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49ers Year-by-Year: 1997

Welcome to the 1997 edition of the 49ers Year-by-Year. Many probably remember this as the season that Warren Sapp took down Steve Young and Jerry Rice in one game, but the rest of the season was - for the most part - a true triumph for the aging, evolving 49ers franchise. Do you know know what happened the night Jerry Rice returned from his injury? Do you know how many stitches Brent Jones needed in his mouth? Maybe it's time to remember:





Opponent's Record:

Aug. 31

@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

L: 6-13



Sept. 7

@ St. Louis Rams

W: 15-12



Sept. 14

New Orleans Saints

W: 7-33



Sept. 21

Atlanta Falcons

W: 7-34



Sept. 29

@ Carolina Panthers

W: 34-21



Oct. 12

St. Louis Rams

W: 10-30



Oct. 19

@ Atlanta Falcons

W: 35-28



Oct. 26

@ New Orleans Saints

W: 23-0



Nov. 2

Dallas Cowboys

W: 10-17



Nov. 10

@ Philadelphia Eagles

W: 24-12



Nov. 16

Carolina Panthers

W: 19-27



Nov. 23

San Diego Chargers

W: 10-17



Nov. 30

@ Kansas City Chiefs

L: 9-44



Dec. 7

Minnesota Vikings

W: 17-28



Dec. 15

Denver Broncos

W: 17-34



Dec. 21

@ Seattle Seahawks

L: 9-38




Jan. 3

Minnesota Vikings

W: 22-38



Jan. 11

Green Bay Packers

L: 10-23



Head Coach: Steve Mariucci

Key Losses: HC George Seifert, QB Elvis Grbac, T Harris Barton, T Steve Wallace, K Jeff Wilkins, DE Dennis Brown,

Key Additions: RB Garrison Hearst, G Kevin Gogan, DB Rod Woodson, DB Darnell Walker, S Zack Bronson, TE Greg Clark, QB Jim Druckenmiller

Between the 1996 and 1997 seasons, the Houston Oilers relocated to Tennessee, where they would be known as the Tennessee Oilers through the 1998 season. At that point, they would change their name to the Titans, with a new logo and look to fit. All in all, the NFL had made it through the turmoil of the Browns move and the uncertainty of expansion without taking too much of a hit. The league was as popular as ever, and still growing.

For the 49ers, it was the end of an era, and the beginning of the end of a dynasty. For almost 20 years, the 49ers had been coached by either Bill Walsh or George Seifert, one of his direct protégés. Shortly after the 49ers were ousted from the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 1996 season, though, on January 15th, George Seifert unexpectedly announced his resignation. After the loss, players had understood that changes would be made and hammers would drop. They heard rumors that change was coming  But nobody expected Seifert's resignation. Reactions around the team ranged from surprise to anger, some believing that Seifert's resignation was little more than a respectable away to avoid being fired.

His heir apparent was former Green Bay Assistant and current UC Berkeley head coach Steve Mariucci. Mariucci would land the job, but his new players knew very little about him, coming from outside the system with limited experience coaching at the pro level. He would have a lot of work to do, but he also had the benefit of a veteran team to ease him in.

To further the shakeup, the 49ers lost a number of players to retirement or free agency, notably long-time starters Harris Barton and Steve Wallace, as well as the man who some thought would be to Steve Young what Young had been to Joe Montana - Elvis Grbac. But as much talent as they lost, the 49ers acted aggressively in free agency to shore up their weaknesses. Kevin Gogan, an atypically large and bruising player for the 49ers system, was brought in on the offensive line to shore up the losses there, while Rod Woodson was brought in to stabilize a cornerbacking corps that, essentially, had been missing a key piece ever since the end of 1994. Most importantly, though, the 49ers brought in Garrison Hearst to fix the running game that had been so woeful since the loss of Ricky Watters to free agency.

The draft was a far, far cry from Bill Walsh's philosophy. The 49ers came out of the 1997 draft with three players, including prized quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, tight end Greg Clark, and safety Zack Bronson.

