San Francisco 49ers: The 7 Biggest Comebacks in Franchise History
The 49ers have, for a vast majority of their history, been an offensive-minded football team. From the time of their first coach, Buck Shaw, through all the great quarterbacks in their history, the better 49er teams were known to move the ball.
Because of that, many 49er fans came to believe that the team was never out of a game. There was always the chance of one play leading to a turnaround.
Of course, it seems inherent to NFL culture that any team that had a pretty quarterback and threw first rather than ran was a “soft” team. Jerry Glanville, the former coach of the Atlanta Falcons, once said that, “if it wasn’t for that quarterback, you’d like to play them twice a week.” That is, the Niners didn’t hurt you.
There was also something else to the 49er credo—innovation. Shaw and then Frankie Albert and even Dick Nolan were coaches who advanced the game with their strategies. Then, Bill Walsh took it to another level with the West Coast offense.
Maybe that’s why San Francisco fans look back on the team’s success in the 1980s and ‘90s as a team that broke standards and challenged theories, where excellent players became Hall of Famers due to a system that unleashed rather than harnessed their talents.
Or, maybe it was just more fun than a 14-10 game in some black-and-blue division game. What follows are seven of the team's most memorable games that had the fans on edge.
1980, 49ers 38, Saints 35 OT
It was, at the time, the biggest comeback in NFL history. Down 35-7 at halftime to the winless New Orleans Saints, the 49ers came storming back to tie the game in regulation and then won on a Ray Wersching field goal in overtime, 38-35.
It is interesting to note that this game is considered the kickoff for the successful 1981 season in which the 49ers finished the regular season at 13-3 and then went on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals for the first of the franchise’s five Super Bowl titles.
Many remember the game as the last of the 1980 season when in fact it occurred in Week 14. San Francisco closed out the season with successive losses to the Atlanta Falcons, who were the NFC West champs, and the Buffalo Bills to finish 6-10, third in the division.
Nonetheless, the spark from the win over the Saints proved several things. First, Joe Montana’s leadership became sacrosanct. Of course, he led Notre Dame to the famous rally in the freezing Cotton Bowl to beat Houston, but games like that don’t happen very often in the pros. Montana’s heady play led to key plays, including a 71-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Clark and then a 14-yard TD pass to Freddie Solomon.
As time wound down, Montana led another drive that Lenvil Elliott capped with a 7-yard run. Undaunted, the Niners kept the pressure on to set up Wersching’s winning kick in overtime.
1999, 49ers 30, Packers 27
This game stands out for the Catch II, with Terrell Owners making the game-winning grab amidst four Packer defenders to carry the Niners to victory. It was more than a little redemption for 49er fans because the Packers owned San Francisco in the late 1990s.
Two things stand out about this game. First, Owens had a terrible game, dropping at least five passes that could have been big gains. Many feel that this play would never have had to happen had Owens turned those easy catches into real yards.
Second, everyone remembers the ultimate play of the winning drive, but few remember the key plays Young made as he drove the Niners down the field in the waning seconds. Again and again he found second and third receivers to keep the chains moving, and often running to scamper out of bounds to stop the clock. Also, there was a missed call by the referees when Jerry Rice lost the ball, which should have been a fumble rather than an incomplete pass.
Still, 10 seconds left, trailing 27-23, the Niners had their last shot. Young dropped straight back and set his feet, only to stumble. He righted himself and threw a laser-beam towards the goal line. Owens rose to grab it and took two hard hits before falling into the end zone.
The 49ers seemed to have a decent chance of upsetting Atlanta in the ensuing divisional game, but running back Garrison Hearst suffered a broken ankle on his first play of scrimmage. The Falcons still barely squeaked by, 20-18.
1987, 49ers 27, Bengals 26
This wasn’t so much a comeback as it was a steal. An out-and-out theft, thanks to a questionable decision by Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche.
The Niners opened the season with four straight road games, all in the east. After a tough season-opening loss in Pittsburgh, the 49ers went to Cincinnati. The game was tied 20-20 after three quarters, but the Bengals took a 26-20 lead on two Jim Breech field goals.
The Bengals had the ball on their own 30 with six seconds left. Rather than punt, Wyche called for a reverse with James Brooks carrying the ball. The thought was Brooks would be able to run out the clock, but Kevin Fagan broke through the Cincinnati line and tackled Brooks for a 5-yard loss. Two seconds remained.
The 49er offense charged onto the field, with three receivers to the left and Jerry Rice a single wideout on the right. Montana’s high fade found Rice in the back of the end zone for the tying touchdown with no time left. Ray Wersching’s PAT was the winning margin.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette ranked Wyche’s decision No. 2 among Memorable Bonehead Coaching Decisions.
1989, 49ers 38, Eagles 28
This was Buddy Ryan’s coming out party for his hard-hitting defense, led by Reggie White and Jerome Brown. True to form, they knocked Montana nearly crazy. Also, Ronnie Lott suffered an elbow injury on the tarmac Philadelphia calls a synthetic playing surface.
White, Brown and the Eagles defense stopped San Francisco, and Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham made enough plays to get the Eagles a 21-10 lead with 15 minutes to play.
Then, John Taylor took a shallow crossing pass from Montana and turned to face defender Izell Jenkins, who had the receiver pinned against the sideline. Taylor made three quick fakes. Jenkins fell down. Taylor raced past him for a 70-yard TD.
