Happy Independence Day to all of you American readers out there! For everyone else, happy Friday.
With fireworks shows going off across the country—and no real football news to note until training camp begins in mid-July—it’s a good time to go back and remember the greatest display of aerial fireworks in San Francisco 49ers history.
In 1992, Steve Young was still trying to establish himself as the long-term replacement for Joe Montana. After all, Montana was still on the roster, albeit on the bench. While Montana was still recovering from an elbow injury, Young was the quarterback of the future.
With no Pro Bowls to his name at this point, and with the 49ers having actually missed the playoffs in 1991, Young had a very hostile fanbase to win over as the long-term replacement. He was far from being regarded as the future Hall of Fame quarterback he’d turn out to be.
In the second week of the season, the 49ers hosted the Buffalo Bills, led by another future Hall of Fame quarterback, Jim Kelly. The Bills were coming off of two straight AFC Championships and operated the K-Gun offense, a potent attack that would be matched up against the 49ers’ West Coast attack. A high scoring game was to be expected, but what actually happened was beyond even the wildest of expectations.
For the first and only time in an NFL game, neither team attempted a punt. Two drives ended in missed field goals for the 49ers and both teams turned the ball over three times, but every other drive ended in points—mostly after major yards.
For the game, Young was 26-of-37 for 449 yards and three touchdowns, just outdoing Kelly’s stat line of 22-of-33, 403 yards and three touchdowns. Even more impressive was the fact that Young did it without the help of Jerry Rice, who sustained a concussion in the first quarter, and Brent Jones, who strained a hamstring in the second.
Young still had John Taylor, however, who caught five passes for 112 yards and a pair of scores in the game. Mike Sherrard, subbing for the injured Rice, had the best day of his career with 159 yards on six receptions. They were matched, however, by a pair of 100-yard receivers on Buffalo’s side, as both Andre Reed and Pete Metzelaars topped the century mark.
The Bills wore down the 49er defense with their no-huddle offense, preventing San Francisco from substituting. That allowed them to exploit mismatches, particularly with running back Thurman Thomas, whose all-around brilliance resulted in 179 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown reception against an overmatched Bill Romanowski.
Not to be outdone, however, the 49ers found time to break from the aerial assault to gain 159 yards on the ground, riding the legs of Ricky Watters and Young himself.
''I thought Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carl Lewis were going to come into the game before it was all over,'' said Bill Polian, Buffalo's general manager at the time. ''It looked like the 4x100-meter relay.''
Big plays were the name of the day—42 plays gained 10 yards or more. The 598 yards of offense San Francisco gained was the franchise record until 2012, when Alex Smith and company ran all over—the Buffalo Bills, yet again.
But that 2012 game was a one-sided stomp, a very good team stomping a pretty bad one. The 1992 edition featured two Hall of Fame quarterbacks setting records: The 1,086 yards the teams combined for is the 10th most in NFL history and still represents the most combined total yardage in a game in which the 49ers participated.
The 49ers could have won the game, too. They were leading, 31-28 going into the fourth quarter, but a Thurman Thomas touchdown with just 3:04 left in the game put them behind the eight ball. It was Young’s chance to win over the home crowd and earn his spot as a starter for good.
Young marched the 49ers down the field in eight plays, including running for a first down on a bootleg. This set up a chance for Mike Cofer to kick a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime, but Cofer missed his second field-goal attempt of the day.
''Today the defense should have apologized to Steve Young,'' 49ers linebacker Mike Walter said after the game.
Not everyone was happy with result, of course. Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy grumbled, saying that he thought their “10-7 win over Denver last season was a better game.” There’s no pleasing some people.
You would think that another game like that would be inevitable for today’s 49ers. The rules today are much friendlier to offense than they were in the ‘90s, with defensive players more limited in how physical they can play opposing receivers. The 49ers have allowed 400 or more yards of offense nine times in the Harbaugh era, compared to ten times in the entire George Seifert era, which lasted eight full seasons compared to Harbaugh’s three.
No, the 49ers’ offense hasn’t been as loaded with Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers as the offenses in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it’s not like the team hasn’t put up large numbers of their own sometimes. The 49ers have put up nine games of 400 or more yards of offense themselves in the Harbaugh era, five with Alex Smith and four with Colin Kaepernick. Even though the 49ers have been a primarily rush-oriented team in recent years, they’re still capable of putting up huge numbers when required.
In addition, the environment is more set up today for huge offensive showcases. Six of the top ten offensive days in NFL history have come since 2004, with five of them happening in the last three seasons—though, oddly, the biggest yardage game ever occurred in 1950, when Bob Waterfield’s Los Angeles Rams and George Ratterman’s New York Yankes combined for 1,133 yards.
Do the 49ers have a chance of joining the 1,000-yard club again this season? They’ve upped their offense, adding Stevie Johnson and a healthy Michael Crabtree to the passing attack and have sworn they’ll pass more.
And that's because they may have to: On the defensive side of the ball, San Francisco's top three cornerbacks all have less than a year of starting experience, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and probably Aldon Smith will miss a significant chunk of the beginning of the season.
The most likely place for an offensive showdown is in Denver on October 18. The worst offensive day Peyton Manning and company put up last season was 295 yards against San Diego following a short week. Fifteen games saw them go over 400 yards on offense, and they topped 500 yards seven times. There’s no real reason to believe the Denver offense has gotten any worse in the interim, so expect the Broncos to keep up their side of the bargain.
They have spent some time trying to improve their defense, bringing in DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward to try to improve their 22nd-ranked squad. They allowed 400 or more yards four times last season, peaking with the amazing game against Dallas where the two teams combined for 1,039 yards of offense.
The matchup is early enough in the season that Bowman likely won’t be back. It’s at Mile High, where the air is thinner, and theoretically it’s easier to throw the deep ball. It’s against an up-tempo team who ran the most offensive plays in football last season, leading to lots of offense. They’re a good team who will likely to score a lot, and thus necessitate San Francisco throwing the ball to keep up. All the elements are there for it to be a high-tempo offensive extravaganza.
If the 49ers are going to ever break the 1992 showdown between Young and Kelly, it’ll most likely be against Manning and the Broncos. It’ll likely be up to Colin Kaepernick and his revamped receiving corps to try to equal or better Manning’s offensive showcase.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.
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