CBS Sports went through each franchise to determine their best team during the Super Bowl era. The 5-time Super Bowl Champion 49ers have options, as they dominated the ’80s and ’90s with some of the greatest teams we’ve ever seen.
You could make a case for a few teams, but the ’89 49ers were one of the most dominant teams in NFL history:
San Francisco 49ers: 1989*
Overall record: 17-2
Outscored their playoff opponents 126-26
Owners of the largest margin of victory in Super Bowl history
This was the hardest decision on the list. San Francisco has two all-time great teams in the ‘89 and ‘84 squads. The ‘84 49ers, the second of Bill Walsh’s three Super Bowl championship teams, were the first team in league history to win 15 regular season games. In the playoffs, they defeated the next two Super Bowl champions (the Giants and Bears) before humbling Dan Marino and the Dolphins’ prolific offense in Super Bowl XIX.
As great as the ‘84 49ers were, they were edged out by the ‘89 team, a team that had Jerry Rice, who was drafted several months after San Francisco’s Super Bowl win over Miami. Rice was at the peak of his powers in 1989, catching three touchdown passes in the 49ers’ 55-10 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. Rice was half of arguably the greatest quarterback receiving duo in NFL history. The other half, quarterback Joe Montana, won his first of two league MVP honors that season. He also won his third Super Bowl MVP award after torching the Broncos for a then Super Bowl record five touchdown passes.
While the 49ers’ offense — a unit that also included running back Roger Craig, receiver John Taylor and Pro Bowl left guard Guy McIntyre — was elite, San Francisco’s defense was also a dominant unit. Led by Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley, the 49ers’ defense held 12 opponents to 16 points or less.
If you’ve ever seen “America’s Game” when they discussed the ’89 Niners, All-Pro safety Ronnie Lot went into detail during one segment where he became frustrated with George Siefert as he forbade defensive backs from hitting receivers.
Obviously, Siefert wanted to protect his players from taking big licks in practice. But a part of me believes this was Siefert purposely getting under his defense’s skin and forcing them to take out their frustrations on opposing offenses every Sunday.
Using Football Outsiders DVOA (the higher percentage, the better), here are the highest-rated Niner teams in the Super Bowl era:
- ’89 (37.2%)
- ‘84 (33.5%)
- ’12 (30.2%)
- ’19 (29%)
- ’94 (28%)
San Francisco terrorized teams in 2019. Before the game started, you could count on 3-4 touchdowns offensively while the opposition would be lucky to reach the teens. That squad is 8% worse than the ’89 team.
John Taylor scoring a pair of 90-yard touchdowns against the Rams on Monday Night Football will forever be remembered. As will the playoff dominance of the Vikings, Rams, and Broncos en route to a Super Bowl victory.
Joe Montana led the NFL in passer rating at 112.4. The next closest was Boomer Esiason at 92.1. Montana led the league in adjusted yards per pass attempt by nearly two yards to give you an idea about the 49ers' passing offense.
Jerry Rice led the league in receiving yards and touchdowns, while Taylor finished with over 1,000 yards himself and tied for fourth in touchdowns. Roger Craig finished the season sixth in yards from scrimmage.
When you add contributions from Tom Rathman (616 receiving yards from a fullback is silly) and tight end Brent Jones, it’s easy to see why Montana was so effective.
On the other side of the ball, Charles Haley and Pierce Hold both racked up over ten sacks, and Kevin Fagan added seven. Matt Millen was the muscle at middle linebacker, and Lott’s five interceptions just begin to scratch the surface of his impact. The 49ers had six Pro Bowl players, and neither Haley nor Holt were one.