49ers Year-by-Year: 1991

In this week's installment of 49ers Year-by-Year, we examine the 1991 season. 1991 was a season that was all but lost after the team underwent an almost sweeping cost-cutting round of roster moves, and then lost Joe Montana to an elbow injury for the full season. Steve Young had come into games before and played well in limited action. He had even started games over Montana on occasion. But this was the first time an entire season would fall on his shoulders. How would be respond to the challenge, and what's the deal with this Steve Bono character, anyway?

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 2

@ New York Giants

L: 14-16

0-1

1-0

Sept. 8

San Diego Chargers

W: 14-34

1-1

0-2

Sept. 15

@ Minnesota Vikings

L: 14-17

1-2

2-1

Sept. 22

Los Angeles Rams

W: 10-27

2-2

1-3

Sept. 29

@ Los Angeles Raiders

L: 6-12

2-3

3-2

Oct. 13

Atlanta Falcons

L: 39-34

2-4

3-3

Oct. 20

Detroit Lions

W: 3-35

3-4

5-2

Oct. 27

@ Philadelphia Eagles

W: 23-7

4-4

3-5

Nov. 3

@ Atlanta Falcons

L: 14-17

4-5

5-4

Nov. 10

@ New Orleans Saints

L: 3-10

4-6

9-1

Nov. 17

Phoenix Cardinals

W: 10-14

5-6

4-8

Nov. 25

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 33-10

6-6

3-9

Dec. 1

New Orleans Saints

W: 24-38

7-6

9-4

Dec. 8

@ Seattle Seahawks

W: 24-22

8-6

6-8

Dec. 14

Kansas City Chiefs

W: 14-28

9-6

9-6

Dec. 23

Chicago Bears

W: 14-52

10-6

11-5


Head Coach:
George Seifert

Key Losses: HB Roger Craig, T Bubba Paris, LB Matt Millen, DB Darryl Pollard, NT Pete Kugler, LB Keena Turner, WR Mike Wilson, DB Eric Wright, LB Jim Fahnhorst

Key Additions: G Roy Foster, DB Merton Hanks, NT Ted Washington, HB Ricky Watters

In his first full season as commissioner, Paul Tagliabue had been busy asserting himself as an appropriate successor to Pete Rozelle, but by 1991 he was happy to let things play out on their own. The league was stable and continuing to grow as an industry, and he was happy to let it do exactly that.

In the ‘80s, the 49ers had established what was at that time being recognized as a bona fide dynasty. They had gone so far as to sacrifice profits for the sake of making a run at a third consecutive Super Bowl victory, but the lofty goal was not to be as the 49ers fell to the Giants in the 1990 season NFC Championship game. Losing money fast and coming off of such a letdown, the 49ers used the 1991 season to cut costs.

Players who the team had held onto in 1990 in the ultimately doomed quest for a three-peat were let go this year. Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig left to play for the Raiders. Pricey linebacker Matt Millen was let go, and many other stars from the last decade were either released or allowed to retire. This included familiar names like Pete Kugler, Keena Turner, Eric Wright, and Jim Fahnhorst.

What the 49ers refused to do, though, was to sacrifice their most important pieces. With few exceptions, the 49ers had purged the roster of expensive players who were already well into the backsides of their respective careers. Some of these players already had useful replacements on the roster, but others were simply cold, cost-saving cuts.

But while the overall depth of the team was hurt, and particularly on defense, any fan could still look at the team and see names like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Tom Rathman, Brent Jones, Charles Haley, and Bill Romanowski. Even with the uncharacteristically large purge, this was still a team to contend with.

And then August 23 happened. Before that night's exhibition game against the Seattle Seahawks, Bill Walsh announced that Joe Montana would be held out with a minor elbow injury. At the time, the injury was not expected to sideline the star for long, but before so much as a week had passed after the announcement, his season was over. Montana was placed on the injured reserve, and the 49ers would have to play their first season in more than a decade without the very heart and soul of their entire offense. Officially, the fate of his season wouldn't be decided until he had surgery on October, but essentially the season was Steve Young's as of that day. And he had big shoes to fill.

