San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most successful NFL teams of all time, having won a record-equalling five Super Bowls over the course of their existence. Four of these victories came in the 1980s, and they fully deserve the ‘Team of the Decade’ title that they were given at the time. Furthermore, of all the teams to have played in more than one Super Bowl, they are the only ones not to have lost once.

Early years

The San Francisco 49ers joined the All-American Football Conference in 1946, before joining the NFL four years later.

They initially struggled to find their place within the league, with their first successful season coming in 1957 courtesy of an 8-4 record, a result that led them through to their first divisional playoff against the Detroit Lions. Unfortunately, despite taking an early lead of 27-7, the Lions were no walkover and came back to take the next 24 points and the game.

The following decade held little success for the club, although it did witness some great players join the ranks during this period, including Ken Willard, John Brodie and Bruce Bosley.

Progress

It wasn’t until 1970 that the team finally began to make some real strides forward. They raced to seven wins in their first nine matches, and then continued this form to go all the way to their first Divisional Championship in the NFC West.

The Minnesota Vikings failed to prevent them from taking the NFC Divisional Playoff game, and they then met the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship. However, their luck finally ran out as they ended up losing 17-10.

Cowboys rivalry

The following season they moved away from their home at Kezar Stadium to their new base at Candlestick Park. The team had no problems settling in, and ended up storming the division with a 9-5 record. The Washington Red Skins then fell to them in a close divisional playoff game, but the Dallas Cowboys again managed to put an end to their campaign with a 14-3 victory at the same stage as the previous year.

Unbelievably, it was the Cowboys who yet again felled the 49ers the following season. Although winning in the NFC Divisional Playoff by some margin at one point, they could not hold onto their lead, and somehow ended up losing 30-28.

After three near misses, hopes began to fade in the 49ers camp, and for the next 8 years they failed to make it into the playoffs. These testing years included a particularly disastrous season in 1978 when they ended with a 2-14 record. However, despite the lack of success, it was also the year that a number of future stars would first make appearances, including Steve DeBerg, Paul Hofer and Randy Cross.

The comeback

After such a disastrous run of form, things began to change with the arrival of new owner Edward J. DeBartolo, who was joined by head coach Bill Walsh in 1978. It would be the start of a dramatic change of fortune for the club, which would shape their future success for over a decade.

Another key turning point for the club came in 1979, when they managed to get hold of Joe Montana in the draft after he was rejected by the Cowboys. It didn’t lead to an immediate run of success, as they lost that season 2-14, but things were certainly about to change. As a sidenote, it was also the final season for OJ Simpson, who would later go on to be involved in one of the largest court cases in American history.

Road to Super Bowl XVI

1980 didn’t see too many improvements, and even though they won their first three games, they went on to lose the next eight in a row.

However, in week 14 they made up for all of their losses with what would become their second greatest comeback of all time. Playing against the New Orleans Saints, things were going very badly indeed at half-time when they found themselves down 35-7. However, Montana showed just why he had been chosen by leading them to a 38-35 comeback in overtime, a performance which saw him take the quarterback position on a full-time basis. Imagine what their greatest comeback was like!

Although their offence was solid, it became apparent that the team needed to work on their defence. This they did, and by the end of the 1981 season they had stormed to a 13-3 record, the best in the club’s history. This saw them back to the NFC Divisional Playoff, and they proved that they meant business by beating the New York Giants 38-24.

Next up was the NFC Championship Game, and once again they were up against old foes the Dallas Cowboys. With less than five minutes remaining they were down 27-21, and it once again looked like they would have to accept defeat. But in a moment of inspiration, Montana incredibly managed to deliver the ball to Dwight Clark in the end zone to give them the lead. It is a move now known simply as ‘The Catch’, and it has gone down as one of the most famous single events in NFL history. They went on to take the match, a huge psychological victory for the club. However, even better than this, they were through to their first ever Super Bowl.

Their rivals the Cincinnati Bengals were also in their first Super Bowl, and so the stakes were high for both teams. However, the 49ers stormed to a 20-0 half-time lead, which they never let slip. The final score was 26-21, and the Super Bowl title was theirs. It marked a huge turnaround for the club, seeing as they had only two years ago posted a 2-14 record.

