In the beginning there was...
Then there was "The Catch"
The rest is history.
It’s easy to pick the 49ers as having the best NFL team of all time, the hard part is to pick which 49er team was the best.
Both teams are consistently picked by experts as among the top five teams ever, and the 49ers are the only team so honored.
Was it the 18-1 1984 team which came four points short of a perfect 19-0 season and romped over the New York Giants 21-10 and the Chicago Bears 23-0 before annihilating the Miami Dolphins and their supercharged offense 38-16 in the Super Bowl? Or was it the 17-2 1989 team, which only lost two games by a total of five points, and blasted through the playoffs and Super Bowl beating the Vikings 41-13, the Rams 30-3, and the Denver Broncos 55-10?
Both teams were led by the greatest quarterback of all, Joe Montana. Among his many accomplishments, Joe never threw an interception in a playoff or Super Bowl, and racked up four Super Bowl victories without defeat.
With the loss in Super Bowl XLII, Tom Brady will never be able to match Joe’s record of never losing a Super Bowl. Of course, Tom Brady is in good company, since among all the greats – Elway, Favre, Simms, Aikman, Starr, Staubach, et al – only Terry Bradshaw can match Joe’s 4-0 record in the Super Bowl.
It takes more than a quarterback to lay claim to being the greatest team. Coached by the incomparable Bill Walsh, the 1984 team had great balance on offense, with Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig running, Craig leading the team in receptions, and talented receivers led by Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, and Russ Francis. The athletic and precise 49er offensive line was anchored by Pro Bowlers Fred Quillan, Randy Cross, and Keith Fahnhorst, All-Pro John Ayers, and massive Bubba Paris.
Although the 49er offense was second only to Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins in points scored, the 49er defense was second to none and led the league in least points allowed. For the first and probably only time, the entire 49er defensive backfield – Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, Carlton Williamson, and Eric Wright – were selected as starters in the Pro Bowl. The 49ers also had an incredible defensive line, led by Dwaine Board, Fred Dean, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, Michael Carter, Manu Tuiasosopo, Lawrence Pillers, Jeff Stover, and Jim Stuckey. You never heard much about individual accomplishments from this group because 49er defensive coordinator George Seifert rotated them continually to have fresh defenders in the game from start to finish. A good crew of 49er linebackers were led by All-Pro Keena Turner, Ricki Ellison, and Dan Bunz.
In the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers crushed the Chicago Bears 23-0. The following year the Bears had their only Super Bowl season, beating the 49ers 26-10 in the regular season. Some say the 1985 Bears were the best team ever, but while their defense was the best (like the 49ers was in 1984), their offense was only 7th overall, 1st rushing but only 20th passing, while the 49ers 2nd rated offense was balanced, ranked 2nd both in running and passing.
In the two seasons following their Super Bowl win, the Bears were eliminated both years by the Washington Redskins in the first round, and in a 1987 regular season game, the 49ers won their first game with the Bears after the 1985 Super Bowl by a mortally embarrassing score of 41-0.
Although the Bears tout their record 1985 through 1988 as the “best four seasons any team has ever had,” they won the same number of Super Bowls during that period as the 49ers – one – and during the period 1984 through 1989, the 49ers won three Super Bowls.
Getting back to the 1984 49ers, after humiliating Chicago’s legendary “46” defense under Bears defensive guru Buddy Ryan, the 49ers then faced the super-hyped Dolphins top-rated offensive machine. During the regular season Dan Marino had set records for touchdown passes (48) and yards passing (5,084), while only being sacked thirteen times. In the Super Bowl, George Seifert confused Marino with changing defenses that disrupted his receivers’ pass routes and resulted in four sacks and many hits and hurries. The final score of 38-16 clearly reflected the 49ers dominance on both sides of the ball.
As great as the 1984 49ers were, many experts think the 1989 team was better. They have many points on their side. Joe Montana had his greatest season, throwing for 3,512 yards, 26 touchdowns, and only 8 interceptions, giving him what was then the highest quarterback rating in NFL history (112.4). However, Joe’s quarterback rating was 3rd on the 49ers that year, behind Steve Bono’s 157.9, and Steve Young’s 120.8. Joe also won NFL awards for Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.
Good quarterbacks make good receivers, and vice versa. The 49ers had Jerry Rice at the top of his game with 112 receptions, John Taylor who could take a short toss 90 yards or more (twice for TDs in the 30-3 win over the Rams), Brent Jones catching like a wide receiver from the tight end spot, Roger Craig receiving and running through tackles with his chest-high knee action, and fullback Tom Rathman catching 73 safety valve flips. San Francisco's offense led the league in total yards from scrimmage (6,268) and scoring (442 points), and was ranked #1.
