The Super Bowl History of the San Francisco 49ers.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Super Bowl 16
There really is nothing else except the quarterback.- Tom Landry, after the NFC Championship

What was it like to be a San Francisco 49ers fan in the late 1970s?

We had won 4 games out of our last 35 as we hit 1980.  When you’re a ten year old sports inclined boy living in the Bay Area, forming attachments for the first time with institutions outside of your own head, and the NFL team is as existentially bad as those late 70s 49ers teams, you either distance yourself emotionally out of an instinctive sense of self-protection, or you wear the losing as if part of your own identity, the shortcomings of your team mirroring your innermost lack of belief in your own worth.

I made the wrong choice. 

Until it started raining Super Bowls.

30+ years later, “The Catch” has withstood time’s passage and emerged as probably the signature play in NFL history, but at the time, the 49er vanquishing of America’s Team did not make us prohibitive favorites in Super Bowl 16.  Kenny Anderson, who should be at the top of your list of greatest NFL players not in the Hall of Fame, led the NFL in passing, and the Niners had to travel to the Midwest, as the Super Bowl was played in Detroit, a decision that seemed curious even at the time. 

Vegas missed and so did Landry, for while the quarterback was named MVP – Super Bowl 16 came down to Turnovers, Ray Wersching, and Danny Bunz.

The 49er franchise has dominated America’s Greatest Day like no other, but they began by fumbling their opening kickoff.  It was the only Niner turnover of the game; the Bengals gave it up 3 times before the end of the first half, each turnover directly led to Niner points (hold onto the ball in the Super Bowl; there have been 46 Super Bowls, in 37 of them there was a difference in the number of turnovers the teams had – in those 37 games, the team that won the turnover battle won the game 34 times.  Can I say it again please?  Only 3 times in Super Bowl history has the team that committed more turnovers won.  Don’t turn the ball over.)  

The Niners had long first half touchdown drives, of 6 and 7 minutes (who scored the first 49er Super Bowl Touchdown – Joe, Just Joe – you say Joe to any San Francisco sports fan regardless of context and he knows who you mean) and ended the half with a Ray Wersching squib kickoff that turned into a Bengal fumble that turned into a half ending field goal. 

Wersching was 4-4 in field goals in Super Bowl 16, added a fifth field goal three years later, all without a miss.  His post football life has not been as spotless. 

I was 11 years old in January of 1982; when you’re 11 years old and the football team you love has a 20 point halftime lead in the Super Bowl, all is right with the universe. 

Our lead was still 13 points as the third quarter ended, but only after the greatest goal line stand in Super Bowl history

It’s easily forgotten that the Bengals converted on fourth and one on the play just before the four downs that would define Super Bowl 16, with a two yard Pete Johnson run. 

First down, goal to go from the 3 – Johnson got two more, once again in the middle of the line, stopped by 
John Choma (who started the season as aon offensive lineman) followed by Danny Bunz.

Second down, goal to go from the 1 – Johnson again - Bunz eats up the lead blocker, allowing for the tackle by Craig Puki and Hacksaw Reynolds

Third down, goal to go from the 1– A pass, in the flat to Charles Alexander, just outside end zone, stopped by a Bunz waist tackle

Fourth down, goal to go from the 1 – with only 10 men on defense for the Niners, Johnson ran into the line where he was stopped  at the goal line by Hacksaw, Ronnie Lott, and Danny Bunz.

In Super Bowl 16, Dan Bunz only played on the goal line and special teams – if I had an MVP vote for the game, it would have gone to Wersching (two successful squib kicks and 4 FGs) but as good a choice would have been Bunz.

The Bengals weren’t done after the goal line stand; they cut the score to 20-14 with ten minutes to go; but the Niners drove 50 yards in 5 minutes, including five Ricky Patton runs, to set up a big Wersching 40 yard field goal that made it a two score game with five and a half left.  If the game situation Sunday is the same, and David Akers lines up to attempt a 40 yard field goal that will either put the game nearly out of reach or give Joe Flacco the ball, how comfortable are you that the outcome will be the same?

One last Bengal turnover, an Eric Wright pick, led to the 4th Wersching kick; a garbage time Bengal touchdown gave us the final score of 26-21.  

