsh was hired as the 49ers coach and there Solomon’s career took off. He caught 57 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns in that second straight 2-14 season.
The 49ers improved to 6-10 in 1980 and Freddie Solomon caught 48 passes for 658 yards and eight touchdowns. The following year, the 49ers stunned the NFL and won the Super Bowl with Freddie Solomon being a major contributor. He caught 59 passes for 969 yards and eight touchdowns. After that great season, Solomon’s age began to show as he battled injuries the next two years. Still, he managed to score seven touchdowns and gain 985 yards in those two years.
Dwight Clark was born on January 8, 1957 in Kinston, North Carolina. He starred in basketball and football at Garinger High School where he was the quarterback and accepted a scholarship to Clemson University. However, he was a better fit at receiver and quickly switched to that position. After briefly switching to strong safety as a sophomore, Clark briefly quit school but returned to Clemson as a receiver. He finished his sophomore year with five catches for 99 yards and his junior season with 17 receptions for 265 yards and a touchdown. As a senior, he only caught 11 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. After graduation, Dwight Clark was selected in the 10th round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the 49ers.
As a rookie, Clark caught 18 passes for 232 yards. The 1980 season was his breakout season as Joe Montana became the starter midway through the year. Clark caught 82 passes for 991 yards and eight touchdowns in 1980. In 1981, he caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and four touchdowns and he became a legend in San Francisco with making “the Catch”, launching the 49er’s dynasty. After making the Pro Bowl and winning the Super Bowl in 1981, Dwight Clark made the Pro Bowl again in 1982 and was an All Pro while gaining 913 yards and scoring five touchdowns in a nine game, strike shortened year. He gained 840 yards and scored eight touchdowns in 1983 but hurt his knee late in the year and missed the playoffs. He yearned for another opportunity to play in the playoffs.
Mike Wilson was born on December 19, 1958 in Los Angeles, California. After starring at Carson High School, Wilson accepted a scholarship to Washington State University. He caught 31 passes for 451 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore, the highpoint of his career. He registered just 17 receptions for 292 yards and three touchdowns in his final two collegiate seasons. After graduation, he was selected in the 9th round of the 1981 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. However, the Cowboys released him before the season began and the 49ers quickly picked him up. Mike Wilson caught nine passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in his rookie year as the 49ers won the Super Bowl. He was less effective in 1982, only catching six passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. He rebounded for 30 catches and 433 yards the following year.
Renaldo Nehemiah was born on March 24, 1959 in Newark, New Jersey. He had a unique path to the NFL, having been a track star in college and had not played a football game since high school. He had won gold medals in the 1979 Pan American Games as well as the 1979 IAAF World Cup in the hurdles.
During his track career, Nehemiah set world records in the 50 meter hurdle (6.26 sec), 55 meter hurdle (6.89 sec), 110 meter hurdle (12.93 sec), 50 yard hurdle (5.92 sec) and 60 yard hurdle (6.82 sec). Bill Walsh took notice of his great speed and decided to sign him as a free agent in 1982. In his rookie year, Nehemiah caught eight passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. In 1983, he caught 17 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown.
Week 1 at Detroit:
In a back and forth game, the 49ers ultimately prevailed 30-27. While none of their receivers scored a touchdown, they did have a productive afternoon. Freddie Solomon led the team with four catches for 61 yards while Dwight Clark had two catches for 19 yards and Ronaldo Nehemiah caught two passes for 18 yards.
Week 2 vs Washington:
The 49ers had lost a heartbreaker against Washington in the NFC Championship Game the previous year and were pumped up to avenge that tragic end. The 49ers jumped to a 27-3 halftime lead with Dwight Clark providing the finishing touch with a 15-yard touchdown catch. Washington roared back but the 49ers held on for a 37-31 victory. Dwight Clark finished the evening with five catches for 105 yards while Freddie Solomon registered five catches for 77 yards and Mike Wilson recorded two catches for 58 yards.
Week 3 vs New Orleans:
Freddie Solomon got the 49ers on the board first with a 32-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. From there the Saints built a 20-14 lead going into the fourth quarter and Joe Montana was hurt midway through the game. Backup quarterback Matt Cavanaugh filled in for Montana and led the 49ers to 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, winning the game 30-20. San Francisco’s two quarterbacks only completed 13 passes for the game with only two wide receivers catching passes. Freddie Solomon finished the game with three catches for 72 yards while Dwight Clark caught one pass for 17 yards.
