After a decade of greatness, the San Francisco 49er faced transition year. All-time great players in Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott weren’t on hand, Montana due to injury and Lott went to the Raiders. Running back Roger Craig, a mainstay of three championship teams also became a Raider. The 49ers turned the keys to the franchise over to Steve Young. The road would be rocky, but the 1991 San Francisco 49ers were playing their best football by the end of the season and set the stage for another decade of greatness.
Young stepped in and promptly delivered a 65% completion rate and an outstanding 9.0 yards-per-attempt. He threw 17 touchdown passes and his 415 rush yards were second on the team. One all-time great who was still in town was wide receiver with Jerry Rice and with 80 catches for 1,206 yards and a Pro Bowl trip, it was a typical Rice year.
John Taylor rounded out the receivers corps with a 1,000-yard season of his own, Keith Henderson was the lead back and left guard Guy McIntyre was another Pro Bowler. Orchestrating the attack was coordinator Mike Holmgren, who would one day be a head coach for a Super Bowl champion in Green Bay and another Super Bowl team in Seattle. The 49ers had the 3rd-best offense in the NFL.
Head coach George Seifert’s background was on defense and he took a unit that really only had two threats—the pass-rushing of Pro Bowler Charles Haley and defensive end Larry Roberts, who combined for 16 sacks—and still produced a unit that ranked fourth in the league in points allowed.
With top-five units on both sides of the ball, you would think San Francisco’s 1991 season would be up there with the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, or the AFC champ Buffalo Bills, who defined the league’s elite throughout the year. But the 49ers had a knack for losing close games and that haunted them in September.
It started with a Monday Night visit to the Meadowlands, where a game with the Giants, a rematch of the classic NFC Championship Game the previous January, opened the season. San Francisco lost 16-14 on a late field goal.
Young bounced back at home against San Diego, with a razor-sharp 26/36 for 348 yards performance. Rice caught nine balls for 150 yards and after spotting the Bolts a 14-10 lead, the Niners pulled away to win 34-14. But the running game failed at Minnesota in Week 3 and San Francisco lost 17-14.
They were back home to face the Los Angeles Rams, where once again Young and Rice got cooking. The quarterback went 21/31 for 288 yards and no mistakes, including a 62-yard touchdown strike to Rice in the 27-10 win. But a road trip to face Los Angeles’ other team—the playoff-bound Raiders—was a defensive battle. Young threw a couple interceptions and the 49ers lost 12-6.
San Francisco went into their bye week at the start of October with a record of 2-3. The combined margin of defeat in the three losses was 11 points—a margin that was exceeded by both victories individually. That—along with playing in a rugged conference where eight teams would win 10 games—is the formula for being top-five both offensively and defensively and still missing the playoffs.
The offense started humming again in a home date with the Atlanta Falcons, as Young went 22/38 for 348 yards. But he also threw three interceptions and that was the difference in a 39-34 loss that dug the hole a little deeper. A visit from the Detroit Lions, a good playoff-bound team with Barry Sanders in the backfield, now shaped up as must-win. Henderson pounded out 104 yards, the Niners shut down Sanders and the 35-3 win kept the season alive.
San Francisco continued to play physical football in Philadelphia where the Eagles were another good team that would end up on the wrong side of the playoff picture. The 49ers outrushed the Birds 137-29 and won the football game 23-7.
They were back to .500 and set for road games with their two biggest divisional rivals, the Falcons and New Orleans Saints (Prior to 2002, these three teams and the Rams comprised the NFC West in what was a three-division/three-wild-card conference alignment). In the game at Atlanta, Young was knocked out, as was Falcon counterpart Chris Miller. The 49ers led 7-0 in the fourth quarter, but it was their defense that couldn’t close against a backup quarterback. Atlanta pulled out a 17-14 win.
When you’re on the same team as Joe Montana and Steve Young, starting must-win games in November isn’t seen as likely. Yet that’s what third-string Steve Bono was now facing. He struggled at New Orleans, where the Saints had the league’s best defense, going 15/32 for 131 yards. The bad news was that at 4-6, the playoffs were now a big longshot. The good news was that the 49ers would find their groove over the final six weeks.
Roberts came up with two sacks to lead the defensive effort in a 14-10 home win over the lowly Cardinals. Bono took well to the prime-time stage in Los Angeles on the Monday after Thanksgiving. He went 18/33 for 306 yards, with Taylor being the primary target with 121 receiving yards. San Francisco won easily, 33-10.
They took some revenge on New Orleans a week later in old Candlestick Park. Bono went 27/41 for 347 yards, three touchdowns and no mistakes. Rice caught nine balls for 154 yards, Despite trailing 24-17 in the fourth quarter, the 49ers got an offensive avalanche going and pulled away to win 38-24.
Even though the running game was absent at mediocre Seattle, Taylor caught seven passes for 113 yards, including the 15-yard touchdown pass that won it, 24-22. With two weeks to go, San Francisco was 8-6 and only a game back of New Orleans and Atlanta in the division. The 49ers also had hope of catching either the Cowboys and Eagles, both 9-5, in the race for wild-card berths.
The problem was that being swept by Atlanta killed San Francisco in the tiebreakers within the division and the 49ers needed both rivals to collapse in the last two games. Playoff spots were further limited by the fact Detroit and Chicago were each having big years and one of them would scarf up the top wild-card spot.
San Francisco knew it was a longshot when they took the field for a late Saturday afternoon home game with the Kansas City Chiefs. But playoffs or not, the 49ers were looking to send a message to the rest of the league. Bono went 24/33 for 220 yards, three touchdowns, zero picks in an easier-than-the-score-makes-it-sound, 28-14 win.
Young was ready to play for the season finale, a Monday Night home game with Chicago. It was a significant game—a Bears win would hand them a division title and first-round bye. Lose, and they would fall into the wild-card round while the Lions got a week off.
If you’re a non-playoff team looking to make a statement, the MNF stage and importance of the game were perfect. And the 49ers very nearly were too. Young went 21/32 for 338 yards, three touchdowns and nary a mistake to be found. The game was never close and San Francisco went into the offseason on the high of a 52-14 rout.
After a stretch from 1981-90 where the 49ers had made the postseason nine times and won four Super Bowl trophies, a 10-6 non-playoff year wasn’t going to inspire celebration. But the transition and injuries the 49ers had overcome make this a significant year for the franchise. It set the stage for a return to greatness the following year. From 1992-94, the 49ers and Cowboys were easily the NFL’s two best teams. Young won MVP awards in two of those years and in 1994, another Super Bowl title came to San Francisco.