A Team of Running Backs
The 1981 49ers won the Super Bowl behind an inventive passing attack and a tremendous defense. Their running attack was suspect and relied heavily on a committee approach. Ricky Patton, Earl Cooper, Johnny Davis, Walt Easley, Bill Ring, Paul Hofer, Amos Lawrence and Lenvil Elliott each contributed to the 49er’s ground attack during their first Super Bowl run. Most of these men are largely forgotten. This is their story.
The Road to ‘81
Ricky Patton was born on April 6, 1954 in Flint, Michigan. After starring at Flint Southwestern Academy, Patton played at Jackson State University. He was selected in the 10th round of the 1978 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. As a rookie, he ran for 206 yards and one touchdown while receiving ten passes for 90 yards and another touchdown. He only appeared in four games for the Falcons the following year, gaining just a single yard, before being traded to the Green Bay Packers in the middle of the year. He appeared in six games in Green Bay that season, gaining 134 yards rushing while averaging 3.6 yards per carry. After 1979, he was traded to San Francisco where he rarely played in his initial season, all the while preparing for his big moment in 1981.
Earl Cooper was born on September 17, 1957 in Giddings, Texas. After starring at Lexington High School, Cooper accepted a scholarship to Rice University. Playing sparingly as a freshman, Cooper exploded as a sophomore, gaining 598 yards on the ground and scoring eight total touchdowns. He wasn’t as effective as a junior, gaining just 350 yards and scoring three touchdowns on the ground. However, he was more productive as a pass receiver, gaining 210 yards and scoring an additional three touchdowns. As a senior, he gained 999 yards from scrimmage and scored seven touchdowns. Earl Cooper was drafted 13th overall by the 49ers in the 1980 NFL Draft.
Johnny Davis was born on July 17, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. After graduating from Sidney Lanier High School, Davis accepted a scholarship to the University of Alabama. He led the Crimson Tide in rushing three years and left the school ranked third in career rushing yards, totaling 2,519 yards while averaging a sensational 5.64 yards per attempt. After graduating from Alabama, Davis was drafted in the second round of the 1978 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were on the rise in those days, going as far as the 1979 NFC Championship Game. Davis worked well as a blocking fullback for running back Ricky Bell. After the 1980 season, Davis signed with the 49ers.
Walt Easley was born on September 8, 1957 in Charleston, West Virginia. After graduating from Stonewall Jackson High School, Easley moved on to the University of West Virginia. After rushing for 1,773 yards and 19 touchdowns in four years, the fullback was signed as an undrafted free agent by the 49ers.
Bill Ring was born on December 13, 1956 in Des Moines, Iowa. After graduating from Brigham Young University, Ring signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1980. He was cut by the Steelers in the preseason but signed with the 49ers the next year.
Paul Hofer was born on May 13, 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee. After graduating from Christian Brothers High School, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Mississippi. He was drafted by the 49ers in the 11th round of the 1976 NFL Draft. He didn’t carry the ball much his first two years in the league, but that all changed in 1978 when he carried the ball 121 times for 465 yards and seven touchdowns. He was even better in 1979 when he carried the ball 123 times for 615 yards while catching 58 passes for 662 yards, scoring nine total touchdowns. He was hurt for most of 1980 and only played in six games, but he did make the most of his opportunity, gaining 760 yards from the air and the ground while scoring three touchdowns.
Amos Lawrence was born on January 9, 1958 in Norfolk, Virginia. After graduating from Lake Taylor High School, he accepted a scholarship offer from the University of North Carolina. Upon graduation, Lawrence was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the fourth round of the 1981 NFL Draft. The Chargers cut him in the preseason and he was picked up by the 49ers
Lenvil Elliott was born on September 2, 1951 in Lexington, Missouri. After starring at Richmond High School, Elliott went to Truman State University. He did well enough to be drafted in the 10th round of the 1973 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. After his rookie year, he consistently carried the ball more than 60 times every year and caught more than 20 passes each year in the same span. While he didn’t start many games, he proved to be a good change of pace back. He was especially effective as a pass catcher in the end zone, catching as many as three touchdowns in both the 1975 and 1976 seasons. After the 1978 season he signed with San Francisco where he would score seven touchdowns in the next two years.
A Super Season
With their army of running backs and blessed with a stout offensive line and an accurate quarterback, the 49ers were ready to take on the NFL after years of losing. Each week was a personal vendetta for the team and it seemed like one running back or another was the hero of the game.
Week 1 at Detroit: Ricky Patton scored the first touchdown of the season for the 49ers in the fourth quarter. Patton rushed for 72 yards on 15 carries while Earl Cooper and Walt Easley combined for 45 yards on 16 carries. Despite the 49er’s best efforts, they lost to Detroit 24-17/
Week 2 vs Chicago: After losing to Detroit to start the season, the 49ers were hungry to get their first win. Ricky Patton got the 49ers going in the first quarter by catching a 31-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana. Patton also scored the last points of the game, rushing 12-yards for the final touchdown in the fourth quarter and icing a 28-17 win for San Francisco. Patton gained 101 yards while Cooper gained 84 yards on the ground and through the air.
