The San Francisco 49ers are one of the storied franchises in all of football. The Niners are tied with the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Superbowl victories of all time. The San Francisco 49ers of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana were considered the Team of the Eighties, winning four Superbowls in that decade alone.
The San Francisco 49ers were founded in 1946 as a member of the All America Football League, an early competitor to the NFL. When the AAFL went out of business in 1950, the Niners, Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns were added into the National Football League. It was no coincidence that these teams were the two most successful AAFL franchises, both on the field and financially.
Niners Join the NFL
As the Cleveland Browns, led by Paul Brown, had dominated the AAFL, they soon came to dominate the NFL. The 49ers struggled in their early years in the NFL, and only had their first winning season in 1957. Led by Y.A. Tittle, the ’57 Niners finished the regular season in a tie with the Detroit Lions. The two teams had a 1 game playoff, which the Niners led 27-7 late in the 3rd quarter. The Lions came back to win the game in dramatic fashion, 31-27, and would destroy the Cleveland Browns for the NFL Title the next week.
From 1958 until 1970, the San Francisco 49ers played were an average team with few truly bad seasons. They traded Y.A. Tittle to the New York Giants in 1960, clearing the way for John Brodie to take over as starting quarterback. Brodie would lead the team for the entire decade of the Sixties, while Tittle would lead the Giants to several championship games.
One innovation in these years was developed by Niners coach Red Hickey, who installed the shotgun formation in 1960. The shotgun dropped the quarterback 7 yards back of the center, instead of his traditional position "under center". The shotgun was designed to give the passer more time to throw the ball, and the formation is still used by most NFL teams from time to time. In 1960, the shotgun helped the 49ers win several games, due to opposing defenses being confused by the alignment.
Dick Nolan, a former Tom Landry assistant, took over as head coach in 1968. His son, Mike, would become the Niners head coach in 2005. Other notable players in these years were Dave Wilcox and Gene Washington.
The 1970 Season
The San Francisco 49ers finally made the playoffs in 1970, when they edged out the rival Los Angeles Rams on the last day of the season. They advanced to the NFC Title game, where they were defeated by the Dallas Cowboys in what would become a recurring rivalry through the decades. The Cowboys would knock the Niners out of the playoffs the next two seasons, as well. 1970 was also the last year the Niners played in old Kezar Stadium.
In 1971, Dallas defeated San Francisco 14-3 with a dominating defensive performance. But in 1972, the Niners took an early lead with a touchdown on the opening kickoff. In fact, San Francisco would hold a 28-16 lead in the 4th quarter, but two late Roger Staubach drives put the Cowboys ahead for good, 30-28. The second TD drive was after a late, desperation onside kick. The Niners and their fans were crushed by this defeat, and the team would miss the playoffs the next eight seasons.
The Niners of the Seventies
The Niners began a slide in the mid-seventies, coinciding with John Brodie’s aging. Brodie would split time with other QBs, such as Steve Spurrier. In 1975, San Francisco would go in another direction entirely, trading for Jim Plunkett, a former #1 overall pick of the New England Patriots. Plunkett would be traded in 1977 to the Oakland Raiders.
That same year, the 49ers would trade with the Buffalo Bills for the rights to O.J. Simpson. Unfortunately, years as a workhorse back had ruined Simpson’s health, and his signing would come to be considered a disaster. To make matters worse, the Niners would have had the #1 pick in the coming draft, but they traded it to the Bills for Simpson.
Bill Walsh and Joe Montana
After Eddie DeBartolo Jr. bought the San Francisco 49ers, he hired Bill Walsh to coach the team. Walsh had been the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1970′s and had studied under the legendary Bengals head coach, Paul Brown.
Bill Walsh was hired by DeBartolo in 1979. In the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft, Walsh drafted Joe Montana out of Notre Dame. Montana had shown enough accuracy and poise under pressure to be rated a 3rd rounder, but his seeming limitations had pushed him down most team’s draft boards. Montana had been a star at a high profile college, but many experts thought Montana was too short, skinny and slow to be an effective NFL quarterback.
Joe Montana is Drafted
Ironically, the Dallas Cowboys had Joe Montana at the top of their board when it came their time to select in the Third Round. The Cowboys had Roger Staubach as quarterback at the time, and Danny White as his solid backup. Though Tex Schramm and Tom Landry were famous for drafting the top player on their board, regardless of position, they chose to pass over Montana because of their depth at QB. With the next pick, the Niners drafted Montana.
