The early 1990s were the heyday of the Steve Young era in San Francisco. From 1992-95, the 49ers joined the Cowboys as the two teams recognized as the best in the NFL. The 1993 San Francisco 49ers were the weakest edition of that four-year run, but they still reached an NFC Championship Game for the second straight year.
Young was a first-team All-NFL quarterback and led the league’s most prolific offense. His 68% completion rate and 8.7 yards-per-attempt were the best combination of efficiency and field-stretching in the NFL. The interceptions were a touch high—but in the world of 1993, a 29/16 TD-INT ratio was still more than good enough. Young also ran for over 400 yards, second-best on the team.
The incomparable Jerry Rice was still the #1 target and the future Hall of Fame wide receiver caught 98 balls for over 1,500 yards in making 1st-team All-NFL himself. If Young-to-Rice weren’t enough, the 49ers had a Pro Bowl tight end in Bret Jones. They had John Taylor as the #2 receiver and Ricky Watters as the top runner, each of whom would just miss 1,000-yard seasons in receiving and rushing respectively.
And the offensive line? Can I interest in you three Pro Bowlers, Jesse Sapolu, Guy McIntyre and left tackle Harris Barton, the latter joining Young and Rice as a 1st-team All-NFL player. If all the 49ers had to do was score, no one could stop them.
But championship football also involves stopping somebody and it’s where the ‘93 49ers came up short. There were some bright spots—Tim McDonald was a Pro Bowl strong safety and first-year defensive end Dana Stubblefield got 10 ½ sacks and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. But overall, the defense finished 16th in the 28-team league in points allowed. It was the only time in the 1992-95 stretch that the defense ended up lower than sixth in giving up points. And it would be the difference between being good and being great.
San Francisco started 3-2 against a mediocre schedule whose toughest games were against borderline playoff teams from Pittsburgh and Minnesota, each of which they won. The 49ers went into the first of what was two bye weeks (the double-bye was an ill-fated experiment the NFL mercifully dropped after this one season) still looking to really find their footing.
A trip to Dallas awaited on the other end of the bye. San Francisco had lost the previous year’s NFC Championship Game at home to Jimmy Johnson’s team, led by the Big Three of quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin. And the Niners were an an 8 ½ point underdog for this late Sunday afternoon game being shown to most of the country.
The result was a well-played, balanced game on both sides of the ball and San Francisco led 17-16 into the third quarter. But it was Dallas who took over down the stretch and won 26-17. The 49ers were sitting on a 3-3 record and had to regroup.
Regroup is what they did. The next eight weeks offered a soft schedule and San Francisco took advantage. They went 7-1. In four of the wins, they dropped 40-plus points. All seven wins were by double-digits and in six of those, the margin exceeded twenty points. They hammered the eventual NFC Central champs from Detroit, 55-17 on the road. Even allowing the hiccup at Atlanta, it was an impressive display of dominance that clinched the NFC West.
At 10-4, the 49ers still had a shot at catching either the Cowboys or New York Giants, who were battling atop the NFC East, for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. But the offense went belly-up on Christmas night at home. San Francisco lost 10-7 to the Houston Oilers, with Young throwing a couple interceptions.
The loss locked the 49ers into the 2-seed and with nothing to play for, they lost the finale at home to Philadelphia. San Francisco was a hard team to read going into the playoffs. Their pedigree was undeniable and they had shown real stretches of excellence in 1993, but against the best opponents on their schedule—the Cowboys and Oilers—they had come up short. What would happen in in the postseason?
Oddsmakers believed in the 49ers and installed them as 8 ½ point favorites for their divisional playoff game against the Giants. New York had gotten a Pro Bowl season from quarterback Phil Simms at age 38, a 1,000-yard rushing season from Rodney Hampton and had the NFL’s best defense. They had pushed Dallas to overtime of the regular season finale before losing the division title and settling for a wild-card.
There were some of us who believed the Giants were better than the 49ers–at least I hope there were “some” of us, because I really hope I wasn’t the only one. What happened at old Candlestick Park was nothing short of a demolition.
Watters rushed for 118 yards and five short touchdown runs. Hampton was held to 12 yards on the ground. The Niner defense picked off Simms three times and sacked him four more, twice by Stubblefield. Young was efficiently brilliant, going 17/22 for 226 yards. The game was a rout from the get-go and ended up 44-3.
Over the years of 1981 to 1998, with either Young or the great Joe Montana leading the way, San Francisco had some amazing playoff moments and won five Super Bowls. But if you’re looking for the most impressive playoff win the franchise has ever had, this win over the Giants was it.
San Francisco made another trip to Dallas. The respect the oddsmakers had was evident in that the 49ers were only a three-point road underdog, meaning they were seen as equal to the defending champs on a neutral field. But that was overreach. The flaws of the defense were exposed in the NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys scored three successive touchdowns to take a 28-7 lead and the 49ers lost 38-21.
Another championship-game loss to Dallas grated on the nerves of this proud organization and San Francisco was determined to fix their defensive shortcomings. That they did. The 49ers signed the great cornerback Deion Sanders in the offseason and in 1994, Young would finally get his moment—beating the Cowboys in the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl.