San Francisco 49ers: 10 Most Painful Losses in Franchise History
The San Francisco 49ers normally are on the other side of crushing losses. They’re the team that rallied back from a 38-14 deficit to crush the New York Giants in the 2002 wild-card playoffs, and the team that clawed back from a 28-point deficit to beat the New Orleans Saints in 1980. They’re the team that breaks the hearts of its opponents and moves on.
Watching the U.S. men’s national team come so close to beating Portugal and clinching a spot in the knockout round of the World Cup, only to fail in the 95th minute, however, brought back memories of all the times the 49ers had been on the other side of those games. Every franchise has had its heart ripped out, and the 49ers are no exception.
To commiserate with the USMNT, it’s time to look back at the 10 worst losses in San Francisco 49ers history. These are the games that sent the 49ers packing, ending their hopes in particularly disappointing fashions. Some of them featured the 49ers furiously coming back, only to fail at the end. Others saw the 49ers watch their lead dribble away. One way or another, these are the worst of the worst.
Grab an aspirin and hold on—we’re going down a particularly painful part of memory lane.
In both cases, the 49ers entered the fourth quarter holding a 17-point lead, only to see Tommy Kramer and Bobby Hebert, respectively, pull off fantastic comebacks. If either game had a significant impact on San Francisco’s fortunes, it would have made the list.
The 1985 wild-card matchup against the New York Giants saw the 49ers’ potent offense being held to only three points, despite gaining 362 yards. That would hurt a lot more if the Chicago Bears hadn’t stomped through the NFL that season.
I can still see Craig Newsome scooping up Adam Walker’s fumble on the first play from scrimmage and rumbling to a touchdown in the 1995 divisional round against the Green Bay Packers. It felt like the rest of the game passed by in a blur, as the Packers rolled to a 27-17 victory. At the same time, however, it’s not quite as much of a gut-punch as a last-second loss, so it just finishes off the bottom of the list.
10. 10-6 and Golfing in January
Atlanta Falcons 17, San Francisco 49ers 14 (11/3/91)
The greatest NFL team to ever miss the playoffs? The 1991 San Francisco 49ers have a solid argument to that title, having finished 10-6 but losing a tiebreaker to the Atlanta Falcons and staying at home.
The 49ers lost to the Falcons twice in 1991, but the more painful loss came in Week 10.
The 49ers had struggled a bit on offense in the first half, only scoring on a 97-yard bomb from Steve Young to John Taylor in the second quarter. That 7-0 lead would hold up until the fourth quarter, which developed into one of the wilder finishes in 49ers history.
Both teams had lost their starting quarterbacks in the game. Young had injured his knee just before halftime, and Falcons quarterback Chris Miller bruised his ribs shortly after. It became a battle of the backups, and the Falcons’ Billy Joe Tolliver struck first, finding Andre Rison in the end zone and then driving for another field goal to put the Falcons up 10-7.
Steve Bono and the 49ers didn’t roll over, as Bono hooked up with Taylor with less than a minute left in the game to regain the lead. That just gave the ball back to the Falcons, however, and they threw a desperation Hail Mary pass into a crowd of white shirts—only for Michael Haynes to somehow come down with the game-winning touchdown.
Maybe this loss isn’t as obvious as the nine that will follow, but this is one I remember vividly—and it only got worse, considering that if the 49ers had managed to win even one of the two games against Atlanta, they would have made the playoffs.
If Young hadn’t been hurt at the end of the first half, maybe the 49ers would have come out on top in this one, and Young would have helped himself get Joe Montana’s monkey off his back that much sooner.
9. Dirty Birds
The 1998 divisional playoffs saw the last run of Young’s career. Coming off of finally beating the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs after three consecutive years of losing, the 49ers looked to come back and knock down historical-punching-bag Atlanta, which had a 14-2 season in the best year in its franchise history.
The first play of the game, however, gave the 49ers a horrible punch to the gut. Garrison Hearst, on a 1,500-yard season, broke his ankle. It took him until 2001 to fully recover from that injury. The 49ers desperately missed Hearst; backup Terry Kirby only managed 22 yards in nine carries.
The Falcons defense swarmed Young, with William White and Eugene Robinson combining to pick Young off three times, directly leading to a couple of field goals. On offense, Jamal Anderson rumbled to 113 yards and a pair of scores to lead Atlanta.
The 49ers scored a touchdown with less than three minutes left to bring the score to 20-18 and managed to get the ball back on their own 4-yard line with only 34 seconds left in the game. Time for some Steve Young magic? Not quite—William White pulled down the third and final interception at midfield, ending the game.
