Established.... September 22, 1946
First Season.... 1946 with All-American Football Conference
Stadium..... Levi's Stadium (San Francisco Bay Area)
Conference..... NFC West present / NFL 1950-present / AFC 1946-1949
Team Nicknames..... Fearsome Foursome (60s) / The Greatest Show on Turf (1999-2001)
1st Game Against BUCS..... October 30, 1977 (Played in Candlestick Park)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their game debut against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, October 30, 1977 and the Buccaneers first ever west-coast victory was against the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park on Sunday, October 26, 1980, an occomplisment that wouldn't be repeated in the stadium for another 27 years on Sunday, November 21, 2004.
As of the 2017/18 season the all-time game series between the 49ers is dramatically in San Francisco’s favour including two teams meeting in the 2002 playoffs when the Buccaneers came out 31-6 winners on their way to winning Super Bowl XXXVII.
Below click on ANY date to view extensive details of all gameday encounters. We have featured details of each opponent, highlights of each games statistics, players, scoring details, media coverage, photographs with a detailed game report. Below the listed dates we also include full details of the Opponent.
|ALL GAMES vs. 49ers (H=home @=away)|
|@||Oct. 30, 1977||L||10-20||@||Dec. 10, 1978||L||03-06||@||Dec. 09, 1979||L||07-23|
|@||Oct. 26, 1980||W||24-23||@||Dec. 04, 1983||L||21-35||@||Nov. 18, 1984||L||17-24|
|H||Sep. 07, 1986||L||07-31||H||Nov. 22, 1987||L||10-24||H||Sep. 17, 1989||L||16-20|
|@||Nov. 18, 1990||L||07-31||@||Dec. 19, 1992||L||14-21||H||Nov. 14, 1993||L||21-45|
|@||Oct. 23, 1994||L||16-41||H||Aug. 31, 1997||W||13-06||@||Oct. 19, 2003||L||07-24|
|@||Nov. 21, 2004||W||35-03||@||Oct. 30, 2002||L||10-15||@||Dec. 23, 2007||L||19-21|
|@||Nov. 21, 2010||W||21-00||@||Oct. 09, 2011||L||03-48||H||Dec. 15, 2013||L||14-33|
|@||Oct. 23, 2016||W||34-17|
|PLAYOFF GAMES vs. 49ers (H=home @=away)|
|H||Jan. 12, 2003||W||31-06|
The San Francisco 49ers are located in the San Francisco Bay Area. They compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member of the league's National Football Conference (NFC) West division. The team currently plays its home games at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, located 45 miles (72 km) southeast of San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley. Since 1988, the 49ers have been headquartered in Santa Clara California.
The team was founded in 1946 as a charter member of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and joined the NFL in 1949 when the leagues merged. The 49ers were the first major league professional sports franchise based in San Francisco. The name "49ers" comes from the prospectors who arrived in Northern California in the 1849 Gold Rush. The team is legally and corporately registered as the San Francisco Forty Niners, Ltd. The team began play at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco before moving across town to Candlestick Park in 1970 and then to Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara in 2014.
The 49ers won five Super Bowl championships between 1981 and 1995, led by Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young, and coach Bill Walsh. As of the 2016 NFL season, the team has won a total of six conference championships, with the first in 1981 and the last in 2012. They have been division champions a total of 19 times between 1970 and 2012 winning nearly back to back games during the late 80s and early 90s, making them one of the most successful teams in NFL history. The 49ers have been in the league playoffs a total of 26 times: 25 times in the NFL and one time in the AAFC.
The team has set numerous notable NFL records, including a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers for most conference championship game appearances (15), most consecutive road games won (18), most consecutive seasons leading league scoring (1992–95), most consecutive games scored (1979 to 2004), most field goals in a season (44), fewest turn-overs in a season (10), and most touchdowns in a Super Bowl. According to Forbes Magazine, the team is the 4th most-valuable team in the NFL, valued at $3 billion as of July 2016. In 2016, the 49ers were ranked the 10th most valuable sports team in the world, behind basketball's Los Angeles Lakers and above soccer's Bayern Munich.
Before the introduction of Sourdough Sam, the first mascot for the 49ers was a mule wearing a red blanket named Clementine, appearing in the 1950s and 60s. A gold rush prospector-themed character first appeared in the 1970s, designed to reflect the cover art for programs created between 1946 and 1949 by William Kay when the 49ers were a part of the All-America Football Conference, which depicted a bushy-mustached prospector with two pistols. The first mascot with the miner theme, a theme retained for all future mascots, was depicted as a large man with an oversized football helmet and plaid shirt directly referencing the shirt worn in the original William Kay images. Several elements, such as a bushy beard and suspenders, remained part of the image in later iterations. This version of Sourdough Sam appeared on a cookbook titled 49er Fixens.
His next design switched his helmet for a wide-brimmed ten-gallon hat with a chunk taken out of its brim, as well as a longer brown beard and brown eyes. Just prior to the 2006 NFL Season, Sam's appearance was altered somewhat, appearing as a clean-shaven gold panner with blue eyes and a hat without any imperfections. A bearded Sourdough Sam returned for the 2011 season, retaining the blue eye color.