The following years

The subsequent season did not live up to expectations, and it was shortened because of a player strike, but Montana continued to shine. In 1983, a 10-6 record saw them through to the NFC Divisional Playoff, where they managed to beat the Detroit Lions, with Montana helping them to a tight 24-23 victory.

However, in the NFC Championship Game against the Washington Redskins, they were unable to make the most of an unlikely comeback and lost 24-21, failing to make it to the Super Bowl for a second time.

Record-breaking year

1984 saw a further shift in fortunes though, as the team obtained a truly epic record of 15-1, setting what was then the NFL mark for the most wins in a season (although now broken). Their first victims in the NFC Divisional Playoffs were the New York Giants, who fell to a 21-10 loss. Then came the Chicago Bears, who failed to score a single point as they collapsed to a 23-0 defeat.

This saw the 49ers into the Super Bowl once again, where they beat the Miami Dolphins 38-16 to get their second title. Their overall record for the entire season was 18-1, which is still a record in the NFL, although it has since been equalled.

Another triumph

The following few years were hampered by injuries, most notably to Montana when he was out of action for two months in 1986. This had an effect on their performances, and the team failed to get any further than the first playoff round.

After three years of little success, the fans were hoping for a return to form for their club in the 1988 season. The 49ers initially struggled, but they managed to turn it around to post a 10-6 record, which saw them back into the playoffs.

Hopes began to rise, and when they beat the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears to make it through to Super Bowl XXIII, it seemed as if nothing could stop them. It was a tight game, but they kept up their unbeaten Super Bowl record by beating the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16.

The team of the 80s

Bill Walsh retired the following year, but his hand-picked successor George Seifert took over as head coach and led them to a phenomenal year. They ended up with a 14-2 record, one of their best ever, and then knocked out the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams in two dominant performances on their way to Super Bowl XXIV.

This time the Denver Broncos stood in their way, but the 49ers showed no fear to utterly dominate the game and take it 55-10 in one of the most one-sided victories ever.

After such a dominant run of form, things began to quieten down for the 49ers. Joe Montana lost two seasons to an injury, and was then traded to the Kansas City Chiefs before the 1993 season in a highly controversial move.

However, something changed for the team in the 1994 season, and after a bad start to their campaign they came back to win 10 games straight and post a record of 13-3. This momentum led them onwards to beat the Chicago Bears 44-15 in the postseason, followed by the Cowboys, who were dispatched 38-28. Finally back in the Super Bowl, the San Diego Chargers could not put a dent in their 100 percent record, and the 49ers took the game 49-26. Their fifth triumph in the Super Bowl cemented their place as one of the greatest teams of all time.

Downward trend

In the 1995, 1996 and 1997 seasons, the 49ers made it through to the playoffs on each occasion, only to be defeated each time by the Green Bay Packers. Unlike previous campaigns though, this marked the begin of a prolonged decline and, by 1999, they had posted their first losing season since 1982. They did manage another shot at the playoffs in 2002, but to date it remains their last postseason appearance.

Since then, they have not enjoyed any success. In 2006 they managed to get a third place spot with a 7-9 record, but this proved a false dawn as, in 2007, they could only manage a record of 5-11. This was their fifth straight losing season and marks a sorry turn of fortune for one of the most successful clubs in the NFL.

Hall of Fame Members

  • Leo Nomellini – 1969
  • Joe Perry – 1969
  • Hugh McElhenny – 1970
  • Y. A. Tittle – 1971
  • John Henry Johnson – 1987
  • Bob St. Clair – 1990
  • Bill Walsh (Head Coach) – 1993
  • Jimmy Johnson – 1994
  • Joe Montana – 2000
  • Ronnie Lott – 1980s All Decade Team
  • Dave Wilcox – 2000
  • Steve Young – 2005

Honours

  • Super Bowl Championships – Winners (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994)
  • Conference Championships – Winners (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994)
  • Division Championships – Winners (1970, 1971, 1972, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2002)