The year was 1994. The 49ers, the 'Team of the Decade' during the 80's, had hit a lull. They were no longer the dominant force they had been. Simply reaching the playoffs was not enough for a team so accustomed to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy that their arms grew tired. After reaching the NFC Championship Game in three of the four seasons since their back to back titles in '88 and '89 and failing each time, the 49ers needed some change.
They had already made the switch at quarterback to Steve Young, longtime backup to Joe Montana. After filling in for an injured Montana during the '91 and '92 seasons, Montana was moved to the Chiefs to allow Young to be the unquestioned starter. The controversy was a massive one for the 49ers faithful, exacerbated after Young lost consecutive NFCCGs to the hated Dallas Cowboys in '92 and '93. Even amongst the most diehard fans, whispers of Young not being able to win 'the big one' could be heard.
Montana had always been backed by one of the best, respected defenses in the league. Young was afforded no such luxury. The 49ers had sunk to 18th in the league on defense as the aging stars of the 80's were retired and replaced. Watching the Cowboys win two titles in a row sparked the Niners' front office into action and a total makeover on defense was in order.
New additions were brought in all over the place. Deion Sanders (shown here slapping Andre Rison) was the highest profile player, signed as one of the league's first one-year rentals. He would win Defensive Player of the Year honors while returning three interceptions for touchdowns. Ken Norton Jr., Richard Dent, Gary Plummer and Rickey Jackson all brought veteran presence to the team to accompany young playmakers Dana Stubblefield, rookie Bryant Young and Merton Hanks. While the defense was nearly unrecognizable, the offense had maintained some continuity and, of course, Jerry Rice.
The regular season saw the 49ers lead the league in points scored, while their defense leapt into the top-ten after lingering in the bottom half of the league the previous year. Young was the star of the show, setting a new single-season record for passer rating while throwing for nearly 4,000 yards with 35 touchdowns on his way to the league MVP award. Jerry Rice was Jerry Rice, notching 112 catches for 1,499 yards and 13 scores. Ricky Watters and Brent Jones were Pro-Bowlers at their respective positions and the line was strong.
The San Diego Chargers were a surprise entry into the Lombardi sweepstakes. The AFC was particularly weak at this time. After four consecutive Super Bowl losses by the Buffalo Bills, new blood was needed for the sacrificial altar that was Super Bowl Sunday. They rode the back of Natrone Means, a powerful runner who scored 12 touchdowns and racked up 1,350 yards. The defense was led by legendary Junior Seau, from my dad's hometown of Oceanside, CA.
The playoffs saw the 49ers destroy the Chicago Bears in the Divisional Round to set up a third consecutive rematch with the Cowboys. The pressure was on Young to deliver, after failing in the previous two encounters. A funny thing happened. Dallas self-destructed. Three turnovers in the first quarter led to a 21-0 49ers lead after half a quarter of play. The deficit was too much. The Cowboys outgained the Niners 451-294 and made the game respectable, but San Francisco had already caught the breaks they needed on their way to a 38-28 victory and a trip to Miami to return to the Super Bowl.
The Chargers didn't have it so easy. Forced to come from behind in their two victories against the Dolphins and Steelers, San Diego exhausted all of their luck in getting to the Super Bowl. Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich missed a 48-yard field goal as time ran out, gifting the win to the Chargers in the Divisional Round. In the AFCCG, Pittsburgh, like their NFCCG counterpart, lost the game while outgaining their opponent 415-226. A deflected pass on fourth down ended the Steelers last drive and San Diego was on their way.
The Chargers came into the game as the biggest underdog in Super Bowl history. The Niners were favored by 18 1/2 points. The AFC hadn't won a title since the 1983 Los Angeles Raiders and the NFC Championship Game served as the de facto title game. Some younger people might not even know football existed in L.A., but it did. The Raiders played there, though you'd never know it by talking to a Raiders fan. (The entire episode is explained in BASEketball)
The game started with a bang for the 49ers. On the third play of the game, Young found Rice for a 44-yard score. The fireworks were underway. The Chargers punted on their first possession and Young took four plays to return the football to the end zone. A 51-yard pass to Watters gave the team their second touchdown in under five minutes, and a 14-0 lead.
This was problematic for a Chargers offense based more on ball control than big plays. They still had fight left in them, though. Quarterback Stan Humphries set the wheels in motion, moving the team on a 13-play, 78-yard drive that chewed up seven minutes of game time. Now in the second quarter, Means plunged the ball in from a yard away to cut the deficit in half.
After receiving the ensuing kickoff, Young moved the ball with speed and precision. Rice and John Taylor accounted for big plays in the passing game and a 19-yard reverse by Rice showed the team had some tricks up their sleeves. The drive was capped off by a 5-yard pass to fullback William Floyd for a 21-7 lead. A poor punt on the Chargers next possession gave San Francisco great field position and Young responded with his fourth touchdown pass of the game, with Watters being the recipient.
The Chargers, still were not out of it. A long screen pass helped their cause on the next drive and the boys in powder blue found themselves in the Niners' red zone again. A dropped pass on a perfectly thrown ball to the end zone cost them their chance to cut the lead in half for the second time and they were forced to settle for a field goal. Matching touchdowns with field goals is a losing proposition, and San Diego probably sealed their fate with that failed red zone trip.
The 49ers got close again before the half, but Doug Brien missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. The Chargers quickly pushed the ball downfield, but a Humpries interception in the end zone by Eric Davis killed the drive with little time left and the 49ers would let the clock expire, taking their 28-10 lead into the half.
To open the second half, the Niners forced a three-and-out, getting the ball back with little hassle. A Ricky Watters 9-yard scoring run gave him his record-tying third score of the game and capped another long 49ers' drive. The Chargers drove again, but again came up empty handed after a failed fourth down conversion turned the ball over on downs. A critical pass interference call on a third down aided the 49ers and Young found Rice for his 5th scoring pass, a 15-yarder. 49ers 42, Chargers 10. Ouch!
Andre Coleman returned the kickoff for a 98-yard touchdown return, one of few highlights for the underdog by one of their few standouts on the day. The Chargers elected to go for a two-point conversion and made it. It was the first in Super Bowl history, and when you're already losing by one of the most lopsided margins, you might as well etch your name in the books somehow. It wasn't the only one of the game for them, either. After Young hit Rice for his record-breaking 6th touchdown pass (Rice also tied a scoring record held by himself, Roger Craig, and Ricky Watters), the Chargers, on their second-to-last drive of the game put another touchdown and two-point conversion on the board for the final points of the game.
Young was named the game's MVP after finishing the game 24/36 for 325 yards and 6 touchdowns. It is the single greatest game by a quarterback in Super Bowl history. Rice had 10 receptions for 149 yards and 3 scores. Watters scored three times as well on 108 combined yards. The Chargers threw 3 interceptions and turned the ball over on downs twice. The combined score is still the highest in Super Bowl history.
Following their fifth and final championship, the 49ers would remain a threat for another couple years, but the best was behind them. From 1983 until 1998 they missed the playoffs only once, in '91. The Pittsburgh Steelers would match them with five rings, and later surpass them. The 49ers perfect record of 5-0 in Super Bowls is still head and shoulders above the rest. They remain the only undefeated Super Bowl team with more than one game played.
The game has changed. The 49ers helped change it. There have been some ups and a lot of downs. Ownership turmoil, coaching changes and wasted draft picks marked a dark era in 49ers history we're only now emerging from. Coach Harbaugh nearly led us to the Super Bowl last year, and has us back on the cusp of the title this year.
With a sixth ring within their grasp, this generation's 49ers look as strong as ever.
Being a Sheep
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