The 1992 San Francisco 49ers season was the real start of the Steve Young era. Joe Montana had been injured at the end of the 1990 season and was still not able to play. Young had gotten the job in 1991, but injuries cost him substantial time and resulted in the 49ers missing the playoffs. In 1992, Young had the job, stayed healthy and started a seven-year run that took him to the Hall of Fame.
Young completed his 67 percent of his passes—the highest percentage in the league. He generated 8.6 yards-per-attempt. Also the highest in the league. His TD-INT ratio was 25/7 and the 1.7 interception rate was the best in the league. On top of all this, his 537 rush yards were second on the 49ers, the offense scored the most points in the NFL and the team had the best regular season record in the league. Given all that, Young was a no-brainer pick for the MVP award.
But there was no shortage of help around him. Ricky Watters ran for over 1,000 yards in a Pro Bowl campaign. He caught 43 passes out of the backfield, and fullback Tom Rathman caught 44 more in a diversified passing system. Brent Jones, the Pro Bowl tight end was good for 45 more catches.
And there was no bigger weapon on the outside than Jerry Rice. The future Hall of Fame receiver caught 84 passes, averaged 14.3 yards-per-catch and was 1st-team All-NFL.
San Francisco’s offensive line could also do the heavy lifting. Harris Barton was one of the best tackles in football on the right side. Steve Wallace at left tackle was a Pro Bowler in 1992, as was left guard Guy McIntyre.
The offense got justifiable headlines, but the defense was pretty good too. There wasn’t the same raw star power—only defensive end Pierce Holt made the Pro Bowl on this side of the ball. But there were steady players in Michael Carter on the nose, Bill Romanowski at linebacker and Eric Davis at corner. Tim Harris was big-time playmaker from the outside linebacker spot and his 17 sacks were tied for second in the NFL.
San Francisco’s D finished third in the league in points allowed. This team had no real weaknesses and after the injury-riddled ‘91 campaign, were ready to get at it.
They split their first two games. The loss was a late Sunday afternoon sizzler with two-time defending AFC champ Buffalo. The Bills were on their way to a third straight Super Bowl this year and they came into San Francisco and staged a shootout. Young was brilliant, going 26/37 for 449 yards and three touchdowns. But so was his counterpart, Jim Kelly. And 49er kicker Mike Cofer missed a couple key field goals that were the difference in a 34-31 loss.
That game was seen as a heavyweight fight from the outset, so there was no cause for alarm. San Francisco responded by calmly ripping off five straight wins. The biggest was a late September trip to New Orleans on a Sunday night. The Saints were an NFC West rival prior to the realignment of 2002 (along with the Rams and Falcons) and New Orleans was the defending divisional champ.
Young played mistake-free football against an aggressive defense, while the 49er defense intercepted Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert three times. San Francisco dominated in the trenches, winning rush yardage 154-77. That was the difference in a tough 16-10 win.
The 49ers reached their bye week at 6-1 and then suffered a surprise 21-14 loss to the Cardinals (an NFC East team prior to 2002). Although Young had been knocked out early in that game, so there was an explanation for the offensive struggles. And he would return immediately the following week, as the Niners promptly resumed winning.
On November 15, San Francisco and New Orleans were both 7-2 and set to meet in old Candlestick Park in the late Sunday afternoon TV window. The Niners struggled much of the game and trailed 20-7 after three quarters. But they were again dominating the Saints on the ground—176-43 in rush yardage. And Young eventually broke through, hitting Jones for a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns in the 21-20 win.
The playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles made their trip west two weeks later. Young threw an early 22-yard touchdown pass to Rice that set the tone. Young finished 24/35 for 342 yards and two scores, while Rice caught eight passes for 133 yards. San Francisco won 20-14.
Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins were the next playoff-bound opponent to make their way west for a late Sunday afternoon game and the 49ers put on a defensive clinic. They completely shut down the Dolphin ground game, kept Marino’s passes underneath and cruised to a 27-3 win.
A challenging second half schedule continued on December 13 at Minnesota, who would also make the postseason. Amp Lee got the bulk of the carries in the running game and responded with 134 yards on 23 carries. That included a couple second quarter touchdowns that were the difference in the 20-17 win.
The win pushed San Francisco’s record to 12-2. They were still being chased by New Orleans at 11-3, although the 49ers had the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Dallas Cowboys, coming into December 13 at 11-2 themselves, were in the mix for the #1 seed in the NFC. Although here too, the 49ers had the tiebreaker and when Dallas lost later that day in Washington, the Niners were in complete control of the NFC playoff picture.
A 21-14 home win over Tampa Bay the following Saturday wasn’t particularly inspiring—it took a 30-yard Young-to-Rice TD connection to break a 14-14 tie in the fourth quarter and win the game. But it was enough to have everything clinched going into Week 17.
The defending Super Bowl champion Redskins came to San Francisco for the divisional playoffs. On a late Saturday afternoon, the weather was sloppy and consequently, so was the play. Each team turned it over four times. But the 49ers were again manhandling a good team up front. They built a 17-3 lead and won rush yardage 187-73. The Redskins closed to within 17-13 in the fourth quarter, but San Francisco was able to get a field goal and then stop Washington’s final chance, winning 20-13.
NFL observers felt the 49ers and Cowboys were the two best teams in football and their NFC Championship Game a titanic battle that would be the de facto Super Bowl. It was tied 10-10 at halftime, but the 49er defense blinked first in the second half.
Dallas scored touchdowns on its first two possessions out of halftime and built a 24-13 lead. San Francisco closed to 24-20 and had the Cowboys pinned deep in their own end. But they allowed a simple slant patter to Alvin Harper to turn into a 70-yard gain, which set up the clinching touchdown. The 30-20 loss ended the season.
It was a bitter pill to swallow and the fact Dallas routed Buffalo in the Super Bowl, essentially validating San Francisco’s status as the second-best team, was undoubtedly zero consolation. This was the first of two straight years the 49ers were stopped by the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
Young would be the starter in San Francisco through the 1998 season and the 49ers made the playoffs in every one of those years, reaching at least the divisional round each time. And in 1994, the great quarterback got his crowning vindication when the 49ers beat the Cowboys and went on to win the Super Bowl.