The 1990 San Francisco 49ers: A Three-Peat Bid That Just Misses

The mission for the 1990 San Francisco 49ers was clear after their 55-10 pounding of the Denver Broncos in the previous season’s Super Bowl. Winners of two straight titles, the 49er players began chanting “Three-Peat!” in the locker room. The ‘90 Niners came awfully close, but ended up just short.

Joe Montana was 34-years-old, but the quarterback delivered a vintage year, winning his second straight MVP award throwing to 1st-team All-Pro wide receiver Jerry Rice, who caught 100 passes. John Taylor was a potent deep threat himself and tight end Brent Jones worked underneath.

While Montana was the face of the franchise, the defense was still the cornerstone of this team. The great safety Ronnie Lott was 1st-team All-Pro. So was defensive end Charles Haley, who recorded 16 ½ sacks. Defensive end Kevin Fagan was another Pro Bowler and the 49er defense ranked 2nd in the league in points allowed.

The one weakness on the 49ers was the running game—fullback Tom Rathman and halfback Roger Craig were both excellent pass-catchers, but nobody in the San Francisco backfield ran for 500 yards. The running game was kept the 49ers ranking “only” eighth in the league in scoring.

San Francisco survived pass protection problems in their Monday Night Opener at New Orleans. Montana was sacked six times, but defensive dominance was enough and the 49ers escaped 13-12. The win keyed a 10-1 start to the season that included victories over playoff contenders in the Redskins, Houston Oilers and Steelers.

San Francisco beat Washington 26-13 in Week 2, quickly solving the pass protection problems and allowing Montana to throw for 344 yards. The 49ers went to Houston in early October and fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter. Montana eventually tied it with a 78-yard touchdown strike to Taylor and led his team to a 24-21 win. Two weeks later at home, the 49ers spotted the Steelers a 7-zip lead, then reeled off 27 unanswered points.

The rest of the NFC West was collapsing. One year earlier, the Los Angeles Rams made the NFC Championship Game. But in 1990, Los Angeles collapsed and while New Orleans (an NFC West team prior to 2002) made the playoffs, they finished 8-8. So even though it was aggravating to lose the first game of the season to the Rams on November 25, it wasn’t going to stop the 49ers from coasting to another division title.


The real fight was for homefield advantage. The New York Giants were also 10-1, and also lost their first game on November 25. The 49ers and Giants were set for a Monday Night showdown out west on December 3. Further heightening the stakes was that by kickoff, the Chicago Bears were 10-2 and in the mix.

Monday Night’s battle was about defense. Montana and couterpart Phil Simms each completed less than half their passes. But the 49ers got four sacks while the Giants got none. And while New York had to settle for a field goal on their second quarter drive, San Francisco found the end zone on theirs. The 7-3 score stood up.

The 49ers won their next two games and secured the #1 seed in the NFC. Steve Young played the last two games in Montana’s stead, the 49ers split and San Francisco went into the playoffs at 14-2.

The Redskins came in for the divisional round and took a 10-7 lead after a quarter. Montana threw second-quarter touchdown passes to Rice and Mike Sherrard to put San Francisco in control, 21-10.

The defense took it from there. Three times in the second half, the Redskins drove to the red zone. The 49ers got an interception and stopped the ‘Skins twice on downs. San Francisco got one more turnover when defensive tackle Michael Carter intercepted a pass and ran 61 yards for a touchdown to seal the 28-10 win.


The Giants were back for the NFC Championship Game and again defenses controlled. In a battle of field goals, Montana appeared to strike the big blow in the third quarter when he hit Taylor on a 61-yard touchdown pass for a 13-6 lead. New York got two more field goals to cut the lead to a point when disaster struck.

Montana was knocked out of the game. With less than three minutes to play, Craig fumbled and the Giants recovered. New York got one last field goal for the 15-13 upset.

Montana’s injuries kept him off the field for two years. By the time he recovered he was a Kansas City Chief. By the time the 49ers won another Super Bowl in 1994, it was Young at the helm. 1990 was the end of an era.