In the off season of 1978, the owner of the San Francisco 49ers made the best decision of his life. Edward, “Eddie” J. DeBartolo Jr. hired Bill Walsh who was the head Coach at Stanford University. As offensive coordinator in Cincinnati for legendary coach Paul Brown, DeBartolo knew of Walsh’s ability to make good draft choices, and fill holes in the team through wise free-agency acquisitions and trades.
He did not disappoint. In his first draft he chose Notre Dame Quarterback Joe Montana in the first round. Montana had led the “Fighting Irish” to a National Championship in 1977, as well as several dramatic come from behind victories. His most unforgettable was in the 1979 Cotton Bowl Classic. Notre Dame was playing the University of Houston in an ice storm. To compound matters, he had the flu. The score at halftime was Houston 34, Notre Dame 13. During the intermission, we were told that Montana was fed as much chicken soup as he could ingest, hoping to stop his chills. Montana began the second half moving the Irish down field easily. On the last play of the game, he threw a touchdown pass giving Notre Dame the win 35-34. To this day that game has been renamed the “Chicken Soup Bowl”.
Montana was 6 feet 2 inches tall, and weight 200 pounds. But he was not considered a top prospect by most scouts in the 1979 draft. Their biggest concern was his perceived lack of arm strength.
As Walsh implemented his “West Coast Offense” in the 1979 season, he had little success. However Steve DeBerg, quarterback at the time had a good year.
The 1980 season was more successful. But the most important game was game 14. The 49ers trailed the winless New Orleans Saints 35-7 at halftime. Montana led San Francisco to what was then the greatest comeback in the NFL. They won in overtime 38-35. Montana was moved to the starting quarterback position.
The 1981 season found his team successful in the “West Coast Offense”. Feeling he needed more aggressiveness and consistency on defense, he acquired such players as Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, Jack Reynolds, and Fred Dean.
The 49ers finished the 1981 regular season with a record of 13-3. The only element Walsh was not happy with was the running game.
They faced the New York Giants in the divisional playoffs and won 38-24. This matched them against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship. As he had done so many times at Notre Dame, he led his team downfield with 4:54 remaining, culminating in a touchdown pass to Dwight Clark, known as “the catch”. Dallas had a chance to come back, but the defense held. The final score was 28-27. They would face the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals in their first Super Bowl appearance. They would win 26-21. 1982 was a lost year for most teams. The 49ers lost their first five home games and had a 3-6 record in strike shortened season.
The 1983 season produced a season of 10 wins and 6 losses. They defeated the Detroit Lions in the divisional championship, but lost the NFC Championship on a questionable defensive holding call to the Washington Redskins.
In 1984 they had one of the greatest seasons in team history. They amassed a record of 15-1, which would not be matched until the 1985 Chicago Bears. Their season ended with a Super Bowl win against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, 38-16. All four 49er defensive backs made the Pro-Bowl.
In 1985, San Francisco traded up and selected Jerry Rice from Mississippi Valley State as the 16th pick overall. By the end of the season, Rice had proven himself to Bill Walsh. During that season running back Roger Craig became the first to run for 1000 yards, and gain 1000 yards as a receiver. They were quickly eliminated by the New York Giants 17-3.
The first game of the 1986 season saw them easily defeat Tampa Bay. During the game Montana received a lower back injury and was sidelined. Examinations discovered a disc injury that required immediate surgery. Doctors advised him that he should retire from football. A hard hit could result in more serious injury including paralyzing his lower extremities.
Montana returned to the team on November 6, 1986. Once again he led his team to the playoffs but suffered their worst playoff loss, 49-3. He was injured again by a hit from Jim Burt.
In the off season, with concerns about Montana’s health, Walsh traded for Steve Young from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the strike-shortened season of 1987, San Francisco had a league best record of 13-2. However, they lost in the Divisional round to the Minnesota Vikings who were considered an inferior team. Montana played badly, and was benched towards the end of the game. Young ran for a touchdown, in a 36-24 loss.
