In ranking the greatest teams of the 49ers, I had to ask myself a question. If a great quarterback is measured by not only statistics, but also by how many championships he has won, shouldn’t a team be measured the same way?
There have been many good teams in 49er history: the teams of the late 40’s. Those teams that always seem to lose to Dallas in the 70’s, and a few that just missed going to the big game in the 80’s.
But the one thing the greats always have can’t always be measured—heart; the heart of a champion.
In my humble opinion, I give you the five greatest teams in 49ers history.
The 49ers—just two years removed from a 2-14 record in Bill Walsh’s first season as head coach-won their first Super Bowl.
Walsh, however, had inherited a team that had gone 2-14 the previous season.
By 1981, Walsh had already overhauled the offense by drafting quarterback Joe Montana and wide out Dwight Clark. Freddie Salomon was developing into a top-notch wide receiver. It was time for Walsh to go to work on the defense.
He drafted Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson. All three Rookies started for the 49ers.
Combined with second year linebacker Keena Turner, who Walsh had made a trade for on draft day the previous year, and free agents Fred Dean, and Jack Reynolds—Walsh now had a formidable defense.
The team struggled a bit at first, losing two of their first three games. But once they gelled, they would only lose only one game the rest of the year, posting a 13-3 record.
The 49ers would make quick work of the New York Giants in their first playoff game before they met their long time nemesis the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship.
The game will always be remembered for “The Catch”. It is remebered as one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
Montana was under heavy pressure and his pass was high in the end zone—many including coach Walsh thought it was a throwaway play. Walsh began planning for fourth down, that is until he heard the roar of the crowd.
What most people don’t remember are two plays that sealed the victory afterwards.
Drew Pearson caught a long pass from quarterback Danny White and if not for a touchdown saving tackle from Eric Wright “The Catch” would have been all for naught.
On the next play, White coughed up the ball while being tossed around and taken down by Lawrence Pillars. Jim Stuckey recovered the football, giving the 49ers their first trip to the Super Bowl.
In a closely fought contest, the 49ers would go on to beat NFL MVP quarterback Ken Anderson and his Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.
The game featured a goal line stand in the third quarter. After a long completion to Chris Collinsworth, the Bengals were at the 49ers 14-yard-line and knocking on the door.
The Bengals eventually moved the ball to the 49ers 3-yard line when running back Pete Johnson converted on a fourth-down play. Johnson then gained two yards on first down moving the ball to the one.
Johnson was stuffed on second down for a loss of one. On third down, Dan Bunz delivered the stop on Johnson at the line for one of the most famous defensive plays in team history.
The Bengals went for it again on forth down, and this time Johnson was stymied by Bunz, Reynolds, and Lott.
The game was close, but in the end the 49ers would hold off the Bengals for a 26-21 victory, the team’s first Super Bowl. Little did anybody know a dynasty was in the making.
Outside of their Cinderella season in 1991, the 1988 team could be viewed as the least likely of the five Super Bowl winners to have brought back the Lombardi trophy.
By week eleven, the team was a pedestrian 7-5, were in the midst of a quarterback controversy, as both Joe Montana and Steve Young had started games, and not scaring anybody.
In the following week, the team squared off against the defending Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins.
Leading at the half by a score of 23-7, the team would cruise to a surprising 37-21 win.
The victory gave impetus to the team as they went on to win three of their last four regular season games. The loss came in the final game of the regular season against the pesky Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams desperately needed the win to earn a wild card berth in the playoffs.
The 49ers, Rams, and the New Orleans Saints ended the regular season all tied at 10-6.
The tiebreaker gave the 49ers the number two seed, the Rams the wild card, and the “Aints” stayed home.
The Niners would crush the wild card Minnesota Vikings who had upset them the previous year in the playoffs.
They would then rip the top seeded Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
For the second time the 49ers would meet the Cincinnati Bengals, this time in Super Bowl XXIII.
Running back Elbert L. "Ickey" Woods famously predicted before the game, “You will see the Ickey shuffle”—his famous dance he would perform following a touchdown.
Although he was the game’s leading rusher, he was held to 79 yards and no touchdowns.
