After winning Super Bowl titles of 1981 and 1984 and reaching the NFC Championship Game in 1983, the San Francisco 49ers weren’t accustomed to early playoff exits. That’s what happened to them in 1985 and 1986, as they were twice handled by the New York Giants. After the 1987 San Francisco 49ers had a fantastic regular season they looked ready to bring postseason glory back to the Bay Area, but in January they suffered what was now an all-to-familiar ending.
Montana had a vintage year. He led the league with 31 touchdown passes and a completion percentage of 67%. He was sixth in yards-per-attempt and though the mistakes were up a bit—13 interceptions—that was still in the middle of the league. Even though Montana finished behind Denver’s John Elway in the MVP vote, it was Montana named 1st-team All-Pro at the quarterback spot.
The future Hall of Fame quarterback needed to be good, because another future Hall of Famer had been acquired in the offseason. Head coach Bill Walsh, concerned over injury problems Montana had shown recently, brought in Steve Young. Even though Montana stayed as the starter, the mercurial talent of Young—both throwing and running—were never far in the background.
San Francisco also strengthened the offensive line in drafting Harris Barton, who immediately stepped in at left tackle and solidified the position for a decade. Roger Craig, the versatile running back, had a Pro Bowl year running for 815 yards and leading the 49ers in receptions with 66. And on the outside was a guy named Jerry Rice, who had a vintage year of his own, being named 1st-team All-Pro.
The 49er offense scored more points than anyone in the league and the defense wasn’t far behind, ranking third. Orchestrated by coordinator and future head coach George Seifert, the Niner defense was anchored by Michael Carter at nose tackle and the great Ronnie Lott at free safety, each 1st-team All-Pro themselves. No one in the NFL had more players who were the absolute best at their positions than the 49ers.
You wouldn’t have known that to watch the opener. San Francisco went to mediocre Pittsburgh and got it handed to them, 30-17. Montana threw three interceptions and the running game only generated 47 yards. When the 49ers went to Cincinnati in Week 2 and trailed 26-20 with six seconds left and the ball in the Bengals’ hands, it looked like an 0-2 start.
Instead, a shocker happened. It was fourth down and the Bengals tried to call a sweep play that would run out the clock. It didn’t work and San Francisco got the ball with one crack at the end zone. It was still from the 25-yard line so the odds were decidedly against them. But it was all the opening Montana and Rice needed, as they hooked up for a touchdown pass and an improbable 27-26 win.
After the second week of the season the players went out on strike. Unlike 1982 when the league just shut down, the owners were ready for war and they brought in replacements. Walsh had prepared well for this circumstance and summoned in players who could keep the 49ers winning. Week 3 was canceled, but when the replacements took the field on October 4, San Francisco kept rolling.
Bob Gagliano got the quarterback gig for a Monday Night game with the Giants, a marquee matchup that had a lot of steam taken out of it by the lack of regular players. The running game was dominant for the 49ers in a 41-21 rout.
The united front the players were attempting to show was cracking and nowhere as visibly by Montana’s decision to cross the picket line. He split time with Gagliano in Atlanta and each threw a touchdown pass in a 25-17 win. Montana resumed full-time quarterback duties at home against the St. Louis Cardinals and carved up the replacements to the tune of 31/39 for 334 yards. Craig also crossed the line and produced 170 all-purpose yards in a 34-28 win.
The strike ended after these three games and the regulars were all back for an October 25 game in New Orleans. The question—when the 49er regulars were last seen, they were one fluke away from being 0-2. Could they find their footing now?
New Orleans was an excellent team for the first time in their two-decade history and the 49ers had problems running the ball. Montana came through with an 18/32 for 256 yards performance, with Rice catching six balls for 89 yards. Along with a couple key defensive stops near the goal line, it was enough to escape the Bayou with a 24-22 win.
The Los Angeles Rams were disrupted by both the strike and a contract holdout by their great running back Eric Dickerson. One day before San Francisco arrived in L.A., Dickerson was traded to Indianapolis. The 49ers lacerated a team in turmoil, with Craig running for 104 yards and Montana going 21/30 for 294 yards and three TDs, shifting his attention away from Rice and to receiver Mike Wilson and tight end Russ Francis.