The original 49ers logo was a mustached 49er gold miner from the 1849 California Gold Rush, dressed in plaid pants and a red shirt, jumping in midair with his hat falling off, and firing pistols in each hand: one nearly shooting his foot, and the other pistol forming the word "Forty-Niners" from its smoke. An alternate logo with a shield-shaped crest formed from the number "49", with a football in the upper right quadrant and "SF" in the lower left quadrant was created in 1965 and used for marketing purposes until 1972. From 1962, the 49ers' logo has been the iconic "SF" within the center of a red oval; throughout the years the logo has had minor modifications, such as a black outlining on the intertwined "SF" that was added in 1989 and a gold trimming inside the oval that was added in 1996.
The San Francisco 49ers currently have two different uniforms: red and gold home uniforms and white, red, and gold road uniforms. However, the 49ers have changed uniform designs and color combinations quite often throughout their history. From the team's inception in 1946, they wore dark or cardinal red, switching to scarlet red jerseys and gold pants for the 1948 season, with a gold helmet with one red stripe, with solid red socks and pants with no stripes. Entering the 1949 season, the first in the NFL, the 49ers adopted three stripes to their red jerseys, wearing gold helmets and pants, with no stripes and red socks with three white stripes. In the 1953, '54, and '55 seasons, the 49ers wore red helmets with a gold stripe in the middle, with silver pants with one single stripe of red. The socks also added the three stripes similar to the jersey's. 1955 was also unique in that the 49ers wore white pants with a black stripe bounded by two red stripes, and shadow drop numbers on their red jerseys, with black shadow drop borders on the white numerals. The following season, 1956, the team wore white helmets with no stripes, and white pants with a red stripe. In 1957 the 49ers wore red jerseys, a gold helmet with no stripes, and gold pants with no stripes; for the first time the 49ers wore white on the road, as dictated by the NFL for all teams, to have at least one team wearing a light colored jersey during games.
The first white jersey had two red stripes with a gold in the middle, as was their road socks: white, with two red stripes and gold in the middle. San Francisco wore red and gold in 1958 as well, with their white jersey having a single shoulder loop stripe, as well as adding TV numbers to the sleeves of their home and away jerseys. And in contrast to the socks at home, red with three red stripes, the away socks were solid red. In 1959 the team switched to red and platinum gold (looking more like silver), and for the next several years afterwards, with their white jerseys having double shoulder loop stripes (mimicking UCLA's), but continuing with the three white stripes on the sleeves above the elbow and below the TV numbers, with the red home jerseys. In 1960, the team added "Northwestern" red stripes to their helmets (a thicker middle stripe bordered by two thinner stripes), and that changed in 1962, with the addition of the helmet design the team has mostly worn since: white stripe bounded by two red, with the red oval and SF logo on the sides of the helmet. In 1964 the team's colors then changed again. All silver elements were changed to what was called "49er Gold;" helmets were gold. New beige-gold pants with a red-white-red tri-stripe in the same style as the helmet were introduced. Uniform's basic design would be worn for practically the next 30 seasons with only some minor changes and adjustments, such as a gradual change over from sans-serif to serifed block numerals from 1970 to 1974 and a switch from thin stripes to a very thick pant striping in 1976 (during which white jerseys were also worn at home for most of that season). The uniform ensemble of red and white jerseys, and beige-gold pants with thick striping were worn until 1995 with a few minor changes. During the 1994 season, many NFL teams wore "throwback uniforms" on occasional games to celebrate the NFL's 75th anniversary (a corresponding diamond-shaped 75th Anniversary patch was also worn by all teams) . The 49ers chose to wear a version of their 1955 uniforms as their throwbacks, with simpler sans-serif block numerals that were outlined and shadowed in black with White pants with thinner red-black-red striping were also worn, along with the old striped red socks. The regular 1989–95 design gold helmet was worn with this uniform, as there was no logo on the 1955 helmet.
In 1996, the 49ers celebrated their 49th anniversary by designing a commemorative jersey patch based on the earlier shield-crest logo. The team also debuted a substantially new uniform design, most notably changing the shade of red used in their jerseys from bright scarlet to a deeper, cardinal red a black dropshadow effect (along with gold trim) was added to the jersey numerals (which remained in the blocked serif style). As in 1994, the Niners donned white pants full-time for the 1996 season (also wearing them for the 1997 season and 1998 preseason,) though this time the pant stripes were marginally thicker and the colors were reversed to black-cardinal red-black (matching the striping on the helmets). For the 1998 regular season opener, the team switched back to gold pants,with a more metallic gold rather than the previous beige-matte gold of the past. The striping along the side of the pants remained black-cardinal red-black, though a thin gold trimming was added, along with further oval "SF" logos placed on both sides of the hip.
The 1996 helmet and jersey design with the 1998 gold pants was worn as the team's regular uniforms until the end of the 2008 season. The 49ers once again changed uniforms in 2009, which are very similar to the classic design, albeit with several significant changes. The sleeve stripes are now set at an angle to accommodate the even shorter sleeves of modern jerseys, (though the stripes appear straight and parallel to the ground when worn by the players themselves). An updated 49ers uniform with improved fit, and more breathable and moisture-resistant fabrics was debuted (alongside the rest of the NFL teams) by new league uniform manufacturer Nike on April 3, 2012.
On April 30, 2015 at their NFL Draft rally, the team unveiled their first ever alternate uniform (as opposed to a throwback design). The uniform consists of black jerseys and pants with red numerals and striping. Nike logos are in gold, while the standard solid red socks will be worn. These uniforms will be worn a maximum of two games a year, per league rules.
