Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Fred Dean, Hall of Fame Defensive End, Loses Battle with COVID

 By John Turney

Credit: Ed Lefferts

Twenty-twenty is not a good year. Too much bad news. More hit today as we learned Fred Dean succumbed to complications from COVID-19.

Dean was special in a lot of ways. He was chosen by the San Diego Chargers in the second round (33rd overall) of the 1975 NFL Draft and immediately stepped into the starting left end position, even though he was around 230-235 pounds at the time, making one of the smallest left ends in the NFL at the time.

Dean compensated by having unusual, even freakish natural strength and speed. We say natural because he was not a dedicated weight lifter. He has one of the best all-time quotes when he said "I get the urge to lift weights but I lie down for a while and the urge goes away".

Still, he had enough base and strength to not be a liability against the run. 

Credit: Chuck Ren

In 1977 he moved to the right side and there his career took off. Even though he held his own on the left side, the right side was his ideal position, given his 4.48 speed. He scored a couple of touchdowns in 1977 and in 1978 racked up 14½ sacks and forced four fumbles even though he didn't get any post-season honors, it was most certainly a Pro Bowl-level season. 

He was the top player on a great Chargers defensive line in those days and was often unblockable. Pat Haden once said, "He's too good, you cannot block him with a pickup truck".

Salary disputes led to a trade to the 49ers in 1981 where he was the "missing piece" for the 49ers defense.  The original trade was that was Dean traded from San Diego Chargers to San Francisco 49ers for 2nd round draft pick in 1983.  However, after that, the trade string gets complicated, which is a story for a different day.

Dean was a huge asset in the 49ers winning their first ring that year. Bill Walsh used Dean as a designated pass rusher rather than a starter, which was new for Dean who had always been a starter. But Dean was always in a 4-3 defense and the 49ers base defense was a 3-4 so he was not a fit. 

However, the 49ers did use a four-man line in 3rd down or other passing situations and Dean was perfect for this role and was supremely effective in it contributing 12 sacks in 11 games for the club. Dean most often played right end in nickel but would also play the left end, and even over the center or guard as well. Not a much as his end spot, but enough to shake up some interior offensive linemen on opposing teams. 

Dean also broke some ground that year for role players. Though nickel rushers or designated pass rushers (the role Dean played when he got to San Francisco) had been around for a bit over a decade, none had made a Pro Bowl before or been voted a Defensive Player of the Year. Dean did both, as he was voted the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year. 

Credit: Cliff Spohn

The following season (1982) was a poor year for the NFL and the 49ers. Dean didn't play well and with a few other players who slump was rumored to be on the trading block. 

He stayed and in 1983 inside linebacker Jack Reynolds talked the 49er coaches into starting Dean as an outside linebacker in the base so they could seamlessly move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 without changing personnel. That was one experiment that did not work...and Dean quickly returned to his designated rusher role and he totaled 17.5 sacks and again went to the Pro Bowl and the 49ers were very close to making the Super Bowl again.

The 1984 season brought another salary dispute and a holdout which kept Dean out of the lineup until the final five games and playoffs. But when he returned the "Dean-fense" returned. He had four sacks in those five games and four sacks in the three playoffs games to go with plenty of pressures as the 49ers secured their second Super Bowl ring in five years.

For whatever reason Dean didn't keep up the stellar play in 1985 and Bill Walsh had a philosophy that he'd never let his team get old, so when he had a couple of potential replacements for the "whip" position in the 40 defense in 1986 in Larry Roberts and Charles Haley (Roberts was a second-round pick, Haley was not a known quantity then but had a lot of potential) Dean retired one of those "Bill Walsh wants you to retire" things. 

Oddly, earlier this year, the first (for all intents and purposes) designated pass rusher Cedrick Hardman passed away, himself a 49er. Hardman moved on to the Raiders in 1980 and was the first designated rusher to win a Super Bowl ring, and Dean was the second. 

Dean was born in Arcadia in north Louisiana and graduated from Ruston High School. He was a standout at Louisiana Tech University (Second-team All-American) and an All-Southland Conference defensive lineman during his collegiate football career.

On August 2, 2008, Dean was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A year later he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Dean was also inducted into the Louisiana Tech University Athletic Hall of Fame and is also a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.  

Six days ago media reports announced that Dean had been hospitalized with a coronavirus infection and was on a ventilator and on Wednesday the 14th, pass on. He was 68.

RIP, Mr. Dean.


  1. Sad news ...

    A great player who should have never left the Chargers.

    I remember a game in 1981, where he destroyed the Cowboys blocking ...

  2. Love reading your articles and pre-1982 sack stats - is there a complete listing of your research and sack stats available?

  3. I know its a lot of research or film study but could you guys release a list of the top postseason/playoff sacks, tackles or interceptions since 1960 ?

    I always felt postseason performance would/could help a player get into the HOF (Hardman, Howley, Andrie) but have no real numbers to look at, though maybe the PFRA has those stats for a price ... Thanks

    1. Looks like I can use Pro Football References numbers but hope the games from pre-1965 are accurate ?