The San Francisco 49ers’ 1988 season ended in a dramatic fashion that saw one of the great and most innovative head coaches of all time, Bill Walsh, step down as a head coach after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII.
A teary-eyed Walsh announced his retirement in the locker room, which opened the door for then-defensive coordinator George Seifert, who served as the Niners defensive coordinator during the previous six seasons.
Could you imagine following “The Genius,” who spent time as an organization’s general manager and head coach for the entire decade? Oh, and it’s not as if Walsh was without success. All the 49ers did during the 80s was win three Super Bowls, score more points than any other team in the decade, draft five Hall of Famers, and have the two-time NFL Coach of the Year.
Seifert didn’t initially plan on taking the Niners head coaching gig, as he told NFL Network that he was on a plane to Cleveland and had an interview with Dallas before his wife told him to fly back to the Bay Area, as San Francisco planned on hiring Seifert to replace the legendary Walsh.
Luckily for Seifert, he wasn’t walking into a roster bereft of talent. A lot has changed in the NFL during the past 30 years, but none bigger than free agency. Before free agency, there wasn’t as much change year over year. Teams essentially held the rights to players until Plan B free agency was introduced in ‘89 that forced teams to retain the rights to 37 players.
The 49ers featured the reigning Super Bowl MVP, who was 27 heading into 1989. Jerry Rice went on to have 1,483 receiving yards on 82 receptions and scored 17 tuddies. Those numbers are silly looking back, given the time that it happened.
At the time, Joe Montana, who was 33 years old, led the NFL in DVOA by 11 percentage points. Montana’s 26/8 touchdown to interception ratio with a 70% completion percentage — all while averaging over nine yards per attempt — feels like video game numbers.
Rice wasn’t the only pass-catcher Montana depended on. John Taylor, who is often forgotten outside of 49ers land, averaged 18 yards per reception to go along with 10 touchdowns and 1,077 yards. Old highlights suggest that Taylor was a big-play threat every time he touched the ball.
Fullback Tom Rathman had over 616 yards receiving. How often can you say your fullback was the third-leading receiver on the team? This wasn’t your traditional lead blocker. If you’ve never seen Rathman play, think of a mix between Mike Alstott and Kyle Juszczyk.
Tight end Brent Jones had 500 yards, while Roger Craig had 473 yards receiving. Craig also ran for over 1,000 yards. The offense had versatility, speed, and playmakers.
Stopping the run and limiting big passing plays is how you win on defense in today’s NFL, and that’s how you won on defense in the late 80s — some things will never change. The 49ers' defense took on the persona of their head coach. The unit was the least penalized team in the NFL, allowing the second-fewest rushing first downs in the league, finished fourth in net yards per play, and fifth in defensive DVOA.
From allowing 32 points combined in both of the team’s losses to having seven more interceptions than touchdowns allowed, the 49ers' defense did not disappoint in 1989.
Charles Haley would have the third double-digit sack season of his four-year career, as he tied Pierce Holt for the team lead with 10.5 sacks. Oddly enough, Haley and Holt were one of four sets of teammates who had double-digit sacks that seasons.
Ronnie Lott and his five interceptions were eventually elected to the Pro Bowl. Talent wasn’t an issue, but the regular season didn’t start as smoothly as the final record indicated.
Off to a shaky start
After beating the Colts in Week 1, it took a fourth-quarter comeback win over Tampa Bay on the road to get to 2-0. After that, the 49ers would score the third-fewest points of the season while Joe “Bird Legs” Montana wound up being sacked four times, which would be an issue to start the year.
The next week, San Francisco trailed 21-10 in the fourth quarter before erupting for 28 points in the final period as Montana finished with 428 yards and five touchdowns. Sacks were once again an issue, as Joe Cool went down eight times during the contest.
In Week 4, the high-powered offense failed to reach the end zone as they lost to the 4-0 Rams 13-12. It was a sloppy offensive performance that was capped off by a brutal Rathman fumble late in the game.
The 49ers would eventually go on a six-game winning streak, but they weren’t without controversy. Candlestick Park suffered structural damage due to an earthquake five days before the 49ers played the Patriots in Week 7. That meant the Niners would have to play their game at Stanford Stadium.
Montana went down in the first half with an injury that week, which meant Steve Young would see his first action of the season. Young went 11-12 with three touchdowns en route to a 37-20 trouncing of the Patriots.
Young made comments after the game against New England saying that he wanted what every backup in any sport wanted: an opportunity to play. It was tough to argue with him based on what he just did, but we’re talking about replacing a guy who just won a Super Bowl and had established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
Young wound up starting the next game as Montana recovered, but he would get injured, too. That meant third-string quarterback Steve Bono would have to finish the game. San Francisco beat the Jets 23-10 after Bono found Jerry Rice on a deep post route in the second quarter. That would be the game's final touchdown — which would be a theme for the defense.