On November 8, 2006, reports surfaced that the 49ers ended negotiations with the city of San Francisco about building a new stadium and plan to do so in Santa Clara, a suburb of San Jose, California; Santa Clara already hosts the team's administrative headquarters and training facility. The Yorks and then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had been talking over the last few months about building a privately financed stadium at Candlestick Point that was intended to be part of the city's bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The 49ers' final decision to move the stadium ended the San Francisco bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago were the three cities competing to be the U.S. Olympic Committee's choice to bid on the 2016 games, with Chicago emerging as the eventual victor.
The 49ers sponsored Measure J, which appeared on the June 8, 2010 Santa Clara ballot, to build a new stadium as the future home of the San Francisco 49ers in that city. The measure passed with 58.2% of the total vote. This was seen as the first step for the 49ers stadium relocation to a new venue to be built in Santa Clara.
The 68,490-seat venue, Levi's Stadium, landed rights for its first event. The stadium will be home to the Fight Hunger Bowl.
On the 49ers website, the team's owner, businessman John York had a letter stating that after a stadium is constructed in Santa Clara, the team would retain its name "San Francisco" even though the team would no longer be located within Metro San Francisco.
United States Senator Dianne Feinstein and other leaders threatened an attempt to prevent the team from using "San Francisco" or the "49ers" in the team name, but probably would not have succeeded without changes to state or federal law.
Because of the team moving to Santa Clara (which is adjacent to San Jose, which is larger than San Francisco by 145,000 residents, and 30 miles from San Francisco), the 49ers now become the only current (and possibly at any time) team in any major or minor league sport in the U.S. to use the moniker of a city further way (San Francisco) from the stadium/arena than a closer city with a higher population (San Jose).
York later confirmed in a press conference on November 9, 2011, that the team would build a new state of the art stadium in Santa Clara in time for the 2014 season. Groundbreaking for the new stadium took place on April 19, 2012.
On May 8, 2013, the NFL's San Francisco 49ers announced that San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. had purchased the naming rights to their new stadium in Santa Clara. The naming rights deal calls for Levi's to pay $220.3 million to the city of Santa Clara and the 49ers over 20 years, with an option to extend the deal for another five years for around $75 million.
Furious San Francisco 49ers fans were burning Colin Kaepernick jerseys after he refused to stand for the national anthem as part of a racial protest. One fan even played The Star-Spangled Banner as he set light to the Number 7 shirt, watching with his hand on his chest as it was reduced to ash.
Politically motivated protests of the national anthem began in the National Football League (NFL) after San Francisco 49ers quarterback (QB) Colin Kaepernick sat during the anthem, as opposed to the tradition of standing, before his team's third preseason game of 2016. Kaepernick also sat during the first two preseason games, but he went unnoticed and is no longer with the team.
The San Francisco 49ers, an original member of the new All-America Football Conference (AAFC), were the first major league professional sports franchise based in San Francisco, and one of the first major league professional sports teams based on the Pacific Coast. The team joined the Los Angeles Rams of the rival National Football League as the first "big four"-sport playing in the Western United States in 1946, eventually becoming part of the NFL themselves in 1950.
1957, the 49ers enjoyed their first sustained success as members of the NFL. After losing the opening game of the season, the 49ers won their next three against the Rams, Bears, and Packers before returning home to Kezar Stadium for a game against the Chicago Bears on October 27, 1957. The 49ers fell behind the Bears 17–7. Tragically, 49ers owner Tony Morabito (1910–1957) collapsed of a heart attack and died during the game. The 49ers players learned of his death at halftime when coach Frankie Albert was handed a note with two words: "Tony's gone." With tears running down their faces, and motivated to win for their departed owner, the 49ers scored 14 unanswered points to win the game, 21–17. Dicky Moegle's late-game interception in the endzone sealed the victory. After Tony's death 49er ownership went to Victor Morabito (1919–1964) and Tony's widow, Josephine V. Morabito (1910–1995). The 49ers special assistant to the Morabitos, Louis G. Spadia (1921–2013) was named general manager.
During the decade of the 1950s the 49ers were known for their so-called "Million Dollar Backfield", consisting of four future Hall of Fame members: quarterback Y. A. Tittle and running backs John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, and Joe Perry. They became the only full-house backfield inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For most of the next 13 years, the 49ers hovered around .490, except for 1963 and 1964 when they went 2–12 and 4–10 respectively. Key players for these 49ers included running back Ken Willard, quarterback John Brodie, and offensive lineman Bruce Bosley. During this time the 49ers became the first NFL team to use the shotgun formation. It was named by the man who actually devised the formation, San Francisco 49ers' coach Red Hickey, in 1960. The formation, where the quarterback lines up seven yards behind the center, was designed to allow the quarterback extra time to throw. The formation was used for the first time in 1960 and enabled the 49ers to beat the Baltimore Colts, who were not familiar with the formation.
In 1961, primarily using the shotgun, the 49ers got off to a fast 4–1 start, including two shutouts in back-to-back weeks. In their sixth game they faced the Chicago Bears, who by moving players closer to the line of scrimmage and rushing the quarterback, were able to defeat the shotgun and in fact shut out the 49ers, 31–0. Though the 49ers went only 3–5–1 the rest of the way, the shotgun eventually became a component of most team's offenses and is a formation used by football teams at all levels. In 1962, the 49ers had a frustrating season as they won only 6 games that year. They won only one game at Kezar Stadium while on the road they won five of seven games. After posting a losing record in 1963. Victor Morabito died May 10, 1964, at age 45. The 1964 season was another lost campaign. According to the 1965 49ers Year Book the co-owners of the team were: Mrs. Josephine V. Morabito Fox, Mrs. Jane Morabito, Mrs. O.H. Heintzelman, Lawrence J. Purcell, Mrs. William O'Grady, Albert J. Ruffo, Franklin Mieuli, Frankie Albert, Louis G. Spadia and James Ginella. The 1965 49ers rebounded nicely to finish with a 7–6–1 record. They were led that year by John Brodie, who after being plagued by injuries came back to become one of the NFL's best passers by throwing for 3,112 yards and 30 touchdowns. In 1966, the Morabito widows named Lou Spadia, team president. For the 1968 season, the 49ers hired as their head coach Dick Nolan, who had been Tom Landry's defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys. Nolan's first two seasons with the 49ers had gone much the same as the previous decade, with the 49ers going 7–6–1 and 4–8–2.
