49ers Year-by-Year: 1992

This is a brief retelling of the San Francisco 49ers' 1992 season. With everybody waiting anxiously for Joe Montana's return, how would the team respond to a second straight season without their starting quarterback? Could the 49ers return to the playoffs and how would they fare if they got there? You probably know many of these answers, but I hope you enjoy reading about the journey nonetheless.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 6

@ New York Giants

W: 31-14

1-0

0-1

Sept. 13

Buffalo Bills

L: 34-31

1-1

2-0

Sept. 20

@ New York Jets

W: 31-14

2-1

0-3

Sept. 27

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 16-10

3-1

2-2

Oct. 4

Los Angeles Rams

W: 24-27

4-1

2-3

Oct. 11

@ New England Patriots

W: 24-12

5-1

0-5

Oct. 18

Atlanta Falcons

W: 17-56

6-1

2-5

Nov. 1

@ Phoenix Cardinals

L: 14-24

6-2

2-6

Nov. 9

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 41-3

7-2

3-6

Nov. 15

New Orleans Saints

W: 20-21

8-2

7-3

Nov. 22

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 27-10

9-2

4-7

Nov. 29

Philadelphia Eagles

W: 14-20

10-2

7-5

Dec. 6

Miami Dolphins

W: 3-27

11-2

8-5

Dec. 13

@ Minnesota Vikings

W: 20-17

12-2

9-5

Dec. 19

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

W: 14-21

13-2

4-11

Dec. 28

Detroit Lions

W: 6-24

14-2

5-11

Playoffs:

Jan. 9

Washington Redskins

W: 13-20

15-2

10-7

Jan. 17

Dallas Cowboys

L: 30-20

15-3

15-3


Head Coach:
George Siefert

Key Losses: LB Charles Haley

Key Additions: None

In 1992, the NFL pulled the plug on the instant replay system that they had used since the 1986 season. By that system, a sovereign official in a booth decided when to stop the game for a play to be reviewed. That official would then review the play by VCR and decide on a ruling. Instant replay wouldn't return to the league until 1999.

The offseason was a new kind of experience for the 49ers and their fans. Joe Montana had missed the entire 1991 season with an elbow injury that he had suffered in the preseason. It seemed as though every day from that moment had been a countdown to his return, and he was on schedule to come back at full strength for the new season.

In fact, as the preseason rolled around, he was reportedly looking as strong as he ever had in workouts. But after undergoing surgery to clean scar tissue out his injured elbow, the joint flared up again and he would end up needing a third surgery that put him on the shelf again. With no exact timetable for his return, the season was again in Steve Young's hands.

The rest of the team was much the same. Where the 49ers had cut bait on multiple veterans and contracts the year before to return to get back to making a profit, this year they held tight to their talent and made few, if any changes. The loss of Charles Haley and the return of Ricky Watters were the only significant shifts to the roster that didn't involve Joe Montana.

Personnel was a different story, though. Offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren left the team to take the head coaching position in Green Bay. He was replaced by Mike Shannahan, who would bring his own twist to Bill Walsh's West Coast offense.

But with questions swirling about Joe Montana's health, it was easy for fans to take Steve Young's health for granted. He was younger, faster and more athletic. But the first game of the season served as a harsh reminder that even one play could sideline Steve Young. In their week one victory, Young suffered a concussion, putting his availability for the next game in question.

He ended up playing against the Bills, and actually managed one of the best games of his still young career as a starter - throwing for 449 yards and three touchdowns. If not for the Jim Kelly matching him throw for throw, it would have been an easy win. In the end, it wasn't a win at all. The game actually set an NFL milestone for being the first game every played without a punt.

At this early stage in the season, it was still hard to tell what to expect in the long run. 1991 had been a trial for the team and fans as the defense struggled to play consistently and Young struggled to build both credibility and chemistry with his teammates. At the very least, the questions about Young had been answered: He might not be Joe Montana, but he'd do quite nicely in the meantime. It was also starting to become clear that another issue from 1991 had been resolved. Ricky Watters was already exciting fans, and his presence was already giving the 49ers the kind of versatility they hadn't had since Roger Craig's last healthy season with the team. The defensive performance against the Bills, though, brought back many of the same old questions. The defense, and especially the secondary, was relatively young. Charles Haley was gone. And they had just gone an entire game without forcing a punt.

But then even that changed. The rapid development of players like Merton Hanks and Eric Davis went a long way toward shoring up the defense, and they showed few vulnerabilities going forward.

By the third game of the season, the 49ers were playing virtually as well as they had played in any season during the years that were now being recognized as a dynasty. They won the next five games in a row, and notably a 56-17 victory over Falcons, before coming close to dropping another game.

Their November 1 loss to the 1-6 Cardinals woke up a team that hadn't even really been sleeping. Any complacency that had led to the embarrassing loss was wiped away that very day, and the 49ers became unstoppable. Young continued to play like a superstar. The defense continued to play at a high level. Even Jerry Rice was in the midst of a record breaking season. At only the age of 30, he was poised to break Steve Largent's NFL record for career receiving touchdowns.

The 49ers barely even stumbled through their next seven games, winning every single one of them without a considerable amount of trouble.

And then Joe Montana was reactivated for the final game of the season.

By that time, at 13-2, the 49ers had already clinched homefield advantage, so the final game was meaningless as far as the big picture was concerned. It was not meaningless to the fans. Even with Steve Young enjoying one of the greatest individual seasons in league history, most people would be glad to have him back on the bench if it meant having Montana back.

For at least one game, those fans would get there wish. With nothing on the line, Montana played most of the game. Out of synch in the first half, he found his rhythm in the second and led the team to their 14th win of the season. The game was a relief to fans, but also a tease, as George Seifert had no intention of playing anybody but the man who got them there.

Two weeks later against the Redskins would not be Steve Young's first playoff game, but it was his first as the team's undisputed leader. For the first half, at least, he didn't disappoint. The 49ers jumped out to an early first half lead and appeared poised to make short work of Washington. But, in large part because of second half miscues on Young's part, Washington got right back in the game. It was only a staunch defensive effort that ensured the win, but the 49ers were on their way back to the NFC title game. They would face the Cowboys, two teams that had decades worth of history between each other, dating all the way back to the days of Dick Nolan and Tom Landry.

The Cowboys had come a long way from the days of Landry, though, after many difficult seasons, they appeared to be poised for dominance once again. They could answer the 49ers almost player for player. Where the 49ers had Steve Young, the Cowboys had Troy Aikman. Jerry Rice was countered by Michael Irvin. Ricky Watters by Emmitt Smith. And, adding intrigue to intrigue, the Cowboys had Haley.

The two evenly matched teams battled for almost four full quarters. At halftime, it was 10-10, and then the Cowboys began to pull ahead. Stretching their lead out to 24-13, the Cowboys had the 49ers on the ropes. Steve Young didn't help matters when he threw a boneheaded interception that appeared destined to put the game away. He got the ball back, though, and responded to his mistake by putting together what was probably the strongest drive of the entire game, a 93-yard touchdown march. With the 49ers within four, the game was far from over.

But the defense, the unit that had begun the season under such scrutiny and then silenced its critics for so many games, ended up letting them down. They 49ers' defense had no answer for the Cowboy's combination of Emmitt Smith's aggressive running and Troy Aikman's pinpoint accuracy. Dallas would use this advantage to put together one final touchdown drive, and the game was sealed.

The 49ers would not be going to the Super Bowl.

Primary Resources:

http://articles.latimes.com/1999/sep/12/sports/sp-9470
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_NFL_season
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1992_games.htm

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

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