49ers Year-by-Year: 1996

In this installment of the 49ers Year-by-Year, we take a look at the 1996 season. This is another one of those glorious, punishing seasons. From unbridled hope to injury riddled mess to healthy resurrection to devastating playoff loss, the 49ers took fans on quite the roller coaster in 1996. It was a fun season, but it was also excruciating (especially for the battered and beaten Steve Young). And you can read about it here. Enjoy:

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 1

New Orleans Saints

W: 11-27

1-0

0-1

Sept. 8

St. Louis Rams

W: 0-34

2-0

1-1

Sept. 22

@ Carolina Panthers

L: 7-23

2-1

3-0

Sept. 29

Atlanta Falcons

W: 17-39

3-1

0-4

Oct. 6

@ St. Louis Rams

W: 28-11

4-1

1-5

Oct. 14

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 20-23

4-2

6-1

Oct. 20

Cincinnati Bengals

W: 21-28

5-2

1-6

Oct. 27

@ Houston Oilers

W: 10-9

6-2

5-3

Nov. 3

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 24-17

7-2

2-7

Nov. 10

Dallas Cowboys

L: 20-17

7-3

6-4

Nov. 17

Baltimore Ravens

W: 20-38

8-3

3-8

Nov. 24

@ Washington Redskins

W: 19-16

9-3

8-4

Dec. 2

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 34-10

10-3

2-11

Dec. 8

Carolina Panthers

L: 30-24

10-4

10-4

Dec. 15

@ Pittsburgh Steelers

W: 25-15

11-4

10-5

Dec. 23

Detroit Lions

W: 14-24

12-4

5-11

Playoffs:

Dec. 29

Philadelphia Eagles

W: 0-14

13-4

10-7

Jan. 4

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 14-35

13-5

14-3


Head Coach:
George Seifert

Key Losses: WR John Taylor, C Bart Oates, DE Ricky Jackson, CB Eric Davis

Key Additions: RB Terry Kirby, WR Terrell Owens, G Ray Brown, DE Chris Doleman, DE Roy Barker

The offseason between 1995 and 1996 was an ugly one for the NFL. Though the offseason was marked by only one controversy, it was a huge controversy that inspired a heated media blitz and eventually ended in an intervention by the commissioner. The controversy arose when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell decided that he wanted to relocate the storied franchise. The Browns had been in the NFL for more than four decades, after making the transition along with the 49ers and the Baltimore Colts from the AAFC in 1950. The reaction from fans was one of complete outrage, and the media picked up on the attitude. Ultimately, the league had to make an agreement with the city of Cleveland that the Browns name, colors, and history would continue to belong to the city, and that the Browns would be replaced one way or another within the next few years.

Coming off of a playoff loss to the Packers, the 49ers went into 1996 looking to reassert their dominance. Despite losing starters John Taylor, Bart Oates, and Ricky Jackson to retirement, not to mention Eric Davis to free agency (signing with the Panthers instead), the 49ers pushed forward aggressively. They went into free agency looking to retool the roster, signing veterans like guard Ray Brown and defensive linemen Chris Doleman and Roy Barker. They made efforts to address the aging defense through the draft, but only managed to land one impact player in wide receiver Terrell Owens. Otherwise, the team still had many of the stalwarts who had made them one of the best teams in the league during head coach George Seifert's entire tenure.

The season started fast with easy victories over the Saints and Rams. However, in the second game, Steve Young suffered a mild groin strain that would continue to nag him over the next few games. In the third game of the season the 49ers played the division rival Carolina Panthers, and both teams were out to make a statement.

Dom Capers team, led by backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein and an aggressive, innovative defensive scheme went for the throat right from the start. Steve Young, hobbled but playing, along with the rest of the 49ers illustrious offense, was stymied by Capers's unpredictable defensive playcalling. The Panthers dominated the game, and established themselves early as a threat to win the division.

After the loss, the 49ers looked to get healthy against a weak stretch of schedule. Steve Young sat out in favor of Elvis Grbac against a struggling Atlanta team that was trying to deal with a suspension to their starting quarterback, Jeff George, and Brent Jones also missed the game. The 49ers won handily before marching into St. Louis and dismantling the Rams in a similar fashion, as Young and Jones continued to rest.

Then, at 4-1, the 49ers traveled to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers, in a much awaited rematch of the previous season's critical playoff game. Elvis Grbac again got the start, and even behind their backup quarterback the 49ers jumped out to a 17-6 halftime lead. Jerry Rice caught both touchdown passes, and the 49ers appeared to be in control of the game. Then, in the third quarter, Brett Favre threw a 29 yard strike to the outstretched Don Beebe, who appeared to be touched on the ground by Marquez Pope. But when no whistle blew, Beebe stood up and raced to the endzone for a touchdown. Replays clearly showed Pope's hand on Beebe while the receiver cradled the ball after his diving catch, but without an active replay system the play stood. The ensuing two-point conversion made the score 17-14 in favor of the 49ers.