Unfortunately, what we did see on the game’s fourteenth play, was a devastating injury to the Bengal’s star nose tackle Tim Krumrie; Krumrie’s leg was badly broken while trying to tackle the 49ers’ Roger Craig.
The first half was all about defense-neither team was able to get much going, as the score at halftime was 3-3.
The Bengals’ much heralded Boomer Esiason managed only 144 yards through the air with one interception. The Bengals did manage two field goals in second half and combined with an electrifying 93 yard Stanford Jennings kick-off return for a touchdown, the Bengals found themselves leading 16-13 with 3:10 left in the game.
On the ensuing kickoff the Bengals would pin the 49ers on their own eight-yard line.
During the famous “John Candy Drive” Montana would illustrate his coolness under pressure, and complete 8 of 9 passes ending in a 10-yard strike to John Taylor in the end zone.
With only seconds left the Bengals were unable to score and the 49ers were again Super Bowl Champions.
The whole John Candy drive can really be attributed to Harris Barton. During the previous week Barton would tell the team all the celebrities he had seen. Montana was just playing along.
"He had never mentioned John Candy. We were at a TV timeout, and they're pretty lengthy, so I just saw John Candy and I thought (Barton) would appreciate seeing John Candy.
"But he appreciates it more now than he did back then, I think.''
The 1984 team came within one loss of a perfect record. A three-point loss at home came at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They were however, the first team to ever win fifteen games in a regular season.
The offense scored 475 and finished second. Defensive Coordinator George Seifert’s defense ranked number one.
Wendell Tyler was the featured back. He ran for a team record 1262 yards, and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
I suppose I would be a bit remiss here if I didn’t also mention his 13 fumbles.
Second year man Roger Craig was also a key component of the offense, accounting for 1324 yards from scrimmage.
Montana’s most reliable receivers were once again Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon combining for 1617 yards.
The offensive line for Montana and company included Pro Bowlers Keith Fahnhorst, Randy Cross, and Fred Quilland.
As good as Montana and the offense were, the defense was better.
The starters in the secondary, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson all earned Pro Bowl berths.
The line backers and defensive line were comprised of Riki Ellison, Dan Bunz, Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, Keena Turner, Dwaine Board, Gary Johnson, Todd Shell, Michael Carter, Fred Dean, Manu Tuiasosopo, as well as Jim Stuckey. Do you think this defense had some depth?
An amazing nineteen players contributed to the season total of 51 sacks- led by Board’s 10.
Keena Turner was selected to the Pro Bowl, but surprisingly, Board was not.
They recovered 26 fumbles and snagged 25 interceptions.
But the most amazing thing about this defense just might have been how they hand-cuffed Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
"As good as Joe Montana was," The Sporting News wrote, "it
was the 49er defense that performed the miracle of Super Bowl XIX, thereby
taking the luster off Dan Marino's rising star."
Seifert had added some line stunts for the Super Bowl in order to pressure Marino. The strategy worked as the 49ers sacked him four times and cooled off the red-hot passer.
The four-man line absolutely stuffed the Dolphins running game allowing a meager 25 yards.
The 49ers won their second Super Bowl, and Montana earned his second Super Bowl MVP.
But perhaps Seifert should have been carted of the field after the game much the way Buddy Ryan was after Super Bowl XX.
For as highly regarded as he is now, there was a time when Steve Young was often criticized for not being able to get the team to the big game.
In 1994, not only did Young get them there, he was instrumental in bringing the team’s record fifth Lombardi Trophy home to the bay.
The season started auspiciously enough, the Los Angeles Raiders came to town for the season opener and left with their tails between their legs after getting clobbered 44-14.
Then the much-anticipated match-up would take place in week two. Young’s 49ers would square off against former teammate Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Although the 49ers out-gained the Chiefs in total yards, the Chiefs defense came up big with four turnovers, and four sacks. The late Derrick Thomas had three of those sacks and tackled Young in the end zone for a safety just before the end of the half.
Final score: Chiefs 24 49ers 17.
After a humbling loss to the Philadelphia Eagles (8-40) in week five, the team started to roll.
