San Francisco 49ers: 5 Worst 49ers Teams in Franchise History
When someone thinks about the legacy of the San Francisco 49ers, one recalls five Super Bowl championships in six appearances. The names of 49er greats also come to the forefront: Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott, supplemented by the newer generation of greats such as Colin Kaepernick, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Alex Smith.
There are the famous head coaches: Bill Walsh, George Seifert, Steve Mariucci, and now, Jim Harbaugh.
In spite of all that success, however, there have been some bad 49er teams...
...really bad 49er teams.
Such a list might not be popular among fans who have grown accustomed to a storied franchise, rich with history and success. Yet, the fact remains that the San Francisco 49ers have endured some very bad years, some of them in the not-so-distant past. Like most franchises in any sport, the 49ers have had their ups and downs, highlighting the team's progression over the years.
Fortunately, San Francisco fans can enjoy the fact that the team is entering a new phase of success. Many can also look back to the 49ers' glory years that dominated football during the 1980s and early 90s.
Yet before, and intermixed in between, were a number of 49ers teams that wound up becoming proverbial "laughingstocks" within the league. There were plenty of dark years that should be mentioned as well.
For whatever the reasons, bad ownership, poor management, incompetent coaching, bad drafts or underachieving players, a number of 49er teams throughout the years have earned being labeled as atrocious.
While these years of bad teams might be painful for fans to recall, they should be remembered. After all, how can one measure success without having visited the pits of despair?
Here are the top five worst San Francisco 49er teams in franchise history during the modern era (1970-present).
All records and statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Season Record: 3-6
Head Coach: Bill Walsh
Notables: lost all five home games at Candlestick Park
One year removed from the first Super Bowl championship in their franchise history, the 1982 49ers are considered one of the worst in team's history.
It is hard to fathom a team which, the year before, had gone 13-3, won an incredible NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys and then eventually wound up winning Super Bowl XVI, only to fall to 3-6 in a strike-shortened season.
It is also hard to picture a team, which featured a young quarterback named Joe Montana coming into his prime, completely falling apart—especially when they were being led by future Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
Yet, that is exactly what happened.
Blame it on whatever, but the 1982 49ers simply underachieved in nearly every facet. Perhaps, it was due to a post-Super Bowl "hangover" of sorts, but in short, the team simply did not execute well.
One of the main reasons behind their lack of success during the season was their defense. San Francisco's defense allowed a total of 206 points over the course of the year, 23rd in the league. In addition, the scoring differential averaged less than one point per game.
Despite the misery of the season, the 49ers did enjoy some solace. Montana had a nice year, backing up his 1981 campaign. He passed for over 2,613 yards and 17 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
In addition, San Francisco also landed tackle Bubba Paris with that year's draft.
Yet aside from those two elements, the 1982 49ers were pretty bad. Despite not having a lot of player turnover from their Super Bowl season the year before, San Francisco simply could not put it together, leading to Walsh questioning whether or not he could handle the rigors of coaching, according to Niners Nation.
The year, mired mostly by the strike, was an utter disappointment for the team and its fans. Fortunately, San Francisco would right the ship in 1983 and not suffer another losing season for 17 years.
Season Record: 4-12
Head Coach: Mike Nolan
I remember hearing a story on the radio when the recently hired Mike Nolan set up his office at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara. From my memory, Nolan put up a sign in the players' locker room that read, Win the West.
Yeah, that didn't happen.
I remember thinking to myself over the months leading up to the 2004 season that San Francisco was not in all in that bad of shape coming out of an abysmal 2-14 season under the recently fired Dennis Erickson the year prior. The 49ers had the first-overall draft pick in the 2005 draft, and they could bet on high draft picks through the majority of the draft rounds.
There were talks about which quarterback San Francisco would draft. Would it be Alex Smith out of Utah, or perhaps, the Northern California and Cal protégé Aaron Rodgers?
Even Nolan sounded confident, resulting in the 49ers not hiring a general manager to assist him with the selection of players that would hopefully round out a resurging San Francisco franchise.
San Francisco appeared to have a solid 2005 draft. Smith was selected with the first overall pick. The 49ers also grabbed offensive lineman David Baas, as well as running back Frank Gore and guard Adam Snyder through the first four rounds.
The season started off promising for the 49ers, hoping to turn things around completely after 2004. Following a 28-25 victory over their division rival St. Louis Rams, things got sour really quick.
San Francisco lost their next five games before winning only their second of the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then the 49ers endured a horrendous losing streak, dropping the next seven games before winning their last two meaningless games.
Smith was thrown into the fray at the outset. Expected to have the same success he enjoyed with Urban Meyer at Utah, Smith looked completely lost at the NFL level. Part of the reason was the faulty offensive line that led to Smith being sacked 29 times over the course of the season.