This was the last playoff game for Young, who suffered a career-ending injury the next season. It’s not precisely the way he imagined going out. If Hearst didn’t go down untouched, a balanced 49ers attack might have been enough to trump the Falcons and go on to face the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship.
8. Staubach’s Best, Riley’s Worst
Dallas Cowboys 30, San Francisco 49ers 28 (12/23/72)
The Dallas Cowboys have always seemed to haunt the 49ers. In the early ‘90s, the battle between Troy Aikman’s squads and Steve Young’s teams were legendary, usually better than the Super Bowl that followed. The Cowboys were also the team the 49ers overcame in ’81 with The Catch to go to their first Super Bowl.
But the 1970s saw the Cowboys stomping on the 49ers multiple times in their first run of playoff success. In the 1970 and 1971 conference championships, the Cowboys sent the 49ers home multiple times.
But in the 1972 divisional round, it looked like the 49ers were going to finally get the specter of America’s Team off their back. Entering the fourth quarter, San Francisco had built a 28-13 lead. Larry Schreiber had run for three touchdowns, and Vic Washington had over 200 all-purpose yards, thanks to a 97-yard touchdown return in the first quarter.
The Cowboys started Craig Morton in that game, but he threw two interceptions and was only 8-of-21 passing. At the end of the third quarter, Cowboys coach Tom Landry had seen enough, sending Morton packing and bringing in Roger Staubach.
It took him a couple of drives, but Staubach began reeling the 49ers back in. A touchdown pass to Billy Parks with less than two minutes left brought the Cowboys to within five points and set up a Dallas onside kick.
The ball bounced right to 49ers wide receiver Preston Riley…who promptly botched the recovery, allowing the Cowboys to jump on it. Staubach drove down the field, hitting Ron Sellers to give the Cowboys a 30-28 lead with 52 seconds left.
John Brodie and the 49ers had a chance to come back, but a holding penalty took back a 23-yard completion that would have put the 49ers in field-goal range, and a Charlie Waters interception sealed the victory for Dallas.
The 49ers would have to wait until the 1981 season to get revenge on Dallas.
7. The Forgotten Classic
Washington Redskins 24, San Francisco 49ers 21 (1/8/84)
For three quarters, in the 1984 NFC Championship, Joe Montana and the 49ers looked awful. Washington rolled out to a 21-0 lead, entering the fourth quarter behind John Riggins’ 123 yards and two touchdowns. It could have been worse, too—Washington kicker Mark Moseley missed four field goals, which would have pretty much sealed the game.
Instead, Montana got a chance to work his magic. He engineered a nine-play, 79-yard drive and found Mike Wilson for a score, and then hit Freddie Solomon with a 76-yard touchdown pass with just about 10 minutes left in the game. Another touchdown pass to Wilson tied the game with seven minutes left in regulation.
Then, Washington went on one of the more controversial drives in playoff history.
Twice, Washington was helped by controversial penalties. Eric Wright was called for pass interference on the 18-yard line on a pass intended for Art Monk that was a good 10 feet over his head and uncatchable. Bill Walsh said it “could not have been caught by a 10-foot Boston Celtic.” That gave Washington a free 27-yard gain.
A few plays later, Ronnie Lott was called for holding on a 3rd-and-5 play on the 13-yard line. In the modern NFL, yes, Lott was holding, but with the rules in place at the time, it was an innocuous play—good defense. It gave Washington a first down, allowing them to drain the clock down to 40 seconds before Moseley finally connected on a field goal.
Montana had one last chance to win the game, but he threw an interception to Vernon Dean on the last play.
Without those two penalty calls, Montana would have had more time for that final drive, and perhaps he could have engineered a bit of his patented magic. Instead, having to rush, Montana forced the ball, ending San Francisco’s hopes of advancing to Super Bowl XVIII.
6. Doomsday Defense
Dallas Cowboys 17, San Francisco 49ers 10 (1/3/71)
Before they were the team of the ‘80s or the first team to achieve five Super Bowl wins, the 49ers were a struggling franchise.
The 1970 NFC Championship was San Francisco’s return to prominence in their first playoff run since the 1950s. They had the NFL MVP in John Brodie and had just upset the favored defending NFL champion Minnesota Vikings in the previous round. Awaiting them was America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys.
Fans of the passing game had a rough time in general in the ‘70s, but this was a defensive slugfest even by the standards of the time. The Cowboys’ Craig Morton only threw for 101 yards. Brodie performed better in terms of yardage, but he threw two crucial interceptions, setting up both of Dallas’ touchdowns.
