The 1985 San Francisco 49ers were coming off a Super Bowl run in 1984 that marked them as one of the league’s all-time great champions. It was the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy in a four-year span, along with another trip to the NFC Championship Game. That’s why a 1985 season that would be a good one by the standards of most anyone else, was a letdown in San Francisco.
It wasn’t for a lack of production at quarterback. Joe Montana was his usual Pro Bowl self, churning out over 3,600 yards, completing 61 percent of his passes and getting 7.4 yards-per-attempt. His best target was out of the backfield, where Roger Craig had a Pro Bowl year of his own, thanks to 92 catches—easily the most on the team.
Montana also had veteran targets, like possession receiver Dwight Clark and tight end Russ Francis. And head coach Bill Walsh began getting a young receiver into the lineup. Jerry Rice, 23-years-old, caught 49 passes for 927 yards as the process of having Rice replace veteran Freddie Solomon as the principal deep threat began.
Craig was also a 1,000-yard rusher, going behind a line that was anchored by Pro Bowl center Fred Quillan and 31-year-old Randy Cross at right guard. The balanced attack ranked fifth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense, which had been the best in the NFL in 1984, was excellent again, ranking second in points allowed. Michael Carter was a Pro Bowl nose tackle, getting seven sacks as he anchored the middle of the 3-4 defensive scheme. Defensive ends Dwaine Board and Jeff Stover combined for 21 ½ sacks.
Cornerback Eric Wright was the one starter to not only make the Pro Bowl, but be honored as 1st-team All-NFL. Ronnie Lott, one of the greatest defensive backs of all time was at the other corner. Even though he wasn’t a Pro Bowler this season, he still intercepted six passes.
All in all, the only defense better than San Francisco’s was that of the Chicago Bears, who had a historically great year. But for some reason, the combination of elite offense and elite defense only translated into a borderline playoff season.
The frustration began right away at mediocre Minnesota. In a game that was tied 7-7 after three quarters, Montana threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Craig and the 49ers led 21-14. But they lost five fumbles, turned it over seven times in all and in the end, dumped the game 28-21. The hangover dragged into the beginning of a home game with lowly Atlanta, as San Francisco found themselves in a 10-0 second quarter hole.
Craig got rolling and ended up with 184 all-purpose yards and the 49ers won 35-16. All appeared to be well a week later when they went on the road to a very good Los Angeles Raiders’ team and won 34-10. The 49ers got nine sacks, four of them coming from Board.
Then they took another step back, losing a home game to a bad team in New Orleans. Craig was a non-factor and Montana did not play well, going 12/26 for 120 yards. The Saints scored late and stole a 20-17 win.
A return visit to Atlanta was next (prior to 2002, the Falcons and Saints joined the 49ers and Rams in the NFC West, with the Seahawks still in the AFC). Montana lit it up, going 35/57 for 429 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Craig caught 12 of the passes for 167 yards and the final was 38-17. It appeared the 49ers had their mojo back as they got ready to host the Bears.
San Francisco had eliminated Chicago in the previous year’s NFC Championship Game and even though the Bears were undefeated, respect for the 49ers still had them a (-4) favorite at home. It was a perfect chance for San Francisco to re-assert themselves as the team to beat.
Instead, it was Chicago who asserted just how good they were. The only San Francisco touchdown came on an interception return from Carlton Williamson. Craig couldn’t find running room, and while Montana didn’t play badly, he couldn’t make any big plays against the Bear defense in a 26-10 loss.
Things got worse in a road trip to mediocre Detroit. The special teams gave up a 63-yard punt return and Montana struggled, going 15/26, but those completions were kept underneath for just 97 yards. Craig’s running kept the team in it, the 49ers lost 23-21.
To make matters worse, the Los Angeles Rams were off to a 7-0 start. So when San Francisco traveled south to face their divisional rival, they were already staring at a four-game deficit. It was now or never if they were going to get back in the NFC West race.
Montana stepped up and was brilliant. He threw four touchdowns in the first half, two of them to Craig and finished with 303 passing yards on the day. The 49ers raced to a 28-0 lead and ended up winning 28-14. At 4-4, they were far from out of the woods, but they showed they could still look the part of a champion.
They looked it again this next week for different reasons. The opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, were mediocre and coming to the Bay Area. But Montana would miss this game and Matt Cavanaugh had to step in. Cavanaugh stepped up with a 20/32 for 255 yards performance. While Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski threw for 394 yards, the 49er secondary also came up with three interceptions and the result was 24-13 win.