The 49ers started out the 1970 season 7–1–1, their only loss a one-point defeat to Atlanta. After losses to Detroit and Los Angeles, the 49ers won their next two games before the season finale against the Oakland Raiders. Going into the game the 49ers had a half-game lead on the Rams and needed either a win or the Giants to defeat the Rams in their finale to give the 49ers their first ever divisional title.
In the early game the Giants were crushed by the Rams 31–3, thus forcing the 49ers to win their game to clinch the division. In wet, rainy conditions in Oakland, the 49ers dominated the Raiders, 38–7, giving the 49ers their first divisional title, making them champions of the NFC West. The 49ers won their divisional playoff game 17–14 against the defending conference champion Minnesota Vikings, thus setting up a matchup against the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC championship. In the final home game for the 49ers at Kezar Stadium the 49ers kept up with the Cowboys before losing, 17–10, thus giving the Cowboys their first conference championship. The 49ers sent five players to the Pro Bowl that season, including MVP veteran quarterback John Brodie, wide receiver Gene Washington, and linebacker Dave Wilcox. Nolan was also named NFL Coach of the Year for 1970. Following the 1970 season the 49ers moved from Kezar Stadium to Candlestick Park. Despite being located on the outskirts of the city, Candlestick Park gave the 49ers a much more modern facility with more amenities that was easier for fans to access by highway.
The 49ers won their second straight divisional title in 1971 with a 9–5 record. The 49ers again won their divisional playoff game, this time against the Washington Redskins by a 24–20 final score. This set up a rematch against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC championship game, this time played in Dallas. Though the defense again held the Cowboys in check, the 49ers offense was ineffective and the eventual Super Bowl champion Cowboys beat the 49ers again, 14–3. In 1971, eight 49ers made the Pro Bowl, including defensive back Jimmy Johnson and Gene Washington, both for the second year in a row, as well as defensive end Cedric Hardman, running back Vic Washington, and offensive lineman Forrest Blue.
The 49ers won their third consecutive NFC West title in 1972 with five wins in their last six games, making them the only franchise to win their first three divisional titles after the 1970 AFL–NFL merger. Their opponents this time in the divisional playoffs were the Dallas Cowboys, making it the third consecutive year the teams faced each other in the playoffs. Vic Washington took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a score, and the 49ers took a 21–6 lead in the second quarter. After the 49ers took a 28–13 lead in the 4th quarter, Tom Landry sent quarterback Roger Staubach, who was backing up Craig Morton, into the game. Staubach quickly led the Cowboys on a drive to a field goal, bringing the score to within 28–16, and as the game wound down it appeared that this would be the last points the Cowboys would get. However, Dallas completed the comeback in the last two minutes. Just after the two-minute warning Staubach took just four plays to drive 55 yards in only 32 seconds, hitting Billy Parks on a 20-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 28–23. Cowboys kicker Toni Fritsch then executed a successful onside kick that was recovered by Mel Renfro, giving the Cowboys the ball at midfield with 1:20 left on the clock. With the 49ers on the ropes, Staubach scrambled for 21 yards, then completed a 19-yard sideline pass to Billy Parks who went out of bounds at the 10-yard line to stop the clock. Staubach then completed the comeback with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ron Sellers with only 52 seconds left, giving the Cowboys a dramatic 30–28 victory and sending the 49ers to yet another crushing playoff defeat.
The 49ers run at the top of the NFC West ended in 1973 with the 49ers falling to a 5–9 record, their worst since 1969. The team lost six of its last eight games, including games to the also-ran New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. In the final season of his career, longtime 49ers quarterback John Brodie split playing time with two other quarterbacks, most notably longtime backup Steve Spurrier. The team also suffered from not having a dominant running back, with Vic Washington leading the team with only 534 yards rushing.
In 1974, the 49ers drafted Wilbur Jackson from the University of Alabama to be the team's primary back. Jackson enjoyed a fine rookie year, leading the 49ers with 705 yards rushing. He and fellow running back Larry Schreiber combined for over 1300 yards rushing. With Steve Spurrier injured and missing nearly the entire year, the 49ers did not have a regular quarterback but did put together a respectable 6–8 record. Following the season, longtime tight end Ted Kwalick left the 49ers to join the World Football League, then the Oakland Raiders upon the WFL's dissolution.
The 49ers dropped to 5–9 in what would be Dick Nolan's final season as coach in 1975, losing their final four games of the season. Wilbur Jackson was hurt much of the year and Delvin Williams led the 49ers in rushing with 631 yards rushing. Following the 1975 season the 49ers traded for New England Patriots quarterback Jim Plunkett, former Heisman Trophy winner from nearby Stanford University (which was also the alma mater of John Brodie). Though Plunkett had shown promise with the Patriots, he had not won there and it was thought that he needed a change of scenery. Monte Clark was also brought on as 49ers head coach.