But even with so much change, the team was still visibly the 49ers. With veteran stars like Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Jesse Sapolu, Ken Norton, Merton Hanks, and Tim McDonald still littering the lineup, there was little question how the team would play come opening day.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, opening day would not quite go to plan. Visiting Tampa Bay, things started to go bad right from the start. On the team's first possession, Steve Young took a sack from Warren Sapp, but was kneed in the head by Hardy Knickerson on the play and had to leave the game with a concussion. Second year player Jeff Brohm would replace him. Later, in the second quarter, Jerry Rice was tackled by the facemask by Sapp on a reverse. The tackle sent Rice to the sideline with a serious knee injury and he would not return.

Young did return in the third quarter, but it was too little late. Already beaten and battered, Young and the 49ers couldn't muster enough to mount a comeback. The 49ers would watch Young's symptoms in the coming weeks to determine his availability game-to-game, but Rice would miss virtually the entire season.

Jim Druckenmiller would start the next week against St. Louis and, despite him going 10-28 and throwing three interceptions, the 49ers won the game. That would be it for Druckenmiller, though, as Young would return in week three.

Even without Rice, Young was brilliant on the field in victories over New Orleans and Atlanta. The test would be against Carolina, though. The Panthers had played the 49ers hard from almost the day they came into the league, and their bravado was showing. Before the game, Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins made the mistake of calling his team a new dynasty. The quote went straight to the 49ers bulletin board and the 49ers went straight at the Panthers' throats. The win reestablished the pecking order in the NFC West and reaffirmed the status of the 49ers' own dynasty.

The dominant 49ers hadn't trailed in a game since the second week of the season, and they wouldn't again until their October 19th meeting with the Atlanta Falcons. The almost inept Falcons played them close, but the effort was futile and the lead was fleeting.

From that point on, they just kept on rolling. But who was going to stop them? For the foreseeable future, only Dallas - in the midst of an extremely disappointing season under Barry Switzer - had the talent to keep up, and after beating them with last minute heroics, the Eagles, Panthers, and Chargers all went down without much of a fight.

Then, the 49ers met their first real competition of the season. Up until that point, the team had only played a single game against an opponent that had a winning record at the time of the kickoff - and that was the Rams in week 2. Were the 49ers benefiting from one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, or were they as legitimate as they seemed?

If the 9-3 Chiefs had anything to say about it, it was not in San Francisco's favor. Facing Rich Gannon, Marcus Allen, Tony Gonzales, Andre Rison, Dale Carter, Derrick Thomas and the rest of a very good Kansas City team, the 49ers folded completely, never leading in the game and eventually losing by 35.

After the loss, things went from bad to worse. Team owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., announced his resignation as team chairman after coming under the threat of indictment for a gambling case in Louisiana. But something that could have been such a distraction for so many teams only motivated the 49ers players, and after beating the Minnesota Vikings the following weekend, they walked off the field chanting their owner's name.

The next week was a special one for 49er fans. On the same night that Jerry Rice returned from his knee injury, the 49ers retired Joe Montana's number at halftime. To make the already special night even more amazing, Rice caught a touchdown in the game that made him the first non-kicker in NFL history to score more than 1,000 points in a career. Icing on the cake: the 49ers won the game. The only bittersweet aspect came when Rice left the stadium without speaking to the media. It would turn out that he had suffered an unrelated injury to his knee in the game.

With homefield advantage secured throughout the playoffs, the 49ers would lose a meaningless game to Seattle to round out the season.

Then, facing the Vikings in the second round of the playoffs, the 49ers' physically brutal season only got worse. Brent Jones, having announced previously that this would be his final season, took a hit to his chin, bit through his tongue, and shredded the inside of his lip. In his own words: "I lost count of how many stitches [it took]." The 49ers would win the game and, as fate would have it, were destined to meet Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in the Conference Championship.

The game was a defensive struggle, low-scoring, tense, and dramatic for three full quarters. But in a game featuring Steve Young and Brett Favre, the game would end up being decided on the ground. Up 13-3 in the fourth quarter, the Packers rode the legs of Dorsey Levens to the finish line, racking up over 100 yards on the day scoring a fourth quarter touchdown to ice the game. The 49ers, in contrast, ran for 33 yards total, and scored their only touchdown on a kickoff return. The loss stung, as the 49ers found themselves sitting once again behind an opponent who simply had their number.

Just as the question had once been "what do the 49ers have to do to beat the Dallas Cowboys? It was now, "what would the 49ers have to do to beat the Green Bay Packers?"

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