Week 3 at Atlanta: The 49ers quickly got into a 17-point deficit in the first quarter and had to rely on their passing attack more predominantly than usual. None of the five running backs who appeared in the game for the 49ers had a big day. Paul Hofer only caught one pass for 22 yards, easily the biggest gain for their running backs all day. Patton gained 46 yards on 14 touches, Elliott gained 17 yards on four carries and Cooper gained 69 yards on 12 touches. The 49ers were physically abused all game long and lost 34-17.
Week 4 vs New Orleans: The 49ers ground attack was led by Ricky Patton and Johnny Davis this week. Patton carried the ball 14 times for 42 yards while Davis ran 11 times for 48 yards. Davis got the 49ers on the board in the second quarter with a six-yard scamper into the end zone, providing the spark that the team needed to beat the Saints 21-14.
Week 5 at Washington: Patton and Davis were again the leaders of San Francisco’s ground game, each scoring a touchdown to provide the 49ers a two touchdown cushion throughout the game. Ricky Patton got the 49ers on the board first in the first quarter with a 16-yard touchdown run. Davis provided the team with a one-yard touchdown run of his own right before the half, giving the team a 24-3 lead that they would not relinquish. At the end of the day, Patton had rushed nine times for 43 yards while Davis had carried the ball 13 times for 37 yards. Earl Cooper added six carries for 21 yards of his own and Amos Lawrence and Lenvil Elliott combined for five carries for 26 yards. However, Elliott did have a big game as a receiver, catching six passes for 69 yards. The 49ers defeated Washington 30-17.
Week 6 vs Dallas: Defeating Dallas was a total team effort and the Cowboys were stunned by the efficiency of the 49ers offense. Paul Hofer and Johnny Davis each had scoring runs of less than five yards in the first quarter to put the 49ers up by 21 points early in the game. Amos Lawrence added a one yard score of his own to ice the game in the fourth quarter. An incredible six running backs contributed for San Francisco that afternoon: Walt Easley (8 for 28 yards), Paul Hofer (11 for 40 yards and one touchdown), Johnny Davis (8 or 28 yards and one score), Amos Lawrence (6 for 27 yards and one score), Ricky Patton (7 for 16 yards) and Earl Cooper (5 for 9 yards). It was a complete team effort and the 49ers came away with a stunning 45-14 upset victory.
Week 7 at Green Bay: The 49ers were in good spirits after defeating Dallas, but the Packers brought them back down to earth. It was a low scoring, defensive game where running backs were required to carry the load. Johnny Davis ran 16 times for 65 yards and provided the game’s only touchdown with a one yard plunge in the third quarter. Earl Cooper ran 12 times for 38 yards while Ricky Patton added three catches for 41 yards and Paul Hofer contributed with five catches and 44 yards of his own. The 49ers beat the Packers 13-3.
Week 8 vs Los Angeles: The 49ers running game was virtually non-existent against the Rams with Paul Hofer’s 23 yards being the highlight of their ground attack for the day. However, not all was lost with their running backs as Earl Cooper caught two passes for 57 yards. The 49ers beat the Rams 20-17.
Week 9 at Pittsburgh: In a clash of two of the NFL’s most recent dynasties, the 49ers showed up to play. After taking a quick ten point lead, the Steelers fought back to claim a 14-10 lead. The 49ers remained undaunted and Walt Easley scored the winning touchdown on a one-yard plunge into the end zone. The 49ers beat the Steelers 17-14.
Week 10 vs Atlanta: In a rematch with the Falcons, the 49ers were determined to not be out hit. Walt Easley carried the ball 15 times for 31 yards and Ricky Patton carried the ball nine times for 26 yards. Paul Hofer added one reception for 21 yards. None of the 49er’s running backs scored but their contributions mattered in a 17-14 49ers victory.
Week 11 vs Cleveland: The 49ers were humbled in a 15-12 defeat to the Browns and were held without a touchdown for the first time all year. Walt Easley led the 49ers with 16 carries for 59 yards. Paul Hofer may have had the best outing on the team, carrying 10 times for 33 yards and receiving seven passes for 64 yards.
Week 12 at Los Angeles: In a high scoring game, Johnny Davis scored the 49ers first touchdown, tying the game at ten in the second quarter. Amos Lawrence returned the second half kickoff 92-yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 17. The 49ers did not have much of a running game with no player eclipsing 23 yards. Earl Cooper kept the team in the game with five receptions for 55 yards. The 49ers beat the Rams on a last second field goal by Ray Wersching 33-31.
Week 13 vs New York: Six running backs ran for the 49ers in this game. Paul Hofer lead the team with 33 yards while Johnny Davis had the most carries with 11. Ricky Patton contributed with 20 yards, Earl Cooper ran for 12 and Bill Ring ran for nine while Amos Lawrence had negative seven yards rushing. Johnny Davis got the 49ers on the board first with a one yard plunge into the end zone and the 49ers prevailed with a 17-10 win, clinching their division.