Duane Thomas, the rookie running back for Dallas, ran for 143 yards and a touchdown, pounding the rock and demolishing San Francisco’s defensive line. The 49ers tried to counter with their aerial attack, and they did find Dick Witcher for a touchdown late in the third quarter, but it was a decade too early to beat the Cowboys through the air.
Trailing by seven for the entire fourth quarter, the 49ers watched helplessly as Dallas drained the clock. They did miss a field goal, however, giving the 49ers the ball late in the fourth. They managed to drive all the way down to Dallas’ 39-yard line, but Dallas’ defense held firm.
The Cowboys controlled the game, stifling San Francisco. They held the ball for nearly 10 more minutes, thanks to a powerful rushing game that just sucked the air out of Kezar Stadium. Brodie simply couldn’t get time to throw against the likes of Bob Lilly and Chuck Howley, and the 49ers, despite shutting down Morton, couldn’t do enough to pull this one out.
5. Kyle Williams
In Jim Harbaugh’s first year as head coach, he led the 49ers to the NFC Championship for the first time since the 1997 season. Behind Alex Smith’s revitalized NFL career, the 49ers met their old rival, the New York Giants, for the right to go to Super Bowl XLVI.
The Giants offense outperformed San Francisco’s, for sure. Eli Manning threw for 316 yards, while Smith only managed 196. Both threw two touchdowns, however, and, more importantly, neither turned the ball over. This led to a back-and-forth game, as Vernon Davis pulled down two touchdowns for San Francisco, while Manning found Mario Manningham and Bear Pascoe in the end zone.
In the fourth quarter, the 49ers were up 14-10, and New York had to punt. Regular punt returner Ted Ginn was hurt, forcing Kyle Williams to line up. He wisely decided not to try to return the ball, but he unwisely stayed close to the play, allowing it to bounce up and hit him. The Giants recovered the live ball, threw the touchdown pass to Manningham and went up 17-14.
A David Akers field goal tied the game back up, and we went to overtime. After trading punts, the Giants advanced to midfield but were stopped. Out came Williams to return the punt yet again.
This time, he tried to return it, but he was stripped after a few yards by Jacquian Williams, giving the ball to the Giants in field-goal range. The only two turnovers in the game were both bad punt returns by Williams, directly setting up 10 New York points and giving them the victory.
And that’s probably the easiest season-ending loss to swallow in the Harbaugh era.
4. Richard Sherman
Seattle Seahawks 23, San Francisco 49ers 17 (1/19/14)
As the most recent entry on this list, it might feel like this one should be higher. After all, the last thing burned into most 49ers fans' minds is the image of Richard Sherman, declaring himself "the best corner" in the game after breaking up the game-winning pass intended for Michael Crabtree.
The NFC Championship has been analyzed and re-analyzed: Should Colin Kaepernick have checked down on the last fateful play. What if NaVorro Bowman hadn’t gotten injured. Is Kaepernick to be credited for 283 yards of offense created, or crucified for his three turnovers against the Legion of Boom?
The reasons the game falls down to No. 4 is three-fold. First of all, it came against a great team in the toughest stadium to play in in the NFL. Had the same outcome happened in San Francisco, it would have been even harder to swallow.
Secondly, the 2013 edition of the Seahawks feels like an all-time great team. That defense is going to go down in the history books next to the ’85 Bears and ’00 Baltimore Ravens as one of the best units to ever line up. While it rips the heart out to lose to the Seahawks, it’s not like the 49ers blew it against an inferior opponent.
Thirdly, it wasn’t the Super Bowl, even if it felt like it.
It’s still one of the most painful losses in San Francisco’s history, and it could rise if the 49ers never capitalize on their current window of opportunity. If this ends up being San Francisco’s last shot at getting a sixth ring in the Harbaugh era, it will retroactively hurt even more. There’s just not enough time yet to properly put it into context.
3. Stop the Presses
Detroit Lions 31, San Francisco 49ers 27 (12/22/57)
Y.A. Tittle and the 49ers offense looked to turn this one into a laugher early. The 49ers found touchdown passes to R.C. Owens, Hugh McElhenny and Billy Wilson in the first half, as they rolled to a 24-7 halftime lead.
It seemed all but over, as the 49ers headed into the locker room at the half. It seemed such a sure thing that the public-address announcer announced that tickets to the championship game were already on sale, and they actually started printing the tickets. Now, I’m not particularly superstitious, but that just seems like a massive case of hubris.