A big Monday Night visit to Denver was up next, with the Broncos in the midst of a race for the AFC West title. The snow was coming down hard, resulting in both Montana and John Elway having erratic nights. The 49ers trailed 17-16, but Montana got them in position for a short field goal at the end. As the ball was snapped, kicker Ray Wersching would be distracted by a snowball that came out of the stands and landed right by the holder. He shanked the kick and San Francisco suffered a controversial loss.
Their backs to the wall again, San Francisco delivered consecutive home wins over AFC opponents in Kansas City and Seattle. Montana threw for 235 yards, while backup running back Wendell Tyler rushed for 111 in a 31-3 rout of the Chiefs. The 19-6 win over the Seahawks came on a Monday Night against a team that had made the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Even though Montana threw three interceptions, the 49er run defense shut down Curt Warner to get the win.
With the record at 7-5, San Francisco was traveling to Washington. The Redskins were another franchise that had been great in the early part of the decade, but was fighting for their season now, also at 7-5. The landscape of the NFC race made it likely that there would only be room for one of them in the playoffs and this nationally televised late Sunday afternoon game had a postseason vibe to it on December 1.
Carl Monroe took the opening kickoff for the 49ers and took it 95 yards for a touchdown. It set the tone for the entire game. Linebacker Keena Turner returned a fumble 65 yards. San Francisco forced five turnovers in all and used the mistakes to roll to an easy 35-8 win.
While the 49ers were again starting to get their act together, the Rams were reeling. They were down to 9-4, the NFC West race was within a game and San Francisco owned control of the tiebreakers. So when Los Angeles came to Candlestick Park for Monday Night Football it was a battle for the inside track on the division title.
Everything seemed to be going San Francisco’s way and they were a ten-point favorite. The 49ers led 7-3 at the half, but the formula that worked in Washington—scoring on special teams and defense—now turned around and bit them.
Los Angeles returned the second half’s opening kick for a touchdown. With the game tied 20-20 in the fourth quarter, Montana threw an interception that was returned 41 yards. San Francisco lost 27-20 and their hopes an NFC West title were all but gone with two games to play.
The race for the playoffs was still very much on, and the 49ers were tied with the Redskins at 8-6 for the final playoff berth, and of course controlling the tiebreaker. San Francisco went to New Orleans and held serve with a 31-19 win, as Montana went 25/38 for 354 yards.
Washington kept pace and the New York Giants lost, dropping them to 9-6 in a race that had three teams tied for two spots. The pecking order in tiebreakers was Giants-49ers-Redskins. The two NFC East teams each had games on the final Saturday of the season and they both won. So when the 49ers played the Cowboys in a late Sunday afternoon national TV game at Candlestick, it was win-or-go-home.
Dallas had clinched the NFC East, but would have a chance to move up to the 2-seed and host a divisional playoff game if they could win and the Rams would lose on Monday Night against the Raiders (the Rams did). So it wasn’t a pushover game for San Francisco and it didn’t play out that way.
The 49ers were a (-9) favorite, a measurement of how much esteem they were still held in, but they fell behind 13-0 and trailed 16-7 at the half. This writer, a Redskins fan, was watching with intensity and felt real hope for the first time since about the moment Monroe brought the kickoff back in the December 1 game.
But San Francisco controlled the line of scrimmage. They won the rushing battle 109-60, and on defense they got six sacks from six different players. Montana was sharp, 24/34 for 322 yards and the 49ers dominated the second half with 24 unanswered points to win 31-16.
It was off the Meadowlands for the wild-card game. The 49ers had ousted the Giants on the road to Super Bowl titles in 1981 and 1984 and again, the oddsmakers were believers—San Francisco was a (-3) road favorite.
Maybe it was bad body clock, the phenomena of a West Coast team playing an early afternoon kick on the East Coast. Maybe it was just New York’s time. Whatever it was, this wasn’t the 49ers’ day.
They were outrushed 174-94. When San Francisco fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter they were forced to the air. Montana threw for 296 yards, but on 26/47 passing, and he was sacked four times. San Francisco lost 17-3.
It was the beginning of a three-year stretch that would be rough by the extremely high standards Walsh and Montana had set. They would again make the playoffs in 1986 and 1987, this time as NFC West champs, but again lose right away with offensive ineptitude as the reason. Most teams would gladly have taken the wins and the playoff trips, but this franchise in this era wasn’t one of them.