San Francisco came home and beat the playoff-bound Houston Oilers 27-20, holding the Oilers to 48 yards rushing and intercepting Warren Moon three times. It set up a rematch with the Saints on November 15 (prior to 2002 the 49ers shared the NFC West with the Saints, Rams and Falcons). Montana did not play well, going 16/29 for 144 yards and was picked off twice. The Niners had a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown and lost 26-24.
Montana got back on track in Tampa Bay. He went 29/45 for 340 yards and three touchdown passes, all to Rice who ended up with seven catches for 103 yards. The result was a 24-10 win over a bad team.
No one would call the Cleveland Browns of this period a bad team. They had come within a play of the Super Bowl the year before and would do the same in this season. The 49ers played their best game of the season. Leading 21-17 at the half, they broke it open with 17 straight points after intermission. Montana was brilliant, completing 23/31 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns.
The 38-24 win moved San Francisco to 9-2. They were one game ahead of New Orleans in the NFC West and tied with Chicago in the race for the #1 seed in the playoffs. Washington was also 8-3 and running away with their own division. The 49ers were all but assured of a return to the postseason, but where they would ultimately be seeded was still completely up in the air.
A cold snowy game in Green Bay was next, but the Packers of this era were consistently bad. Even though Frisco only led 16-12 in the fourth quarter, they got a 57-yard TD pass from Montana to Rice to seal the win. Lott picked off two passes to lead the defense.
The win set up a big Monday Night home date with Chicago. At stake was inside track to homefield advantage in the playoffs. When Montana pulled a hamstring, it could have been taken as a bad sign. Instead, it was the only thing that went wrong. The defense intercepted Mike Tomczak four times. Dana McLemore brought a punt back 83 yards for a touchdown and with Young at the controls the result was a 41-0 rout, a result shocking not for San Francisco’s win, but the size and scope of that victory.
Young played again the following week against the Falcons. He was a bit erratic—13-for-30, though he did throw for 216 yards—and the special teams had a lapse when they allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown. But 49er return man Joe Cribbs brought a kickoff of his own back to the house and in the end Atlanta was just too bad a team to win at Candlestick. The 49ers won 35-7.
San Francisco was assured of finishing ahead of the Bears and Redskins, but the Saints weren’t going away. The Niners still controlled the division, but when New Orleans beat Green Bay on the final Sunday afternoon it meant that a lot was on the line for San Francisco’s prime-time home game with Los Angeles. Win, and the 49ers would be division champs and the #1 seed in the NFC. Lose, and they’d be in the wild-card game.
The stakes might have been high, but the superiority of the 49ers over the Rams was just too evident. San Francisco held Los Angeles to just 50 yards passing. Montana and Young both played and combined to throw five touchdown passes. The 48-0 rout sent the 49ers into the playoffs as the favorite to win their third Super Bowl title in seven years.
When the Minnesota Vikings, with an 8-7 record, upset New Orleans and came to San Francisco for the divisional playoff game on a late Saturday afternoon it looked like a big break. Better the Vikings than the Redskins, who would have otherwise come to Candlestick (prior to 1990 there was a prohibition on teams from the same division meeting before the conference championship game).
Since it was the Redskins who ultimately won the Super Bowl, I guess that’s true. But by game’s end no one in San Francisco was seeing Minnesota’s arrival as anything to be grateful for.
For the third straight year, Montana could do nothing in a playoff game. He finished 12/26 for 109 yards and his offensive line was no help, allowing four sacks. After falling behind 27-10, he was yanked for Young, who played well ,going 12/17 for 158 yards and running for 72 yards.
But Young was the only bright spot on a day whose weather was as dreary as the 49er performance. The secondary was shredded by Viking receiver Anthony Carter, whose 10 catches produced a playoff record 227 yards. No one besides Young could run the ball. The final score was 36-24 and it wasn’t that close.
It was a bitter end for what was an outstanding team and in retrospect, it still signals the return of the 49ers to greatness. They would win the Super Bowl in both 1988 and 1989 to cap off their run as the NFL’s Team of the Eighties.