Super Bowl 19
This week we are playing against the greatest passer of all time, as I understand it –Bill Walsh, discussing the conventional wisdom about Dan Marino

In 1984, Dan Marino lapped the field; 400 more yards, 16 more touchdowns, a yard and a half more yards/attempt than any other quarterback.  1984 was Neil Lomax’s career year; he was the only quarterback within a thousand yards of Marino.  Neil Lomax was sacked 49 times to Dan Marino’s 13.  Dan Marino’s quarterback rating in the AFC Championship game was over 135. Dan Marino was playing Nintendo and the rest of the league was a broke down electric football board.

The Dolphins had our old defensive coordinator; Chuck Studley was our coordinator 3 years previous and now he was Miami’s.

And they had a gimmick.  Remember how Hagler came out right handed in the Leonard fight?  You’ve been watching southpaw Marvin Hagler forever – and suddenly he’s right handed? 

The Dolphins went no huddle in the first quarter of Super Bowl 19; this was a brand new offense for the NFL; the Bengals started experimenting with it during the season – but that was Sam Wyche, a coach whose offense the LA Times once called “an assault on the senses” – this was Don Shula, the man in the grey flannel sweater.   If he had given birth during Reagan’s coin toss it wouldn’t have been significantly more unexpected. 

After the first quarter Miami had scored on both of their possessions and we were losing 10-7.   

Then came the second quarter.  Bill Walsh was noted for scripting plays the start a football game, but his ability to adjust on the fly was evident here – the Niners came out in the second quarter with six defensive backs, forced 3 and outs on the next three Dolphin drives – after each of those possession changes the Niners  scored a touchdown, that’s a 21 point swing in 12 minutes, and the game was effectively over.  
Miami’s inability to get a first down during that stretch was exacerbated by punter Reggie Roby; his three punts were 37, 40, and 39 yards – giving the Niners field possession round midfield each time, and when San Francisco converted with scores by Joe and Roger Craig (he had two in this sequence and finished with three, making OJ Simpson’s pregame prediction of a big game for Craig accurate).

Miami got two late first half field goals and then didn’t score at all in the second half; for the game, Marino was sacked four times and threw two picks – I’ve evaluated ever starting quarterback performance in Super Bowl history; out of 92 quarterbacked games – Dan Marino’s only ever Super Bowl was 62nd

Meanwhile, Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler had a combined 270 total yards of offense and Joe Montana followed up his MVP performance from three years previous with a significantly better effort here, 24 for 35, 331 yards, three passing touchdowns and one on the ground, and what is still the second most yards rushing for a Super Bowl quarterback.  This is the fifth best quarterback performance history and not even Joe’s best. 

The Niners – my Niners, who filled my 14 year old life with every bit of non-sex related nourishment I could possibly need, were the first team in NFL history to win 18 games.

And 3 months later, we drafted the greatest football player who ever lived. 

Super Bowl 23
Hey, isn't that John Candy - Joe Montana before the greatest drive in Super Bowl history.

This game made my face break out. 

I wish I had a picture; there weren’t many days when I was 18 years old that I was clear of facial blemish, and the heavy pancake makeup used in college theater didn’t help, as the day before Super Bowl 23 I finished a run giving a mediocre performance in a mediocre play (they were all mediocre, I was always mediocre; I did not appreciate that at the time – as I’ve aged, my youthful accomplishments feel closer to Toddlers & Tiaras than they do to actual attainment; there was some college play where I would make out 
backstage with the girl who did the makeup; that was probably the highlight of my thespian career)

We were big  favorites here; 7 points, but shouldn’t have been – by Pro-Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, the Bengals were the better club in 1988.  In the years between 19 and 23, Joe had broken his back, nearly been traded to San Diego for Billy Ray Smith, and Steve Young had been acquired to begin the most torturous passive aggressive quarterback battle in league history. Our regular season record in 1988 wasn’t only the worst for any Super Bowl winner to that date, it was the worst for an NFL Champ since 1934.  1984 was in the distant past and the clock was ticking on what was not as of yet a dynasty.