Indeed, the game wasn’t over.
Tom “The Bomb” Tracy came in for the Lions at running back and rumbled to 86 yards in one half, including two touchdowns. Quarterback Tobin Rote also turned on the juice, using the threat of the run to complete several long passes, setting up Gene Gedman’s go-ahead touchdown.
The Lions defense also finally decided to show up. It forced four turnovers in the second half. Carl Karilivacz, Joe Schmidt and Roger Zatkoff all intercepted Tittle to help cap off one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.
Those mistakenly printed NFL Championship tickets are now something of a collector’s item, up there with the shirts praising the Super Bowl loser. Never, ever celebrate too early.
2. The Night the Lights Went Out in New Orleans
The 49ers were the first team to get to five Super Bowl titles, but since then, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys have passed them. In Harbaugh’s second year as head coach, they had the chance to even the score.
Kaepernick didn’t become the starter until halfway through the 2012 season, and the 49ers really didn’t show up to play until halfway through Super Bowl XLVII, as the Baltimore Ravens rolled out to a 28-6 lead on the first play after halftime. It felt like the 49ers were just going to be blown out of the water, so electrifying was the Ravens' performance.
Then the blackout hit.
Power was lost in the Superdome, resulting in a 34-minute break in the third quarter. It’s too simplistic to say that the sudden stoppage halted Baltimore’s momentum, giving San Francisco an opportunity to get back into the game, but it is undeniable that when the lights came back on, the 49ers decided to actually show up.
The 49ers scored the next 17 points of the contest to bring the score to 28-23, clawing their way back with precision passing, hitting Crabtree in the end zone for one score and power running, with Frank Gore adding another touchdown. Kaepernick’s feet added even more points, and it ended with the 49ers trailing 34-29 with 4:19 left in the game.
The 49ers managed to drive the ball down to Baltimore’s 7-yard line, giving them four chances to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Gore was stuffed, and Kaepernick threw two incomplete passes. On their last chance, Kaepernick found Crabtree in the end zone, but the pass was just out of his reach. In addition, there was contact between Crabtree and Jimmy Smith before the ball got there, which could have resulted in a new set of downs, but no penalty was called.
To come so close to pulling off what would have been the most dramatic comeback in Super Bowl history, only to fall five yards short, is crippling. The early start drained 49ers fans' hopes; they were slowly rebuilt over the second half, and then they all collapsed at the end once more. It’s the second-worst defeat in 49ers history.
1. No Three-Peat
No team has ever won the Super Bowl three consecutive times.
The 1968 Green Bay Packers stumbled to a 6-7-1 record, their first losing year since 1958.
The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers fell in the AFC Championship to the Oakland Raiders.
The 1994 Dallas Cowboys fell in the NFC Championship to the San Francisco 49ers.
The 1999 Denver Broncos stumbled to a 6-10 record after John Elway’s retirement and Terrell Davis’ injury.
The 2005 New England Patriots lost in the divisional round to the Denver Broncos.
The 1990 San Francisco 49ers…
The 49ers had the 1990 NFC Championship won. It had been hard-fought, and it took a physical toll on the team. Joe Montana took a vicious shot from Leonard Marshall, severely injuring him and essentially ending his career with San Francisco, but before he left, he hooked up with John Taylor for the only touchdown of the game.
The Giants kept driving, but they could never find the end zone. Matt Bahr had drilled four field goals, but the 49ers were clinging to a one-point lead as backup quarterback Steve Young tried to drain the clock. With 5:47 left on the clock, the 49ers began driving and were in control.
After taking three minutes off the clock, Young handed the ball to the sure-handed Roger Craig. Craig was hit immediately by Erik Howard, dropping the ball, which fell right into the arms of Lawrence Taylor. The 49ers never had a chance to recover the fumble.
It was the only turnover of the game.
The Giants drove the length of the field, and Bahr kicked his fifth and final field goal as time expired, sending the 49ers home.
Would Young have managed to lead the 49ers to victory in the Super Bowl in place of an injured Montana? We’ll never know. Could they have outlasted the Buffalo Bills, who lost to the Giants only on a missed field goal as time expired? It’s impossible to say.
It was the end of the dynasty. Montana only played one more half of football for San Francisco, and the 49ers actually missed the playoffs the next season. It was the last hurrah for players such as Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott, who would be gone the next time the 49ers returned to the Super Bowl.
All things end badly. Otherwise, they wouldn’t end. The end of the 49ers’ dynasty of the 1980s is the most painful loss in 49ers history.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.