Smith completed only 84 passes out of 165 attempts resulting in only one touchdown against 11 interceptions. He played in only nine games during the season due to reoccurring injuries.
The offense fared little better regardless who was under center. It averaged 14.9 points per game, 30th in the league, and their defense was of little help as well, allowing a total of 428 points. The scoring differential was -189 points which ranked last in the NFL that year.
It is a wonder how the 2005 49ers even wound up winning four games, again finishing last in the division.
If there was any bright spot, the season emerged with rookie running back Frank Gore who led the team with 608 rushing yards, becoming an eventual replacement to the incumbent Kevan Barlow.
Nolan would stay on board with the 49ers for another two-plus seasons which were marked by more disappointment and quarterback controversy. Initially, there were hopes that he could turn the franchise around. Instead, there were plenty more dark years ahead for San Francisco and its fans.
Season Record: 2-14
Head Coach: Bill Walsh
Notables: drafted quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Dwight Clark in the 1979 NFL Draft and quarterback Steve DeBerg threw for 3,652 yards
Unlike Mike Nolan, Bill Walsh did not take over a 49ers franchise with lofty expectations of winning a division his first year.
One year removed from a forgettable 1978 season, San Francisco hired Walsh as head coach. He began rebuilding the franchise from the ground up. One of Walsh's first moves took place during the 1979 draft when the team selected former Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana in the third round.
For reasons that experts now know, but did not back then, Walsh saw something worthy in the young quarterback. He felt that he would fit well into the "West Coast" style offense that he would employ in San Francisco.
The 49ers also drafted wide receiver Dwight Clark in the 10th round who, at the time, was not largely coveted by any particular team.
Walsh realized that the implementation of his new offense would take time as would the repairs necessary to help alleviate the damages made to the team over the past few seasons. It was not going to be an easy year for San Francisco, but at least there was a starting point of sorts.
On the offensive side of the ball, Walsh's implementations seemed to be working. Montana spent the majority of the season on the sidelines, starting only one game during the year.
Incumbent quarterback Steve DeBerg found some success under Walsh completing 347 passes out of 578 attempts for 3,652 yards. While throwing 21 interceptions compared to 17 touchdowns, DeBerg was proof enough that Walsh could work with young quarterbacks.
In addition, San Francisco's running game was decent, totaling 1,932 yards and 17 touchdowns in a "running back-by-committee" situation.
Defensively, however, the 49ers were a mess. Defensive coordinator Chuck Studley's defense had little answer for opponents during the course of the season, giving up an average of 26 points per game, good for 27th in the league overall.
The 49ers started off the season 0-7 and were only 1-13 when they got their second win of the year against a talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers team.
In a year mired in the messes left over from years prior, it makes sense why the 49ers fared so poorly in 1979. It is hard to fathom a Walsh-led team that had players like Montana and Dwight Clark, go 2-14. That happened, however. Fortunately, there were plenty of bright lights on the horizon, and San Francisco was destined for a great decade to come.
Season Record: 2-14
Head Coach: Pete McCulley, Fred O'Connor
The 49ers had endured some tough years since their 8-5-1 season in 1972.
It all came crashing down in 1978.
The results of the 1978 season were thanks in large part to poor management and decision-making atop the 49ers organization. The team was sold to Ed DeBartolo Jr. the year before, and he immediately hired Joe Thomas as general manager.
Thomas would be directly related to some of the worst football in franchise history.
Not only would Thomas completely restructure the organization, but he would also take his turn getting rid of a number of key players whom, he thought, were no longer necessary to the organization's success.
Gone were the likes of quarterback Jim Plunkett, who had cost the 49ers five draft picks the season before. Thomas then brought in running back O.J. Simpson in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, despite fears that Simpson's best playing days were long behind him, according to Niners Nation.
These moves, and others, thwarted any chance for the 49ers to return to the success they enjoyed at the beginning of the decade. The team had turned from a decent franchise into a floundering flop.
The offense was last in the league in overall points that year, and the defense fared little better, giving up an average of 21.9 points per game. Injuries to running backs Simpson and Wilbur Jackson also thwarted any offensive hopes.
Not as a surprise, the dismantled and disgruntled 49ers finished 2-14 and would enter a stage, albeit brief, marked by disappointment and rotating doors.
Fortunately, Thomas was fired after the end of the season which opened up the door for Bill Walsh to come in as head coach.
Thomas had done enough damage, however, and the franchise would still be stuck at the bottom of the NFL scrap heap for two more years. It would take the likes of Walsh and a young quarterback named Joe Montana to help turn the team around for good.
