1989 San Francisco 49ers: A Championship In Transition

The 1989 San Francisco 49ers came into the NFL season as a rare breed—a defending champion in a transitional state. Under the leadership of Bill Walsh and the quarterbacking of Joe Montana, they won the Super Bowl in 1981, 1984 and again in 1988. Even though Walsh had retired after the come-from-behind win over the Cincinnati Bengals to cap the previous year’s title run, the expectations at Candlestick Park were the same—to repeat. George Seifert had been elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach.

Start reading today. 

Seifert’s brain trust included a new offensive coordinator in Mike Holmgren, who would one day be a head coach and go to three Super Bowls (two in Green Bay, one in Seattle) while winning one. More importantly, the Niners were stacked on the field. Montana had a well-balanced core of skill players at his disposal.

Roger Craig was a 1,000 yard rusher and a good receiver out of the backfield. Tom Rathman was a steady fullback. Jerry Rice was the top receiver in the game and is today acknowledged as the consensus “best receiver ever”. Rice, along with baseball closer Mariano Rivera are perhaps the only players to receive such universal acclimation as the best at their positions. If you gave too much attention to Rice, Montana just turned to John Taylor, another good deep threat, and tight end Brent Jones. Up front was a line anchored by Pro Bowler Guy McIntyre.

Defensively, the leader was Hall of Fame free safety Ronnie Lott and with him in the secondary was corner Don Griffin. The defensive front was tough, with Michael Carter on the nose, Kevin Fagan at defensive end and a hybrid end/linebacker in Charles Haley was a complete havoc-wreaker.

San Francisco drew three straight road games to start the year and the first two were against bad teams in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. The third one in Philadelphia was a good test against an Eagles club that had won the NFC East the prior year and would make the postseason again this year. The head coach was Buddy Ryan, father of current NFL head coach Rex, and the father ran the same type of aggressive blitzing approach.

Montana burned Ryan’s defense with a 68-yard touchdown pass to Rice early on, but then for about 2 ½ quarters Philadelphia controlled the flow of play and was in position to seal the game. But they kept settling for field goals, and a 21-10 lead came about through the odd combo of one touchdown, one safety and four field goals.

A 70-yard touchdown strike from Montana to Taylor put Frisco right back in it, and even though Philly got that TD back, the 49er signal-caller eventually took the game over. Montana rifled fourth-quarter scoring passes to Rathman, Jones in Rice in succession, ended up with 428 yards and five touchdowns on the afternoon and the 38-28 win moved the 49ers to 3-0.

The Los Angeles Rams came to town and were the one team that could threaten the Niners in the NFC West. Under the leadership of John Robinson, they’d made the playoffs as a wild-card in 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1988, while winning the division in 1985. The only bad year was the strike season of 1987 that was chaotic for a lot of teams. LA was led by a prolific quarterback in Jim Everett and two good receivers in Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson. They got solid work up front from veteran lineman Tom Newberry and Jackie Slater, both Pro Bowlers and the latter one of the great offensive tackles of all time.

Defensively, they had their own havoc-wreaking linebacker in Kevin Greene, who would one day go on to star on a Super Bowl team in Pittsburgh and eventually become the linebacker coach for the 2010 Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers and their own dominator, Clay Matthews.

The Rams would be a tough out in the West and they showed why on October 1. They neutralized San Francisco’s offensive weapons and only trailed 6-3 at halftime. Everett found Anderson for a 65-yard touchdown pass to make it 10-6 and later, with the score 10-9, a Niner drive died on the 1-yard line. A Mike Cofer field goal gave San Fran the lead, but Los Angeles eventually took it back and won 13-12.

San Francisco went on the road and got back on track by beating New Orleans. They also went to Dallas (on its way to a 1-15 year in the start of Jimmy Johnson’s rebuilding project). The 49ers had a curious record of 5-0 on the road and 0-1 at home.

Los Angeles lost their focus and after a 5-0 start, lost four straight. San Francisco kept winning, and churned its way to 9-1 before a home loss to Green Bay, due to three turnovers, set them up at 9-2. Over three weeks in late November and early December, two big Monday Night games were ahead One was with the 9-2 New York Giants, the other a visit to Los Angeles.

The Niners began their stretch run on November 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving against the Giants in a fight for the inside track to the #1 seed in the NFC. Montana threw a pair of short touchdown passes in the first quarter to build a 14-7 lead and a later scoring pass to Jones helped stretch the lead to 24-10.

At this point, New York quarterback and current CBS analyst Phil Simms, fired a pair of scoring passes of his own to tie the game. San Francisco was able to recover and get the final ten points of the game, the big difference being that Simms threw three interceptions to Montana’s zero.