With 3 minutes and ten seconds left, down a field goal from our own 8 yard line, that metaphorical clock turned very real.  Historical memory works like this sometimes – had the Niners won 27-10, efficiently extinguishing a Bengal opponent that’s been left in the dustbin, the legend of Montana and the greatness of those 49er teams would have been a little diminished.  Staring immortality down by cracking a John Candy joke in the huddle has become the glow around Joe’s legacy. 

We started with two passes in the middle of the field – Roger Craig for 8, John Frank for 7.
Tick.  Tick.  Tick. 

A 7 yard out on the right to Jerry, and then a one yard Craig run right as we hit the two minute warning.

Third and 2 for the Niners at our own 31. 

Craig off tackle for 4.  1st down.  Timeout #1.

The next two plays got us 30 yards. 

Jerry got 17 on a pass left from Joe, stepping out of bounds to stop the clock, and then Roger caught a 13 yard check down in the middle of the field.  The only incompletion of the drive and a ten yard penalty on Randy Cross, in his last NFL game, backed us up to the Bengal 45, 2nd down and 20, 1 minute and 17 seconds left. 

I’ve done an evaluation of the “real MVPs” of every Super Bowl.  When considering 23 it was largely our defense that carried the bulk of the game - you'd look at Ronnie Lott with his memorable hit on Ickey Woods, leading a secondary that limited a historically underrated Esiason to the 71st best QB game in SB history.  You'd look at Charles Haley, a terror from the edge with 2 sacks and 7 unassisted tackles.  You'd look at Joe - this the 10th best quarterbacked game in SB history 23 of 36 for 357 yards and two scores - and then settle on Jerry Rice- 11 catches for 215 and a score and more than anyone responsible for our winning the game.  If someone can dominate a football game from the WR position - it was Rice in SB23.

On 2nd and 20 from the Bengal 45 Jerry caught a ball over the middle 12 yards downfield, then split two Bengal defensive backs to gain another 15.  We were at the 18 yard line and I was calculating field goal distances. 

Ray Wersching was 5-5 in his two Super Bowls, but now our kicker was Mike Cofer – and he had already missed two attempts during the game.  If we didn’t gain another yard, we were looking at a 35 yarder to send us into overtime, and there wasn’t a Niner fan alive who was confident that kick would be going through. 

Joe hit Roger over the middle for 8.

Timeout.  39 seconds left.  At the Bengal 10.

Baseball was largely a solitary passion for me; pouring over statistics, trying to find out of town radio broadcasts.  Football was about my family; my memory of John Taylor’s catching the game winning touchdown pass on the next play is less about the call (20 Halfback Curl X Up) or JT’s cut to the post that beat Ray Horton by inches to the football.  It was about all five us leaping simultaneously from our seats in maybe the single most unifying moment of family joy in my life.  I am not so good in clusters; I backed out of a dinner a friend was throwing for me when I turned 20 because too many people wound up invited; a girlfriend didn’t even consider asking me to come to a Halloween party she threw once knowing that I wouldn’t have been able to handle it (she was right). My biggest fear in isn’t dying, it’s living in a managed care facility with other people.  I would rather be in the ground than in a rec. room with two dozen other retirees.  I loved those 49ers teams because that was when I could feel the love from my family.  When Joe hit JT to win Super Bowl 23, I could still be me, even though I was not alone.

Super Bowl 24
Wade what do you think about doing something different? – Broncos secondary coach Charlie Watters to D-Coordinator Wade Phillips at halftime

Here’s the thing – by Simple Rating System this Broncos defense was the 21st best in Super Bowl history; they allowed the fewest points in the league in 1989.  The Niners were favored by 7 and a half, but you could not have gone into Super Bowl 24 thinking you were about to see the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history; a 45 point margin in a game where the Niners sat their offensive starters for all but one minute of the 4th quarter. 

Here’s the challenge of picking the greatest 49er Super Bowl winner; the ’84 team was 18-1 and blew out Dan Marino – but didn’t have Jerry Rice.  How can you possibly say the best 49er team wasn’t one with the greatest football player who ever lived?

