The San Francisco 49ers had won the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 1981 under the tandem of head coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana. After a brief step back in the strike-torn year of 1982, the 49ers reached the NFC Championship Game. And one year later they made it all the way back, as the 1984 San Francisco 49ers were one of the all-time great Super Bowl champions.
Montana completed 65 percent of his passes in 1984, throwing for over 3,600 yards and a 28/10 TD-INT ratio as he made the Pro Bowl. Most of the damage was done underneath in Walsh’s then-cutting edge West Coast offense. Roger Craig, a 24-year-old running back, led the team in catches with 71. Dwight Clark, a possession-type receiver, caught 52 passes for 880 yards.
When the 49ers stretched the field, they did it with deep threat Freddie Solomon, while H-back Earl Cooper provided another target for Montana underneath.
San Francisco was anything but one-dimensional. Wendell Tyler had a Pro Bowl year at running back, with over 1,200 yards while Craig chipped in 649 more. And the offensive line was dominant—right tackle Keith Fahnorst was a first-team All-Pro, while center Fred Quinlan and right guard Randy Cross each made the Pro Bowl.
It added up to the second-best offense in the NFL in scoring, but for all the hype surrounding the 49ers offense, the genius of Walsh and the excellence of Montana, it was a historically underrated defense that drove the greatness of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers.
The Niner defense was the best in the NFL. They ranked higher than Buddy Ryan’s Chicago Bears, who would take the league by storm one year later. The 49er defense ranked higher than the New York Giants of L.T. and Bill Parcells, higher than Seattle with Defensive Player of the Year Kenny Easley.
They did it with three Pro Bowlers—outside linebacker Keena Turner, corner Eric Wright, while Ronnie Lott manned the other corner in the years prior to his switch to safety. Defensive end Dwaine Board didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but recorded ten sacks. Defensive coordinator George Seifert, one day to win two Super Bowls himself as a head coach, orchestrated it all.
The opening game of the season was at Detroit. The Lions would finish 4-11-1 and their great running back Billy Sims, would suffer a career-ending injury. But on September 2, this was a rematch from a playoff game in 1983, where the Niners barely survived the Lions, and Sims was still healthy for the opener.
San Francisco held Sims to 69 yards rushing, but trailed 20-17 after three quarters. Kicker Ray Wersching hit a clutch 53-yard field goal to tie the game, and with the score 27-27, Montana led a drive that set up another Wersching field goal, this one from 22 yards, to win it.
The 49ers returned home for another playoff rematch, this one with the Washington Redskins on the Monday Night stage. The ‘Skins had reached the Super Bowl each of the last two years, winning once, and San Francisco felt some poor officiating had cost them in last year’s 1983 NFC Championship Game. San Francisco was favored by two points, but the fact it was less than the customary (-3) edge given the home team, suggest oddsmakers still thought Washington was the team to beat.
And beat them San Francisco did. There was no doubt about it. Tyler ran for a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, while the 49er defense held the potent Redskin ground attack to just 62 rushing yards. Montana was 24/40 for 381 yards. The score was 27-3 by halftime before a late flurry by Washington resulted in a respectable 37-31 final score.
A home date with New Orleans, then a division rival in the old NFC West (which also included the Los Angeles Rams & Atlanta Falcons). After bolting to a 17-0 lead, the 49ers gave up 20 straight points. But the defense was turning the Saints over, and they intercepted five passes. Montana threw a go-ahead touchdown to Cooper and the Niners eventually won 30-20.
But Montana was temporarily sidelined, and an otherwise easy road trip to lowly Philadelphia now looked in doubt. Walsh turned to Matt Cavanaugh and he got it done, 17/34 for 252 yards and no interceptions. The Niner red-zone defense was clutch and the final was 21-9, with Montana ready to come back.
The great quarterback was not sharp in a home game with Atlanta, but he avoided mistakes and the defense was locked in with another great outing. A 14-5 victory made it two straight games without allowing a touchdown. Montana got back into rhythm the next week for another Monday Night audience—he went into L.T.’s, house and threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to Renaldo Nehemiah to set the tone and San Francisco was up 21-0. The final was 31-10 against a team the Niners had not seen the last of.
San Francisco was an (-8) favorite at home against Pittsburgh, who had won their division in 1983 and would do so again in 1984. But the Steelers were the definition of a mediocre division champ, en route to a 9-7 season this year. Which made the home loss that followed all the more disappointing. The 49ers fell behind 10-0 and even after rallying for the lead, allowed a mediocre offense to steal a 20-17 win.
A road trip to the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) was shaky. Even though the Oilers were a bad team, this was Warren Moon’s first year in the NFL and he traded blows with Montana. San Francisco clung to a 27-21 lead in the fourth quarter before Montana threw an 80-yard touchdown strike to Clark. Tyler added 108 rushing yards to key the 34-21 win.
Another road trip, this one to a better team in the playoff-bound Rams, went better. Montana was 21/31 for 365 yards, no interceptions and spread the ball around. The defense forced five turnovers and the final was 33-0. San Francisco was 8-1 and running away with the NFC West.
The 49ers hosted the Bengals, the first time the teams had met since the Super Bowl following the 1981 season. Cincy was now an average team under a new coach in Sam Wyche. Despite being a (-10.5) favorite, the Niners trailed 17-10 after three quarters and Montana threw four interceptions, with no running game to support him. The defense stepped up with six sacks, kept the team in it and Joe eventually threw a short TD pass to Solomon that was the key to pulling out a 23-17 win.
