Which Was the Best of the 49ers Champions?
The 1981 team clearly had the most exciting season, simply because it was so unexpected; the 49ers were just two years removed from their second straight 2-14 season. Every game seemed to be an adventure that year, and 49er fans were giddy as the team posted a series of improbable victories, en route to a 13-3 season.
That was the season when Joe Montana came of age and, though he would have better seasons later, he was never more important to the team. The 49ers running attack was almost non-existent that year, so it was Montana’s passes, with Dwight Clark and Fred Solomon as his chief receivers, which kept the offense going.
But it was defense which won for this team. In the draft that spring, Bill Walsh had picked defensive backs Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Lynn Thomas. The first three teamed with holdover Dwight Hicks as starters, and Thomas was a valuable reserve.
Early in the season, Walsh traded for Fred Dean, who had been locked in a contract dispute in San Diego, and Dean was simply amazing, an unstoppable force in the middle of the defensive line. Dean seldom worked out. He would sit on a stool in the dressing room, smoking menthol cigarets, and tell writers, “Whenever I feel like working out, I lay down until the feeling goes away.” Despite his bizarre training methods, Dean had a supernatural strength and quickness, and he disrupted offenses with his ability to get to the quarterback.
The “real” Super Bowl that year was the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers nemesis the last time they had aspired to this level, knocking the Niners out of the playoffs three straight seasons, 1970-72. This time, the 49ers won in what remains the single most exciting 49er game I have ever seen, with Montana throwing the winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark for the famed “The Catch.” After that, the true Super Bowl was almost an anti-climax, won by the 49ers over the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21.
But, exciting as that season was, that 49er champion was clearly inferior to those which followed.
After a disastrous 1982 season, when drug use tore the team apart, Walsh rebuilt the team, and the 49ers very nearly got back to the Super Bowl in the 1983 season. Some questionable officials calls contributed to a 24-21 win by the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship game.
The 49ers were just tuning up for the 1984 season in which they went 15-1, the best season record for any of the championship teams, and missed a perfect season by the margin of a 20-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, outscoring their opponents by more than a 2-1 margin, 475-227.
That was a beautifully balanced team. Defensively, there was great depth in the defensive line, Jack Reynolds was still supplying leadership at linebacker and the Lott-Wright-Hicks-Williamson secondary was at its best. Offensively, the 49ers had strong running with Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig, and, though Jerry Rice would not arrive until the next season, Montana had good receivers with Clark, Solomon and tight end Russ Francis. And the offensive line of Keith Fahnhorst, Bubba Paris, Randy Cross, John Ayers and Fred Quillen was in its prime.
After sweeping past the New York Giants, 21-10, and the Chicago Bears, 23-0, to win the NFC title, the Niners met the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl, played at nearby Stanford. The Dolphins’ second-year quarterback, Dan Marino, had thrown a record 48 touchdown passes that year, and most of the pre-game publicity centered on Marino. That irritated Montana, who thought he was being slighted, and it also irritated the secondary, most notably Lott, who thought the media was giving the 49ers’ defense too little credit.
The pre-game evaluations predicted an offensive blowout. That occurred only for the 49ers, who scored three touchdowns in the second quarter and rolled to a 38-16 win.
There were two key coaching decisions in that game. Walsh had noted in watching game films that the Miami linebackers would turn their backs in pass coverage, so he told Montana to run when he saw that. On one memorable play, Craig was running down the sideline, a Dolphins linebacker was pursuing him and Montana was running right behnd him.
The other decision was made by Miami coach Don Shula. The 49ers defensive coordinator, George Seifert, had pioneered the philosophy of “situational substitution” that year. To counter that, Shula went to a no-huddle offense, but that only meant that Seifert kept his best pass rushing linemen in the game, harassing Marino. The 49ers quickly turned the game into a rout.
THE 1988-89 TEAMS must be considered together, because they had essentially the same players.
This was the most explosive of the 49er champions, with Rice and the underrated John Taylor at wide receiver, with Craig and Tom Rathman as the running backs. Montana was still there, and Steve Young was backing him up.
Defensively, the 49ers were also very strong, Charles Haley was the same kind of defensive force that Dean had been on the earlier champions. Lott had moved to free safety, where he was even better than he’d been at cornerback, completing his Hall of Fame credentials.
