Dwight Clark with The Catch in 1981 (well technically January of 1982); Joe Montana and John Taylor with The Drive in Super Bowl XXIII; the team-effort demolitions of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV and San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. All great moments in the proud history of one of the most storied franchises in the NFL.
But have you ever wondered: What team in 49er History was in fact the best?
Imagine how great it would be if we as fans could sit back and watch the greatest teams in 49er history square off on the field: Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, and Roger Craig against Deion Sanders, Ken Norton Jr., and Merton Hanks; Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Brent Jones against Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, and Hacksaw Reynolds.
Once and for all we would no longer need to speculate; once and for all we would finally be able to say with confidence: “This truly was the greatest team in 49er history.”
Well the Faithful need wonder no longer. In an upcoming series of articles, I intend to answer—beyond a shadow of a doubt—this very question.
I will start with a bracket of the best eight teams in 49ers history since the inception of the Bill Walsh era. I will then pit them against each other, head to head, and we will finally see who comes out on top.
Winners will be determined based on historical statistics and what would likely have happened in one-on-one match ups on the field.
But how should these teams be seeded?
That’s where you come in. I need your help to decide how these squads measure up! Vote in the author’s poll and the final rankings will decide the seeding for the tournament. Vote carefully, a place in 49er immortality hinges on your vote!
1981 San Francisco 49ers (13-3/16-3):
The first 49ers team to bring home the Lombardi Trophy came as a surprise to many. Led by Joe Montana as the emerging captain of the innovative “West Coast Offense” of head coach Bill Walsh, the team that many expected to stumble never did.
Coming off 2-14 and 6-10 performances in the previous two seasons under Walsh, the 1981 49ers stormed to 13-3 regular season record behind an innovative and efficient offense and a young, hard-hitting defense led by Ronnie Lott and Dwight Hicks.
They enjoyed a thrilling last minute victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship as Dwight Clark came down with “The Catch” in the closing minutes of the game.
This was followed by one of the most spectacular defensive stands in Super Bowl history against Cincinnati, stymieing a Bengals comeback attempt. The 49ers brought home the Lombardi Trophy with a 26-21 win in Super Bowl XVI.
1984 San Francisco 49ers (15-1, 18-1)
The 1984 49ers came as close to perfection as any team ever has in a 16-game NFL season. Yes, I know the Patriots went 16-0 a couple years ago, but if your final record is going to be 18-1, I would rather still win the Super Bowl.
Maybe that is just me.
The team’s only loss came in a home game against Pittsburgh on a questionable penalty late in the game which resulted in a go-ahead Steeler touchdown.
Nobody could touch the 49ers once the playoffs rolled around. They cruised past the Giants and Bears—21-10 and 23-0 respectively—and setup a showdown between Joe Montana and a young Dan Marino in the only Super Bowl ever played at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto.
In what would be Marino’s only Super Bowl appearance, Roger Craig scored three times to help the 49ers to a resounding 38-16 win. It was the closest any team had ever come geographically to winning a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
1988 San Francisco 49ers (10-6/13-6)
In what would be Bill Walsh’s final season as an NFL head coach, the 49ers sent him off in style.
After a less-than-dominant regular season, the 49ers hit their stride in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They soundly beat the Vikings at home 34-9 before going into Soldier Field in Chicago in downright frigid conditions and silencing the Bears 28-3 to earn their third Super Bowl appearance.
It would be a rematch with their first Super Bowl opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, and would pit Bill Walsh against his former assistant—Bengals Head Coach Sam Wyche.
In what was one of the closest Super Bowls in NFL History, the Bengals led 16-13 when the 49ers got the ball with 3:10 to play on their own eight yard line.
A world-famous John Candy reference and a 92-yard drive later, John Taylor hauled in a Joe Montana pass over the middle of the field at the goal line to vault the 49ers to their third world title in as many tries, 20-16.
An emotional Bill Walsh was driven to tears in the locker room, knowing he was stepping down as head coach.
1989 San Francisco 49ers (14-2/17-2)
In George Seifert’s inaugural season as 49ers Head Coach, the team became the first team since the 1978-1979 Pittsburgh Steelers to repeat as World Champions.
In another battle billed as a showdown between elite QBs, Joe Montana clearly got the better of John Elway.
