Joe Montana led the 49ers to many victories but also some heartbreaking defeats in the playoffs.
It’s been 30 years since the San Francisco 49er won their first Super Bowl. It’s been 17 since they returned to the sport’s ultimate game, and nine years since they’ve been in the playoffs. It’s been a rough patch.
What makes the current franchise so disappointing is that there was a time when the 49ers ranked with the 1960s Boston Celtics and the 1950s New York Yankees. They were a team that was not only expected to do well, but to dominate in league play.
That the 49ers won five Super Bowls in 14 years shows that this team achieved success rate otherwise unmatched in the NFL. Of course, Pittsburgh has more Super Bowl titles with six, but only their racking up four Vince Lombardi trophies in the 1970s exceeds San Francisco’s five from 1981-’94.
Still, tried and true Niners fans say the team could have won six, seven or even eight titles between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s. Looking back, here are, in descending order, the five best non-Super Bowl teams during San Francisco’s amazing run as the NFL’s elite team.
The Niners finished tied with Carolina at 12-4 atop the NFC West but had to play in the wild-card game. Nonetheless, with a history of offensive excellence led by quarterback Steve Young, many 49er fans expected another push towards the Super Bowl.
Well, they should: the Niners averaged 25 points and allowed just 16 per game that year, ranking third and fourth in those categories, respectively. Steve Young was injured part of the year and started only 12 games but still finished with a 97.2 rating thanks to a 14-6 TD-interception ratio.
Receiver Jerry Rice put the team on his shoulders and carried it: 108 catches at just under 12 per, but with only with eight TD's. That was the team's weak spot as first-year receiver Terrell Owens was just growing into a star while J.J. Stokes just couldn’t break through.
The ’83 season was one in which coach Bill Walsh had a lot of parts to work with, but overall the team lacked cohesion. They struggled early and had to win four of their last five to claim the NFC West title with a 10-6 record. But no one expected much of the team heading into the playoffs.
They sneaked by Detroit, 24-23, in the first round of the playoffs only because Lions kicker Eddie Murray missed a 42-yard field goal as time expired. They were decided underdogs heading to RFK Stadium to play the defending champion Washington Redskins for the NFC Championship game.
The Skins led 21-0 lead after three quarters. Then, Joe Montana went from good quarterback to legend, literally drawing up pass routes in the dirt to allow his receivers to break free. It worked.
The Niners scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Mike Wilson, filling in for the injured Dwight Clark, had the first; then Freddie Soloman took a short throw and turned it into a 76-yard TD. On their next possession, Montana took the 49ers down the field and connected with Wilson on a pretty post-corner route to tie the game at 21-21.
All that energy crystallized in those drives. The Redskins struggled to regain their composure and only regained control thanks to two questionable, crucial San Francisco penalties
First, 49ers cornerback Eric Wright was called for pass interference against Redskin receiver Art Monk. Apparently, the referee felt that Wright had sneezed on Monk and needed to be penalized for that. With Washington moving into scoring position, the Skins faced a third-and-long when Ronnie Lott of the 49ers was called for holding well away from the play.
A short time later, Mark Moseley kicked a short field goal and the Skins went to the Super Bowl, where they were trounced by the Oakland Raiders. The Niners went home and used the game to become a juggernaut in a 1984 season that saw them finish 18-1, steamrolling the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.
Looking back, we can see the seeds of excellence starting to come through. First, there was the balanced backfield of Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig. Both ran well and were good receivers out of the backfield. In ’83, they averaged 6.4 yards per touch (runs and receptions).
But it was Montana’s performance in D.C. that ignited them. He was 27 of 48 with 347 yards, three TDs and one interception in the championship game. He finished the ’83 regular season with 26 TDs to 12 interceptions for a rating of 94.7.
This edition of the 49ers looked and acted the part of a high-performance sports car, averaging 6.2 yards per play. Quarterback Steve Young connected on two of every three passes he threw, racking up 25 TD's against just seven interceptions. His QB rating broke the charts at 107.1.
Running back Rickie Watters had more than 1,000 yards rushing and added 431 more receiving, meaning that every time he touched the ball from scrimmage he averaged 7.2 yards. Add in receivers Jerry Rice (15 ypc, 10 TDs) and John Taylor (17.1 ypc) to go along with tight end Brent Jones (45 catches), and this was an amazing offensive team. The Niners won eight straight to head into the NFC Championship game.
But in Dallas, coach Jimmy Johnson was building a team that turned out to be the first incarnation of what would become the league’s class franchise of the 1990s. With Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and a hungry, fast defense, the Cowboys came into the NFC Championship game in Candlestick Park as underdogs. Undeterred, Johnson predicted that the Cowboys would win.
A heavy rainstorm the night prior to the game turned the ‘Stick into a soft quagmire, and the Niners never seemed to get their footing. Aikman connected on 24 of 34 for 322 yards, with receiver Alvin Harper getting 117 yards on three catches. Irvin added 86 yards on six catches. The Niners' defense couldn’t make third-down stops, and the Cowboys prevailed, 30-20. Dallas then wiped out the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl.
A short players’ strike limited the season, but the Niners finished 13-2 and seemed to be the class of the league. Led by Montana and Rice, who was in only his third year, the Niners averaged 31 points per game (best in the league) while allowing only 17 per game (third in the league). Montana’s 44-14 TD-Int ratio was the new standard.
The divisional playoff game in January 1988 became known as the Fizzle in the Drizzle. Minnesota, an 8-7 wild card team, led by Wade Wilson, took control and never let the 49ers get going.
Of course, Viking receiver Anthony Carter had something to do with that, racking up 227 yards on 10 catches. Again and again, Carter beat Niner cornerback Tim McKyer to turn short passes into long gains.
The Niners, down by 17 at halftime, appeared to catch life when safety Jeff Fuller intercepted Wilson for a 48-yard TD return, but it didn’t matter. Wilson methodically chewed up the Niners' defense while the SF offense struggled. Finally, coach Bill Walsh replaced Montana with Steve Young, who finished strong (12-7, 158 yards) compared to Montana’s weak playoff performances (12-26, 109 yards, interception).
This led to a quarterback controversy in 1988, and the Niners struggled again that year before Montana regained his form late in the season. Of course, they ended that season with a 20-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, capped by Montana’s textbook drive in the waning moments.
This might rank as one of the best teams in the history of the NFL. For Niners fans, recalling this game could bring on migraines and induce foul moods for months.
Under George Seifert, the Niners clicked like few teams clicked, scoring 22 points per game to rank No. 8, while giving up just 15 (third). They started the season with 10 straight wins and cruised from there. After their first loss to the Rams, the 49ers out-slugged the New York Giants 7-3 on an emotional Monday night game.
Forty-Niners fans knew the NFC Championship game against the Giants in Candlestick wouldn’t be easy, but that it was something they could manage. Late in the game, with San Francisco holding onto a 13-12 lead, the game looked to be in their control.
Montana, rolling to his right, was sacked hard by Leonard Marshall. The tackle broke bones in the back of Montana’s hand, and in came Young. All they needed was some time off the clock. Two first downs would do it. Yet Young and running back Roger Craig couldn’t make a handoff work. The ensuing fumble went to the Giants.
Quarterback Jeff Hostettler steadily led the Giants down the field, and Jeff Bahr kicked the winning field goal for a 15-13 victory. The Giants went on to defeat the Bills in the Super Bowl.
Niners fans, meanwhile, knew that a win over New York most likely would have led to the team’s third-straight Super Bowl appearance, and that a victory there would have ranked the team along with the 1965-67 Green Bay Packers as the only franchises to win three titles in a row.