Power Ranking the Greatest 49ers Teams in NFL History
As we count down the days toward the 49ers' long-awaited return to the Super Bowl, why not spend some time looking back fondly at the team's glorious history, to past championship teams and some others who came oh-so-close?
While most of the '00s were quite forgettable for the franchise and its fans alike, quite a few of us are old enough to remember the team's sustained run of excellence from 1981 to the late '90s.
The Niners won at least 10 games every season from 1983 to 1998, a stretch of 16 consecutive seasons, and made the playoffs in all but one of those years. Overall, they've advanced to six Super Bowls and 15 NFC Championship Games, so there have been many seasons where they were either the very best in the league or among the top contenders for the crown.
The following is one man's list of the top 10 49ers teams in history. Enjoy and feel free to share your memories, opinions and disagreements in the comments.
10. 1987 (13-2)
We'll kick off our list with a somewhat surprising and controversial choice, given that I'm including this team, which didn't even advance to the NFC Championship Game, over five other 49ers squads that did.
However, if you look at the raw numbers, the 1987 49ers, strike season and all, were absolute monsters in the regular season, in all facets. What was really eye-opening about them was their late-season tear, where they dominated the Bears (including one Jim Harbaugh, who came in for relief of an awful Mike Tomczak), the Falcons and the Rams by a combined score of 124-7.
Overall, that 49ers team, which ranked first in the league in both offense and defense (and first in scoring offense and third in scoring defense), had a point differential of 206, the most ever by a non-Super Bowl-winning Niners club in the NFL, and they did it in just 15 games.
Obviously the strike that year throws a monkey wrench into the numbers somewhat, and it no doubt benefited the Niners greatly that they went 3-0 in the "scab" games, with Joe Montana and Dwight Clark two of the principals to cross the picket lines and play after taking just one game off.
Also of note, a young Jerry Rice caught "only" 65 passes in 12 games that regular season for a mere 1,078 yards, but scored on more than a third of those receptions, setting a single-season NFL record for touchdown catches that would last until 2007, when a fellow by the name of Randy Moss caught 23 touchdowns (in 16 games) for the Patriots.
Their defense that season finished with 36 sacks and a very healthy 25 picks, and they peaked late, allowing 19 total points in four December wins while the media was focusing intently on the team's nascent quarterback controversy. An inexperienced, scrambling prodigy (sound familiar?) by the name of Steve Young ran roughshod over the league in two late-season starts and saw significant playing time in a third game, combing for nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in those three ballgames.
Despite Young's stellar play in December, coach Bill Walsh decided to go back to the veteran Montana for the playoffs, and the decision backfired on him. Playing the upstart, 11-point underdog Vikings at home in the divisional round, the 49ers fell behind 20-3 at halftime with Montana among the many in red and gold playing poorly.
Walsh switched to Young in the second half, and while he rallied the offense somewhat, the Niners were still upset 36-24, with Anthony Carter in particular terrorizing them to the tune of 10 receptions for 227 yards and journeyman quarterback Wade Wilson playing the game of his life.
Walsh would be scrutinized all offseason for starting Montana, and the "Joe vs. Steve" debate that took the Bay Area by storm in the late '80s would have a few more twists and turns in the coming years.
9. 2011 (13-3)
I have a feeling that as the years pass on this will be one of the 49ers teams that will become lost to history, just because offensively there was so little pizazz to them. The quarterback, Alex Smith, turned out to be, for all intents and purposes, a "one-year wonder," even though technically he was having a better season in 2012 before getting hurt and benched.
These 49ers won two more games in the regular season than the 2012 version that has, of course, advanced to the Super Bowl, and they had a significantly better scoring differential (plus-151 to plus-124). Their offense ranked only 26th in the league, but just like the 2012 Niners, they finished 11th in the league in scoring, meaning they were far more efficient with the meager yards they gained.
The 2011 Niners specialized in forcing turnovers (38), not turning it over themselves (10, tied for the lowest by any team in NFL history) and capitalized on a career season from free-agent signee David Akers, who booted a league single-season record 44 field goals.