1988 began with a quarterback controversy. Montana had suffered an elbow injury, and Walsh alternated between Young and Montana. Their record was 6-5. Montana’s elbow healed, and he took over the role of starting quarterback. They finished the regular season 10-6, and defeated the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears to return to the Super Bowl.
There third trip to the Super Bowl put them against the Cincinnati Bengals. The halftime score was 3-3. With just over three minutes left, San Francisco found themselves behind 16-13.
With 3:08 left in the game, and being called for a holding penalty on the kickoff, they were on their own 8 yard line. Montana called them into the huddle, and said, “hey, there’s John Candy over there”. His calm demeanor gave his team confidence, and they marched down the field. John Taylor caught a touchdown pass with 34 seconds left in the game.
Walsh retired as head coach after Super Bowl XXIII. He picked defensive coordinator George Seifert to take over the position. The 1989 season saw Montana and Rice at the top of their games. They finished with a 14-2 season, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The defeated the Denver Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. The 1989 team is considered one of the best in history, winning all three playoff games by a total of 100 points.
The seasons of 1990, ’91, and ’92 were disappointing. Montana was sidelined with an elbow injury for almost two years. At the end of the ’92 season, Montana asked for, and was given a trade to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Young helped them return to the Super Bowl in 1994. Their record was once again 13-3, and had home field advantage. In their first playoff game they easily defeated the Chicago Bears and once again faced the Dallas cowboys for the Championship. They won 38-23, and would face the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl. The final outcome was 49-26, an easy victory for the 49ers. Young was MVP.
San Francisco has never lost a Super Bowl. In 2011 they selected another Stanford coach, Jim Harbaugh, to be their head coach. In his first season, he took them to the NFC Championship game, eventually losing to the World Champion New York Giants 20-17.
This year he took them to the Championship again, defeating the Atlanta Falcons 28-24. They will face the Baltimore Ravens for the World Championship of February 3rd in New Orleans.
Harbaugh is emotional, fiery, and courageous as a coach. Enduring great criticism, he replaced quarterback Alex Smith with second year player Colin Kaepernick. Smith had been injured, suffering a concussion. But when he was cleared to play Harbaugh decided that Kaepernick made the team more of an offensive threat.
With a potent offense and one of the league’s better defenses, they present many problems for the Ravens.
Do I think they will win Super Bowl XLVII and have a record of 6-0 in Super Bowl appearances, and joining the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only six time winners? Let’s look at the past, and predict the future.
All five of San Francisco’s wins had common threads. All were led by outstanding quarterback play, and talented receivers. All had strong defenses, and could keep the other team from scoring when necessary. Three of their wins boasted a solid running game, with the back being able to catch the ball in open space. The final piece of the puzzle is the head coach. Bill Walsh was an innovator able to recognize great talent. Seifert inherited a team he knew well, and continued in a system proven successful.
Last year the 49ers improved dramatically from the previous five years. Their defense was among the league’s best, and with Frank Gore leading the way, the offense was successful in a weak division.
This year, with the ability of Kaepernick to both run and throw the ball, putting defenses in positions that are at times indefensible, the offense has become recognized as unpredictable and explosive. The defense is excellent in all areas. And the coach is courageous and, like Walsh, obviously has an eye for talent.
So how do they match against the Ravens? The 49ers are younger and faster on offense. They should be able to score 35 or more points against an aging defense that has shown weaknesses throughout the season. Unlike the “experts”, I believe the Ravens’ offense still has some unanswered questions. First of all, if Ray Rice is not effective, the offense is not effective. Secondly, Joe Flacco throws one of the best long balls in the game, but I still doubt his ability to throw the intermediate throw, especially to the sidelines.
My “guestimate”, is that the San Francisco 49ers will defeat the Baltimore Ravens, winning Super Bowl XLVII 38-24. I can’t wait for the game.
Columnist-The Guardian Express