As a kid growing up in the California Bay Area, I was introduced to the San Francisco 49ers at a young age. I watched as they won title after title, year after year. The 1980’s and ‘90’s were a grand time to be a 49er fan. There is just one problem, I’m a Raider fan.
For a decade and a half, the Niners were among the NFL elite. Their all-time roster reads like a Hall of Fame program. With names like Montana, Young, Rice, Walsh, and Lott, it’s no mystery why the team from San Francisco has the history that it does, and so many faithful fans to share it with.
Many of the most iconic plays in NFL history are painted in Scarlet and Gold on a boggy canvas known as Candlestick. The team of the 80 gives the Bay Area a reason to cheer, and it gave a generation of fans stories to tell their children.
So, as a die-hard Raider fan, I give you the ten greatest moments in 49ers history. It was difficult choosing ten, not because each one hurt my heart a little, but because there were so many to choose from. Enjoy!
- The trade that brought Steve Young to San Francisco
- Jeff Garcia’s comeback against the Giants
- Frank Gore becomes the 49ers all-time leading rusher
- Drafting Jerry Rice
10. Steve Young’s Game Winning Touchdown Run- October 30, 1988
With starting quarterback, Joe Montana, sidelined with injuries, backup QB, Steve Young, got a chance to introduce himself to the NFL. And boy, did he deliver. What started off as a designed pass play to wide receiver, Mike Wilson, quickly broke down into one of the most iconic plays in 49ers history.
Trailing the Minnesota Vikings 21-17 with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the 49ers needed a touchdown to win. As Young dropped back to pass, the pocket collapsed around him. With Viking defenders all around him, he pulled the ball down and took it 49 yards to pay dirt. En route to the end zone, he managed to break at least five tackles and resist the force of gravity to push the ball over the line for the game-winning score. Broadcaster Lon Simmons’ call of the play is one of the most memorable in NFL history.
9. The Catch II: Steve Young to Terrell Owens– January 3, 1999
With eight seconds remaining in the 1999 NFC Wild Card, and the ball on the 25-yard line, 49er quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver, Terrell Owens, gave fans what is now known as “The Catch II”.
Like its namesake, the famous Montana-to-Clark play from the 1980’s, this version also led to a last-second victory against a conference rival.
Trailing by four points with seconds on the clock Young takes the ball, stumbles, then delivers a strike straight to the end zone to a heavily covered Terrell Owens, who had dropped multiple balls in this game, came up big when the Niners needed him the most. The 49ers beat the Packers 30-27.
8. Steve Young’s Victory Lap around Candlestick- January 15, 1998
The 1995 NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys is the moment Steve Young finally stepped out of the shadow of his predecessor, and mentor, the great, Joe Montana.
After falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter, all seemed lost for the 49ers. Their hopes of going back to the Super Bowl were hanging by threads. Then something happened. Steve Young—who admitted to having a chip on his shoulder while serving as the Niners new starting quarterback—took control of the situation and the game. Mounting an unrelenting comeback against one of the best teams in football, Young secured the 38-28 victory and a trip back to the Super Bowl.
At the conclusion of the game, with reporters chasing him, trying their best to interview San Francisco’s new hero, Young circled the stadium in celebration. A new era of 49ers football had arrived and at the head of the table sat Steve Young. It was the moment every fan had been waiting for, and once again, Young delivered.
7. Colin Kaepernick’s Playoff Game against Green Bay- January 12, 2013
It had been years since the 49ers had a quarterback that made the league take notice, and even longer since their last Super Bowl appearance. The drought began to weigh on the city of San Francisco. The fan base is accustomed to both winning and good quarterback play, and the Niners were long overdue for both. Enter Colin Kaepernick.
With starting quarterback, Alex Smith, out due to injury, Kaepernick introduced the NFL to a new breed of athlete. He could run, he could throw, and he did it all with a unique style that could not be denied.
After starting the game with an interception that was returned for a touchdown, the new Niner QB let loose. Attacking the Green Bay secondary looked easy as Kaepernick torched them for 263 yards and two touchdowns. To go along with his passing performance, Kap rushed for 181 yards and an additional two scores. The 49ers beat the Packers 45-31 en route to their sixth Super Bowl appearance.
The Niners couldn’t bring the Lombardi trophy back to the Bay Area, but they did give the city of San Francisco something they hadn’t had in years; hope.
6. Signing Head Coach Bill Walsh– 1979
A ship—no matter how fine—is only as good as its skipper, and Bill Walsh was one of the best.
