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49ers Year-by-Year: 1988

This is a brief historical summary of the San Francisco 49ers' 1988 season. The 49ers had just been catapulted out of the playoffs by the Vikings, and the health and longevity of Joe Montana was as much as question as ever. How would they deal with the devastating loss? How would they handle the growing controversy surrounding Stave Young, Joe Montana, and the starting job? What can you learn about Kezar Stadium that you didn't already know?





Opponent's Record:

Sept. 4

@ New Orleans Saint

W: 34-33



Sept. 11

@ New York Giants

W: 20-17



Sept. 18

Atlanta Falcons

L: 34-17



Sept. 25

@ Seattle Seahawks

W: 38-7



Oct. 2

Detroit Lions

W: 13-20



Oct. 9

Denver Broncos

L: 16-13



Oct, 16

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 24-21



Oct. 24

@ Chicago Bears

L: 9-10



Oct. 30

Minnesota Vikings

W: 21-24



Nov. 6

@ Phoenix Cardinals

L: 23-24



Nov. 13

Los Angeles Raiders

L: 9-3



Nov. 21

Washington Redskins

W: 21-37



Nov. 27

@ San Diego Chargers

W: 48-10



Dec. 4

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 13-3



Dec. 11

New Orleans Saints

W: 17-30



Dec. 18

Los Angeles Rams

L: 38-16




Jan. 1

Minnesota Vikings

W: 9-34



Jan. 8

@ Chicago Bears

W: 28-3



Jan. 22

N Cincinnati Bengals

W: 20-16



Head Coach:
Bill Walsh

Key Losses: LB Milt McColl, K Ray Wersching, T Keith Fahnhorst, TE Russ Francis, DB Dana McLemore, C David Quillan, LB Todd Shell

Key Additions: K Mike Cofer, DL Pierce Holt, LB Bill Romanowski

Prior to the 1988 season, the St. Louis Cardinals relocated to Phoenix and changed their name to the Phoenix Cardinals. The rest of the league remained without major change.

For the 49ers, controversy was brewing. After steamrolling the league during the regular season in 1987, the 49ers had fallen to the Vikings in the playoffs with barely so much as a whimper. The loss had been deeply embarrassing for the team, but was particularly notable for the performance of Steve Young, who replaced a struggling Joe Montana in the second half and played more than admirably in what was by then a hopeless cause anyway. That, combined with his stellar performances from his late season appearances planted a seed in the minds of the coaches.

They lost a number of players at the end of the year, but many of them had been relegated to the bench prior to 1987 to begin with, so while the losses hurt the team's depth, they had next to no impact on the starting roster. In that same vein, the team's offseason was a notably quiet one. They brought Mike Cofer in from New Orleans and used their three top picks to draft defensive linemen Danny Stubbs and Pierce Holt, and linebacker Bill Romanowski.

Much more important was something that happened at a press conference as the exhibition season was getting under way. When asked about the state of the team Bill Walsh mentioned, in what may or may not have been a poorly worded statement, that there might just be a quarterback controversy on the team. From that moment on, Steve Young and the continued quality of his play would be a major point of contention.

But of course, Montana remained the unopposed starter for the time being. And with good reason. In the season opener against the Saints, he threw three touchdowns on the way to a 34-33 victory that wasn't as close as the final score. Unfortunately, he tweaked his elbow during the game, and Walsh decided that Young would get the start in week two while he rested the injury.

Against Phil Simms, Bill Parcells, and the New York Giants, Young was effective. But the game was tied and too tight for comfort at halftime, and Walsh turned the game over to his star to try to put away a victory against one of the best teams in the league. The game remained tight, but ultimately the move paid off as Montana found Jerry Rice late in the game to take a three point lead that would end up being the difference. Controversy aside, the 49ers were 2-0, and Joe Montana was the reason why.

But that didn't mean he was invincible, and the team lost their first game the following week. Any questions from that game would be answered in the next, though, when the 49ers and Montana dismantles the Seahawks 38-7. Then, after handing the Lions a loss the following week, the 49ers welcomed the Broncos into Candlestick.

The game conditions were absolutely disastrous, and as both teams struggled to move the ball through the air, Walsh turned to the speedy legs of Young to try to gain the advantage. The result: a costly interception that led to Denver's winning field goal.

A similar situation would occur two weeks later in freezing conditions against the Bears in Chicago. Again, Young failed to deliver as the team lost 10-9. A pattern was becoming clear: Montana was winning games, and Young was not.

