The 49er Faithful have long debated the question of which 49ers team was the greatest in the proud history of the storied franchise.
With a cadre of Hall of Fame caliber legends like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, Ricky Watters and others spanning a period of nearly two decades of dynastic dominance, the debate has been arduous.
However, with the completion of the San Francisco 49ers Ultimate Showdown Tournament, we finally have an answer.
While the top-seeded 1984 team was edged in overtime by the 1989 squad in the semi-final round, which meant that the legendary Bill Walsh would be absent from the final, the final game was not short on drama nor story lines.
The showdown between the No. 3 seed 1994 49ers and the No. 2 seed 1989 49ers was a battle between the perpetrators of the two biggest Super Bowl blow-outs of all time.
It featured a match-up between the first and only two back-to-back first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks: Steve Young and his mentor, Joe Montana.
The 1994 49ers had the most prolific offense in team history, but the 1989 squad was by far the most dominant in the playoffs, outscoring opponents by a combined 126-26.
Ultimately, while the two teams were amazingly closely matched, it was that post-season dominance gave the 1989 squad the nod in an epic 27-24 decision, allowing them to finally lay undisputed claim to the exalted title of Greatest 49ers Team Ever.
Line Score – 1994 49ers 24, 1989 49ers 27
Jerry Rice 8 Yd TD catch from Steve Young (Brien kick)
John Taylor 22 Yd TD catch from Joe Montana (Cofer kick)
Ricky Watters 12 Yd TD catch from Steve Young (Brien kick)
Doug Brien 42 Yd FG
Jerry Rice 35 Yd TD catch from Joe Montana (Cofer kick)
Jerry Rice 11 Yd TD catch from Steve Young (Brien kick)
Jerry Rice 14 Yd TD catch from Joe Montana (Cofer kick)
Roger Craig 16 Yd TD rush (kick failed)
Both teams were dominant against their respective competition in the post-season, but going head to head, there would be no such outcome here. That much was certain.
Mike Shanahan—offensive coordinator of the 1994 team—was used to orchestrating quick-hitting strikes for sudden scores with long passes to Jerry Rice, wide receiver John Taylor, and tight end Brent Jones, but the 1989 49ers defense was probably stronger than any the 1994 team faced throughout the season.
They had few susceptibilities and gave up few big plays. That did stop Shanahan from finding a way to open the scoring and draw first blood in this contest, however.
The 1989 49ers took the opening kickoff but were unable to get much going offensively and were forced to punt the ball away. The 1994 team took over on their own 17-yard line and began a drive that was balanced and methodical.
Shanahan was aggressive, but smart. Knowing he could not attack such a strong defense by looking for the big play, he combined short passes with well-timed runs from RB Ricky Watters and watched as Steve Young executed the game plan and marched the offense downfield.
Steve Young made the first highlight-reel play, narrowly avoiding the would-be sack from defensive end Kevin Fagan and slipping free along the sideline for a 12-yard gain and a first down on a critical third-down play.
The drive culminated with a red-zone opportunity and Steve Young found Jerry Rice for an eight-yard touchdown catch. Doug Brien connected on the point after, making the score 7-0 for the 1994 team with 6:21 remaining in the first quarter.
The 1989 49ers did not take long to respond. They allowed the first score twice in the post-season that year, but never fell behind by two scores early. This game was no different.
Mike Holmgren (in his only season as 49ers offensive coordinator) equaled Mike Shanahan’s feat by crafting a touchdown drive to tie the game.
Joe Montana deftly worked the scheme put together by his former quarterbacks coach, hitting RB Roger Craig for a 14-yard swing pass, and TE Brent Jones for a 10-yard gain.
The 1994 defense had significantly larger vulnerabilities than the 1989 defense, and Holmgren knew this and took fullest advantage of it.
He called for a play lining Jerry Rice and WR John Taylor up on the same side of the field. The two receivers then ran a crossing route which caught cornerback Eric Davis by surprise and left Taylor open over the middle of the field.
Joe Montana did not miss and Taylor hauled in a 22-yard touchdown catch. Mike Cofer’s extra point tied the game at 7-7 with just 1:35 to play in the first quarter.