It was a squad that took the league by surprise, with Jim Harbaugh making his pro debut as a head coach after a successful four-year stint down the road at Stanford. He and his coaching staff were able to hit the ground running despite the lockout and truncated training camp, thanks to an outstanding draft class (Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller) and several shrewd free-agent signings (Akers, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Jonathan Goodwin) by general manager Trent Baalke.
In retrospect, this team was somewhat fortunate to play a fairly soft schedule. The Seahawks didn't have Russell Wilson yet. The Redskins didn't have Robert Griffin III yet. Ben Roethlisberger was very limited when the Steelers came to town.
Still, their defense had a bit more bite last year (Justin Smith was a year younger), the special teams units were more consistent and the team came within a muffed punt by Kyle Williams of advancing to the Super Bowl, despite a wide receiving corps that had to rely on a gimpy Michael Crabtree, Williams and Brett Swain, due to injuries to Joshua Morgan and Braylon Edwards.
No matter how good a team is, you need some luck to win a Super Bowl, or to even go to one. The 2011 Niners' luck ran out at the worst time.
8. 1990 (14-2)
Similar to the 2011 team, we have a bittersweet "what if?" feeling about the 1990 squad because they lost a heartbreaker in the NFC Championship Game to those dreaded New York Giants on a fumble by Roger Craig.
Outside of that of course, the two teams had very little in common. While the 2011 Niners were mostly a team of young, ragtag upstarts, the 1990 version was an aging club going for a "three-peat," riding the end of the Joe Montana era.
Make no mistake, this club had a distinct "1998 Bulls" odor to them in that they were a dynasty on its last fumes, hoping to cross the finish line first one last time before breaking it up. The difference, obviously, is that the '98 Bulls closed the deal whereas these Niners didn't.
The 1990 team had some serious cracks beneath the surface despite their glossy 14-2 record. They finished eighth in the league in scoring, which sounds good, but it was actually their lowest ranking in that category in a 20-year window (the 1980 team finished 12th, the 1999 team finished 22nd).
They scored only 353 points all season. Compare that to the offensively challenged 2011 Niners, who scored 380 points. Montana, coming off the best season of his career, crashed back down to Earth, throwing a career-high 16 interceptions. The team's leading rusher was Dexter Carter, with just 460 yards. Craig, the graybeard, averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in an injury-marred season.
Jerry Rice was typically brilliant (100-1, 503-13) and the defense was good, and at times great (Charles Haley had 16 sacks), but in the end they just couldn't carry a flawed, battered offense.
Craig will go down in history as the goat for fumbling against the Giants, but really the dream was over once Leonard Marshall injured Montana earlier in that game. I think the 1990 Bills would've absolutely thrashed Steve Young and Co. in the Super Bowl.
These Niners didn't have the ball-control offense than those Giants did, and Young wasn't quite ready to lead the team to glory after riding the bench all season.
7. 1992 (14-2)
For my money, this is the best of the 49ers teams that didn't make the big game, for various reasons.
They finished first in scoring and total offense and third in scoring defense, with Steve Young finally establishing himself as a legit, Pro Bowl-level starting QB. Young threw 25 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions, finishing with a 107.0 passer rating and adding 537 yards and four more scores on the ground.
Also, the team finally found another franchise running back in Ricky Watters, who missed his rookie season in 1991 with injuries but churned out 1,013 yards on just 206 carries the following season, while also giving the offense a reliable and dynamic outlet receiver for Young.
The offense had so many credible weapons with Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Brent Jones, Mike Sherrard and Tom Rathman, and the rebuilt defense was still plenty good with Tim Harris (17 sacks) providing the heat and a couple of young guys (Merton Hanks and Eric Davis) starring in the secondary.
They lost only twice all season and both of those games were fairly fluky. The Bills topped them 34-31 early on, in the only game in NFL history that didn't feature a single punt. They dropped another one in midseason to the lowly Cardinals when Young got injured early in the game and Steve Bono couldn't rally them.
I wish there was some sexy or interesting narrative to cap off this team's story, but the fact of the matter is they just ran into a buzz saw in the budding Cowboys dynasty, with that stunningly talented Dallas team improving at an almost geometric rate under Jimmy Johnson and blossoming a year or two ahead of schedule.