The 49ers featured one of the best running games in the NFL in 1976. Delvin Williams emerged as an elite back, gaining over 1200 yards rushing and made the Pro Bowl. Wilbur Jackson also enjoyed a resurgence, rushing for 792 yards. Once again Gene Washington was the team's leading receiver with 457 yards receiving and six scores. The 49ers started the season 6–1 for their best start since 1970. Most of the wins were against second-tier teams, although the 49ers did shut out the Rams 16–0, in Los Angeles on Monday Night Football. In that game the 49ers recorded 10 sacks, including 6 by Tommy Hart. However, the 49ers lost four games in a row, including two against divisional rivals Los Angeles and Atlanta that proved fatal to their playoff hopes. Louis G. Spadia retired from the 49ers in 1977 upon the team's sale to the DeBartolo Family. The team was sold to Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. in March 1977, and despite finishing the season with a winning record of 8–6, Clark was fired after just one season by newly hired general manager Joe Thomas, who oversaw the worst stretch of football in the team's history.
Under coach Ken Meyer the 49ers lost their first five games of the 1977 season, including being shut out twice. Though they won five of their next six, they lost their last three games to finish the season 5–9. Playing in San Francisco did not revive Plunkett's career as he had another disappointing season, throwing only 9 touchdown passes. Bright spots for the 49ers included defensive linemen Tommy Hart and Cleveland Elam, who made the Pro Bowl, and running backs Wilbur Jackson and Delvin Williams, who combined for over 1600 yards rushing. Gene Washington again led the team in receiving in 1977, his final year with the 49ers. The 1977 offseason was marked by a number of questionable moves by Joe Thomas that backfired badly. Thomas's big offseason acquisition was running back O. J. Simpson from the Buffalo Bills. As with Plunkett two years previously, it was thought that rescuing Simpson from a bad situation and bringing him to the west coast where he had been raised would rejuvenate his career. To create playing time for Simpson, Thomas traded Delvin Williams to the Miami Dolphins for wide receiver Freddie Solomon. Thomas also released Jim Plunkett, giving up on him after two seasons. Finally, Thomas fired Meyer after only one season, and replaced him with Pete McCulley, his third coach in three seasons.
The 1978 season was a disaster for the 49ers, as they finished 2–14, their only wins coming against the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Simpson indeed led the team in rushing, but with less than 600 yards. It became apparent that Simpson's knees and body were worn out, and he was near the end of his career. Wilbur Jackson also missed the entire season due to injury. Even worse for the franchise was that their first pick of the 1979 draft was traded to the Bills as part of the O. J. Simpson deal. Joe Thomas was fired following the season. Some of the key players that became part of the 49ers stunning rise began their 49ers career in 1978. Rookie quarterback Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana's first mentor, was the 49ers starting quarterback. Running back Paul Hofer and center/guard Randy Cross also started with the 49ers in 1978.
The team was led in its turnaround from late 1970s doormat by new owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. and head coach Bill Walsh. The former head coach of Stanford University was known for stockpiling draft picks, making excellent draft selections, and patching roster holes by acquiring key free agents.
Bill Walsh was hired to be the 49ers head coach in the 1978 off-season. Walsh was a disciple of Paul Brown, and served as Brown's offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968 to 1975. However, Brown did not appoint him as his successor upon his retirement, choosing another assistant, former 49ers center Bill "Tiger" Johnson. Desiring head coach experience, Walsh looked to Stanford University in 1977. He had had some success there before the 49ers tapped him to be their replacement.
Walsh is given credit for popularizing the 'West Coast offense'. The Bill Walsh offense was actually created and refined while he was an assistant coach with the Bengals. The offense utilizes a short, precise, timed passing game as a replacement/augmentation of the running game. The offense is extremely difficult to defend against as it is content to consistently make 6–8-yard gains all the way down the field. (The other West Coast offense—more focused on the vertical, or downfield, passing game—was actually created by 1960s L.A. / San Diego coach Sid Gillman, and San Diego State coach Don Coryell, who also employed a version of it as head coach of the St. Louis (football) Cardinals and San Diego Chargers during a period where it garnered the nickname "Air Coryell".)
In Walsh's first draft, the 49ers had targeted Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana as an early round pick. Montana had enjoyed a storied college career, leading the Fighting Irish to the 1977 national title and a number of dramatic comeback victories, the most stunning of all being his final game, at the 1979 Cotton Bowl Classic. Playing the University of Houston in an ice storm, and with Montana suffering from a bad flu, Notre Dame was down 34–10 in the third quarter. However, Montana led a magnificent rally that culminated with him throwing a touchdown pass on the game's final play to give Notre Dame the 35–34 win.
Despite this, most scouts did not peg Montana as a top prospect. Although 6'2" and 190–200 lbs., Montana's arm strength was considered suspect as was the consistency of his play. Although he did get his share of the credit, most thought of him as a system player surrounded by a great team.
In the 1979 draft, the Dallas Cowboys were placed just ahead of the 49ers. The Cowboys' draft strategy through that time was to take the highest-ranked player on their draft board at the time of their selection, regardless of position. When the Cowboys' turn came up in the third round, the highest rated player on their board was Montana. However, feeling that the quarterback position was in excellent long-term shape with Roger Staubach and Danny White, and desperately needing a tight end, the Cowboys went off their strategy and drafted Doug Cosbie. The 49ers took Montana. The 49ers other notable draft choice of the 1979 draft was wide receiver Dwight Clark in the 10th round. Walsh discovered the unheralded Clark while scouting quarterback Steve Fuller of Clemson University as Clark ran routes for Fuller during Walsh's evaluation of the quarterback. Walsh's serendipitous discovery of Clark proved to be an early glimpse into the coach's keen eye for talent.