After forcing a quick punt from the 1994 team, it looked as though the 1989 team was about to take control of the game with a second score. They marched 39 yards in four plays and stood poised inside the opposing 30-yard line.
However, when Holmgren called a running play for fullback Tom Rathman as a change of pace, Rathman slightly bobbled the exchange and was not able to fully secure it.
First contact knocked the ball loose and a scramble ensued, with linebacker Lee Woodall falling on the ball at the 23-yard line, ending the 1989 threat.
Seizing the momentum, the 1994 49ers took to offense. Another carefully orchestrated drive resulted in a red zone opportunity and a prime scoring chance. Steve Young hit Ricky Watters on a delayed pass out of the backfield and Watters slipped past LB Keena Turner and broke free into the end zone for a 12-yard score. Doug Brien’s extra point restored a seven-point lead for the 1994 49ers at 14-7. With 8:21 to play until half time, it was back to the drawing board for Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, and the 1989 49ers.
While they responded with a spirited drive, they could not break into field goal range and were forced to punt. That was due mainly to a strong play from CB Eric Davis, knocking down a critical third-down pass to atone for the gaffe that surrendered an earlier touchdown. The 1994 team had a golden opportunity to pad their lead with still 4:19 to play before half time.
For a while it looked as though they were destined to do so. A 14-yard run by Ricky Watters combined with passes to Jerry Rice and WR Ed McCaffrey gave the 1994 49ers another red zone chance. However, on second down and four from the 13-yardline, free safety Ronnie Lott found superior position on John Taylor and jumped in front of him in the end zone for a drive-ending interception. He was tackled immediately for a touchback.
Despite their best efforts, the 1989 49ers were unable to do anything with the ensuing drive (which started from their own 20-yardline with just 1:42 before the half). The clock would run out before they could even reach field goal range, and the score was 14-7 in favor of the underdog 1994 49ers going into the break.
Play resumed with a great opportunity for the 1994 team to again pad their lead and establish a key two-score advantage over the 1989 squad. They moved down the field and reached the opposing 34-yardline, but the 1989 defense stood tall and prevented a first down. The 1994 team was forced, much to Mike Shanahan’s chagrin, to settle for a 42-yard Doug Brien field goal attempt. Brien made it interesting, grazing the inside of the left upright, but the ball bounced through and gave the 1994 team a 10-point advantage at 17-7 with 11:32 remaining in the third quarter.
After the next two drives each resulted in quick punts, thanks in part to a key sack by rookie defensive tackle Bryant Young and a near interception by LB Keena Turner, the 1989 team took over with 6:34 remaining in the third frame at their own 32-yardline.
Quick passes to Roger Craig and John Taylor, and a bubble screen to Jerry Rice brought the 1989 offense to the opposing 35-yardline. Mike Holmgren decided to take a shot at the end zone on first down. Joe Montana executed a beautiful play fake which drew the 1994 defense up allowing him to find Jerry Rice open down the right sideline for a 35-yard touchdown pass. Mike Cofer connected on the point after, drawing the 1989 team back within three points at 17-14.
There was 4:42 remaining in the third quarter, plenty of time for the 1994 team to answer. An efficient drive netted a Jerry Rice 11-yard touchdown catch just over four minutes later. Doug Brien connected again and restored the 10-point lead at 24-14 with just 0:31 remaining before the final quarter.
A strong return from Terrence Flagler on the ensuing kickoff set the 1989 team up with great field position at their own 46-yardline. Time expired in the third quarter as the offense crossed the opposing 40.
Three plays into the fourth quarter, it looked like the 1994 team was destined to pull the upset and jump out to a three-score fourth-quarter lead. Deion Sanders, elite CB for the 1994 team, jumped Jerry Rice’s route and looked sure to come away with a big interception that surely would have gone the opposite way for six. However, Rice saw the play developing and put enough of a shoulder on Sanders to force him to bobble the ball, resulting in a drop. Joe Montana was given a rare second chance, and—especially in the post-season—he wasted few of those.
