The San Francisco 49ers have struggled for a sizable portion of the past decade, but the 1980s and 90s, man they were a fun time. Sure, the 49ers lost some heartbreakers, but it was a run of success that was unparalleled prior to that point in modern NFL history.
Between 1981 and 2002, the 49ers won five Super Bowls and made 18 playoff appearances. They had quite a few dominant teams, and of course also had some teams that were a bit more of a surprise.
Football Outsiders recently updated their DVOA metric through the 1987 season. With 30 years of numbers, they can compare teams across eras and figure out the best teams. They have been ranking best offenses, defenses, and special teams, and they wrapped up the team look with a ranking of the 30 best teams of the past 30 years.
It is not at all surprising that the 49ers dominate this ranking, leading the way with five teams. All five of their teams ranked are between 1987 and 1995, which just goes to show how good that dynasty of teams was. Those teams won three Super Bowls, and easily could have won a couple more if things bounce a little differently.
The 49ers three Super Bowl teams (1988, 1989, 1994) all show up, and additionally we see the 1987 and 1995 versions of the team. The rating combines regular season AND postseason performances, which impacted the 22nd ranked 1994 squad. FO rated that team the same as the 1994 Cowboys squad they beat in the NFC title game. The playoff run was the difference in getting them tied up:
DVOA isn't interested in being counterintuitive: The Cowboys and 49ers dominate our ratings like they dominated everything else in the early '90s. The eight Cowboys/49ers squads from 1992 to 1995 all rank No. 54 or higher in this time frame. The Cowboys rated as the better regular-season team in 1994, in part because of San Francisco's crazy 40-8 blowout loss to Philadelphia in Week 5. However, the 49ers' big postseason moves them not only into the top 30 but also slightly past the Cowboys.
The 1995 squad came up next on the list at No. 16. They finished two games worse in the standings than the 1994 squad, but finished No. 1 in defense and No. 5 in offense. A 22nd ranked special teams unit dragged them down a bit.
The 49ers were the No. 1 team overall in the 1995 regular season, surpassing the Cowboys, but another strong Super Bowl run moves Dallas ahead in this ranking. The 49ers had the best defense in the league and the No. 5 offense in 1995. They ranked just 22nd on special teams, which ties the 2000 Ravens' offense as the lowest regular-season ranking for any unit among the 30 teams on this list.
The 1988 squad is next at No. 15. They finished 10-6, but four of their losses were by less than a touchdown. They lost 16-13 in overtime to the Denver Broncos, 10-9 to the Chicago Bears, 24-23 to the Phoenix Cardinals, and 9-3 to the Los Angeles Raiders. Close losses are not always indicative of the quality of the team, instead returning to the mean year over year.
This was a very balanced team: fourth on offense, fourth on defense and seventh on special teams. The 49ers' DVOA rating is a far better indicator of their performance in 1988 than their 10-6 record, as four of their losses came by less than a touchdown. They also easily discarded the Vikings 34-9 and the Bears 28-3 on their way to the Super Bowl.
The 1987 season ranks No. 5, but was an odd season. The strike only cost the NFL one game, but that was due to replacement players for the first few weeks. DVOA does not factor in the three strike games given the erratic nature of having scabs playing. In the 12 games with NFL players, the 49ers became the only team in DVOA history to finish ranked No. 1 in both offense and defense. FO’s rundown of the season talks about how big an upset the Minnesota Vikings divisional round win really was.
Like the 2010 Patriots, the 1987 49ers were absurdly hot entering the postseason. They won their final three games by a combined score of 124-7. That included a 41-0 victory over Chicago, a team that finished the season fifth in our ratings! Everything looked set up for another San Francisco championship -- until a huge upset in the divisional round. Minnesota, which ranked No. 12 in DVOA, went to Candlestick Park and beat the 49ers 36-24. Anthony Carter sliced through the 49ers' defense for 227 receiving yards, while Joe Montana went 12-for-26 with just 109 passing yards.
There's a decent argument that Minnesota's win over San Francisco in the 1987 playoffs was a bigger upset than the Giants' spoiling the Patriots' perfect season in Super Bowl XLII. The DVOA gap between the teams was almost as large, and though the Super Bowl is played on a neutral field, the 49ers had home-field advantage. They also had a week of rest that the Vikings didn't get. And they lost by a wider margin than the 2007 Patriots.
The 1989 squad naturally finishes highest among the 49ers teams, ranked No. 3. The 49ers ranked No. 12 in DVOA for their regular season effort, but arguably the most dominant playoff run in NFL history pushes them up to No. 3.
George Seifert took over for Bill Walsh as San Francisco's head coach, but the change couldn't knock the 49ers from their usual perch at the top of the league. They were excellent in the regular season, combining the No. 1 offense with the No. 5 defense. But their dominant postseason run moves them from 12th up to third on this list. That run included two of the 25 best single-game DVOA performances ever: +135.2 percent in a 30-3 NFC championship win over the No. 3 Rams and +126.6 percent in a 55-10 Super Bowl shellacking of the No. 4 Broncos.
FO will continue adding DVOA data to their database, and I imagine will have info for the 49ers other two Super Bowl teams in short order. Washington’s 1991 squad is No. 1 over the past 30 years, with the 2007 New England Patriots ranked No. 2. The 49ers team in 1984 ranked No. 2 in points scored and No. 1 in points allowed. DVOA adjusts for the quality of opponent, so it will be interesting to see how high that team ends up ranked. My guess is it will be a top five or top ten team, but how high remains to be seen.