As Walsh implemented his strategies and game plan, the 49ers had another year of losing, going 2–14. There were, however, a number of bright spots. Despite throwing more interceptions (21) than touchdowns (17), Steve DeBerg blossomed under Walsh, throwing for over 3600 yards and completing 60% of his passes. Freddie Solomon also had a good year, with over 800 yards receiving. The running game was patchwork, with Paul Hofer leading the team with 615 yards and O.J. Simpson, in his final season, rushing for only 460 yards and being sidelined with injuries. The 49ers got off to a strong start in 1980, winning their first three games of the season. However, the team, still maturing, lost their next eight games in a row. Many of those games though were close, and the 49ers acquitted themselves well. During the season Walsh alternated DeBerg and Montana at quarterback. Though DeBerg had played well for the 49ers, Walsh felt the team's best chance to win in the long run was with Montana. He alternated the two quarterbacks, giving Montana some experience while keeping opponents off guard. This strategy of alternating quarterbacks from game to game and during games is rare in football, although it had been employed by other successful teams in the past, specifically the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1970s who alternated Roger Staubach and Craig Morton, and the Los Angeles Rams of the early 1949s alternating Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield.
In all DeBerg started nine games, going 4–5 with 1,998 yards, 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Montana started seven games, going 2–5 with 1,795 yards, 15 touchdowns, and nine picks; Montana also had a better completion percentage at 64.6 to DeBerg's 57.9.
The highlight of the 1980 season, and a sign of good things to come, came in Week 14. The 49ers trailed the New Orleans Saints, who at the time were winless at 0–13, 35–7 at halftime. However, led by Joe Montana, the 49ers made (what was then) the greatest comeback in NFL history, coming back to tie the score in regulation and winning the game in overtime with a field goal by Ray Wersching to give the 49ers an incredible 38–35 victory. It was this game, which marked Montana's first big NFL comeback win, that won Montana the quarterback job full-time. A number of key players emerged for the 49ers in 1980. Among them were Dwight Clark, who led the 49ers with 82 receptions and just under 1,000 yards receiving, and running back Earl Cooper, who ran for over 700 yards.
With the offense playing well consistently, Walsh and the 49ers focused on overhauling the defense in 1981. Walsh took the highly unusual step of overhauling his entire secondary with rookies and untested players, bringing on board Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson and giving Dwight Hicks a prominent role. He also acquired veteran linebacker Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds and veteran defensive lineman and sack specialist Fred Dean. These new additions, when added to existing defensive mainstays like Keena Turner, turned the 49ers into an offensively and defensively balanced, dominant team. After a 1–2 start, the 49ers won all but one of their remaining games to finish with a 13–3 record, up to this point in time it was the team's best regular season win-loss record in its history. Dean made the Pro Bowl, as did Lott, and Hicks. Led by Montana, the unusual offense was centered on the short passing game, which Walsh used as ball control. Both Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon had excellent years receiving; Clark as the possession receiver, and Solomon as more of a deep threat. The 49ers running game, however, was among the weakest in the league. Ricky Patton led the 49ers with only 543 yards rushing. The 49ers' most valuable running back, however, might have been Earl Cooper, whose strength was as a pass-catching back. The 49ers faced the New York Giants in the divisional playoffs and won, 38–24. This set up an NFC championship game match-up with the Dallas Cowboys, whom the 49ers historically could not beat during their playoff runs in the early 1970s. The 49ers played the Cowboys tough, but the Cowboys forced six turnovers and held the lead late.
The 49ers were down 27–21 and on their own 11-yard line with 4:54 remaining. As Montana had done for Notre Dame and the 49ers so many times before, he led the 49ers on a sustained final 89-yard drive to the Cowboys' 6-yard line. On a 3rd-and-3 play, with his primary receiver covered, Montana rolled right and threw the ball off balance to Dwight Clark in the end zone, who leaped up and caught the ball to tie the game at 27 (now known as "The Catch"), with the extra point giving the 49ers the lead. Despite this, the Cowboys had one last chance to win. On the first play of the next possession, Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson caught a pass from Danny White and got to midfield before he was pulled down by the jersey at the 49ers 44-yard line by Cornerback Eric Wright saving a potential late-touchdown. On the next play, White was sacked by Lawrence Pillers and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Jim Stuckey, giving the 49ers the win and a trip to their first ever Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals, who were also in their first Super Bowl. In Super Bowl XVI The 49ers took a 20–0 halftime lead and held on to win 26–21 behind kicker Ray Wersching's four field goals and a key defensive stand. Throughout the '81 season, the defense had been a significant reason for the team's success, despite residing in the shadow of the then-innovative offense. Montana won MVP honors mostly on the strength of leading the 49ers on a 92-yard, 12 play drive culminating in a touchdown pass to Earl Cooper. Thus did the 49ers complete one of the most dramatic and complete turnarounds in NFL history, going from a 2–14 season followed by a 6–10 season to a Super Bowl championship.
The 1982 season was a bad one for the 49ers, as they lost all five games at Candlestick Park en route to a 3–6 record in a strike-shortened season. This was the 49ers last losing season for the next 17 years. Joe Montana was the one highlight, passing for 2,613 yards in just nine games, highlighted by five straight games in which he broke the 300-yard barrier.