With the two headed rushing attack of Ricky “Running” Watters and William “Bar None” Floyd, and the receiving trio of Jerry Rice, John Taylor, and Brent Jones the team cruised through the rest of the regular season.
The defense wasn’t too bad either.
The secondary featured Deion Sanders, Eric Davis, Merton Hanks, and Tim McDonald.
Those four accounted for 17 of the teams 23 interceptions.
Ken Norton Jr., Gary Plummer, and Lee Woodall were terrific against the run.
Veteran Rickey Jackson, second year man Dana Stubblefield and Rookie sensation Bryant Young supplied the pressure.
The often overlooked, and much under appreciated, offensive line consisted of tackles Steve Wallace and Harris Barton, guards Jesse Sapolu and Derrick Deese, and center Bart Oats.
They crushed opponents by huge margins—the Atlanta Falcons (42-3), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-6, and the Denver Broncos 42-19.
The Vikings did beat them in the final showdown of the regular season however, it was a meaningless contest as the 49ers had home field advantage locked up throughout the playoffs.
In the first playoff game, the team had no trouble dispatching the Chicago Bears 44-15.
In the conference championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, an Eric Davis 44 yard “pick six”, A 29 yard touchdown reception by Watters, and a one yard touchdown plunge by Floyd, resulted in a 21-0 lead in the first quarter.
The Cowboys would battle back, and their fans are still screaming for a pass interference call on Deion Sanders against Michael Irvin, but in the end the 49ers prevailed 38-28.
The Super Bowl was almost anticlimactic. Stan Humphries San Diego Chargers never had a chance going down to defeat by a score of 49-26.
But the game will always be remembered for Young running to the sidelines and yelling to his teammates to, “Get that monkey off my back”!
The 1989 would have to be considered as one of the greatest teams ever. But more on that in a bit.
The offense was ranked number one and the defense was ranked number three.
The only blemishes on this team’s record are a one-point road loss to the division rival Rams early in the season, and a four point loss to the Don "The Majik Man" Majkowsi led Packers at Candlestick Park.
The team would then win the next eight games in a row including a 55-10 thrashing of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.
For the second year in a row the team would beat the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional game-this time handing them a 34-9 loss.
The team would also extract their revenge on the Rams in their second meeting beating them 30-27 and then would manhandle them in the playoffs 30-3.
Montana had a career year completing an eye popping 70.2 percent of his passes. He also broke the record for single season passer rating by setting the mark at 112.4. Montana was named league MVP and MVP of the Super Bowl as well.
Jerry Rice amassed 1483 yards in receiving and scored 17 touchdowns. His counter part John Taylor added another 1077 yards and 10 touchdowns. Taylor also led the team in punt returns with 417 yards.
Although Rice and Taylor get most of the credit for Montana’s career year he had other weapons as well.
Running backs Roger Craig and Tom Rathman were two of those weapons.
Craig was the quintessential all purpose back. Rushing for 1054 yards and 473 receiving.
When he wasn’t opening holes for Craig, fellow running back Rathman could be counted on to run over people and bull doze his way for those tough yards. As much as Rathman is remembered for his tough running, he also managed to add 616 yard in receiving that year.
How many times do you remember tight end Brent Jones catching the ball over the middle to convert on third down? Mr. Reliable had 500 receiving yards in 1989.
Not to be overlooked is the defense.
Here are some highlights:
One of the best pass rushers in 49er history was Charles Haley. His relentless pursuit of the quarterback resulted in a team high 10.5 sacks.
Not to be outdone, Pierce Holt took advantage of the double teams that Haley often required, and also managed 10.5 sacks. Kevin Fagan added another 7.
Led by bone-jarring tackler Ronnie Lott (5), the team ended the season with 21 interceptions.
29 fumble recoveries aren’t too shabby either.
Oh yeah, and there is that little thing called The Super Bowl.
It was the 49ers fourth, their second in as many years, and tied them with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As far as the greatest team ever, some may like the ‘85 Bears, some the ’72 Dolphins, and still others the '91Redskins. There are a handful of others in the debate as well (the '99 who?).
But would you bet against Joe Montana and this team in a Super Bowl?