Season Record: 2-14
Head Coach: Dennis Erickson
Notables: Salary cap and personnel concerns forced the release of stars like quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receiver Terrell Owens, and running back Garrison Hearst the offseason prior. San Francisco would finish last in the division for the first time since 1979.
And the worst of the worst team is...
The 2004 49ers!
This is probably still a fresh memory for most 49er fans—or perhaps it is not. If those fans are anything like me, they have certainly done their best to erase the 2004 season from memory. In fact, they have probably obliterated anything from the Dennis Erickson era from their minds altogether.
Like the 1978 49ers, the seeds of debacle were sown years before the season actually began. A series of poor decisions, both atop the organization and from within, thwarted any chance of success and set the course in motion for the most disastrous season in 49ers history.
It all began in 2000 when Ed DeBartolo Jr. sold the team to the York family and John York became the new CEO of the franchise. San Francisco would then have a number of up-and-down moments over the next couple of years.
Highlighting some of the lows was the friction that had started to develop between York and head coach Steve Mariucci, who had taken over the position after George Seifert retired in 1997.
The tension eventually came to a boiling point after 2002, and York had 49ers general manager Terry Donahue part ways with Mariucci following the season, despite the former head coach's successes with the team.
Of the decision, according to ESPNcdn.com, Donahue said:
The relationship eroded over time. It's been strained for the last year, going back to when Steve [Mariucci] wanted a new contract, and some of the things that rose out of that.
After Mariucci's departure, San Francisco would not have a winning coach again until 2011.
While there were a number of possible candidates who could have filled the void, Donahue, instead,hired longtime collegiate head coach, and two-year head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Dennis Erickson.
I have always felt that there are some coaches who can excel at the collegiate level, but, for whatever reason, cannot transfer the same success over the NFL level. Erickson may be a perfect example of this.
Even the 49ers' top brass questioned the move. Shortly after the announcement, Ira Miller of SF Gate.com reported that York had questioned the move at the beginning by writing:
York also said that Erickson "probably was not close to the top candidate when we first started" looking for a coach. York said he did not know exactly how Donahue ranked the original candidates, however, because he, York, did not get involved in the coaching stage until the list was whittled.
Nonetheless, Erickson was in as the new head coach, and the team would try to do its best rolling forward, despite the fact that Erickson's hiring was largely criticized by the fans and media.
Further complicating the 49ers' situation was the fact that the team had gotten itself into a lot of trouble with player contracts and the salary cap. The 2003 49ers draft class also yielded poor results, both during the season and over the long-term.
Adding to this issue was a growing tension between starting quarterback Jeff Garcia and emerging wide receiver Terrell Owens. That combined with a series of injuries forced a 7-9 regular-season record in 2003.
Erickson was retained for 2004, yet a number of key players, including Garcia, Owens and star running back Garrison Hearst were not.
San Francisco tried to supplement the loss of these players through the 2004 draft, which included wide receiver Rashaun Woods, guard Justin Smiley, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and punter Andy Lee. Only Lee, Sopoaga, and, to a lesser extent, Smiley would have long-term impacts for the franchise.
As a result, San Francisco entered the season a complete mess, and it did not take long for that to happen.
During the course of the year, the 49ers were last in almost every significant category.
Their offense averaged only 16.2 points per game, good for 30th out of 32 teams. The defense was atrocious, giving up a total of 452 points over the year resulting in a scoring differential of -193 points, also last in the NFL. The 49ers were also 31st in the league in turnover differential, showing the ineptitude of its players to make plays.
Not one of the 49ers offensive players rushed or received more than 1,000 yards over the season, and the quarterbacking job was split between the unremarkable Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey.
At the end of the season, San Francisco finished with a 2-14 record with their only victories coming as overtime wins against the Arizona Cardinals.
Following the year's conclusion, both Erickson and Donahue were fired, and the search was on for a head coach who could help turn a franchise that had become a laughingstock back into a predominant force as it had been decades prior.
The season's results, in turn, led the way to the Mike Nolan era as well as the eventual drafting of future starters Alex Smith and Frank Gore who were drafted the following year.
Yet, the damage had been done, and the 49ers would continue through a long and painful stretch of bad coaching, poor personnel decisions and loftless results.
While 1978 was a terrible year for San Francisco, paralleling the demise of the 49ers in the first half of the 2000 decade, the 1978 team was able to recover in relatively quick succession, thanks in measure to the head coaching of Bill Walsh and the drafting and development of players like Joe Montana and Dwight Clark.
In 2004, however, the demise of the franchise would take over six years to repair. There would be no miracle turnaround, and San Francisco would not find winning ways until another former Stanford coach named Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011.
Peter Panacy is a Featured Columnist covering the 49ers for Bleacher Report. Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.