The San Francisco 49ers' Cinderella Season of 1988

Robert KnightContributor IMay 16, 2009

22 Jan 1989:  Quarterback Joe Montana #16 of the San Francisco 49ers wants to pass during the Super Bowl XXIII game at the Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida.  The 49ers won over the Cincinnati Bengals, 20-16. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell  /Allsport

It was a leap year in 1988, and a year I would make a leap of my own, a leap of faith, that is. On January 9th, the 49ers lost to the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs. The season leading up to that game saw the 49ers go 13-2, giving San Francisco the best record in the league.

The media, as well as the 49ers' fan base, were outraged and wanted answers. Owner, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. demoted Walsh in response, taking away his GM powers. Speculation about Joe Montana’s health and Bill Walsh’s tenure as head coach, came into question.

Montana had been labeled a has-been, and many in the media believed defenses had caught up to Bill Walsh’s west coast offense. In many people’s eyes, the 49ers were a team in decline.

The 49ers would struggle early during the '88 season, barely winning their first two games. After squeaking by the New Orleans Saints 34 to 33, and the New York Giants 20 to 17, the 49ers would only win three of their next six games.

The 49ers fortunes started looking brighter in week nine, when Steve Young made a daring 49-yard touchdown run, beating the Minnesota Vikings 24 to 21. A full-blown quarterback conspiracy would follow, but by week 11 Montana would prevail as the team’s starter. 

In week 12, on a Monday night match-up, the 49ers would face last years Super Bowl champions, the Washington Redskins. With the help of a brilliant game plan devised by Bill Walsh, Joe Montana would give a hall of fame performance, and beat the Redskins 37 to 21.

The team would go on to win three out of their last four games, and finish the season with a 10 and 6 record.

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Montana had 238 completions for 2,981 yards and 18 touchdowns, and added 132 yards rushing. His number one receiver was Jerry Rice, who made 34 receptions for 1,306 yards with a 20.4 yards per catch average and 9 touchdowns.

Roger Craig was a key contributor as well totaling 2,036 total yards and 10 touchdowns, earning him NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors. Fullback Tom Rathman added 427 yards rushing with 42 catches for 387 yards. 

The defense would also make an impact, led by defensive backs Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Tim McKyer, and Jeff Fuller. They would combine for a total of 18 interceptions with McKyer leading the pack with seven. Pass rush specialist, Charles Haley would finish the regular season with 11.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.

The 49ers would have their revenge in the NFC Divisional Playoff game, destroying the Vikings 34 to 9. San Francisco then traveled to Soldier Field to face the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game. With a wind chill factor of 26 degrees below zero, the 49ers upset the Bears 28 to 3, propelling them to their third Super Bowl berth.

This would be the 49ers first Super Bowl in three years. They had made the playoffs every year since Super Bowl XIX, but were eliminated in the first round each time. Now the 49ers were back and Joe Montana and company would not disappoint.

Super Bowl XXIII is best remembered for Montana’s final 92 yard touchdown drive in the last minutes of regulation. With only 3:10 to go, the 49ers were down 16 to 13 with the ball on their own eight yard line.

Joe Montana would make history, as he picked apart the Bengals defense. Montana would move the 49ers all the way down the field, finishing off the drive with a 10 yard pass to John Taylor for the winning touchdown.

Montana finished the game completing 23 passes for 357 yards and two touchdowns. Jerry Rice was named the games MVP with 11 catches for a Super Bowl record 215 yards and one touchdown.

The memory of this game will always leave me feeling a bit melancholy, as this would be Bill Walsh’s last game as head coach of the 49ers. He would announce his retirement following the game.

The 49ers would go on to beat the Denver Broncos 55 to 10 in Super Bowl XXIV the following year. In 1995, lead by Steve Young, the 49ers would win yet another Super Bowl, acquiring an unprecedented, five Super Bowl championships.

Although the 1988 team may not go down in history as the best 49ers team, they are my favorite. They would start the season as underdogs, but they would finish as champions, and score yet another Cinderella story for the ages. 

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