The 49ers defense was ranked #3, 3rd against the rush and 11th against the pass. Overall the 49ers were first in differential between points scored and points allowed, although the differential was not nearly as large as for the 1984 team.
The two games lost could just as easily been won. Ronnie Lott was out, four starters were missing from the offensive line, and the 49ers fumbled the ball away on the Rams 19-yard line while leading 12-10 with just over two minutes to play. Instead of at least a 49er field goal and a 15-10 lead with little or no time left, the Rams got a field goal for a 13-12 win.
The 49ers lost 21-17 to Green Bay on a day when the Green Bay winning touchdown drive of 73 yards was done with 45 yards of 49er penalties, and a 94-yard TD runback of an interception was erased by an offside penalty on the 49ers.
The 49ers ended the regular season shutting out the Chicago Bears 26-0, the third time they had shut them out in five years – 23-0 in the 1984 season, and 41-0 in 1987. In the playoffs, the 49ers #1 offense met the Vikings’ defense which had been ranked #1 for all sixteen weeks of the regular season, and won 41-13 in a “game that was even more one-sided than the score,” according to Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Next the 49ers faced the Rams for the third time, narrowly losing 13-12 in the first regular season game, and coming back twice from 17-point deficits in the second game to win 30-27. However, this time it wasn’t even close, with Montana completing 26 of 30 attempts, the running game with Craig and Rathman clicking, and the defense holding the Rams to 156 total yards, only nine first down, and only 20 minutes time of possession.
Then the 49ers faced the Denver Broncos and their defense ranked third in the NFL. Suffice it to say that Montana’s five touchdown passes, three to Jerry Rice, were only part of a story that included eight 49er touchdowns along the way to winning the most lop-sided Super Bowl ever, 55-10. Elway was held to just 10 completions out of 26 attempts for 108 yards with no touchdowns, and was intercepted 2 times.
So there you have it, two great 49ers teams that in a span of nine Super Bowls won four of them. Both the 1984 and 1989 teams have a lot going for them in claiming to be the best NFL team of all time. Based on what happened in the year each won the Super Bowl, there’s not much to give one team or the other the nod.
The 1984 49ers had a better defense and running game, but the 1989 team had Joe Montana at his peak throwing to Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver of all time, and still had a pretty good running game with Roger Craig and Tom Rathman.
In the final analysis I have to go beyond the outstanding season each team had, and look at each team’s performance before and after their Super Bowl season. Just as the 1985 Chicago Bears had a great season, so did the 1984 49ers.
And just like the Bears, the 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game the preceding season, losing 21-24 to the Redskins (The Bears lost to the 49ers 0-23 in the 1984 NFC Championship Game).
The 49ers were 10-6 in 1985, while the Bears were knocked out of the 1986 playoffs by Washington in the first round losing 13-27. All this leads up to why the 1989 49ers were the greatest NFL team ever. The previous year the 1988 49ers won the Super Bowl, and in the following year the 1990 49ers came within a Roger Craig fumble while they were running the clock out against the New York Giants of “three-peating” in the Super Bowl.
Another objective assessment of the greatness of the 1989 49ers is that their unrelenting success spurred the NFL to adopt the salary cap system starting in 1990 to stop Eddie DeBartolo from collecting and stockpiling the best players that other teams couldn’t afford to keep. For example, the 49ers had certain Hall of Famer Joe Montana at quarterback, and future Hall of Famer Steve Young on the bench.
The 49ers had eight defensive linemen, and their second unit could have started for almost any other team in the league. In fact, the 49ers rotated them constantly to keep fresh players on the field, and the second unit players had about the same playing time as the starters. Their outstanding linebacker group featured Keena Turner, Bill Romanowski, Matt Millen, and Charles Haley playing the hybrid “elephant” (linebacker-defensive end) position. The 49er defensive backfield included Eric Wright, Tim McKyer, Don Griffen, and was anchored by Ronnie Lott, the greatest defensive back of all time.
Not bad, don’t you think? A team with three of the greatest players of all time, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott. Of course, there are experts who rank the 1984 49ers as the greatest team of all time, and in doing this I’ve come very close to agreeing with them. (This analyst actually picks the 1984 49ers first, and the 1989 team fourth, because he had picked the 2007 Patriots third assuming they would be 19-0 after the Super Bowl. Never assume anything!)
But in the end, I have to pick the 1989 49ers, not just for the 1989 season, but for their sustained excellence 1988 through 1990.
1984 49ers or 1989 49ers? For a 49er fan, what a wonderful dilemma!