1988 San Francisco 49ers: A Comeback Year For Joe Montana & Bill Walsh

The San Francisco 49ers’ tandem of Bill Walsh at head coach and Joe Montana playing quarterback has taken its place in the annals of NFL lore, but after winning the Super Bowl in 1984, postseason struggles hit. They lost playoff games in 1985 and 1986 to the New York Giants, never scoring a touchdown in either game. The Niners lost in 1987 to the Minnesota Vikings, a game Montana was benched. It looked like the end might be nearing.

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Instead, the 1988 San Francisco 49ers won a Super Bowl, sent Walsh to retirement in glory and kickstarted one final run for the great Montana.

Montana, now 32-years-old, was being pushed by backup quarterback Steve Young. Whomever was behind center had Roger Craig to hand the ball too, and Jerry Rice to target through the air. Each were first-team All-Pro. The offensive line had good young talent surrounding 34-year-old center Randy Cross.

Defensively, the 49ers had Pro Bowlers in Michael Carter at nose tackle, Charles Haley at outside linebacker and Ronnie Lott at free safety. Haley had 11 ½ sacks, while Carter and defensive end Larry Roberts also provided a pass rusher. Cornerback Tim McKyer was a ballhawk, with seven interceptions.

San Francisco opened the season with the New Orleans Saints, then a division rival in the pre-2002 NFC West, and the Saints had made the playoffs the prior year. The Niners were on the road and fell behind 17-10 before Montana rifled three touchdown passes in the third quarter, built a 31-17 lead and San Francisco hung on, 34-33.

Walsh was concerned over the state of Montana’s back, the injury that prompted the signing of Young, and the mobile lefty got the start in New York against the Giants. Montana got the finish—the veteran threw a 78-yard touchdown pass to Rice to win the game 20-17. But a week later, against a bad Atlanta Falcons team, Montana threw three interceptions and the 49ers inexplicably lost 34-17 at home.

Montana came back against the Seattle Seahawks, who were then in the AFC and would make the playoffs this season. He threw four touchdown passes in the old Seattle Kingdome, the defense locked down the Seahawk running game and forced Kelly Stouffer into a four interceptions. A 38-17 win got them back on track, and it was followed by a 20-13 win over the Detroit Lions, keyed by a strong running game and punt return for a touchdown by John Taylor.

The Denver Broncos had won the AFC each of the previous two seasons, and if we could peek over the horizon by a year, they would play these 49ers in the Super Bowl following the 1989 season. Even though this year’s Denver team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, they came into San Francisco ready. Montana and Young combined to throw three interceptions. John Elway rallied Denver for a tying touchdown late in the game and then won it in overtime, 16-13.

San Francisco now faced tough road games with another key divisional rival, the Los Angeles Rams, along with the Chicago Bears. The Niners won a good back-and-forth game in LA, as Craig ran for 190 yards in a 24-21 win. But the offense was completely stymied on Monday Night in Chicago, a 10-9 loss.

The 49ers came home, but the schedule didn’t get easier—it was a revenge game with the Vikings, and after the poor MFN showing by Montana, it was Young who got the call. He finished 14/25 for 232 yards, but his biggest play came with his legs—a 49-yard touchdown run late in the game to pull out a 24-21 win.

San Francisco was now 6-3, but the Rams and Saints were each 7-2. There was no margin for error, but err is exactly what Frisco did. They blew a 23-0 lead to the Phoenix Cardinals and lost 24-23. Then, with Montana back in the lineup, they only scored three points in a loss to the Los Angeles Raiders. Against two teams who would finish 7-9, the Niners had lost and were clinging to dear life.

Fortunately, the Rams also lost twice and the Saints split during this timeframe. San Francisco closed the season with home games against its two rivals, so there was still a chance to get in—so long as the 49ers won a Monday Night game with the Washington Redskins, the defending Super Bowl champions and now fighting for their playoff lives themselves.

The turnaround started in front of the home fans in prime time. San Francisco forced four turnovers, pulled away early and beat Washington 37-21. Montana was then a sharp 14/22 for 271 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 48-10 rout of San Diego. In the meantime, the Rams kept losing, and the 49ers moved into second place, still a game back of the Saints.

San Francisco didn’t play well at Atlanta—also an NFC West rival at the time—but they took care of the ball, and got a strong rushing performance from Craig to win 13-3 in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium. When New Orleans lost at Minnesota, the 49ers were tied for first.

The collapses of their two rivals not only gave San Francisco control of their own destiny, but if they beat New Orleans at home, the finale with Los Angeles wouldn’t even matter. It was a startling turn of events after the losses to the Cardinals and Raiders.

San Francisco trailed New Orleans 10-7 in the second quarter, but Montana threw two quick touchdown passes, including a 66-yard strike to Taylor. Craig ran for 115 yards and the 49ers kept the Saints at arm’s length in the second half, winning 30-17. The NFC West was theirs. They were locked into the #2 seed in the NFC, and mailed in the finale, losing to the Rams 38-16, with Los Angeles needing the game to get a wild-card spot.

The Rams lost to the Vikings in the NFC wild-card game and it set up a playoff rematch—Minnesota at San Francisco. There would be no reprise of last year’s rout. Montana connected with Rice for three first-half touchdown passes, Craig ran for 135 yards and took off an 80-yard jaunt that sealed a 34-9 rout.

It was time for another revenge trip, this one to Chicago. The temperatures were 2 degrees with the windchill, as the winds blew off Lake Michigan at 29mph, making the day intolerably cold. Even more intolerable for the home fans was what happened on the field. Montana hit Rice with an early 61-yard touchdown pass. Montana hit Rice from 27 yards in the second quarter. The game ended up a 28-3 rout. San Francisco had simply obliterated the two teams with the best records in the NFC.

Two weeks later, it was time for warmer temperatures, with the Super Bowl in Miami. San Francisco faced the Cincinnati Bengals, the same team they had beaten in 1981 for Montana and Walsh’s first championship together.

This year’s Bengals had the league MVP in Boomer Esiason, but the 49er defense kept him contained. Neither offense did anything for three quarters. After a San Francisco field goal tied the game 6-6 late in the third quarter, Cincinnati got a kickoff return for a touchdown that looked like it might make the difference. They later got a field goal to take a 16-13 lead with 3:10 to play.

San Francisco got the ball on their own 8-yard line and the legend of Montana got another chapter. He led an 11-play drive, the last of which was a touchdown pass to Taylor with 34 seconds left. With the 20-16 win, the 49ers were champions.

Rice caught 12 passes for 115 yards and was named game MVP. Walsh retired and rode off into the sunset. Montana would be back for more, as he had perhaps his greatest season in winning a second straight title in 1989. He was a long way from the travails of 1985-87.