The Niners remained hapless in the 1979 season, as Walsh busied himself with installing the West Coast Offense. His personnel were still not suited to his system and the team finished 2-14.
In 1980, the 49ers started the season 3-0. But the Niners defense was full of holes, especially in the secondary, and they dropped their next 8 games. Walsh played his quarterbacks, Steve DeBerg and Joe Montana, in a platoon situation. Though the Niners were more competitive in many of their games, they would remain one of the losing teams in the NFL.
This all changed in 1981, when the San Francisco 49ers burst onto the NFL scene seemingly out of nowhere. The Niners added to their defense, drafting defensive backs Ronnie Lott in the 1st round and Eric Wright in the 2nd round, and trading for defensive end Fred Dean from the San Diego Chargers in the middle of the season. Maurice Hicks led the NFL in interceptions, and the San Francisco Forty-Niners were able to combine a solid defense with their innovative new offense.
On offense, Joe Montana took over as the full-time quarterback. His targets were Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon, while RB Ricky Patton and FB Earl Cooper led the team’s running game. Patton led the team with only 500+ yards rushing, while Cooper gained more receiving yards than rushing yards. The Niners were a passing team, using the short pass the way other teams of the time used their running attack.
The week the 49ers traded for Fred Dean, they played the Dallas Cowboys, who were consistently the class of the NFL in those days. Dean had three sacks of Danny White and the Niners won the game 45-14. With newfound confidence, the 49ers would go on to earn homefield advantage in the NFC Playoffs.
True to form, the Dallas Cowboys also won their way into the NFC Championship against the Niners. In a back-and-forth matchup, the Niners and Cowboys battled into late in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 27-21, Joe Montana led the Niners on a late 4th quarter comeback. Facing a 3rd and goal from the 9-yard line with :58 seconds remaining, Montana rolled to his right. Chased by several defenders, he let fly a pass into the right corner of the endzone, possibly for Charlie Young. The ball appeared to be sailing out the end of the endzone. Instead, Dwight Clark, trailing the play and shadowed by CB Everson Walls, leapt into the air at the last moment and caught Montana’s touchdown pass.
Danny White led his team down the field, hoping to set up Rafael Septien, the NFL’s most accurate kicker at the time, for a game-winning field goal. A pass to Drew Pearson got the team in position about 15 yards away from realistic field goal range, but Danny White was blindsided on the next play. White fumbled and the Niners covered, advancing to their first Superbowl and ending one of the great games in NFL history.
Joe Montana led the Niners to the Superbowl win two weeks later, when the Niners beat Kenny Anderson and the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21. A key moment was a goal line stand against the NFL’s top short yardage specialist of 1982, Pete Johnson.
The 1982 season was shortened by a strike. The Niners started slow and ended the season 3-6, missing the playoffs. This would be their last season with fewer than 10 wins until 1999, a streak of 16 seasons win double-digit wins.
The 1980′s San Francisco 49ers
Over the next few years, Bill Walsh began to add more greats to his squad. Roger Craig was added at running back, while Jerry Rice and John Taylor would become the most-feared wide receiver tandem of the era. Brent Jones would be added later in the decade as a threat at tight end, while Walsh traded with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to acquire future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young to serve as Montana’s backup.
The team had great linemen, as well, including Randy Cross and Guy McIntyre on offense. On the defense, the Niners linebackers were consistently solid, including Matt Millen and Keena Turner early in the decade and Charles Haley and Bill Romanowski in later years. Ronnie Lott was a constant, first as a cornerback and later as a safety.
The San Francisco Forty-Niners would make the playoffs again in 1983, winning another NFC West title. They defeated the Detroit Lions and Billy Sims in the divisional rounds of the playoffs, and took on the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship Game. The Redskins got up 21-0 in the game, but Joe Montana led the Niners back to tie the ballgame. Mark Moseley kicked a late field goal to send the defending champion Redskins back to the Superbowl.
Nothing would stop the 49ers in the 1984 season, as they compiled a 15-1 regular season record. They took on Miami Dolphins, a veteran team led by second-year quarterback, Dan Marino. Marino had set the NFL single-season touchdown record in 1984 by throwing 48 touchdowns. He and his receiving combo of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton were the talk of the Superbowl, but the Niners easily won their second title in four years when the game was played.
The Niners would make the playoffs the next two seasons, as Jerry Rice and Roger Craig joined the team in 1985. ’85 was the year the Chicago Bears went 15-1, and the Niners were knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Giants. The New York Giants knocked San Francisco out of the playoffs in the 1986-87 season, as well, this time after knocking Joe Montana out of the game. The game would end 49-3, and the Giants would go on to an easy Superbowl victory.