Week 4 at Philadelphia:
The 49ers had to band together against the Eagles while Joe Montana healed from cracked ribs. Cavanaugh filled in nicely, throwing three touchdown passes to running back Roger Craig, Solomon and Clark. Craig caught a 35-yard strike in the first quarter, Solomon caught a two-yard scoring pass in the second quarter and Clark caught a 51-yard score. At the end of the day, the 49ers prevailed 21-9 with Clark leading all receivers with three catches for 84 yards. Renaldo Nehemiah caught two passes for 32 yards and Solomon finished with the two-yard score in the second quarter as his only production of the day.
Week 5 vs Atlanta:
After the Falcons took a three point lead in the first quarter, the 49ers scored 14 points in the second quarter. Tight end Russ Francis got the 49ers on the board with a five-yard pass from Montana and Mike Wilson collected a 21-yard scoring strike to complete the offensive onslaught in the second quarter. San Francisco held on to win 14-5. Mike Wilson led San Francisco’s wide receivers with three catches for 47 yards. Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon each had one catch for 22 and 18 yards respectively.
Week 6 at New York:
Going into New York, the 49ers knew that the Giants had potential as a playoff team and would have to score quickly against a very stingy defense. Renaldo Nehemiah used his great speed to score on a 59-yard reception in the first quarter while the 49ers built a three touchdown lead. San Francisco ultimately won 31-10. Aside from Nehemiah’s long touchdown reception, it was a pretty quiet day for the 49ers receivers. Clark caught three passes for 27 yards and Wilson caught two passes for 23 yards.
Week 7 vs Pittsburgh:
The Steelers had been down the past couple of years but in 1984 made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Loaded with talent on defense, including defensive backs Dwayne Woodruff, Sam Washington and Donnie Shell, the Steelers proved to be a formidable opponent throughout the entire game. In a tough battle, none of the 49er’s receivers scored a touchdown but Dwight Clark did record five receptions for 67 yards. Despite his performance, the 49ers lost 20-17. It would be their last loss of the season.
Week 8 at Houston:
Coming off of their first loss of the season, the 49ers were determined to get back to their winning ways in Houston. In a surprisingly close game, Dwight Clark finished off the Oilers with an 80-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. The 49ers beat the Oilers 34-21. Clark ended the game with five receptions for 127 yards while Mike Wilson caught three passes for 36 yards and Nehemiah caught one pass for 20 yards.
Week 9 at Los Angeles:
Even though they beat the Oilers, the 49ers didn’t dominate the game the way that they were expected. Going up against the Rams, the 49ers felt like they were in a two game losing streak. It was time to make a statement against a playoff team. The 49ers built a 12 point lead in the middle of the second quarter when Solomon caught a six-yard touchdown pass, making a seemingly insurmountable 19 point lead. Going into the fourth quarter, the 49ers were ahead by 26 points but wanted to leave an explanation point on the game. Dwight Clark put the game away with a 44 yard touchdown pass, giving the 49ers a 33-0 win. Clark finished the game with four catches for 90 yards while Solomon caught six passes for 94 yards and Nehemiah caught three passes for 48 yards.
Week 10 vs Cincinnati:
The Bengals were not a good team and were 3-6 at the time of their game against the 8-1 49ers. However, the 49ers struggled against a surprisingly resilient Cincinnati defense until the fourth quarter where they scored 13 unanswered points. Freddie Solomon caught the game winning touchdown pass late in the final period and the 49ers prevailed 23-17. Dwight Clark led the 49ers with seven catches for 124 yards while Solomon finished the game with three catches for 38 yards and Nehemiah ended the contest with one catch for ten yards.
Week 11 at Cleveland:
After nearly getting embarrassed against Cincinnati, the 49ers refused to face the same kind of embarrassment against the 2-8 Browns. After building a 20 point lead, Freddie Solomon took a pass from Joe Montana 60 yards to the end zone. Early in the fourth quarter, Solomon added another touchdown catch, this one being a two yard strike. Solomon ended the game having caught five passes for 105 yards while the 49ers beat the Browns 41-7.
Week 12 vs Tampa Bay:
Once again, the 49ers overlooked an inferior opponent and nearly gave the game away. San Francisco was only up by four at the half but stayed one course and cruised to a 24-17 win. Dwight Clark led the 49ers with five receptions for 56 yards and Solomon had two catches for 22 yards. Nehemiah and Wilson combined for two receptions and 29 yards.
Week 13 at New Orleans:
After nearly losing to Tampa Bay, the 49ers were determined to dominate the Saints in the Superdome the next week. They jumped to a 14-3 lead in the middle of the third quarter when Freddie Solomon extended that lead, catching a 28-yard touchdown pass. He finished the day with three catches for 63 yards and Mike Wilson caught three passes for 44 yards.