For the team, the transition from Montana to Young was uneven. On the one hand, nobody had expected the loss of Montana, and it took the team a long time to adjust not only to the rhythms and timing of Young, but also to the idea that anybody other than Joe could lead them. Young struggled to win the complete trust of his teammates, and it took him a long time to get in synch with his receivers. These would be the issues that the media and many fans would latch onto over the course of the season, but the team was also suffering from the losses of Roger Craig and so much defensive depth. Dexter Carter had shown some promise in 1990, but he would be unable to develop into a complete running back in the feature role. And though talented, the defense would appear lost and leaderless at times.

Both the team's innate talent, as well as its discomfort with so many new starters at key positions manifested themselves early in the season. In the first game against the Giants, a rematch of the bitter NFC Championship game from a year earlier. The Giants' defense was typically stifling, but it was aided by the growing pains of the 49ers' offense. Steve Young played admirably, but unspectacularly. Even then, the 49ers were leading by a point in the 4th quarter. But the Giants drove into field goal range and managed to put the game away.

If the loss in the first week was an indication of the team's weaknesses, their victory in the second week was a demonstration of their considerable strengths. The defense played with chemistry and composure. Steve Young threw for nearly 350 yards and three touchdowns, 150 and two of which, respectively, went to Jerry Rice. After the first quarter, the game was never close again, and the 49ers marched to a 34-14 victory.

And from week to week after that, it was only a matter of which version of the team showed up on Sunday. Would it be the uncomfortable, incomplete team that lost to the Giants or the almost overwhelming force that dismantled the Falcons?

These questions persisted through October, as Steve Young and the 49ers slowly began to gel into a consistently cohesive unit. But after putting together their first winning streak of the season at the end of October, the 49ers were dealt another seemingly crushing blow.

Leading the Falcons in the ninth game of the season, Steve Young went down with a knee injury. He had to leave the game, and his availability going forward was in serious question. In fact, he wouldn't return to play until the final week of the season. Suddenly a 49ers' team that had expected to play through the season with Joe Montana at the help was sitting behind third stringer Steve Bono for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the immediate present wasn't making that a promising prospect. The Falcons came back to win the game in the second half, and the 49ers would lose to the Saints a week later to fall to 4-6.

For the first time in years, it seemed not only possible but likely that the 49ers would finish the season at .500 or below.

Amazingly, it was at that moment that the season turned around. Bono turned his, and the team's season around in a sea change that resembled some of the team's dominating second halves from the 1980s. In short, Bono was fantastic, and the 49ers rallied off win after win to climb back over .500 and even possibly contend for a playoff spot. Dominating victories over the Rams, Saints, and Chiefs gave fans a reason to vocalize their support for Steve Bono by the end of the season when Steve Young's knee was well enough to allow him to play.

Still, Seifert believed in Young as the quarterback of the future, and when he came back healthy, he got the start. To many fans, a bad performance would cement his failure to prove himself as that quarterback. He didn't give them that luxury. In the final game of the season, Steve Young was better than Bono had been in any of his starts. Throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, Young led the 49ers to their most lopsided victory of the entire season. In the end it wasn't enough to make the playoffs, and while nobody wanted to see him start for a minute over a healthy Montana, he had won back his support in one fell swoop.

Historical Profile: Sourdough Sam

Sadly, my brilliant plan to give you an awesome profile on the 49ers' gold-digging (or, to be more accurate, mining) mascot landed me with a big fat zero in the research department. I'm sure there's something out there that reliably describes his history and many exploits, but I sure wasn't able to find it.

The most substantial information on our mascot that I could find is that he served as the team logo for almost 20 years after its inception. As a mascot, he was long depicted as a rough-and-tumble gold-miner with a full beard and a damaged ten-gallon hat. However, in 2006, his image was altered to depict a more studiously groomed miner with an undamaged hat. Perhaps he finally struck gold and moved on from his difficult life of manual labor to take on a more comfortable life filled with shaving and buying hats.

The world may never know.

And yes, his name is Sourdough Sam. I'm not sure why.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1991_roster.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_NFL_season
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sourdough_Sam

Glenn Dickey, San Francisco 49ers: The First 50 Years. Turner Publishing Inc. 1995

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