In the 1987-1988 playoffs, the Niners were the favorites over the Minnesota Vikings. A big game from Anthony Carter led the Vikings to the victory in Candlestick Park.
The 1988 season appeared to be another disappointing year, as the Niners ended the regular season 10-6. They won their division, though, and were able to get revenge against the Vikings in a rout in the divisional round of play. In the championship game, the Niners defeated Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears.
Joe Montana and the 49ers faced the Cincinnati Bengals in another Superbowl. This time, the Bengals were led by Boomer Esiason, Ickey Woods, Eddie Brown and Sam Wyche. The Bengals were underdogs, given the experience Joe Montana brought into the big game. But they battled the Niners throughout the game and held a late lead. It was vintage Joe Montana time on the last drive. He led the team down the field with efficiency, eventually hitting John Taylor with just over half a minute left to secure the win.
As an example of Montana’s calm in a pressure situation, teammates claim that prior to the last drive, Joe came into the huddle, pointed into the stands and said, "Hey, isn’t that John Candy?" This nonchalance seemed to calm his teammates.
The 1989 San Francisco 49ers may have been the best Niners club of the Eighties. This club went 14-2, a mark surpassed only by the 1984 team. Montana, Craig and Rice were in their primes, while the defense had more stars than at any other time in the eighties. The team routed the Vikings again in the divisional playoffs, then defeated the rival Los Angeles Rams and Jim Everett in the NFC Championship Game. The Niners demolished the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl, capping off the decade.
George Seifart was the head coach of these Niners this seaon, as the former defensive coordinator had replaced a retiring Bill Walsh.
The 1990 Season
The 49ers appeared to be on their way to a threepeat in the 1990 season, as they began the season with a 10-0 record. The New York Giants also started the season 10-0, though two Superbowl victories in a row gave the Niners a special aura of invincibility. The two teams were set to meet on Monday Night Football in Week 12.
Though both teams lost the week prior to their MNF matchup, the game was widely hyped as a preview of the "real Superbowl", the NFC Championship Game. The New York Giants tough defense, led by Lawrence Taylor, held tough throughout the game, and the Monday Night matchup ended up a defensive struggle. The Niners won late on a field goal.
The Niners gained homefield advantage through the playoffs, and as expected, they hosted the Giants in the Championship Game. Once again, the game was a tight contest, though there was more scoring this time around. In the fourth quarter, the Giants defense knocked Joe Montana out of the game, and Steve Young was unable to lead a comeback. Bill Parcells’ team would go on to win the Superbowl.
The 1991 Niners missed the playoffs, despite finishing with a 10-6 record. They finished third in the division behind the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Joe Montana missed this season with an elbow injury.
For the third time in four years, the 49ers went 14-2 in the regular season. This year was marked by a change at quarterback, as an elbow injury that many thought would end Joe Montana’s career led to the installation of Steve Young as Niners starting quarterback. In late season work after homefield advantage was clinched, Montana looked sharp. Steve Young had the NFL’s best quarterback rating.
The team defeated the defending Superbowl champs, the Washington Redskins, in the divisional playoffs. Once again, the Niners opponent would be the Dallas Cowboys, whom the Niners had faced in the two previous decades. The Cowboys were the youngest team in the NFL and many expected they were "a year away". But the team had the Triplets in Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith on offense, and the NFL’s #1 rated defense.
The Niners had an early Young-to-Rice touchdown called back on a penalty, and then had several other uncharacteristic mistakes, such as a fumble on special teams and a fumble by star runner, Ricky Watters. The Cowboys took control in the second half, with an efficient passing game and Emmitt Smith (who was stopped much of the game) slowly wearing down the Niners defense. Eventually, Steve Young threw a late interception and Troy Aikman hit Alvin Harper for a long pass which broke the Niners back.
Making matters worse, the Niners had traded disgruntled DE/LB Charles Haley to the Cowboys earlier in the year, and Haley was instrumental in the Cowboys’ playoff success.
The Niners and Cowboys would once again be the class of the NFL and NFC in 1993, though this time, the Cowboys had the homefield advantage. The Cowboys got an early lead in the NFC Championship Game, but Troy Aikman went out with a concussion in the second half. Bernie Kosar, who had been picked up off waivers from the Cleveland Browns, threw a touchdown to Alvin Harper which put the Niners away, this time in a blowout.
