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Who won it best?

Examining the 49ers championship teams with a little help from NFL Network’s ‘America’s Game’

Picking your favorite 49ers championship season is a Sophie’s Choice situation, except much more difficult and heartbreaking. Yes, picking your favorite child is tough, but I’ve seen your kids -- they’re all over Facebook and Instagram -- and they’re not all that amazing. Cute, sure, but quite frankly, I’d take the worst championship Niner team over your best kid. No, not that one -- too many freckles -- I prefer the one with the buck teeth.

I’ve always had my opinions about how the 49ers championships rank, but it’s hard to come up with a definitive hierarchy because life gets in the way. It’s not only the teams you’re judging, not just the players, games, and plays -- you’re inherently biased by what was going on for you personally. It’s not just what happens, it’s when, and how you digest it.

If only there was a way to view them all in the same context, the evidence presented in an identical format -- years later, after all the emotion of the moment has subsided. Enter ‘America’s Game’, the NFL Network’s excellent documentary series chronicling each Super Bowl champ. They aired a marathon recently, and I recorded the 49ers episodes -- five in all, in case you’re a terrible fan and don’t know -- then spent an afternoon watching them. It was a good day.


Narrator: Gene “Coach Norman Dale” Hackman

Storyline(s): The transformation of the 49ers from laughingstock to powerhouse behind the strategic and motivational genius Bill Walsh.

Highlights: The Niners winning their second game of 1979 against playoff-bound Tampa Bay and carrying Walsh off as fans storm the field and tear down the goalposts. If that doesn’t tell you how far the franchise came in two years, I’m not sure what could.

The journey of WR Dwight Clark, who caught just 11 passes his senior year at Clemson, to a sports icon, and how it began by chance -- Clark answering a call from Walsh meant for his roommate, QB Steve Fuller.

Ronnie Lott’s re-telling of legendary pass rusher Fred Dean’s first game for the 49ers. He dominated Dallas’s o-line in the first half, giving Danny White a beating he wouldn’t soon forget, then came into the locker room at halftime, pulled out a pack of Kool’s, and lit up. Now that’s how you make an entrance!

Everybody recalls how the NFC Championship Game ended, but the extensive coverage of the game (25% of the show) revealed details I doubt many remember — for instance, the Niners had six turnovers(!). Also: behind the scenes footage of Walsh diagramming Sprint Right Option, the play that would result in The Catch, on an overhead projector.

Lowlight: Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It” providing the motivation for the 49ers in the locker room before Super Bowl XXVI. I’m sure that jam was cool in 1981, but it’s little embarrassing to get pumped up to play the biggest game of your lives by listening to Kenny Loggins. Unless, of course, you’re entering the “Danger Zone”.

Goosebump moment: Um, probably this:

Statistical nugget: The 49ers defense ranked 27th in 1980, and had a revolving door in their backfield. Walsh addressed that in the 1981 draft, selecting DB’s in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd rounds — netting future Hall of Famer Lott, and Pro Bowlers Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson. Their defense jumped to 2nd in 1981.

Money quote: “Who is this guy Montana? ‘I’m John Wayne. And John Wayne never loses. I’m making this throw.’” -- Ronnie Lott

Post-”Game” thoughts: You never forget your first. There was no expectation. Nothing to build on. Just a spontaneous wonder. And like any classic movie, it had a jaw-dropping climax (The Catch), followed by a satisfying denouement (the Super Bowl).


Narrator: Gene “Coach Jimmy McGinty” Hackman

Storyline: The 49ers lost the 1983 Championship Game in Washington 24-21 in no small part due to two questionable (read: “horrifically bad”) calls, and vowed in the post-game locker room to use their anger to motivate them in 1984. (SPOILER ALERT: It worked!)

Highlights: The story of a Redwood City restaurant owner offering the team a free meal for each win. Russ Francis said those meals together really helped bond the team. No confirmation that it helped put the restaurant out of business.

Many people think of “The Super Bowl Shuffle” as groundbreaking, but few remember that a year earlier Niner players recorded this classic. According to the players, Bill Walsh was not a fan -- his talent evaluation right on point as always. But you have to admit it has a certain charm, in an earworm kind of way.

Lowlight: The Steelers beat the 49ers 20-17 at Candlestick, ruining their shot at a perfect season, but it came with a big assist from the officials. I recalled the pass interference call on Eric Wright in the end zone which gave Pittsburgh a late TD as questionable. Upon further review, it was much worse — a phantom call. Video of a team meeting shows Walsh telling the team, ”Officials can lose the game for you. They did. But that’s part of the game. They’re inept idiots.”

Goosebump moment: I grew up in the shadow of Stanford Stadium, was lucky enough to score a ticket to the game, and walked there from my house. So I’m a sucker for any sequence featuring game day.

Statistical nugget: They led the NFL in total offense, scoring, and points allowed.

Money quote: “You gotta bring ass to get ass.” -- Eddie DeBartolo

Post-”Game” thoughts: Only seven teams have won 15 games in an NFL regular season. Here’s the complete list of teams who won 18 total games and a Super Bowl in one season:

Quite simply, it’s arguably the greatest season of football any team has ever played.


Narrator: Ed “Coach Jones” Harris

Storyline: Coming off the most stunning playoff loss in team history — not to mention three straight playoff losses — and with both the head coach and starting QB’s jobs on the line, the 49ers felt more pressure to win than ever. After a rocky start to the season, the odds were against them. Never tell Joe Montana the odds.

