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.