You could say that Young choked with two picks, and the 49ers were on the wrong end of the turnover margin to the tune of 4-0 in that 30-20 loss to Dallas, but that just underlined the overall point that the Cowboys were better, period. The Niners needed a bit more star power and a bit more playmaking on defense, and it would be a couple of seasons before they got it.
6. 2012 (11-4-1)
Naturally, the 2012 Niners belong here at No. 6, teetering on the precipice of either winning the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy or having the dubious distinction of becoming the first 49ers squad to fall short in the big game.
Of course, just by advancing this far they've accomplished quite a feat. While the 49ers have a perfect 5-0 record in the Super Bowl, their record in the penultimate game before the Jan. 20 28-24 triumph at Atlanta was a groan-inducing 5-8. Eight occasions where they came so close, yet fell so far.
While the ultimate story of this team is yet to be written, the lede paragraph, of course, will be coach Jim Harbaugh's controversial decision to bench starting quarterback Alex Smith, who was enjoying the finest season of his checkered career, for second-year man Colin Kaepernick, an athletic but inexperienced wunderkind.
It wasn't always smooth sailing for Kaepernick over his seven regular-season starts, but he did outplay Drew Brees and Tom Brady in road wins and then peaked in the playoffs, out-dueling Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at home and then Matt Ryan and the Falcons on the road, overcoming a 17-point deficit in the latter game, an NFC Championship Game record.
Kaepernick gives the 49ers a running dimension at quarterback they haven't had since Steve Young's early days, and he's got an arm unlike any QB in franchise history (with the possible exception of the brainless Jim Druckenmiller).
However, the 49ers are anything but a one-man show. Frank Gore still continues to be one of the top backs in the league at the advanced age of 29, Michael Crabtree has finally grown into a true "No. 1 receiver," Vernon Davis is a playmaking threat and one of the league's most complete tight ends and their offensive line is one of the best in the league.
On the other side of the ball the defense hasn't been quite as dominating or consistent as the year before, due mainly to age and injury-related declines from Justin Smith, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner, but also because of the fact that it was simply impossible to sustain the turnover-inducing pace of the 2011 squad.
Second-year man Aldon Smith did set a franchise record with 19 sacks despite being shut out of the final three regular-season games, while Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman continued to be the league's best inside linebacker tandem.
The 2012 49ers made it to the Super Bowl despite getting next to nothing from their rookie class (first-round pick A.J. Jenkins didn't catch a pass all year), but their draft from the year before was so incredible that it didn't matter.
Now we just have to find out if the sixth spot will prove to be correct for them or whether they can climb a couple of notches higher. Their situation is what we in the biz call "fluid."
5. 1988 (10-6)
Anyway you slice it, the '88 Niners were by far the weakest of their Super Bowl winners.
First off, there's the obvious: They lost six games during the season, and at one point they were teetering along at 6-5 after a two-game losing streak, dropping games to a pair of juggernaut teams that don't even exist anymore in the Los Angeles Raiders and Phoenix Cardinals.
Then there's their rankings relative to the league, seventh in scoring offense and eighth in scoring defense out of just 28 clubs.
They had by far the worst scoring differential of any of their Super Bowl winners at just plus-75, and that figure was only the sixth-best in the league that season.
Finally, there was the Super Bowl itself, which they famously won in dramatic fashion, with Joe Montana leading a 92-yard drive and finishing it off with a 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds to go to beat the Bengals 20-16. You'll note that all of their other Super Bowl wins came in fairly one-sided fashion, to varying degrees.
Montana had an underwhelming regular season after emerging on top of the "Joe vs. Steve" wars, but the offense rode Roger Craig (1,502 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) and their underrated running game to some late-season wins, and unlike many Niners teams that came before and would come after, the '88 edition peaked late instead of early.
The defense also got better as the year went along, with five guys posting at least five sacks toward the team's overall total of 42 and Tim McKyer snatching seven of the team's 22 interceptions (Ronnie Lott had five).