But the Packers had the momentum, and slowly but surely they played the game into a 20-20 fourth-quarter tie, eventually winning on an overtime field goal. The loss could have been a crushing blow for the 49ers, and it almost seemed like that would be the case.

Steve Young returned the next week against the Bengals, but was removed from the game after continuing to struggle with his groin through the first quarter. Replaced by Grbac, the game got ugly fast. At the end of the first half, Grbac went down with a shoulder injury and, down by 21, Young had to return for the second half. Miraculously, Young managed to put his injury behind him for two quarters, throwing for two touchdowns and eventually running for winning score. The resilient 49ers had secured a victory, but with Young hobbled and Grbac out, they were again battered.

Still, Young would start the next game, against Houston, but after on throw he was knocked to the turf and out of the game with a concussion. Third-string quarterback Jeff Brohm would play the rest of the game, and it would be just enough to secure another victory. But after the ugly effort, one thing was sure: the 49ers would have to get healthy fast if they wanted to continue winning.

Steve Young did return, again, the next week as the 49ers coasted to a win against the Saints in a warm up for their matchup against their long-time rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. With the 49ers battling for a division title, the game would undoubtedly have playoff implications. The 49ers jumped out to an early lead, but Young suffered his second concussion of the season before the first half was over and had to be removed from the game. Grbac replaced him and was less than stellar. After throwing a key interception late in the game that gave Dallas the chance to come back, the Cowboys did exactly that, eventually winning the game in overtime. After the game, Grbac blamed himself for the loss.

The next day, San Francisco mayor Willie Brown infamously remarked that Grbac was an "embarrassment to humankind." When he later learned that Grbac's mind had been occupied with the recent surgery of his young son and had trouble focusing on the game for that reason, Brown would apologize.

Finally getting healthy again, with Young, Jones, and even an injured William Floyd returning, the 49ers rallied off three consecutive victories before meeting the Panthers for the second time. At 10-3, the 49ers had a chance to virtually secure a division title by defeating the 9-4 Panthers, but Carolina had San Francisco's number that season. In a shootout loss, perhaps the most painful moment came when former 49er Eric Davis made a key interception in the fourth quarter that gave the Panthers the momentum they needed to win the game.

The 49ers won their last two games and tied the Panthers for the season with a 12-4 record, but lost the tiebreaker and, disappointingly, would have to settle for a wild-card berth into the playoffs.

Against Ty Detmer, Ricky Watters, Irving Fryer, Guy McIntyre, Troy Vincent, Brian Dawkins, Don Griffin (a few familiar faces in the bunch) and the rest of the Eagles, the 49ers actually struggled. Philadelphia dominated the game on both sides of the ball only to ultimately be held out of the endzone time and time again by the 49ers determined defense. But after knocking Detmer out of the game with a hamstring injury in the first half, the 49ers were able to hang on for a 14-0 victory. However, Philadelphia returned the favor, as Young suffered two broken ribs during the game.

And as if by fate, they were headed back to Green Bay. Young was determined to play and managed to start despite his broken ribs thanks to a combination of courage and painkillers. Unfortunately for the 49ers, he would only last two series before the ribs forced him out of the game. To make matters worse, Bryant Young also had to leave the game early, with an injury to his neck and back. Again hobbled by injury, the 49ers struggled to keep pace with the Packers for most of the game before finally succumbing to Green Bay in the second half. After three consecutive losses to the Packers, it was becoming clear that the Packers were a healthier and stronger team - and that they might even be more talented and better coached.

The 49ers season, again, was ended without a return to the Super Bowl.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1996_games.htm
http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/05/sports/49ers-lose-young-and-the-game.html
http://www.nytimes.com/1996/10/21/sports/ailing-young-rallies-49ers-from-a-21-point-deficit.html
http://articles.latimes.com/1996-10-28/sports/sp-58779_1_jeff-brohm
http://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/11/sports/cowboys-turn-tables-on-49ers-with-comeback.html
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/e/a/1996/12/09/SPORTS16113.dtl&type=printable
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1996/12/30/SP24667.DTL
http://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/23/sports/panthers-upset-of-49ers-almost-looks-too-easy.html
http://articles.latimes.com/1996-09-30/sports/sp-49137_1_elvis-grbac
http://articles.latimes.com/1996-10-15/sports/sp-53973_1_green-bay
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1996_San_Francisco_49ers_season
http://articles.latimes.com/1996-10-07/sports/sp-51419_1_san-francisco-49ers
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1996_NFL_season
http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/11/nyregion/chronicle-690368.html

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