After a surprise run to win the Super Bowl in 1981, the San Francisco 49ers slipped back to 3-6 in the strike-shortened year of 1982. The possibility that the championship year was a fluke appeared a real possibility. The 1983 San Francisco 49ers didn’t win it all, but by reaching the NFC Championship Game they established that the duo of head coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana was here to stay.
Montana stepped up with a big year and threw for over 3,900 yards and his 64.5% completion rate was exceptional. The great quarterback finished with 26-12 TD/INT ratio, very good by the standards of the era and his 7.6 yards-per-pass was pretty good. He was the undisputed leader of the fourth-best offense in the NFL.
Production from the skill positions was balanced, with Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler combining to rush for over 1,500 yards. Both were good pass catchers, a necessity in a West Coast offense that was still a new idea in 1983. Craig’s 48 catches were second-best on the team and Tyler snagged 34 more.
The 49ers’ best receiver was Dwight Clark, hero of the 1981 NFC Championship Game, and this year he caught 70 passes for 840 yards. Freddie Solomon was the big-play threat, averaging 21.4 yards-per-catch, and Montana worked #3 wide receiver Mike Wilson and tight end Russ Francis into the attack.
There were no Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, meaning Montana was the only player in the entire offense to make it to Honululu. The fact San Francisco was as productive as it was, is reason for Montana to have won the MVP award over Washington Redskins’ quarterback Joe Theisman (and I write that as a diehard Redskins fan).
The San Francisco defense was a similar story—the fourth-best unit in the league built primarily around Pro Bowl corner Ronnie Lott. He had some help from fellow Pro Bowler, free safety Dwight Hicks. Big plays came from corner Eric Wright and his seven interceptions, while defensive end Dwaine Board recorded 13 sacks.
San Francisco opened the season on the Saturday before Labor Day, their game against the Philadelphia Eagles coming in advance of the rest of the league. It didn’t look like anything had changed from the dysfunction of 1982. Montana had to leave the game, the offense bogged down in the second half and the 49ers lost 22-17 to a bad team.
There was no time to lick wounds, because a Thursday night road trip to Minnesota was up next. Thursday night games were a rarity in 1983, and Montana took full advantage of the chance to show off for the country. He went 17/24 for 230 yards and four touchdowns. Wright picked off three passes and brought one 60 yards to the house in a 48-17 win over an average opponent.
The bleeding stopped, San Francisco caught its breath and went to St. Louis, then the home of the Cardinals and a non-divisional game (prior to 2002 the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals were in the NFC East). Montana hit Solomon on a 69-yard touchdown strike to get the game rolling and the quarterback didn’t stop until had 341 yards and three touchdowns. The defense produced another Pick-6, this one from Tim Collins and the result was a 42-27 rout over a team that would finish with a winning record.
Atlanta was a divisional foe prior to 2002, and had been the NFC West’s best in 1982. They came to San Francisco, and held a 20-17 lead late before Montana led a touchdown drive that was capped off with a 1-yard scoring flip and a 24-20 win. The quarterback went to New England and carved up the Patriots with 288 yards spread around to eleven different receivers in a 33-13 rout.
A three-week run of NFC West games was up next, with both games against the Los Angeles Rams sandwiched around a visit to New Orleans. It started with a home date with the Rams and their great rookie running back Eric Dickerson. Montana threw the ball well, for 316 yards, but the Niners had no running game and didn’t convert their chances. They allowed 142 yards to Dickerson and lost 10-7.
Montana’s offense came blazing back with a combined 77 points in the next two road games. They blew open a tight 13-12 game in New Orleans with a 62-yard interception return by Dwight Hicks, forced five turnovers and won 32-13. Then, trailing 28-17 after three quarters in Los Angeles, Montana hit Clark on a 46-yard touchdown pass, threw two more fourth quarter touchdown passes and Board recovered a fumble in the end zone. It was stunning finish to a 45-35 win and had the Niners firmly on track.
Just when they were on track, things started to go awry. A poor running game cost them a home game with the mediocre New York Jets, 27-13. Another AFC East opponent in the Miami Dolphins came to old Candlestick Park next. The Dolphins had a dynamic rookie quarterback in Dan Marino, and one year down the road, Montana and Marino would meet in the Super Bowl. San Francisco got the better of that one, but on this day, they lost a tough 20-17 game on a late field goal.
The NFC West race was now a dogfight, with the 49ers, Rams and Saints all tied at 6-4. Only the Falcons had faded from consideration.
