After winning Super Bowl titles in 1981 and 1984, the 49ers organization took what was for them a step back in 1985. They settled for a wild-card berth in the playoffs. The 1986 San Francisco 49ers spent much of the season on that same trajectory before they rallied at the end for a division title. But a terrible playoff loss left them licking their wounds when the season was over.
Joe Montana was now 30-years-old and his health was starting to become an issue. Montana was only able to start eight games in 1986. He was effective, a 62% completion rate, 7.3 yards-per-attempt and keeping the mistakes to a minimum. But the injury problems would lead head coach Bill Walsh to go acquire Steve Young in the offseason.
Walsh’s West Coast offense had plenty of talent at the skill spots for when backups Jeff Kemp or Mike Moroski had to step in. Roger Craig caught 81 passes out of the backfield. Craig was spelled by veteran Joe Cribbs, no longer the back he had been in Buffalo in the early part of the decade, but still able to catch 35 balls.
More important to the passing game was that a 24-year-old wide receiver named Jerry Rice had a breakout year. He caught 86 balls for 1,570 yards and was 1st-team All-Pro. Dwight Clark, the possession receiver on the other side finished with 61 catches and nearly 800 yards. Tight end Russ Francis wasn’t the Pro Bowler he’d been in his New England days, but he was another viable option underneath, with 41 catches.
It added up to a nice combination of Rice stretching the field, a series of targets able to work underneath, one of the game’s all-time great offensive architects in Walsh overseeing the passing game and another outstanding coach in Mike Holmgren as the coordinator. Even though Rice was the only Pro Bowler, the offensive line was getting old and the quarterback position was unstable, 49ers still ranked 7th in the NFL in points scored.
Ronnie Lott was the anchor of the defense and the future Hall of Fame defensive back was 1st-team All-Pro at free safety. A good draft produced a pair of quality rookie corners in Tim McKyer and Don Griffin. Even though defensive lineman Jeff Stover and Dwaine Board combined for 19 sacks, neither made the Pro Bowl. Nose tackle Michael Carter was an emerging talent that would get Pro Bowl recognition by 1987. The defense, coordinated by George Seifert, finished third in the league in points allowed.
San Francisco opened the season in Tampa Bay. Montana put on a show, going 32/46 for 356 yards. Lott’s two interceptions led a defense that picked off veteran Steve DeBerg seven times. The consequences of this game for the 49ers went beyond their 31-7 win. Montana required back surgery and would be out until November. DeBerg would soon be benched in favor of Steve Young and start the process that would eventually bring the latter to San Francisco.
The Los Angeles Rams had been a playoff team each year since 1983 and they displaced San Francisco atop the NFC West in 1985. Respect for the 49ers was such that they still went on the road as a 2 ½ point favorite with Montana out. Kemp played pretty well, going 19/24 for 252 yards and hooked up with Rice on a 66-yard touchdown pass. But Kemp threw two interceptions, the Rams were mistake-free and the 49ers lost 16-13.
Kemp came back strong at home against mediocre New Orleans. He hit Rice and Clark seven times apiece, and finished the day 29/44 for 332 yards. Even though a special teams breakdown let the Saints bring the second half kickoff back for a touchdown and get a 17-13 lead, Kemp eventually produced a 26-17 win.
Two years earlier the 49ers and Dolphins had met in the Super Bowl. One year earlier Miami had still be in the league’s elite. The Dolphins would fade to .500 this year and on a visit to the Orange Bowl, Lott picked off Dan Marino twice. It was part of a four-interception day for the defense, the 49ers also rushed for 146 yards and they won the football game 31-16.
San Francisco hosted lowly Indianapolis and dinked around for a half. The game was tied 14-14. The 49ers, favored by (-17.5), got it going in the second half. Kemp hit Rice on three touchdown passes from 45, 16 and 58 yards respectively. They pulled away 35-14 and still made their bettors happy by covering that big spread.
A home game with Minnesota saw Kemp throw for 359 yards and get the Niners out to a 24-14 lead in the third quarter. The Vikings, though they weren’t a playoff team in 1986 were still pretty good. The got a 326-yard passing day from Tommy Kramer, scored a defensive touchdown and eventually stole a 27-24 overtime win.
The 49ers had another bad home game against mediocre Atlanta. They gave up 217 rush yards and failed to score in the second half. The saving grace was that the Falcons turned it over five times and San Francisco still managed to end with a 10-10 tie. Nonetheless in home games against two teams who averaged out to about .500, the 49ers had gone 0-1-1.
A road game against the awful Green Bay Packers was next. The game was played in Milwaukee, where Green Bay used to play three home games a year. The 49ers were outgained 464-222, but the defense was able to get three interceptions. The biggest came when San Francisco clung to a 24-17 lead and Green Bay was driving. Tony Nixon picked off a pass and took it 88 yards to the house to secure the 31-17 win.