What the '88 49ers had going for them, besides the Lombardi Trophy, of course, is that they did manage to put together a pair of convincing playoff against past tormentors, first 34-9 against a Vikings club that shocked them the season before and then, stunningly, 28-3 at top-seeded Chicago to put the final nail in the Mike Ditka/Jim McMahon/Mike Singletary Bears' coffin.
After three straight one-and-done exits in the playoffs, the 49ers were thought of as a finesse team, a soft team, and to paste the black-and-blue rough-and-tumble Bears in the freezing Chicago weather sent a message throughout the league that they were still a force to be reckoned with.
4. 1981 (13-3)
You look back on the success of the 1981 49ers and it just drives home how bittersweet the 2011 season was and how fine the line between glory and heartbreak can be.
Believe it or not, but no two 49ers teams were more similar, and the parallels between the two are downright eerie.
Both teams were coming off of eight-season playoff droughts and had a record of 6-10 the year before surprising everyone with 13-3 records.
Both had recently hired hotshot offensive gurus from Stanford to be their head coach, with those fellows in question (Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh) both getting their first top jobs in the pros.
Both teams drew this false media narrative where their success was supposedly coming from an improved offense, when it really wasn't the case at all. The 1981 Niners weren't all that much better of an offense than the 1980 version and were actually worse relative to where they ranked to the league in scoring, while the 2011 Niners actually ranked worse in total offense than the 2010 team.
Ironically, given the offensive background of the head coaches, the main reason both squads took off was due to their dramatic improvement on defense, particularly in the secondary, where wholesale offseason changes were made.
They drafted three starters there, and while Ronnie Lott was the obvious headliner who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson were both very good players in their own right, and the three of them combined for 14 interceptions that season. Add to that trio safety Dwight Hicks, who had a career season with nine picks and 13 takeaways in all (for 319 return yards and two scores), and it was one of the best defensive backfields of all time.
The 2011 Niners, meanwhile, signed Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner to shore up their secondary, got a terrific bounce-back season from Dashon Goldson and drafted a relative unknown in Chris Culliver out of Tennessee who wound up manning a corner spot for them for the lion's share of the season due to injuries and played quite well.
The ultimate difference between the two teams is that the '81 Niners had some good luck (and more health at receiver) in the NFC Championship Game and the '11 Niners had some bad luck.
Montana threw three interceptions and lost a fumble against the Cowboys before throwing that famous pass to Dwight Clark, while Alex Smith had two touchdown passes and no turnovers against the Giants in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Giants, yet you ask any fan which one played better in those two respective games and they'll all respond with "Montana."
History smiles on the winners, and Montana and Co. deserve full credit for not just getting to the Super Bowl, but also finishing the job, topping the Bengals 26-21 in a game they led 20-0 at half.
3. 1994 (13-3)
Alright, we've made it past the close-but-no-cigar Niners teams and the flawed champions and finally gotten to the exalted portion of these rankings, the three 49ers squads that could realistically challenge for the status as the NFL's all-time greatest single-season team.
At No. 3 we have the last Niners team to capture Lombardi, the 1994 club that broke, briefly, the stranglehold the Troy Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin Cowboys had over the league. Of course, they were greatly aided by the internal drama at Dallas, where the clash of egos between owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson got to be too much and Jones replaced Johnson with the brash, in-over-his-head Barry Switzer, who had a well-deserved reputation of letting the inmates run the asylum and always looking the other way when it came to off-the-field indiscretions (when he wasn't breaking rules himself, that is).
Still, the 49ers in their own right had made significant changes of their own in an effort to get over the hump after the Cowboys punched them in the mouth in back-to-back playoff defeats, signing several "name" free agents on defense, most notably Deion Sanders and former Cowboy Ken Norton, but also Gary Plummer, Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent, Charles Mann and Toi Cook.
Sanders took home the league's "Defensive Player of the Year" award, returning three of his six interceptions for touchdowns, while Merton Hanks and the young defensive tackle tandem of Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield also enjoyed fine seasons, but overall this was the one 49ers championship team where you can claim that the offense deserved the lion's share of the credit and attention for their success.