Cunningham retaliated with another drive that he capped with a 3-yard pass to Jimmy Giles for a 28-17 lead midway through the period. Montana, staring down the fierce Eagles rush, led three TD drives, the last ending with a 33-yard TD pass to Rice to clinch it.
"They showed us why they’re world champs,” Ryan was quoted the following day. Somehow, it didn’t sound like the typically boastful Ryan. That’s what happens with Montana burns your defense for five TDs on a 25-of-34 performance for 428 yards.
1994, 49ers 27, Detroit 21
This game gets overlooked because the ’94 Niners went on to secure their fifth Super Bowl title. They finished the regular season 13-3 that included two emotional victories over rival Dallas, the latter by a 38-28 score in the NFC Championship game, otherwise known as The Real Super Bowl.
The season featured a rocky start. In Week 2, going against Montana who had signed with Kansas City, the Niners lost 24-17. After two wins, Philadelphia came to San Francisco and hung a 40-8 loss on the Niners. The memorable image of the game was Steve Young, who had been pulled out of the game late, yelling at coach George Seifert. There were even calls for Seifert’s job.
With a shaky 3-2 record going into Week 6 on Oct. 9 at Detroit, which featured Barry Sanders, Brett Perriman and Herman Moore. The 49ers fell behind 14-0 in the second quarter when, after throwing a pass, Young was hit and driven into the ground by three Detroit players. Young was seen screaming on the field, and eventually crawled toward the sidelines, refusing help from the trainers.
He returned a play later and lit the 49er offense with a 19-of-25 passing performance for 150 yards. The 49ers scored 27 straight points and held on for a 27-21 victory. They were 4-2 and promptly went on a 10-game winning streak in which they average 36.4 points a game.
In the last five games of that streak, they scored an average of 39 points a game.
The 49ers finished first in the league in scoring and had an average margin of victory of 13.1 points. It was one of the best offensive teams in league history.
It all started with Young on his knees in Detroit.
1989, 49ers 20, Bengals 16
The famous Super Bowl drive. The one that made Montana an icon in the sports and advertising world. This was also a game that pitted two strong offensive teams against each other, but only one lived up to that billing: San Francisco outgained the Bengals 468 to 250.
Somehow, the Niners were down 16-13 with just over three minutes left in the game. After a holding penalty, the Niners had 92 yards to go, and Montana got them there. Before the drive started, Montana noticed comedian John Candy in the stands and brought it to the attention of his teammates in the huddle. Ten plays later came the 10-yard TD pass to John Taylor with under 40 seconds remaining.
The drive proved many things—Montana’s uncanny knack for making key plays under pressure, Jerry Rice’s ability to get open despite oppressive defensive pressure on him (he finished the game with 11 catches and 215 yards, and it proved to be the last game as head coach for Bill Walsh.
The Niners had their third Super Bowl victory in eight years. Next year’s team was even better, making it four in eight, the NFL’s dominant franchise of the 1980s.
1982, 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
The 1982 NFC Championship game, this was the origin of “The Catch”, the start of a long run of San Francisco football excellence, and will rank as one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s ultimate sports events.
The 49ers were the first professional team in California, and they hold a special place in the hearts of Bay Area fans. Yet through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the Niners came close several times but ultimately faded in the clutch. (Example A: in a 1957 playoff game against Detroit, San Francisco gave up a 27-7 advantage and ended up losing 30-27; Example B: in a 1972 playoff game against Dallas, the 49ers led 28-16 with just over two minutes left but lost 30-28.)
This game ended all that pain. What you might not remember: The 49ers outgained the Cowboys 413-288, but five turnovers negated several promising drives.
The winning drive by the Niners was keyed by running back Lenvil Elliott, a so-so running back who carried the ball for gains of 5 and 6 yards against Dallas’ prevent defense. With the Niners inside Dallas’ 10-yard line with under 40 seconds left, the Niners had only one timeout left. A touchdown was needed.
Of course, you’ve seen the play hundreds of times. The formation had Dwight Clark spread wide right, Freddie Solomon in the slot between Clark and the tackle. Montana rolled right, Solomon tried to break free on an out move but couldn't get open.
Montana rolled and rolled, looking in the back of the end zone. Clark ran his deep in, then reversed himself on the back line of the end zone. Montana pumped once, getting Randy White in the air, and then threw what seemed like a throw-away pass to stop the clock.
Except that Clark climbed an invisible ladder over defensive back Everson Walls for the touchdown. Candlestick’s upper decks nearly came down from the stomping, celebrating 49er fans. (Look closely on the replay and you’ll see among the sideline gaggle of people is one guy in a red sports coat—Chris Berman of ESPN, in one of his earliest assignments for the network.)
Of course, the game wasn’t over. Danny White hit a streaking Drew Pearson and seemed headed for oblivion before Eric Wright pulled him down. On the next play, White was sacked and Jim Stuckey recovered the fumble, ensuring victory.
One other note: This Dallas team had been in five Super Bowls in 11 years. It was the thinking of long-time coach Tom Landry and general manager Tex Schramm that the 1981 season would bring their fourth Super Bowl title, after which they would retire.
The Catch changed all that. Landry hung on, and Dallas’ roster got old. Ownership changed and Landry was let go by Jerry Jones. It took nearly a decade, but in time Dallas returned as the 49ers rival.