Montana found Jerry Rice two plays later for a 14-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone. The score was Rice’s fourth of the game, having scored twice for each team. Mike Cofer made it three for three on extra points, leaving the 1989 49ers down just three at 24-21 with 12:46 remaining in the game.
Dexter Carter slipped coming out of the end zone on the ensuing kickoff, allowing the coverage team to surround and tackle him inside his own 10-yardline. Mike Shanahan crafted an excellent drive, knowing that a methodical, time-consuming touchdown drive could virtually seal the game for the 1994 team.
After using a well-designed swing pass to get out of the shadow of their own goal line, the 1994 offense steadily marched down the field, eating up yardage and the clock. They reached field goal range with about 8:35 to play, but clearly wanted the insurance only a touchdown could bring. They may have been better off settling for the field goal.
On second down from the 27-yardline, A strong-side blitz brought pressure on Steve Young, forcing an early and low throw. LB Bill Romanowski managed to tip the pass as it when by him, deflecting it straight up into the air, and strong safety Chet Brooks was able to come down with it for an interception. Suddenly, just when it looked like the 1994 team was poised for an upset, the 1989 49ers found themselves with a chance to take the title after all, having the ball on their own 31-yardline with 7:22 to play.
Joe Montana marched the team downfield, connecting twice with Jerry Rice for 12 and 15 yards and once with Roger Craig for 14 yards on the way to the red zone. After faking a quick outlet pass on second down, Montana pulled the ball down and gave it on a delayed handoff to Roger Craig. Craig slipped a would-be tackle from LB Ken Norton Jr. and eluded SS Tim McDonald on his way into the end zone for a 16-yard go-ahead touchdown. With just 3:12 remaining in the game, Mike Cofer had the chance to put the 1994 team in dire straits by connecting on the point after and staking his team to a late four-point lead.
If you have followed the tournament to this point, you probably should have seen this one coming. Cofer had a pension for missing extra points, and chose perhaps the worst possible moment to suffer such a hiccup. He pushed the try wide, leaving the lead at three points, 27-24, and opening the door for the 1994 team to tie with a last-minute field goal and force overtime for just the second time in the tournament.
Overtime would be great, but Mike Shanahan was never one to settle. He set out trying to win the game in regulation. Quick drops hitting crossing routes to Taylor and Rice combined with sideline routes to Ricky Watters and helped the 1994 team slowly but surely march downfield. The 1989 defense grew more resolute as they neared mid-field, recording a sack and preventing Brent Jones from reaching the sideline following a completion, helping to further drain the clock.
Steve Young had to look to the middle of the field for a conversion on third-down near the opposing 40-yardline, as the 1989 defense had the sidelines well-defended. Ed McCaffrey hauled in a ball over middle and had to quickly spring up to allow the offense to spike the ball to stop the clock. This set the 1994 team up with a second down from just beyond the opposing 30-yardline with 0:47 to play. Mike Shanahan took a shot at the end zone on second down, but CB Don Griffin had the pass intended for Jerry Rice well-defended, with help over the top from Ronnie Lott.
Looking to improve the field goal try, and possible pick up a new set of downs and a few more touchdown tries, Shanahan called for a quick out to John Taylor. Pressure from CB Darryl Pollard forced a drop and led a fourth down for the 1994 offense. Forced to settle for the tie, they lined up for the field goal to force overtime.
At 47 yards, the attempt was no sure thing, and Doug Brien had nearly missed from 42 earlier in the game. George Seifert (1989) employed a predictable tactic of calling a time out to try to ice the kicker. Brien got the kick away, seemingly on target, but left it slightly low. This allowed a good jump from LB Charles Haley to deflect the ball just enough to push it wide. The 1989 sideline erupted while the 1994 sideline slumped in unison.
Having survived the last gasps of the most prolific 49er offense in history, the 1989 49ers have established themselves clearly as the greatest team in franchise history. While the coaching battle went to the pupil, the quarterback battle went to the mentor.
After all the blood, sweat, and tears, the Faithful finally has an answer to the ultimate question. Congratulations to the 1989 49ers, one of the greatest teams to ever take the field!
Look for additional analysis and parting thoughts on my blog in the next few days!