Earlier in the week, Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson had guaranteed a victory over the 49ers, telling his interviewer that he could put the prediction in "Three Inch Headlines". Embarrassed by two losses to the same team and the lack of respect the Cowboys had shown, Eddie Debartalo Jr., Carmen Policy and George Seifart were determined to turn the tables.
The 1994 San Francisco 49ers
1994 was the first year of unrestricted free agency in the National Football League, due to a new collective bargaining agreement. Players who had been in the league for a certain number of years and who had played out their contracts were given unrestricted free agency. The Niners, hoping to improve their defense, were the most active team in free agency.
The 49ers added Deion Sanders, Gary Plummer and Ken Norton Jr. on defense. With Deion at cornerback, the team was able to move Merton Hanks to safety, where he became a star. The team’s defense was anchored by Dana Stubblefield and rookie Bryant Young at defensive tackles.
For the third straight year, the Niners and Cowboys met in the NFC Championship Game. This time, the game was back in Candlestick Park. The Niners got out to an early 21-0 lead, due to a couple of turnovers and offensive efficiency. But Troy Aikman led a spirited comeback, eventually leading the Cowboys to 21 points of their own. A controversial call ended a late Cowboys drive and Niners won the game 38-28. They would crush the San Diego Chargers for their fifth and final Superbowl victory.
Brett Favre and the Packers
The San Francisco 49ers would continue to contend for the next several years, and many people picked them in preseason to win the Superbowl. Unfortunately, the Niners were derailed three straight years by the same obstacle: the Green Bay Packers.
In many ways, the Packers were a mirror image of the Niners. Mike Holmgren was a product of the Niners organization. Brett Favre ran a West Coast Offense similar to the one ran by Steve Young. The two quarterbacks consisently were among the highest rated, and each collected multiple passing titles in the mid-1990′s.
But in 1995-1996, 1996-1997 and 1997-1998, the Green Bay Packers met and defeated the 49ers in the NFC Playoffs. The teams met again in the playoffs in the 1998-1999 season, but this time Steve Young got a measure of revenge. The Niners trailed 27-23 late in the game, but Steve Young hit Terrell Owens, who had dropped four passes in the game, for a touchdown with just seconds left in the game.
Unfortunately, the Niners lost to the "Dirty Bird" Atlanta Falcons of Jamal Anderson and Dan Reeves the next week.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
In these years, Eddie DeBartolo was involved in a corruption scandal involving riverboat casinos in Louisiana. He would eventually plead guilty in the case and be forced from the team for a year. Eventually, lawsuits involving other members of DeBartolo’s family forced Eddie to give up his controlling interest in the team.
The 2000′s have not been kind to the San Francisco 49ers. Despite offensive talent in the form of Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens and later Frank Gore, the team slowly declined and has not made the playoffs after 2002. The 2002 Niners mounted a major comeback in the 2002 playoffs, when they were down 38-14, but Jeff Garcia led the team to a 39-38 victory. The Niners lost to the eventual world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers the next week, which was their final playoff game.
Coach Steve Mariucci, who had replaced George Seifart in the late-90′s, lost his job largely after this game. The team hired first Norv Turner and then Mike Nolan to take over head coaching duties, but the team has not turned the corner.
2006 San Francisco 49ers
The 2006 club headed by Mike Nolan looked to have turned the team in the right direction. Frank Gore had an All-Pro year as a running back and the team finished 8-8. In the offseason, the team added key free agents on defense, such as Nate Clements, Tully Banta-Cain, Walt Harris and Michael Lewis. The team also traded for Darrell Jackson to act as the #1 receiver for quarterback Alex Smith. Vernon Davis continued to show talent, despite injury problems. Many predicted a return to the playoffs.
The 2007 club disappointed its fans. Alex Smith seemed to regress, while Darrell Jackson had little success. Frank Gore had his moments, especially later in the year, but he was not able to match his production of the previous year. The bright spot was linebacker Patrick Willis, the #1 draft pick who became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The team added more free agents in the offseason, this time looking for offensive punch. They signed Isaac Bruce from the St. Louis Rams and Bryant Johnson from the Arizona Cardinals to be their starting receivers. Both were signed from division rivals in the NFC West. DE Justin Smith was brought in from the Cincinnati Bengals.
The 2008 San Francisco 49ers might improve, if Alex Smith shows improvement. The team has added a lot of free agent talent the last two years, so maybe it begins to show in 2008.