And the coaches? Jim Harbaugh just turned a 6-10 team into the second best in the NFC. Bill Walsh remains the Einstein of NFL history. Red Hickey, head coach from 1959-63, invented the “shotgun” formation which is now a part of every NFL team’s offense.
But the 49ers' brightest moments have come on the field. As they prepare for Saturday's big game against the Saints, here are the team's greatest plays from their often exhilarating, sometimes maddening 66-year history.
In 2008, Vernon Davis was kicked out of a game by head coach Mike Singletary. Later Singletary said, referring to Davis, “cannot play with ‘em, cannot win with ‘em, cannot coach with ‘em.” He seemed destined to a career in Singletary’s doghouse.
In 2005, Alex Smith was picked first in the NFL draft by the 49ers. For the next six years he was the team’s least favorite player. Booed mercilessly by Candlestick crowds, constantly disparaged by the media, scapegoat for the team’s failings, Smith looked finished at the end of 2010.
Fast forward to January 14, 2012. Divisional playoffs. A shootout with the supercharged New Orleans Saints offense led by Drew Brees. Down 32-29, Smith fires a strike to Davis with 9 seconds left to give the 49ers an unlikely victory and fully resurrect their careers and the fortunes of a proud franchise.
October 27, 1957. Down 17-7 at the half, head coach Frankie Albert receives a note in the locker room that says simply “Tony’s Dead.” Upstairs at Kezar Stadium, tempestuous but beloved 49er owner Tony Morabito has suffered a heart attack while watching the game. He's dead at age 47.
The Niners leave the locker room with tears in their eyes but put up 14 points while holding Chicago scoreless in the second half. Infamous Cotton Bowl star Dicky Maegle’s dramatic fourth quarter interception in the end zone seals a 21-17 victory over the mighty Bears.
October 30, 1988. With injured Joe Montana on the bench, heir apparent Steve Young gets his chance.
Down 21-17 to the Vikings late in the fourth quarter, Young scrambles to a stumbling, mumbling, rumbling 49-yard TD run that would make Tebow jealous. It’s become one of the favorite highlights in NFL history.
September 11, 1988. On the broadcast, Madden and Lundquist are lamenting what a rough day Jerry Rice is having. There's less than a minute left and he's caught only three passes for 31 yards.
With their star receiver struggling, the Niners are down 17-13 and Giants fans are roaring in anticipation of a victory. Joe Montana, injured but coming off the bench at halftime, fades back to pass from his own 23. Rice promptly streaks past two NY defenders, catches the ball in stride and hits pay dirt with 42 seconds remaining.
San Fran goes on to its third Super Bowl victory at season's end.
September 6, 1998. In the season opener, the Niners are tied 30-30 with the Jets in overtime. Backed up to his own 4-yard line, Steve Young slips Garrison Hearst an inside handoff and he's off to the races.
Hearst delivers one of the best stiff-arms you’ll ever see and runs over and through several defenders (throwing off bodies "like clothes after a marathon" according to announcer Joe Starkey).
His 96-yard dash results in a TD that gets one of the 49ers' most entertaining seasons off to a proper start.
January 5, 2003. Down 38-14 with 4:27 left in the third quarter of a wild-card playoff game against the NY Giants, Jeff Garcia engineers an amazing comeback to win 39-38.
On the last play of the game, the Giants botch the snap for a winning field goal but holder Trey Junkin throws to G Rich Seubert near the goal line. Seubert is mugged, but instead of the Niners being called for pass interference, the Giants are flagged for an illegal man downfield.
The next day the NFL announces that pass interference should have been called and the down replayed but it’s too late to save the Giants. 49ers coach Steve Mariucci's response on getting the news?
January 24, 1982. Super Bowl XVI. Late in the third quarter, Cincinnati is on the wrong end of a 20-7 score but they've got a first down at the 49ers' three.
Pete Johnson carries the ball to the one. On second down. he's stopped by Hacksaw Reynolds with a shot that stands Pete straight up at the line of scrimmage.
On third down Ken Anderson goes play action and throws a swing pass to RB Charles Alexander. It’s one-on-one, mano-a-mano between Alexander and SF linebacker Dan Bunz in the flat and Bunz stuffs him one foot short of the goal line,
The Bengals fail to go for a sure field goal on fourth down and Bunz, Hacksaw Reynolds and Ronnie Lott stop Johnson at the line of scrimmage again. Cincy rallies but “The Stand” is the difference in a 26-21 49er win.
November 3, 1957. Ten seconds left. Ball on the Lions' 41. Niners down 31-28.
Y.A. Tittle slings a seemingly desperate pass into the end zone way above R.C. Owens head but Owens leaps up to snag the ball between two Detroit defenders. Thousands of pillows, rented by fans to survive the rock hard Kezar Stadium benches, rain down on the field in a wild celebration.
The play, developed earlier in the season, is named the "Alley Oop" and becomes a staple in the 49er offense with Tittle and John Brodie at QB. It also becomes Owens' nickname.
R.C., who perfected his anti-gravity act playing basketball with Elgin Baylor at the College of Idaho, entered the 49ers Hall of Fame with Roger Craig in 2011.
January 3, 1999. The Packers have been, as Pedro Martinez once said, the 49ers’ Daddy. They’ve knocked them from the playoffs three years in a row.
It looks like it could happen again. The Niners are down to the last play of the game.
Staring at a 27-23 deficit in the face, Steve Young gets the snap at the Green Bay 25, stumbles on the way back to pass, barely rights himself and throws a perfect strike to Terrell Owens.
Owens, who has had the dropsies all game, gets rocked at the goal line but hangs on for the winning TD. Some people call it "The Throw." Some call it "The Catch II." By any name, the curse is banished.
January 22, 1989. Super Bowl XXIII. 3:10 left. The Niners are 92 yards from the Cincinnati goal line, trailing 16-13.
Joe Montana trots into the huddle and famously asks T Harris Barton "There, in the stands, standing near the exit ramp. Isn't that John Candy?"
But it's a bit of a ruse. Even Joe Cool is feeling the pressure and starts to hyperventilate from all the shouting as he methodically marches the team down the field.
At the 10, he calls timeout and visits the sideline. There, Montana and Bill Walsh decide on "20 Halfback Curl, X Up" for the next play.
RB Roger Craig is the primary receiver on the play. He breaks out of the backfield but Taylor streaks past the Bengal linebackers toward the end zone and comes free. Joe shoots Taylor a laser which he catches in the end zone for a score with 34 seconds left.
It’s the first go-ahead TD ever scored in the last minute of a Super Bowl.
January 10, 1982. It’s the play that turned the 49ers from perennial title pretenders to five-time Super Bowl champion.
Third-and-3 from the Dallas six. Fifty-eight seconds left. Niners down 27-21. The play is "red right tight, sprint right option."
WR Freddie Solomon is the primary target but he’s covered so Montana pump fakes Too Tall Jones and throws the ball where only Dwight Clark can catch it at the back of the end zone.
Clark leaps high and, in a moment reminiscent of the old Alley Oop," makes a fingertip grab, spiking the ball in celebration. Ray Wersching adds the biggest PAT in 49er history and San Fran holds on to gain their first trip to the Bowl.