The glue guys
Lott, Haley, and Holt received all of the accolades, but every defense has a couple of “glue guys” that set the tone and do the dirty work, which allows the stars to shine. For San Francisco, a pair of in-season waiver wire pickups in Matt Millen and Jim Burt.
An inside linebacker and nose tackle in a 3-4 defense are bound to be afterthoughts, but to beat the physical style of the New York Giants and the Rams of the league, you needed toughness.
Millen and Burt brought a much-needed attitude to the front seven of the defense and were part of the reason this unit would go on to allow just 13 points or fewer in six of their final seven games, including the playoffs.
Hello, Mike Holmgren
‘89 was the first year Mike Holmgren burst onto the scene of the NFL, as he’d take over calling the 49ers offense for Walsh. Holmgren didn’t have to change Walsh’s West Coast system too much.
I mentioned how Rice and Taylor averaged 18 yards per reception and were big-play threats. Yet, it seemed like every highlight from every game saw one of the two players taking a slant route and turning that into a long catch and run. Space and timing were what made the Niners' offense run.
The 49ers avenged an earlier season loss to the Rams in Week 14 on Monday Night Football. Taylor scored 92 and 95-yard touchdowns on a slant where he bobbed, weaved, and outran multiple Rams defenders.
San Francisco was down 24-10 in the third quarter in this game but stormed back to a 30-27 victory. Week 14 would be the last time the Niners were challenged.
Impeccable playoff run
This ‘89 team may not have been the best overall 49ers squad — those are Lott’s words, not mine, as he’s on record saying the ‘87 squad was the most talented — but the three-game playoff run was the most dominant three-game stretch in NFL history.
We like to reference Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat, as it adjusts for opponents. DVOA is referenced in terms of percentages. So, the Ravens ‘19 offense, when Lamar Jackson did whatever he wanted, had a season offensive DVOA of 28.2%. Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champion-winning Bucs were second in the NFL as a team at 31.5% DVOA for the season.
The 49ers averaged over 100% DVOA in each of their three playoff games in 1989. For reference, only two teams had 100% in a single game during 2020 all year.
The Vikings entered the Divisional playoff round with the No. 1 defense in the NFL. The 49ers scored 27 points in the first half, including 20 in the second quarter, to make it 27-3 at the half. That vaunted pass rush from Minnesota didn’t sack Montana once as he threw four touchdowns in a blowout. Craig ran for 125 yards, and Rice had 114 yards receiving.
The Vikings had three quarterbacks attempt over 15 passes in the contest to give you an idea about how much that offense struggled. Remember, stop the run, limit big passing plays, and force turnovers. The Vikings ran for 86 yards and turned the ball over five times.
The 49ers would host the Rams and see them for the third time in the NFC Championship, where the Rams drew first blood after making an early field goal. That would be the last time Los Angeles scored.
The Rams turned the ball over three times and finished the game with a whopping 156 total yards compared to San Francisco’s 442. The final score was 30-3, but the game was more lopsided than that. San Francisco had 20 more first downs than the Rams. But, honestly, the Niners should have won by more as they lost two fumbles.
They didn’t track QB hits in ‘89, but it felt like Rams QB Jim Everett was hit on every other drop back. On the other side of the ball, the West Coast “finesse” offense played their version of smash-mouth football that would carry over into the Super Bowl.
The Niners were 12-point favorites over the Broncos for Super Bowl XXIV. At the time, that was the largest spread in the Super Bowl since 1970.
Siefert had a lucky sweater arrive just one day before Super Bowl Sunday. If you’re superstitious, you know how much that sweater meant to the first-year head coach. Rathman was on record saying that he didn’t feel confident that San Francisco would win. After the star fullback was introduced, the entire team forgot to wait for their head coach out of the tunnel.
Siefert had some forgettable moments during his initial year. For example, earlier in the season, after the big Monday night win against the Rams, he was so excited about the comeback victory that Siefert left the sidelines to go shake hands but forgot to take off his headset.
Those were the only times you had an opportunity to poke fun at Siefert aside from his quirkiness, as his team was impeccable during the playoff run, and that was capped off with a blowout win in the Super Bowl. Rice scored on the opening possession, and the 49ers never looked back.
Scoring at least two times in every quarter, the 49ers hit the over (48) themselves as they would go on to score the most points in Super Bowl history in a 55-10 drubbing of the Broncos.
A magical season, capped off by a surgical playoff run. The 1989 49ers remain the most dominant playoff team in NFL history, and it’s unlikely we see another run like them again.