Week 14 at Cincinnati: This game was personal for coach Bill Walsh, who had coached the Bengals for years and had expected to be their next head coach. Instead the job went to another man and he held that grudge for years, waiting for his opportunity to defeat the team that should have been his. Bill Ring got the 49ers on the board first with a four yard scoring reception from Joe Montana and the team never looked back, winning convincingly 21-3. Earl Cooper led the way with 12 carries for 62 yards rushing and six receptions for 34 yards receiving. Ricky Patton also contributed with ten carries for 36 yards rushing and three receptions for 11 yards receiving. Johnny Davis, Bill Ring and Amos Lawrence combined for 11 carries and 34 yards rushing.
Week 15 vs Houston: In their battle with the Oilers, the two teams fought to a 0-0 tie by halftime. In the third quarter, the tide began to turn in the 49ers favor with two three-yard touchdown runs by Ricky Patton and Earl Cooper. From there, the 49ers had the momentum they needed to pull off a 28-6 victory. At the end of the day, Patton had rushed for 57 yards and Cooper had rushed for 38 yards. Bill Ring added 18 yards rushing and 24 receiving while Johnny Davis contributed 15 yards rushing. Paul Hofer had one catch for 11 yards.
Week 16 at New Orleans: In the last game of the regular season, the 49ers faced a Saints squad which was 4-13 and looking to end a disappointing year on a high note. Bill Ring had the biggest day for the 49er’s running backs, carrying the ball 11 times for 71 yards. Ricky Patton gained 36 yards rushing while Johnny Davis gained 19 yards on six carries. Earl Cooper had negative three yards rushing but he did gain 36 yards on his lone reception of the day. It was a close game of which the 49ers very nearly lost. However, in the fourth Johnny Davis scored on a three-yard run to win the game 21-17. Little did the 49ers know just how much they would come to rely on their legion of running backs in the postseason.
Divisional Round vs New York: After years of losing, the 49ers were finally in the playoffs. They battled the Giants to a 7-7 tie in the first quarter but exploded for 17 points in the second quarter. Ricky Patton’s 25-yard touchdown run put a cap on their second quarter outburst. The 49er’s offense was quiet in the third but woke up in the fourth quarter. With the 49ers holding a slight 24-17 advantage in the fourth quarter, Bill Ring scored a three-yard touchdown run early in the quarter to give the team some insurance. Earl Cooper paced the 49ers offense with 52 yards on the ground while Ricky Patton (32 yards rushing, 38 yards receiving) and Bill Ring (29 yards rushing) contributed. Walt Easley and Johnny Davis combined for 13 yards rushing. The game ended in a 38-24 San Francisco victory and the 49ers were headed to the NFC Championship Game.
NFC Championship vs Dallas: The Dallas Cowboys had been one of the NFL’s most dominant franchises the previous decade and were still ripe with talent. The 1981 NFC Championship Game marked a turning point in NFL history where one franchise would rise and another would begin a decade long fall from its perch from atop the mountain. The game was a back and forth affair from the start and Johnny Davis helped the 49ers out with a two-yard plunge into the end zone in the third quarter to give the 49ers a 21-17 lead. It was his only carry of the day. Dallas retook the lead and the 49ers eventually found themselves needing to go 89 yards in less than five minutes to win the game. Their final drive consisted of mostly running plays by the running backs that they had relied on all year. Lenvil Elliott led the charge and gained most of his 48 yards on the final drive. Finally, at the Dallas six-yard line, the 49ers called a pass play to Dwight Clark who caught the pass and after another minute, the 49ers were headed to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl vs Cincinnati: After a long, successful season, the 49ers were at last in the Super Bowl. They came out swinging and an 11-yard touchdown reception by Earl Cooper in the second quarter helped them take a 20 point lead into half time. The Bengals came back in the second half but the 49ers kept on kicking field goals to keep a steady lead. Ricky Patton led the team with 55 yards rushing and Cooper contributed with 34 of his own. Bill Ring and Johnny Davis combined for 22 yards rushing as the 49ers desperately tried to keep the Bengals from having another chance at scoring. When the final gun sounded, the 49ers had won the Super Bowl 26-21.
After the Super Bowl, the careers of each of these running backs quickly faded. Paul Hofer was injured before the playoffs in 1981 but still earned a Super Bowl ring. He retired following that championship season. The 1981 season was Lenvil Elliott’s last in the NFL too as he retired after that season. He passed away on October 12, 2008. Johnny Davis left for the Cleveland Browns following the 1981 season, spending the next six years with that organization before retiring after the 1987 season.
Walt Easley spent one more year in San Francisco before ending his career with the Pittsburgh Maulers of the USFL in 1984. He passed away on February 14, 2013. Amos Lawrence lasted one more year in San Francisco and was released from the team following that season, ending his career. Ricky Patton was in San Francisco for one more year before retiring after the 1982 season. Earl Cooper was with the 49ers when they won the Super Bowl in 1984. He spent his final year with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986 before retiring. Bill Ring was with the 49ers mostly as a special teams player until retiring after the 1986 season, winning another Super Bowl with the team in 1984.
Each of these eight men helped the 49ers win their first Super Bowl and yet are largely forgotten. While none were great as an individual player, they were great as a unit and helped begin a dynasty.