The 49ers set records for most points scored by a single team in the Super Bowl (55) and largest margin of victory (45) as they trounced Denver 55-10 (both records still stand today). Both records could have been higher, as 49ers kicker Mike Cofer missed a PAT on the first touchdown of the game and 49ers linebacker Bill Romanowski was called for pass interference on an interception that would have prevented Denver’s only touchdown.
Joe Montana threw a Super Bowl record five touchdowns (which would stand until Super Bowl XXIX when Steve Young eclipsed it) and earned his third Super Bowl MVP honor (a feat yet to be equaled by any other NFL player).
1990 San Francisco 49ers (14-2/15-3)
After chants of “Back-to-back-to-back” and “We’re going down to Tampa” in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XXIV on the 49er sideline, the team almost reached their goal in 1990.
A season marred only by two tough losses to division rivals LA and New Orleans was followed by a 28-10 home victory over the Washington Redskins in the divisional round of the playoffs.
This setup a showdown at Candlestick with the New York Giants—led by Bill Parcels—for the right to play in Super Bowl XXV.
A fumble by Roger Craig late in the fourth quarter set up a game-winning field goal and sent the Giants to face the Buffalo Bills in the infamous Scott Norwood missed-field-goal game in Super Bowl XXV (a game that would inspire the story line of the film Ace Ventura ).
1992 San Francisco 49ers (14-2/15-3)
Joe Montana missed most of his final year in San Francisco due to injury, attempting just 21 passes.
Steve Young proved a capable replacement, however, posting a 107.0 QB rating and throwing for nearly 3,500 yards in leading the 49ers back to NFC Championship game.
Rookie running back Rickey Waters had a breakout season, rushing for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns.
Losses to the eventual AFC Champion Buffalo Bills and Phoenix Cardinals in the regular season, and a win over the Washington Redskins in the divisional round of the playoffs set up the first of three consecutive NFC Championship showdowns against the Dallas Cowboys.
The 49ers turned the ball over four times, leading to the 10 point margin of victory for Dallas, 30-20. Dallas would go on to demolish the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl in Pasadena, 52-17.
1994 San Francisco 49ers (13-3/16-3)
In the 75th year of the NFL, the most prolific offense in 49er history scored 505 points en route to helping the 49ers become the first team to win five Super Bowl Championships.
Steve Young posted a then-NFL record QB rating of 112.8, behind 3,969 yards passing and 35 touchdowns, earning NFL MVP honors.
Defensive newcomer Deion Sanders highlighted a star-studded cast of talent, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in his first and only season with San Francisco.
The 49ers waltzed past the Bears and finally beat the Cowboys in the NFC title game, 38-28.
With the San Diego Chargers beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship, it was widely believed that the NFC Championship would decide the Super Bowl. This worked out to be true.
The 49ers put on an offensive clinic against San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX, as Steve Young broke former teammate Joe Montana’s Super Bowl record for passing touchdowns, putting up six of his own and earning Super Bowl MVP honors to augment his NFL MVP award.
Despite offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan’s reported desire to get Young 10 touchdowns in the game, this performance remains one of if not the best by a QB in Super Bowl History.
1998 San Francisco 49ers (12-4/13-5)
The 1998 49ers were a team of aging veterans who many speculated needed to win now.
Jerry Rice was still putting up productive numbers and Terrell Owens was just beginning to emerge as an NFL star.
Steve Young was in his late thirties and battling to stay on top of his game after a series of concussions.
In the late 1990s, the Green Bay Packers had replaced the Dallas Cowboys as the perennial playoff nemesis standing between the 49ers and later rounds of the playoffs.
The 49ers had been eliminated from playoff contention at the hands of Green Bay in three straight years dating back to their Super Bowl XXIX victory.
A 12-4 regular season in Steve Mariucci’s second year as head coach set up a battle with the hated Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. In what came to be known as “The Catch II,” Terrell Owens capped a day filled with drops and fumbles with a tremendous touchdown catch with less than a minute remaining to vault the 49ers to a thrilling victory and a divisional matchup with the surprising NFC West Champion Atlanta Falcons.
That game would see 49ers RB Garrison Hearst break his ankle on the first offensive play from scrimmage and the 49ers struggle to a narrow 20-18 defeat.
Legendary 49er radio play-by-play announcer Joe Starkey would later recall that had Hearst not injured his ankle in that game, there is no question that the 49ers would have at least made it to the Super Bowl.
I will say what Joe would not: they would have won.