Week 14 at Atlanta:
Despite only combining for three catches, the 49ers receivers had an excellent game against the Falcons. Freddie Solomon caught his only reception of the day in the first quarter for a 64-yard touchdown. Early in the second quarter, Dwight Clark caught one of his two receptions for a six-yard touchdown. The 49ers beat the Falcons 35-17.
Week 15 vs Minnesota:
Going into the 15th game of the year, the 49ers were 17 point favorites over the 3-11 Vikings. They did not disappoint and destroyed the Vikings 51-7. Dwight Clark started the scoring frenzy by catching a 44-yard touchdown pass and he was soon followed by Solomon who caught a three-yard scoring pass. Nehemiah continued the scoring frenzy by catching a 59-yard touchdown pass in the middle of the second quarter. He would end the game with a career high six receptions for 125 yards. The 49er’s offense was waking up just in time for the playoffs.
Week 16 vs Los Angeles:
At this point in the season, the 49ers had already clinched the top spot in the playoffs and really didn’t have anything to play for in the final game of the regular season. Despite their position, coach Bill Walsh decided to not pull Joe Montana from the game to protect him from injury. Montana threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Solomon in the first quarter and the 49ers went on to win 19-16. Solomon ended the day with three catches for 87 yards while Clark finished with three catches for 32 yards.
Divisional Round vs New York:
All season long, the 49ers had either dominated the competition or come out ahead late in the game. Going into the playoffs, they were determined to put away their opponent early. Dwight Clark got the 49ers on the board first with a 21-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. After a touchdown catch from tight end Russ Francis later in the same quarter, the 49ers had to wait until the fourth quarter when the 49ers were only ahead by four before they scored again. Freddie Solomon helped put the Giants away in the fourth quarter with a 29-yard touchdown catch. It was a big day for San Francisco’s receivers with Dwight Clark finishing with nine catches for 112 yards, Freddie Solomon catching four passes for 94 yards and Mike Wilson receiving three passes for 37 yards. With their 21-10 victory in hand, the 49ers were headed to the NFC Championship Game, an event that they had obsessed about for the past year.
NFC Championship vs Chicago:
The Bears were really coming into their own on defense in 1984 and were just a year away from being considered one of the greatest of all time. However, on this day the 49ers were ready for the ferocious Chicago pass rush. The game started out as a defensive slugfest and the 49ers entered halftime up just six points. Running back Wendell Tyler’s nine yard run extended the lead to 13 in the third quarter but the 49ers needed one more score to put the game away. Freddie Solomon came up with a ten-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter to effectively end the game. The 49ers won 23-0. Solomon had seven receptions for 73 yards while Clark recorded four catches for 83 yards. Mike Wilson and Renaldo Nehemiah combined for three catches and 35 yards. With a decisive victory in hand, the 49ers were headed to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl vs Miami:
The 49ers went up against one of the greatest offenses of all time in the Super Bowl. Led by quarterback Dan Marino, the Dolphins were a very daunting team to face in the biggest game of the year. However, many people forgot just how good the 49ers were on offense and they set out to prove themselves to the world. It was a relatively quiet day for the 49er’s receivers with no one scoring a touchdown. Most of the game’s biggest passing plays went to running backs. However, Dwight Clark still performed at a high level, finishing the game with six catches for 77 yards. Freddie Solomon caught one pass for 14 yards but still came away as a champion when the 49ers crushed the Dolphins 38-16.
Following the 1984 season, Renaldo Nehemiah never played football again. Partly tired of the constant hits and partly due to the 49ers drafting Jerry Rice the following year, Nehemiah returned to track. In 1986, he won The Superstars competition, becoming the only four-time winner of the event having won it in 1981, 1982 and 1983. He currently works for Athletics Managers, a sports management and marketing agency.
Mike Wilson stayed with the 49ers through their dynasty of the 1980’s, winning all four Super Bowls of the decade. After retiring in 1990, he began a long coaching career within the NCAA and the NFL.
Freddie Solomon played one more year in San Francisco before retiring from the NFL. He passed away on February 13, 2012 after a battle with colon and liver cancer.
Dwight Clark retired after the 1987 season as the 49ers leading receiver and his jersey number was retired the following season. When he retired, Jerry Rice was just coming into his own as a player and soon Rice would own every franchise receiving record that Clark had set. Immediately, Dwight Clark stepped into his new role in the 49er’s front office and was with the organization when it won all five of its Super Bowls. In 1999, he left San Francisco to be the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. The team struggled and he was fired after the 2001 season. He passed away from ALS on June 4, 2018.