The 1994 Niners were an offensive monster, and their 505 points scored in the regular season was easily a franchise record. Steve Young set a league record with a 112.8 passer rating and finished the season with a 70.3 completion percentage, 3,969 yards and 35 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions.
Jerry Rice was once again terrific (112-1,499-13), Ricky Watters had emerged as a true dual threat, John Taylor was still hanging on and Brent Jones was established as one of the league's best tight ends. The offense was so stellar that Ed McCaffrey, who'd go on to become a star with the Broncos in the late '90s, was their little-used fourth receiver.
The Niners actually got off to a rocky 3-2 start, losing to Joe Montana at Kansas City and getting annihilated 40-8 at home versus Philadelphia (yes, I was there) in a game most remembered for Young's sideline tirade at being benched by coach George Seifert, though the true football nerds will remember it for being Charlie Garner's awesome NFL debut.
After that game, though, they found their footing and reeled off 10 wins in a row, often in lopsided fashion, before dropping a meaningless Week 17 game at Minnesota.
They stomped the hapless Bears 44-15 and outlasted the Cowboys 38-28 in the NFL's real championship game, getting off to a 21-0 start thanks to a couple of early Dallas turnovers and holding on for dear life in the end, in part because of a missed call where Sanders definitely got away with pass interference on Irvin, causing Switzer to blow a gasket with the refs and drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct flag.
The Niners went to the Super Bowl as 19-point favorites against the overmatched San Diego Chargers, a line that proved to be flattering to the AFC squad from pretty much the opening kickoff. Rice and Watters scored three touchdowns apiece, and Young set a Super Bowl record with six touchdown passes in a virtually flawless performance in the 49-26 win.
Ultimately I've got the '94 Niners at No. 3 because their defense just doesn't measure up to their other championship teams, despite all the big names (most of their signings were well-past-their-prime pass-rushers chasing rings) and because I just can't overlook that 40-8 curb-stomping even though it came early on in a relatively meaningless game.
That being said, once this offense found their rhythm, it was pretty much impossible for anyone to stop them.
2. 1984 (15-1)
I'm sure many would've expected this team, the 1984 49ers, to be No. 1 on my list for several reasons.
For one, they're technically the best 18-1 championship team in NFL history, with their lone regular-season blemish being a three-point loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime (the 18-1 New England Patriots don't count, obviously, because their one loss was just a wee bit more significant).
Secondly, they had a scoring differential of 248 points, by far the best of any 49ers team since they joined the NFL.
These 49ers finished second in the league to Dan Marino and the Dolphins in total offense and in scoring and had the top scoring defense in the league.
They won their three playoff games in convincing (but not overwhelming) fashion by a combined score of 84-26, with none of the games closer than 11 points.
But before I get to why I have them ranked second, a quick tangent about their one loss.
I was there. Sorry. You can blame 18-1 on me. It was the first football game I attended in person, and I was quite literally a six-year-old fresh off the boat as an immigrant. I had no idea what I was watching (some would suggest I still don't).
An even worse sin, I'm sure you'd agree, is that I was, technically, rooting for the Steelers because our tickets for that game had been provided by their starting right tackle Tunch Ilkin, whose parents were very good friends with my grandparents.
(Ilkin was selected as the team's all-time starting right tackle and does the color commentary for their radio broadcasts these days. He's a great guy who recently lost his wife of nearly 30 years, Sharon, to cancer, and she was one of the two Indiana State cheerleaders on that Sports Illustrated cover with a collegiate Larry Bird.)
Anyway, by the time of the Super Bowl I had a fairly decent working knowledge of the game and quickly shifted my allegiances to Joe Montana and the 49ers before falling for that other Pennsylvania-based team, the far less successful one, a couple of years later, but that's neither here nor there.
Here's why the '84 Niners are second best in my eyes.
For one, they didn't have Jerry Rice just yet. To me, it only makes sense that the all-time best 49ers team has their all-time best player on it.
Come to think of it, how absurd is it that the defending Super Bowl champions were in position to draft Rice? That's like the '80s Lakers or Celtics drafting Michael Jordan.
For another, that Niners team just didn't have enough star power for me, and they were a total-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts kind of team on both sides of the ball if there ever was one.
