The West Coast Offense revolutionized the NFL in the 1980’s. Often, the quarterback would be asked to look to his third, fourth or fifth reads. Someone was always open in the West Coast Offense. Receiver Mike Wilson was the silent option in that offense, often forgotten by the fans but never by a desperate quarterback looking to make a play. Often overshadowed by playmakers such as Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Roger Craig, Wilson quietly collected four Super Bowl rings while receiving 15 touchdowns in a ten year career. This is his story.
Michael Ruben Wilson was born on December 19, 1958 in Los Angeles, California. Growing up in nearby Carson, Wilson excelled in a number of sports including football, basketball and track. After earning All-Los Angeles City honors in football, Mike Wilson accepted a football scholarship to Washington State University.
As a sophomore in 1978, Wilson caught 31 receptions for 451 yards and three touchdowns from future NFL quarterback Jack Thompson. Even though Wilson struggled with dropped passes that year, it would turn out to be his best season as a Cougar.
Thompson graduated after that season and Washington State immediately switched to a ground-based attack. Acting as primarily a blocking receiver, Mike Wilson caught just six passes for 80 yards as a junior, three of which went for touchdowns.
Even with a hamstring injury which cost him four games, Wilson had more opportunities to shine in his senior year, catching 11 passes for 212 yards with no touchdowns to his name. College had not been the greatest experience for him as the Cougars routinely won three games; their four win season in 1980 was the highlight of Mike Wilson’s collegiate career. However, many more victories awaited him in the NFL. From Pullman, the NFL beckoned Mike Wilson.
Looking for Opportunities
After being drafted in the ninth round of the 1981 NFL Draft, Mike Wilson was cut by the Dallas Cowboys before the season even began. A short while later the 49ers called. Little did he know that he would call that place his home for the next decade.
The 49ers had been collecting talent over the past two seasons and by 1981 were primed for a resurgence. Playing behind established veterans Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon was not easy but over time and with constant studying of the 49ers complicated West Coast Offense, Mike Wilson made the most of his opportunities as a rookie. He caught nine passes for 125 yards and one touchdown in 1981 and helped the team win Super Bowl XVI, the first in franchise history.
The 1982 season was frustrating for Wilson. The NFL players went on strike, reducing the season to just nine games, and a number of 49ers were experimenting with drugs and just overall not committed to defending their championship. Still, Wilson made the most of his opportunities, catching six passes for 80 yards and one touchdown.
A Brief Rise
The 1983 season started much the same for Mike Wilson, with Solomon and Clark ahead of him on the depth chart. That all changed when Dwight Clark was lost for the playoffs, having torn a knee ligament in the last game of the regular season. Before that incident, Wilson had enjoyed the best season of his professional career, catching 30 passes for 433 yards. With the added pressure of starting in the playoffs suddenly mounted upon him, Mike Wilson was ready for the biggest opportunity of his career.
In the first playoff game against the Detroit Lions, Wilson only caught one pass for 26 yards. The 49ers won the game by the thinnest of margins, 24-23. After that game the 49ers headed to Washington to play against a juggernaut of an opponent. Washington had recently set the NFL single season scoring record and had a +43 turnover margin. They were loaded on offense, defense and special teams and were expected to waltz right into the Super Bowl and claim their status as one of the greatest teams of all time.
For the first three quarters, the 49ers appeared to be too daunted for the task and found themselves in a 21-point hole. The fourth quarter was a different story as Joe Montana lead the team on three scoring drives which tied the game. Wilson was a major factor in this comeback, making eight receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns. However, Washington still had an incredible offense and a great kicker in Mark Moseley with time to spare. After two controversial penalties on San Francisco’s defensive backfield, Moseley kicked the game winning field goal.
The 49ers were heartbroken and vowed to never have that feeling again. Mike Wilson had given his all and nearly brought the team to their second Super Bowl, but the team needed Dwight Clark and soon other more talented receiver would join the organization. Mike Wilson’s greatest opportunity was over, having given every ounce of effort that he could.
The Silent Option
Dwight Clark was fully healthy in 1984 and helped the team to a 15-1 record. With Freddie Solomon slowing down, Mike Wilson caught 17 passes for 245 yards and one touchdown. While 49ers won the Super Bowl over the Miami Dolphins, Wilson was thrown two passes but failed to catch either. All was not lost as the 49ers had avenged their great disappointment from the previous season.
Due to their stellar record and Super Bowl championship, the 49ers were already considered one of the greatest teams of all time, yet somehow they were able to make a draft day trade and managed to draft Jerry Rice. Widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, the drafting of Rice did not help Mike Wilson in his quest to become a starter with the 49ers. The next two years were frustrating for him, as he only caught 19 passes and three touchdowns between those years.
The 1987 and 1988 seasons were better for Wilson due to Dwight Clark’s eventual retirement. The 49ers had drafted John Taylor in 1987 but he was not ready to start in their complicated offense and as a result, Mike Wilson started 19 games between those two years. He caught 29 passes and five touchdowns in 1987 and 33 passes and three touchdowns in 1988, gaining 855 yards between those two years. The 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1988, with Jerry Rice and John Taylor being the heroes of the game. For the rest of his career, the 49ers greatest receiver tandem overshadowed the miniscule yet valuable statistics that Mike Wilson provided the team every week. After winning the Super Bowl in 1988, Wilson only started one more game in the NFL, catching 16 passes for 192 yards and one touchdown in his final two years.
The 49ers repeated as Super Bowl champions in 1989 and came just short of reaching their third straight Super Bowl in 1990. Following the 1990 season, Mike Wilson’s contract was not renewed and he retired from the NFL. He most recently worked as a wide receivers coach for the Los Angeles Wildcats of the XFL. Though his playing days are over and long forgotten, the contributions that Mike Wilson brought to the San Francisco 49ers helped build them as one of the NFL’s great dynasties.