Los Angeles was out of the division race, but still pushing for a playoff berth when San Francisco brought their 11-2 record to town. The Rams were ready out of the gate, striking for a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. Montana then hit Taylor on a 92-yard touchdown pass and a field goal cut the lead to 17-10. Los Angeles had a counterpunch ready, moving ahead 24-10 by the end of three quarters and kicking a field goal early in the fourth that seemed to put the game under wraps.

Montana found Jones for a 7-yard TD pass and then pinned inside his own 5-yard line, threw another touchdown pass to Taylor, this one from 96 yards. Even though a crucial PAT was missed, The Master wasn’t going to be stopped now. Montana would throw for an MNF record of 458 yards before the night was over and eventually set up a 1-yard run by Roger Craig that delivered a stunning 30-27 win. It all but secured homefield advantage, and Frisco closed the season with a couple more wins that gave them a 14-2 record going into the playoffs.

Minnesota had become a familiar opponent for San Francisco in the divisional round. The Vikings had come to Candlestick in 1987 as a solid underdog and pulled an upset. They came to 1988 as a respected underdog and lost in a blowout. Now they were here for a third straight time.

Minnesota’s defensive line was the strength of its team, with outstanding pass rushers at defensive end in Chris Doleman and Al Noga. Defensive tackle Keith Millard was another elite talent and both running the ball and protecting the passer were serious problems against this D. They had a pair of Pro Bowlers in the secondary in corner Carl Lee and strong safety Joey Browner.

The Viking offense was not great, with Wade Wilson being a little shaky at quarterback, a situation that failed to make the most of the talents of receiver Anthony Carter. Minnesota tried to strengthen their offense with one of the most infamous trades in sports history, trading several players and several draft picks to Dallas to get running back Herschel Walker. While Walker was a decent runner and pass-catcher for the Vikes, Johnson’s Cowboys used the picks to build a dynasty.

What it all boiled down to is that Minnesota was a team a lot of observers respected for their talent, especially defensively, and just wondered if they could make it count in the postseason.

No one had any doubts about Montana’s ability to make it count in the postseason. After spotting Minnesota an early field goal, Montana hit Rice for a 72-yarrd TD strike to make it 7-3 at the quarter. In the second quarter, the QB broke it open. He threw three touchdown passes, spreading it around to Jones, Taylor and Rice. It was 27-3 going into the half and with a second straight playoff blowout, San Francisco was sending a clear message to Minnesota about who the top dog in the NFC was. Lott completed the message in the second half taking an interception 58 yards to the house and the final score was 41-13.

Los Angeles had surprised observers with a tough run through the NFC East. They’d gone to Philadelphia for the wild-card game and gotten a win, and then beat New York in overtime to make it to the NFC Championship Game.

Just as the Niners had in the first playoff game, they spotted an early field goal. It might have been 10-0, but the play this game is remembered for is Ronnie Lott running towards a wide-open Flipper Anderson near the goal line and batting away a pass at the final moment. It was the last positive moment for the Rams all afternoon.

By the second quarter San Francisco had gotten into rhythm, with Montana hitting Jones from 20 yards out and Taylor from 18, sandwiched around a short TD run from Craig. The defense took over, intercepting Everett three times and holding Greg Bell to 26 yards rushing. San Francisco meanwhile, ran for 179 yards, while Montana went 27-for-31 for 268 yards and zero picks. Another Super Bowl trip awaited, as the Niners were booked for New Orleans.

The Denver Broncos were making their third Super Bowl appearance in four years, under the coaching of Dan Reeves and led by quarterback John Elway, a Hall of Famer and the current Bronco team president. As good as Elway was, there was not Super Bowl-caliber talent around him and it was all he could to in order to reach this point, Denver had a nice rookie running back in Bobby Humphrey, a good receiver in Vance Johnson, and three Pro Bowlers on defense, but there was no real talent in the offensive line, nor in the secondary and it showed on Super Bowl Sunday.

Elway was sacked six times, the running game was non-existent and San Francisco dominated this one from the outset. Montana threw three first half touchdown passes to make it 27-3 at intermission. He threw two more in the second half and the final was 55-10. The quarterback completed the postseason going 66-for-84 (79 percent) for 806 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. The team won their three games by an average score of 42-9.

It was more than just a Super Bowl title for the 1989 San Francisco 49ers. It was more than just sealing their claim to be the Team of the 1980s with a fourth championship.  It was nothing more than the complete obliteration of the rest of the NFL.