Nevertheless, this team struggled in the ’88 season. Montana missed two games in midseason with a back problem and the flu, and nearly lost his starting job. Young won his first game as a starter with a remarkable 49-yard touchdown run against Minnesota. Walsh later said Young would have remained as a starter if the 49ers had won the next game, but they lost to the Arizona Cardinals, 24-23, and Montana was reinserted into the starting lineup. His first game back was a bummer, a 9-3 loss to the Raiders, but after that, Montana started a 2 ½ year run that was the best of his career and the impetus for his eventual place in the Hall of Fame.
By that time, Montana was so comfortable with the offense that he was almost on cruise control. His style was perfectly suited to Walsh’s offense because he was incredibly accurate, able to hit receivers in exactly the right spot, so they never had to break stride. In one game against the Rams in the ’89 season, Taylor took two of those passes for what became 92- and 95-yard touchdowns. In another game in the ’89 season, Montana threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter in a comeback win over the Eagles in Philadelphia.
The 49ers were underdogs to the Bears in the 1988 NFC Championship game but beat the Bears decisively, 28-3. The Super Bowl was a real nail-biter as the 49ers blew several opportunities early, but Montana led them on a 92-yard touchdown drive to beat the Bengals, 20-16. At one point, “Joe Cool” hyper-ventilated, but he had the perfect antidote – a completed pass to Jerry Rice, who won the Super Bowl MVP award after setting game records with 11 receptions for 215 yards. The winning touchdown play was supposed to be a pass to Craig, but he lined up on the wrong side of the formation. When Montana couldn’t find him, he hit Taylor on a 10-yard pass to the back of the end zone.
There were no nail-biters the next season. The 49ers were on a mission to prove they could win without Walsh. With Seifert as the coach, they cruised to a 14-2 season record. Before the Super Bowl against Denver, I was talking to Walsh and he said, “If the Broncos stay in their usual defensive alignment, Joe will absolutely kill them.” They did and Montana did. The 49ers scored two touchdowns in each quarter and won, 55-10.
That team nearly made it to a third straight Super Bowl, losing a heartbreaker to the New York Giants, 15-13, in the NFC Championship game. The 49ers played the Giants twice that season and never gave up a touchdown, but they missed the Super Bowl.
AFTER THE 49ers’ great run, they fell back for the next three seasons, missing the playoffs in ’91 and then losing to the Cowboys for two straight years in the NFC Championship game.
By this time, Young had replaced Montana at quarterback and he had very good years, but the 49ers lacked a championship defense. Before the ’94 season, they signed free agents Ken Norton Jr., Gary Plummer and Richard Dent. After the second game of the season, they picked up Deion Sanders. Suddenly, the 49ers defense was the equal of their offense.
Linebackers Norton and Plummer solidified the run defense. Sanders made a huge difference in the pass defense. With his speed and anticipation, Sanders could lay off a receiver, seemingly leaving him open, but then explode to the ball to make an interception. With his running ability, Sanders always had the potential to score after an interception. Because he was so good, opposing offenses sometimes just conceded his side of the field. Sanders played only one year with the 49ers, but it was a memorable year.
Still, it was the 49ers offense which was really the key, scoring a franchise record 505 points en route to a 13-3 season.
Once again, Dallas was the major roadblock, and the 49ers disposed of the Cowboys, 38-28, in the NFC Championship game. In the Super Bowl, nobody figured the San Diego Chargers would provide serious competition, and they didn’t. On the third play of the game, Young hit Rice on a 44-yard touchdown, the first of a Super Bowl record six touchdown passes for Young. The 49ers led, 28-10, at halftime, and romped to a 49-26 win that was more lopsided than the score.
In comparisons with Montana, Young had often suffered because the 49ers had not been to a Super Bowl since he took over, but this season showed that, supported by a strong defense, he was the best in the game. After the game, offensive tackle Harris Barton made a production of removing an imaginary monkey from Young’s back.
SO, WHAT’S the verdict? Which of these teams was the best?
My vote would go to the 1984 team, by the thinnest of margins over the 1988-89 champions. I don’t believe the 1994 team reached quite the level of the earlier champions.
You may have a different opinion, which could be as valid as mine. It’s fun to look backwards, especially at a time when the 49er present is so dismal.
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