It was a win, but the team still wasn’t playing well and they bottomed out in a 23-10 loss at New Orleans (the Saints were in the NFC West prior to 2002). They turned it over four times, only ran for 52 yards and couldn’t dig out of an early 14-0 hole. Montana couldn’t come back too soon.
The great quarterback made his return on November 9 at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. He only threw 19 passes, but he made them count. Montana finished 13/19 for 270 yards, and found Rice three times on touchdown plays of 40-plus yards. The result was a 43-17 win.
But the lack of a running game was devastating in a Monday Night visit to the playoff-bound Redskins. Montana was forced to put it up 60 times. He completed 33 passes and generated 441 passing yards. Rice had a huge night, with twelve catches for over 200 yards. But it was sound and fury that didn’t go anywhere—the Niners never got in the end zone in a 14-6 loss thanks to four turnovers and just 83 rush yards.
The running attack was re-emphasized against Atlanta (also an NFC West team prior to the 2002 realignment). Craig rushed for 101 yards, there were no turnovers and the defense was locked in a 20-zip win. The win moved San Francisco to 7-4-1. They were a half-game back of Los Angeles, but had as their hole card a home game with the Rams on the final game of the season. San Francisco also led the race for the final wild-card spot by a half-game over Dallas.
A Monday Night home date with the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants got off to a great start when Montana threw a pair of first-half touchdowns for a 17-0 lead. But the lead was given away rapidly when the defense allowed three third-quarter TD passes by Phil Simms. The 21-17 loss put San Francisco up against it.
They were a game and a half back of Los Angeles and needed help in the NFC West race. Dallas had also lost, but Minnesota won to pull within a half-game of the wild-card spot. With games coming up against playoff-bound AFC East teams in the Jets and Patriots, the 49ers were in serious trouble.
The good news was that even though the Jets were playoff-bound they were also in the middle of a dramatic late-season collapse where they lost their final five games and went from Super Bowl contender to barely hanging on. The 49ers aided that process by pounding the ball on the ground for 198 yards. They held New York to 38 rush yards and produced a 24-10 win. The Rams won ahead of them and the Vikings won behind them to keep the pressure on. The Cowboys lost again and would fade from the picture.
After three quarters in Foxboro, the 49ers trailed 17-16. The season turned in the fourth quarter. Cribbs had his best game of the season, rushing for 107 yards. Craig added 86 more yards on the ground as the running game continued a late-season revival at the right time. San Francisco rallied to win 29-24. Good news also came from around the league. Minnesota was upset at Houston and San Francisco clinched a playoff berth. Out west, Los Angeles lost in overtime to Miami. The head-to-head showdown for the division title was back on.
The league scheduled this game for a Friday night, with the recent history of both franchises suggesting it would be worth prime-time. The 49ers and Rams had to turn around and get ready on a short week. San Francisco did a much better job of it than did their rivals.
After an early 49er field goal, Montana hit Rice for a 44-yard touchdown pass and the lead was 10-0 after a quarter. Rushing touchdowns were swapped by LA’s Eric Dickerson and Cribbs sending the game to the locker room at 17-7.
The San Francisco defense was clamping down on the great Dickerson though, holding him to 68 yards on 18 rushes. His numbers were barely better than Cribbs, who also carried 18 times and gained 62 yards. Meanwhile, Craig rushed for 80 yards. The rookie McKyer picked off Jim Everett twice. Montana threw another TD pass, a one-yard flip to Francis. The lead went to 24-7 in the third quarter and the night turned into a long party at Candlestick, with a final score of 24-14.
San Francisco was back on top of the NFC West, but that was as far as they would go. After a week off they went to the Meadowlands to play the 14-2 Giants in the divisional playoff round. The game got off to a good start—Rice caught a pass from Montana and broke clear for what appeared to be a sure touchdown. Instead, Rice simply dropped the ball and New York recovered the unforced fumble.
To say the game went downhill from there understates the case. A complete avalanche hit the 49ers. Montana was knocked cold and had to be removed from the game. The Giants won by a stunning 49-3 margin. When asked if the Rice fumble had been the difference, Walsh replied succinctly that had Rice not fumbled the final score would have been 49-10. It was that bad.
But one thing that wasn’t bad was that the fortunes of this great organization had ticked back upward. The draft from the previous spring had included not only McKyer, but also names like Tom Rathman, John Taylor, Charles Haley and Kevin Fagan. All would be huge contributors in the years to come. Over the next three seasons, the 49ers would either be the #1 seed in the NFC or win the Super Bowl or both. Montana and the dynasty had a second wind.