In 1983, the 49ers won their final three games of the season, finishing with a 10–6 record and winning their 2nd NFC Western Divisional Title in three years. Leading the rebound was Joe Montana with another stellar season, passing for 3,910 yards and connecting on 26 touchdowns. In the NFC Divisional Playoffs, they hosted the Detroit Lions. The 49ers jumped out in front early and led 17–9 entering the 4th quarter, but the Lions roared back, scoring two touchdowns to take a 23–17 lead. However, Montana led a comeback, hitting wide receiver Freddie Solomon on a game-winning 14-yard touchdown pass with 2:00 left on the clock to put the 49ers ahead 24–23. The game ended when a potential game-winning FG attempt by Lions kicker Eddie Murray missed. The next week, the 49ers came back from a 21–0 deficit against the Washington Redskins in the NFC championship game to tie the game, only to lose, after a questionable defensive holding call, 24–21 on a Mark Moseley field goal that sent the Redskins to Super Bowl XVIII.
In 1984, the 49ers had one of the greatest seasons in team history by finishing the regular season 15–1–0, setting the record for most regular season wins that was later equaled by the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2011 Green Bay Packers and finally broken by the 2007 New England Patriots (with 16 regular season victories). Their 18 wins overall is also still a record, tied by the 1985 Bears and the 2007 New England Patriots (they won 18 straight, but lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants). The 49ers' only defeat in the 1984 season was a 20–17 loss to the Steelers; a late field goal attempt in that game by San Francisco kicker Ray Wersching went off the uprights and was no good. In the playoffs, they beat the New York Giants 21–10, shut out the Chicago Bears 23–0 in the NFC championship, and in Super Bowl XIX the 49ers shut down a record-setting year by NFL MVP Dan Marino (and his speedy receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper), beating the Miami Dolphins 38–16. Their entire defensive backfield (Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks, and Carlton Williamson) was elected to the Pro Bowl—an NFL first.
During the off-season, a quarterback controversy between Joe Montana and Steve Young had begun after Montana's poor performance in the playoffs the previous year. Many speculated that the 1988 season would be his last year with the team. In the 1988 NFL season, the 49ers struggled to start the season; Walsh would constantly switch QBs between Montana (who suffered an elbow injury week 1 that would linger for most of the season) and Young. At one point, they were 6–5 and the team was in danger of missing the playoffs. Before week 11, Ronnie Lott called a players-only meeting; after the meeting the team came together and defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in a Monday night game, Montana had fully recovered from his injury and retook the starting quarterback job as the team eventually finished the season at 10–6. They gained a measure of revenge by routing the Minnesota Vikings 34–9 in the divisional playoffs.
The 49ers then traveled to Chicago's Soldier Field for the NFC championship against the Chicago Bears, where the wind chill factor at game time was -26°. However, despite the weather, Joe Montana picked apart the Bears' top-rated defense by scoring three touchdowns as the 49ers dominated the Bears with a 28–3 victory, earning the team's third trip to the Super Bowl, to go against the Cincinnati Bengals. In Super Bowl XXIII, despite numerous trips deep into Cincinnati territory by the 49ers, the game was tied 3–3 at halftime. Early in the fourth quarter, Montana tied the score at 13; however, Cincinnati regained the lead on a Jim Breech field goal to put the Bengals ahead 16–13 with just over three minutes left on the clock. Following the kickoff, and a holding penalty, the 49ers took over on their 8-yard line with 3:08 left on the clock. Joe Montana began the final drive by stepping into the huddle and remarking to offensive tackle Harris Barton, during a television timeout, "hey, there's John Candy", as he pointed to the stands on the other side of the field. His calm demeanor reassured the 49ers, and he then engineered what some consider the greatest drive in Super Bowl history, as he drove the team 92 yards for the winning touchdown on a pass to John Taylor with only 34 seconds left, as they captured their third Super bowl championship with a score of 20–16. Jerry Rice was named Super Bowl MVP.
After Super Bowl XXIII, Bill Walsh retired as head coach; his defensive coordinator and handpicked successor, George Seifert, took over as head coach. In the 1989 NFL season, Joe Montana threw for 3,521 yards and 26 touchdowns, with only 8 interceptions, giving him a 112.4 quarterback rating, which was then the highest single-season passer rating in NFL history, and was named NFL Most Valuable Player. Jerry Rice, in his fifth year in the league, continued to dominate; he led the league with almost 1490 receiving yards, and 17 touchdowns. The 49ers clinched their fourth straight division title, beating the Los Angeles Rams 30–27 after a dramatic second-half comeback; they finished 14–2, gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their two losses were by a combined five points.
In the divisional playoffs, they easily defeated the Vikings, 41–13. In the NFC championship game, they played against the Rams for a third time; the previous two games were decided by a total of 4 points, but they were able to blow out the Rams 30–3 earning another trip to the Super bowl, where they defeated the Denver Broncos in relatively easy fashion by a score of 55–10 in Super Bowl XXIV – setting a record for points scored and widest margin of victory in a Super Bowl. Montana himself set many Super Bowl records (some since tied or surpassed) en route to his third Super Bowl MVP. In winning the Super Bowl, the 49ers became the only team to win back-to-back Super Bowls under different head coaches. This 1989 championship team is often regarded as one of the most dominant teams in NFL history, winning three playoff games by a combined 100 points.