But this ’89 team didn’t have Bill Walsh; he retired the year prior.  I feel about Bill Walsh the way right wingers feel about Reagan.  I’d like to see a couple of airports, a stretch of the interstate highway system, and maybe some type of hybrid dog breed like a cross between a dachshund and a Labrador retriever named after Bill Walsh.  So to say it was the team without Walsh which was the best is the only blasphemy this atheist is ever going to recognize. 

What I do know is no team in NFL postseason history put on a performance like this Niners team; after going 14-2 in the regular season we won our 3 playoff games by a combined score of 126-26.  Mel Kiper still argues today that John Elway was the greatest quarterback in NFL history – in Super Bowl 24 he turned the ball over three times, was sacked four times, was 10 of 26 for 108 yards and finished with a passer rating under 20.  My evaluation has this the 7th worst quarterbacked game in Super Bowl history.

On the other side of the ball was Joe Montana. 

This was his fourth and final appearance in a Super Bowl; it remains the greatest Super Bowl game anybody ever had.  5 touchdown passes (3 to Rice). A quarterback rating of just under 150.  It was 55-10 with 14 minutes left in the game and we called off the dogs.   I get arguments to the contrary, I do – but if you put every quarterback who ever played on the board, I think you have to take Joe.  Peyton’s never had a good Super Bowl and threw a pick 6 to lose one; Brady lost to two dramatically inferior Giants teams; Favre’s best Super Bowl was the fifteenth best quarterbacked game overall; and when both Marino and Elway had a chance to go up against him, they had all time bad – just epically bad in Elway’s case, performances, and Joe had among the greatest games in NFL history. 

It’s a bit of a love letter – but for one night, no one was ever better than the 1989 Niners. 

Super Bowl 29

If we lose, we die. – Carmen Policy before the NFC Championship game.

Some of the greatest teams in 49er history were in the 1990s, and Steve Young’s regular season performances rank with any in league history.  But season after season we came up short, surpassed first by that Cowboy dynasty and then by Favre’s best Packer teams. 

For one season though, we were once again the baddest team on the planet. 

Here’s a quick gambling tip – don’t give more than 10 in an NFL game.  Ever.  If it’s you and me against Lombardi’s best Packer team, we shouldn’t be more than ten point dogs.  It’s just the nature of the NFL.  A 16 point blowout can be easily backdoor covered into a 9 point “wait, what…” loss.  Just don’t do it.

I gave 18 in Super Bowl 29 and it never once concerned me.

This was a crazy talented football team – Steve and Jerry were now joined by Ricky Watters, who a year before scored 5 touchdowns in the divisional playoffs to retire Lawrence Taylor.  On defense were Hall of Famers Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson; borderline Hall of Famers Tim McDonald and Bryant Young, and multiple Super Bowl winner Ken Norton.  If Prime Time were 15 years younger he would have his own ESPN special talking about “taking his talents to Ocean Beach” when he signed for this season with the Niners.

I flew to Miami for this game; I couldn’t get tickets, but my parents lived in South Florida, so my record of seeing every Niner Super Bowl with my family continued .

The game was over in 90 seconds; it was like Tyson/Spinks (young Mike Tyson vs the ’94 Niners, discuss) Steve hit Jerry for a 44 yard score on the third play of the game.  After a three and out – we scored again on the 4th play of our second drive, Watters getting a catch and run 51 yard score.  Less than 5 minutes into Super Bowl 29 and we were up 14. 

The final was 49-26 and not that close.  Similar to 5 years previous the Niners finished their scoring at the very beginning of the 4th quarter and coasted home;  the backups came in at mid-quarter leading to a trivia question whose answer is about to change – three 49er quarterbacks have completed Super Bowl passes – who’s the third guy?

It’s Bill Musgrave.

Steve Young threw six touchdown passes and even rushed for 49 yards.  It’s still the second best quarterbacked game in Super Bowl history.  You know who is first.

I took it for granted, the Niner greatness.  We built a better mousetrap and sprung it on the rest of the league for 15 years. 

The 49er dynasty was long ago and far away.  18 years later we’re back – and I’ll be watching the game at my home with my wife.  Or rather, I’ll be watching the game while she puts up with my anguish as long as she can. 

Would you like a prediction? Come back tomorrow. 

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