Highlights: Not one, but two of the greatest runs you will ever see.

Montana’s unexpected (and somewhat shaky) locker room speech during the playoffs.

The 49ers most impressive win in my time as a fan: Their blowout win in the NFC Championship Game on a frigid day in Chicago. Apparently Walsh felt the same way, saying it stuck out as much as any win he had.

Lowlight: The 49ers descent from 4-1 to 6-5, including blowing a 23-0 lead to the Cardinals, and scoring three points at home against the Raiders. I got sad just writing that sentence.

Goosebump moment: The last play Bill Walsh ever called as head coach of the 49ers: 20 Halfback Curl X Up (a.k.a. “Montana to Taylor”)

Statistical nugget: The 49ers 10-6 record was the worst ever for a Super Bowl champ.

Money quote(s): “Who ever would’ve thought it, on the coldest day in January, the finesse-ass 49ers would come into the back yard of the Bears and kick ass.” -- Keena Turner

Post-”Game” thoughts: After struggling for two-thirds of the season, the 49ers kicked off maybe their most inspiring run of football ever, culminating in an unlikely title. Walsh: “It came the hard way. We salvaged a struggling season to make it a championship season. Super Bowl XXIII means an awful lot to me.” Bill gets emotional saying that last line. So did I.


Narrator: Gene Hackman, again? (According to the narrator list, he did three episodes -- all Niners. Most other narrators spread around their love. For instance, Ed Harris called episodes of nine different teams. Conclusion: 49er fan)

Storyline: Change -- George Seifert taking over for Walsh -- and what effect that would have on the team, particularly the players determination to prove it wasn’t all about the coach.

Highlight: The most impressive QB performance I’ve ever seen — Joe Montana in Week 3 in Philadelphia. For three quarters, the Eagles led the 49ers 21-10 and their ferocious defense was battering Montana, sacking him eight times (on the worst turf ever). Then Montana picked himself off the turf and threw for four fourth quarter TD’s to beat Philly 38-28.

Lowlight: Another musical selection -- but not George Seifert’s “Bossa Nova.” If you loved “We Are the 49ers,” you’ll still probably hate this.

Goosebump moment: I’ve linked to this before, but it has to be John Taylor’s two 90-yard+ TD’s vs. the Rams on Monday Night Football to aid an amazing comeback.

Statistical nugget: They led the NFL with 442 points scored.

Money quote: “Going into that game, I felt that we weren’t going to win for some reason. I just didn’t have a good vibe” -- Tom Rathman (about a Super Bowl the 49ers won by 55-10)

Post-”Game” thoughts: If 1988 was the hardest-fought title in the 49ers run, 1989 was the easiest -- a seemingly pre-destined march to glory, even without Walsh at the helm. If 1984 wasn’t their best team ever, this just might be. Their run through the playoffs is still one of the most dominant ever.


Narrator: Bruce “The Last Boy Scout” Willis

Storyline: This time, it was all about vengeance against one team -- the Cowboys, who had defeated the 49ers in back-to-back NFC Championship Games. The whole season was just preparation for one game in January.

Highlight: It can’t be anything but the NFC Championship Game — Cowboys/Niners III. I think we all know how that went, but if you feel like a refresher (and I mean, why not?) watch the first five minutes of the final section of the episode (then stay for the Super Bowl!).

Lowlight: To start the season, Young was battered behind an offensive line missing four starters. The team lost his showdown with Montana in KC, then suffered a 40-8 loss to Philadelphia at home, in which Young was benched for his own safety. Young snapped, jawing at Seifert. The 49ers came out flat in Detroit the next week, falling behind 14-0. Young was still getting abused, leading to the famous shot of him dragging himself across the turf toward the sideline. For a moment, the season was in jeopardy.

Goosebump moment: We all remember the de-monkeying of Steve Young, but for me it was his victory lap around Candlestick after finally dethroning Dallas.

Statistical nugget: The 49ers scored a franchise record 505 points

Money quote: “It’s just us two. There’s no one else in the league. There’s no other teams that are really playing for the championship. It’s just us two.” -- Steve Young

Post-”Game” thoughts: I forgot how much more personality this team had been than in years past. The additions of Deion Sanders and William Floyd, and the increased influence of Ricky Watters and Merton Hanks turned the 1994 Niners from staid and corporate to flashy and fun. Suddenly, everybody was dancing and yelling. And even Young states he never actually won over the team and truly became “The Man” until after blasting Seifert.

(Half-hearted) Conclusion

After watching five hours of nothing but marches toward championships, what struck me the most was how different they can be. 1981 was an awakening. 1984 was a domination. 1988 was a redemption. 1989 was a coronation. 1994 was a catharsis. They’re each beautiful in their own way, and I can’t really pick a favorite because I love them all. It turns out they are like your kids.

But if I absolutely have to choose one as my absolute favorite — gun-to-my-head style — I’m going with 1988. That team wasn’t as talented as 1989 or 1994 certainly, but that season resonates with me most because it most resembles how I see life. It’s not often about coming out of nowhere to reach unexpected heights. Nor is it about nearing perfection. Life is usually about struggling through adversity to find what you’re looking for, and that’s exactly what that team did. Plus, John Candy!

I’m sure everyone out there on the internet agrees with me, right?