Unfortunately, another pattern was also rearing its ugly head - that of Joe Montana's back. While recovering from dysentery over the course of the week, he began to have back spasms. He wouldn't be available against the Vikings, and Young would get the start. The media and the fans had a field day over the implications of that.

And for the first time that season, Young delivered. After a deeply uneven first half, Young led the team on three scoring drives in the second half. The first capped by a one-yard Roger Craig touchdown run, the second by a 73-yard John Taylor touchdown reception, and the third by a play that would turn out to be one of the defining moments of Young's entire career. Trapped behind the line on the Vikings' 49-yard line, Young suddenly, somehow found daylight and, breaking tackle after tackle in a spectacular display of agility, speed, strength and overall athleticism, began a sprint to the endzone that nobody who watched the game would ever forget. The score put the team ahead 24-21, and that's the way it stayed.

Montana was still hurting and Young played again the next week in a game that required nothing short of a total defensive collapse to lose. Even though Young had played well, the loss was enough to force Walsh's hand, and Joe Cool was back in the driver's seat. The results were no better, and the player's held a meeting a few days later to discuss the season.

Whatever they discussed, it worked. They won all of the next four games, and all by a wide margin. For the first time all season, the 49ers that had dominated much of 1987, the 49ers that the fans had grown use to watching over the last half-decade were back. By week 16, they had clinched the division and a first-round bye, and their loss to the Rams was only significant in that it lifted Los Angeles into the playoffs over New Orleans.

The 49ers' first playoff game that year couldn't have been scripted better. The Vikings were coming to town, and they had a big chip on their collective shoulder from the game earlier in the year that Young had almost single-handedly taken from them. The 49ers made them eat that chip, though, and much like the Vikings had embarrassed San Francisco the year before, the 49ers embarrassed the Vikings this time around.

Which brought the 49ers out to Chicago. Earlier in the season, the 49ers had lost to the Bears in Chicago, and many believed that history would repeat itself. That was not to be so. Where the 49ers had struggled to move the ball in the icy cold of their first matchup, it was the Bears who slipped up in this game - quite literally in some cases. On one such play, Jerry Rice took a short pass the length of the field as two would be tacklers slipped in pursuit on the slick playing surface. This game, like the game against the Vikings, wasn't close, and the 49ers coasted into their third Super Bowl appearance in less than a decade. And just like their first, they would be playing the Bengals.

The 49ers were big favorites going into the game, but for three solid quarters they - and the game - failed to live up to the billing. Both teams slogged through a slow, sloppy, low-scoring affair that featured stalled drives, fumbles, interceptions, and field goals. Then, in the third quarter, Cincinnati kick returner Stanford Jennings took a kickoff back 93 yards for a touchdown that changed the game completely. It focused both teams, and suddenly the game was exciting again.

The 49ers countered almost immediately with a decisive touchdown drive of their own. Battling and scrapping through the fourth-quarter, the Bengals finally regained the lead on a field goal with a little over three minutes to play. Time was running out for the 49ers and the Bengals buckled down.

But Montana, Rice, Craig and the rest of the 49ers saw things differently. In one of the most memorable drives in 49ers history, the 49ers marched down the field. And on a drive highlighted by critical receptions from stars Jerry Rice and Roger Craig, it was ultimately John Taylor who caught the winning touchdown pass with less than a minute to play. There would be no more scoring, and the 49ers won their third franchise championship.

Historical Profile: Kezar Stadium

Kezar stadium began in 1922 as a $100,000 donation from Mary Kezar to the San Francisco Park Commission to build a memorial in honor of her family. When the city added its own contribution to the fund, construction on Kezar began. Originally an all-purpose stadium, Kezar hosted everything from track and field to motorcycle racing to soccer and boxing matches.

Ultimately, the 49ers would come to call Kezar home when they first started playing 1946. They would continue to play there through 1970, after which they would move to Candlestick. But the 49ers weren't the only professional football team to call Kezar home. The Raiders, of all teams, played their first season in Kezar as well. That union was short-lived, though, as Oakland moved a few more times in the ensuing years in search of greener pastures.

Located on Frederick street, Kezar Stadium seated 60,000 spectators, and it was this capacity that allowed for the stadium to house the most attendees ever at a high school football game, as 50,000+ came out to watch San Francisco Polytechnic battle it out with Lowell High School on the field.

The stadium was demolished in 1989 in a project that called for it to be rebuilt at a considerably smaller capacity of 10,000. Other improvements were made to the stadium during this process, but in the end the Kezar that fans had grown up in while rooting for their San Francisco 49ers was gone, and gone forever, a vivid memory for some and a simple footnote in the franchise's history for others.

Primary References:

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