In 1994, the team spent large amounts of money on the addition of several star free agents from other teams, including Ken Norton Jr., Gary Plummer, Rickey Jackson, Bart Oates, Richard Dent, Charles Mann and Deion Sanders. Additionally, several rookie players made key contributions to the team, some becoming season-long starters such as defensive tackle Bryant Young, fullback William Floyd, and linebacker Lee Woodall. Due to injuries to the offensive line, the 49ers had some tough times early in the season, including a 40–8 home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and a 24–17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, led by former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. Following the Eagles game, a poll conducted on local sports radio station KNBR showed that an overwhelming majority of 49er fans wanted head coach George Seifert fired. The game against the Eagles was a turning point for the 49ers despite the lopsided score. Young was benched in the 3rd quarter and was later seen livid on the sidelines, shouting profanities at Seifert. The following week in Detroit, the 49ers trailed the Lions 14–0. After throwing a pass, Young was hit, picked up, and driven into the ground by three Lions defenders. After the hit, Young was screaming with his face dark red in color. He crawled most of the way off of the field before refusing help from the trainers as he limped the remaining way off the field. He miraculously returned to the field one play later (NFL rules state that after trainers attend to an injured player, that player must leave the field for at least one play) to lead the 49ers to a 27–21 victory.
The team rallied around Young to win 10 straight games, including a 21–14 victory over the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. During that span the 49ers' average margin of victory was nearly 20 points per game, a sustained dominance not seen since the 1985 Chicago Bears. Despite scoring only 8 points in one game and 14 in another, the 49ers set a new record for total regular season and post season combined points scored. That record was later broken by the New England Patriots in 2007 (the 1998 Minnesota Vikings scored 556 regular season points, but only 68 post season points, for a total of 624 points, while the 1994 49ers scored 495 regular season points and 131 post season points for a total of 626, the second highest mark in NFL history). Even after those initial rough spots early in the season, the 49ers finished the season 13–3 and with home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In their first game, they easily defeated the Chicago Bears, 44–15, setting up the third straight 49ers–Cowboys NFC championship game. The 49ers took advantage of three early Cowboys turnovers, taking a 21–0 lead in the first quarter. Taking a 31–14 lead into halftime after a perfect 29-yard pass from Young to Rice in the closing seconds, the game appeared to be far out of reach for the Cowboys. But a 49er fumble on the opening kick of the 3rd quarter led to a Cowboy score, cutting the lead to 31–21. Later, the 49ers responded with a Steve Young touchdown run, making it 38–21, before the Cowboys scored another touchdown in the final minutes for a final score of 38–28. The convincing win qualified the 49ers for their fifth Super Bowl appearance, and the first to be played by two teams from California. The 49ers steamrolled the San Diego Chargers 49–26, at the time becoming the first team to win a record five Super Bowls. With a record 6 touchdown passes, Steve Young was named the game's MVP. Their run of five Super Bowl wins in 14 seasons (1981–1994) solidified them as one of the all-time greatest NFL teams.
The 49ers made the playoffs in 1995 and again in 1996, being eliminated by the Green Bay Packers both times in the Divisional Round. On January 17, 1997, George Seifert retired as 49ers head coach. On the same day as Seifert's retirement, the 49ers hired Cal head coach Steve Mariucci as his replacement. At the time, Mariucci only had one year of head-coaching experience at any level. The first game of the 1997 season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a disaster, as both quarterback Steve Young and receiver Jerry Rice went down with injuries. Rice appeared to be out for the season with a serious knee injury, while Steve Young left the game with one of the many concussions he suffered throughout his career. However, the team overcame adversity: Steve Young returned two weeks later, and with the league's number one defense, the 49ers finished the season with a 13–3 record which included an 11-game winning streak which was the longest by a rookie head coach at the time, and the 49ers became the quickest team in NFL history to clinch their division at the time. Rice returned for one and a half quarters in week 16 against the Denver Broncos, before getting another injury to his knee (unrelated to the first one). In the playoffs the 49ers defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38–22, advancing to the NFC championship game for the first time since 1994, where they again met the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park, but lost 23–10.
During that season Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was involved in a corruption investigation regarding Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards and one of his Mississippi riverboat casinos. DeBartolo later pleaded guilty to a failure to report a felony charge in 1998. He was suspended from active control of the 49ers for one year. His sister, Denise, and her husband, Dr. John York, took over operations of the team.
In 1998, Jerry Rice finally returned from his knee injury week 1 against the New York Jets, a game best remembered for running back Garrison Hearst's 96-yard touchdown run in overtime to win the game. The 49ers had the 2nd most productive offense in league history. Steve Young, who was questioned if his concussion history would put an end to his career, had his best season, throwing for 4,170 yards, 36 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. A healthy Jerry Rice, 3rd-year player Terrell Owens, and 4th-year player J.J. Stokes became the first WR-trio in team history to catch at least 60 passes in the same season, Hearst ran for 1,570 yards and 7 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The 49ers finished 12–4, their 16th straight winning season (all with 10 wins or more), earning a wildcard berth.
Once again, the 49ers faced the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. Things looked bleak when the 49ers trailed 27–23 in the waning seconds. However, in the game's final moment, Young hit Terrell Owens (who was having a terrible game up to that point) on a dramatic, game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass, dubbed by many as "The Catch II". That put the 49ers ahead 30–27 with just three seconds left on the game clock, sealing the win. After finally beating the Packers, the 49ers went on to lose to the eventual NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional round 20–18, in a game that was marked by Hearst suffering a gruesome broken ankle on the first play from scrimmage.
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