Roger Craig hadn't achieved full stardom just yet, and he was still second fiddle in the backfield to veteran Wendell Tyler. People always make the mistake of assuming that 1984 was Craig's 1,000-1,000 year, in which he became the first running back to break a thousand yards both running and receiving (Marshall Faulk also turned the trick for the '99 Rams), but actually he did that the next season.
Craig and Tyler were also two of eight 49ers to finish with between 230 and 880 receiving yards, with Dwight Clark pacing the club with that relatively meager figure.
The defense totaled 51 sacks, but after Dwaine Board's 10, nobody else had more than five. They picked off 25 passes, but nobody had more than four.
Talk about "The team, the team, the team," I bet Jim Harbaugh, then a sophomore QB at Michigan, would've loved the '84 Niners.
Finally, I've got them second because even the betting public at the time wasn't convinced they were definitively the best team in the league that year, never mind one of the best ever. They were only three-point favorites to the Dolphins in the Super Bowl, despite playing basically a home game at Stanford stadium.
That means if it were truly a neutral site game, at New Orleans or somewhere like that, that the line would've been even money. The Niners just didn't have the respect of the people coming into the game, they had to earn it.
Of course Montana easily bested Marino and Co. 38-16 and took home his second Super Bowl MVP award (with Craig scoring three touchdowns), and surprisingly there would be no more rematches, as Marino never again made it to the Super Bowl.
The top 49ers team of all time, however, squared off against a quarterback, and a team, that had been in a few already and would go on to play (and win) a couple more .
1. 1989 (14-2)
Finally, here we are, the crème de la crème, the 1989 49ers, who, for my money, aren't just the best 49ers team ever but are also the best team in NFL history.
First in total offense and scoring, fourth in total defense and third in points allowed, the '89 Niners were an unstoppable juggernaut that finished the season a perfect 8-0 on the road and dropped a pair of home games by five total points.
Joe Montana was at the height of his powers and completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 3,521 yards and 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, for a then-league-record 112.4 passer rating.
Oddly more impressive, at the age of 33 and having an extensive injury history, Montana scrambled 49 times for 227 yards that season, the second-highest figures of his career in each category.
It was a true West Coast offense, with the starting backfield of Roger Craig and Tom Rathman combining for 122 receptions for 1,089 yards and both Jerry Rice and John Taylor surpassing 1,000 yards on the outside (Taylor had a career-high 1,077).
In fact, it was those four, and tight end Brent Jones, who provided pretty much the entirety of the offense from the skill positions. Their sixth-leading receiver caught nine passes, while their fourth-leading rusher was Terrance Flagler with 129 yards (Steve Young had 126 in three starts). First-year head coach George Seifert rode his starters hard, much like Jim Harbaugh does today with the defense.
Speaking of that side of the ball, Pierce Holt and Charles Haley were the forebearers to the modern day Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, with each recording 10.5 sacks, while Ronnie Lott paced the defense with five interceptions.
What makes this Niners team stand out among the rest is that they were buoyed by the confidence of winning the past Super Bowl and used that success to drive themselves to an even higher level, a "You think last year was a fluke, watch this" philosophy.
Or maybe the players set out to prove that they could do it without Bill Walsh, who retired after the 1988 season (which he admitted to regretting immensely later on).
Either way, where past title-winning 49ers teams were crushed by the burdens of expectation, the '89 Niners thrived, proving all of their critics and doubters wrong. They won their three playoff games by a combined score of 136-26 (their playoff scoring differential of 110 topped the regular-season totals of the '81 and '88 Niners), stomping the Vikings 41-13, the Rams 30-3 and John Elway and the Broncos 55-10, with Rice catching three of Montana's five touchdown passes in that game.
The 1989 49ers were the best because they played at their peak when it mattered most, and Montana was the quintessential example of that. Coming off of the finest regular season of his career, he somehow played even better in the playoffs, with 11 touchdown passes and no picks in those three games, and the lowest passer rating he had in any of the three was a mere 125.3 against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game.
These guys were simply a machine, and nobody was going to touch them when it mattered.