San Francisco dominated a big home game with New Orleans. Tyler ran for 92 yards, defensive end Fred Dean had six sacks, keying a nine-sack day overall. Clark caught six passes for 87 yards, Tyler ran for 92 more and the Niners won 27-0.
But they gave it right back in Atlanta a week later, blowing a 14-0 lead and losing 28-24. They gave up a defensive TD and Montana couldn’t get the ball to Solomon down the field, and his 21/28 day was good for only 182 yards. The offensive woes continued in an 18mph wind in Chicago. Unable to pass, the 49ers only ran for 72 yards and turned it over four times in a 13-3 loss to the mediocre Bears.
Now it was Los Angeles that was in control of the NFC West at 8-5, with San Francisco and New Orleans a game back. The 49ers controlled tiebreakers against the Saints thanks to the sweep, but were a half-game behind the Rams in divisional record, meaning the odds were against San Francisco in a two-way tie with Los Angeles.
A home game with a horrible Tampa Bay team couldn’t have come at a better team. The 49ers overwhelmed the Buccaneers in rush yardage, 227-38, as Tyler and Craig led the way in a 35-14 win. The Rams were upset by the Eagles, a team that didn’t do much in 1983 except knock off contenders in the NFC West.
One week later, San Francisco faced a familiar situation—road game in a cold environment amidst a stiff wind against an opponent that would finish the year 8-8. This game in Buffalo went better than the one in Chicago. Montana threw for 218 yards and no interceptions and the Niners muscled out a 127-120 edge in rushing yardage. Lott intercepted two passes and they got a 23-10 win. The Rams lost at home to the Patriots and the 49ers were in first place.
The season finale was a Monday Night game at home with the Dallas Cowboys, who sported a 12-3 record. The good news for San Francisco was that in spite of their record, the Cowboys had already lost the NFC East race to the Redskins and knew they would host the NFC wild-card game a week later. This game meant nothing.
The bad news—or at least the unsettling news–was that San Francisco wasn’t even assured of a playoff berth. The postseason format of the time was three divisional winners and two wild-cards. The only spots that were locked in place were the NFC’s top seed (Redskins) and the 4-seed (Cowboys). Everything else was a possibility for San Francisco, including missing altogether.
The games to focus on were both in the early TV window on Sunday. If Green Bay lost in Chicago, it would clinch at least a playoff spot. If the Rams lost in New Orleans it would clinch the NFC West.
San Francisco got half their wish, and the more important part. Each game went to last-second field goals. Even though the Rams won, the Packers fell and the Niners knew they were back in the playoffs. Then they went and got the #2 seed against a disinterested opponent on MNF. The 49ers were up 21-3 by the time the first quarter was done, Montana threw four touchdowns and Wright’s Pick-6 in the fourth quarter sealed the 42-17 win.
It was expected that Dallas would be right back in the Bay Area two weeks later, but the Cowboys showed up flat against the Rams and lost the wild-card game. The rules at the time prohibited teams from the same division playing prior to the conference championship game. San Francisco instead drew the 9-7 Detroit Lions on New Year’s Eve afternoon.
The Niners spotted the Lions a 3-0 lead, but then began intercepting Detroit quarterback Gary Danielson, a current CBS college football analyst, left and right. They picked off four Danielson passes in the first half alone, one setting up a touchdown by Craig and the other a TD run by Tyler.
But Montana wasn’t sharp today, and San Francisco missed the chance to blow the game open early. They led only 14-9 at half. A third-quarter field goal gave them some comfort with an eight-point lead (there was no two-point conversion in the NFL at the time), but then they gave up two rushing touchdowns to Detroit’s Billy Sims and were behind 23-17.
Montana then did what Montana does, and it’s shake off the doldrums with a season at stake and lead a clutch drive, 70 yards, capped off with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Solomon with 1:23 left. Detroit came back and got in field goal range, but a 42-yard try missed and the 49ers had survived.
San Francisco was a big (+10) underdog at Washington, where the Redskins had crushed people all year long. After a scoreless first quarter, the 49ers started to look like the next roadkill falling behind 21-0 going into the fourth quarter. Then Montana suddenly awoke, threw three touchdown passes, and including a 76-yard strike to Solomon and the game was tied.
The lack of a running game was hurting the 49ers, as they were outrushed 172-87, negating Montana’s 27/48 for 347-yard performance. The Redskins drove for the winning field goal, aided by a hotly disputed pass interference call on Eric Wright. The game ended 24-21.
San Francisco had still re-established their footing with Montana and Walsh and another Super Bowl title was just around the corner…and two more not long after that.