The defense kept it going at lowly Cleveland a week later, not allowing a touchdown until the fourth quarter when the score was 41-0. The 49ers outrushed the Browns 213-43. San Francisco followed up with a win over Tampa Bay, as Montana went 19/23 for 247 yards, while Tyler and Craig combined for 183 on the ground. The final was 24-17.
There were four games left and San Francisco was coasting to the #1 seed. The other elite teams in the NFL were all over in the AFC, where Miami, Denver and Seattle were jousting for the top spot. The Niners rolled through road games in New Orleans and Atlanta, 35-3 and 35-17 respectively. Tyler ran for 117 in New Orleans, while the defense forced six turnovers and scored two touchdowns in Atlanta.
A Saturday game with a terrible Minnesota Vikings team started with Montana hitting Clark on a 44-yard touchdown pass. The Niners built a 21-7 lead, then Montana went to Nehemiah for 59 yards and the avalanche really began, not stopping until the final was 51-7. Cavanaugh got some playing time, and went 10/14 for 100 yards himself.
The finale was a Friday night game at home with the Rams. It meant nothing to 49ers, while having meaning to Los Angeles, who still needed to win to clinch a wild-card spot in a packed race. Montana played and was efficient, going 20/31 for 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. They led 17-10 and then held off two Rams drives, keeping LA to field goals.
On the final Los Angeles possession, a sack for a safety clinched the 19-16 win. The Rams would end up making the playoffs anyway—even hosting the wild-card game. As for the 49ers, while the win did not impact their seeding, they became the first team to go 15-1, since the 16-game schedule was introduced in 1978.
After a week off, San Francisco prepared for a rematch with the New York Giants, who had upset Los Angeles in the wild-card round. The 49ers came into the late Saturday afternoon affair as a solid (-12) favorite over the 9-7 Giants who had lost their final two regular season games and backed into the postseason.
San Francisco came out firing, with Montana hitting Clark on a 21-yard touchdown pass. Lott intercepted a Phil Simms pass, setting up a Montana TD pass to tight end Russ Francis and the score was 14-0. Then Montana began to slip. He threw two interceptions that led directly to ten Giants points and it was a game again.
Before the second quarter was out, Montana found Solomon for a 29-yard touchdown pass that made it 21-10 at halftime. Neither team ran the ball, and Montana ended up throwing one more interception. But he also threw for 309 yards—112 of them to Clark, who caught nine balls. And the San Fran defense owned the day, with six sacks preventing the game from ever being in doubt. The final stayed at 21-10.
San Francisco would not get a rematch with Washington, as the 2-seed Redskins had been upset by the Bears. There was still plenty of emotional fire though—Walsh detested Buddy Ryan. Buddy’s defense played pretty well in the NFC Championship Game, but San Francisco’s unheralded defense was even better, and more to the point, the Bears had absolutely no passing game to speak of.
The 49ers drove inside the 5-yard line twice in the first half, but had to settle for field goals both times. It’s often the kind of thing that haunts you in a championship game, but the other team has to have a semblance of an offensive threat. As great a running back as Walter Payton was, the injury to starting quarterback Jim McMahon at the end of the regular season, meant San Francisco could crowd the line of scrimmage without fear.
Tyler’s 9-yard touchdown run in the third quarter made it 13-0, and in the fourth quarter Montana found Solomon on a 10-yard touchdown pass. The defensive front turned it loose and ended up nine sacks on the day. Chicago only threw for 87 yards and the final score ended up 23-0.
The Super Bowl was going to be in San Francisco’s backyard, on the campus of Stanford in Palo Alto. Even by the standards of Super Bowl-hype, this one had a lot going for it. The opponent was the Miami Dolphins who had a 14-2 record. The combined 29-3 regular season record of the two teams remains the best ever. Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino had a record-setting year throwing for both touchdowns and yardage was the league MVP. It was a great quarterback battle with him and Montana.
The 49ers were a (-3) favorite and the game started off like it might live up to the hype. The Dolphins scored first on a field goal. Montana and Marino traded touchdown passes and it was 10-7 Miami.
Then, without warning, the game turned. Montana threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Craig. The quarterback ran in from six yards out, Craig had a short touchdown run and the score was suddenly 28-10 and it wasn’t even halftime. Miami couldn’t run the ball to save their life and would finish with 25 yards rushing on the day. And now the running game wasn’t an option as they hoped Marino could pull them out of an 18-point hole.
The Dolphin quarterback didn’t give up and led his team to a field goal. Then a fumble on the kickoff set up another Miami field goal. At 28-16, the game was still in play, but the fact the Dolphins had been inside the red zone on their two scoring possessions and settled for field goals was one more sign at how dominant the San Francisco defense was.
And the 49ers were running the ball. They would get 211 yards on the ground, with Craig and Tyler sharing the load. Craig also caught seven passes. Seifert went to six defensive backs, took away Marino’s receivers and forced him to throw underneath. In the third quarter, San Francisco tacked on ten more points and it was all over but a meaningless fourth quarter. The 49ers completed the 38-16 rout.
The San Francisco defense deserves more recognition among the great defenses of all-time. In three postseason games they didn’t allow a single point after halftime and they shut down one of the great passers of the modern era in his best season. The 1984 San Francisco 49ers were more than a Super Bowl champion—they were one of the few teams that rise to a unique level of greatness.