Walsh was named the head coach in 1979 after a successful stint at Stanford and went right to work. His first order of business was to find a leader that would fit his vision, and lead his team to the promise land. Bill Walsh found his man in the third round of the 1979 draft; a kid from Notre Dame that he would develop into one of the greatest players the game had ever seen.
Walsh’s West Coast style offense and his eye for talent turned the 49ers into Super Bowl Champions in three short years. Walsh is a legend in the world of football, and his legacy is still visible throughout the sport, from Pop Warner to the Pros.
5. Drafting Joe Montana- 1979 NFL Draft
Having traded away their first round pick in a package deal that landed them an aging O.J. Simpson, the 49ers unknowingly set themselves up for the greatest draft pick in their storied history.
In the third round of the 1979 draft, the San Francisco 49ers selected Joe Montana out of Notre Dame. Montana wasn’t the first quarterback taken in 1979, but history has proven that he was the best.
“There have been, and will be, much better arms and legs and much better bodies on quarterbacks in the NFL,” stated former teammate, Randy Cross, in an interview with ESPN’s Larry Schwartz, “but if you have to win a game or score a touchdown or win a championship, the only guy to get is Joe Montana.”
Bill Walsh did just that. Montana went on to lead the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins, racked up three Super Bowl MVPs, in addition to two league MVPs.
4. The Goal-Line Stand- Super Bowl XVI
In what would be the first of six Super Bowl appearances, the 49ers faced off against the AFC Champion, Cincinnati Bengals, at the Silverdome.
Having taken a 20-0 lead at the half, the 49ers were well on their way to the first of five Super Bowl championships. Montana had one touchdown through the air and one on the ground and looked to have the game in hand.
The Bengals marched down the field on the opening drive of the third quarter to bring the score to 20-7, sending a message to the Niners that they weren’t done. The Bengals would again drive on the 49er defense, once again knocking on the door of the end zone. Momentum had shifted, and the 49ers needed something big.
With the ball on the three-yard line, Cincinnati turned to full-back, Pete Johnson, to punch it in. Johnson failed on his first two attempts, gaining nothing more than two yards in the process. On third and one, a pass from quarterback Ken Anderson to half-back Charles Alexander was stopped at the half yard line, forcing Bengals head coach, Forrest Gregg, to go for it on fourth down. Johnson got the call and failed to punch it in.
The goal-line stand proved to be the difference in the game. The Niners went on to win 26-21, a difference of only five points. The Team of 80’s had arrived.
3. Jerry Rice Passes Jim Brown on Monday Night Football
Jerry Rice’s career was surely one for the ages. He was drafted in 1985 with the 16th overall pick and would become one of the greatest to play the game. To be fair, Rice enjoyed a long career with two of the best quarterbacks in league history, Montana and Young, so to place his success solely on his shoulders would be an injustice to the men who threw him the ball.
Against the Los Angeles Raiders, Rice would score three touchdowns, eclipsing the all-time mark set by the great, Jim Brown. In a 44-14 rout of the Raiders on Monday Night Football, head coach George Seifert—who had pulled his starters—elected to put Rice and Young back in. He wanted to give the duo one last chance to break the record at home on Monday night.
After all the receiving yards Rice had accumulated through the years, in the end, it took just 38 to break the record. With his 127th touchdown, Jerry Rice became the NFL’s all-time (non-quarterback) touchdown leader and remains atop the list to this day with 208.
2. The Catch: Joe Montana to Dwight Clark –January 10, 1982
Arguably the most iconic play in NFL history, “The Catch” is an example of everything that is great about the sport of football. It is evidence that the game is orchestrated to the beat of a different drum, and even the most exemplary plays come from a combination of both skill and luck.
Joe Montana’s pass to Dwight Clark in the NFC Championship has been argued about for decades. Cowboy fans believe Clark’s iconic touchdown was luck, and that Montana was simply throwing the ball away. The 49er Faithful, however, believe it was exactly what it was billed as, the intentional dagger that stopped Dallas head coach, Tom Landry, from reaching his sixth Super Bowl.
Regardless of what side of the argument you are on, this play was the primer for what would lead to one of the greatest dynasties in football. The Niners won the game 28-27 and would go on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.
1. The Drive- Super Bowl XXIII
The final drive of Super Bowl XXIII is easily the most iconic moment in 49ers franchise history. Not because it led to a Super Bowl win, or because it showed the grit of some of the greatest players in history, but because it took 11 men to get it done.
Trailing 16-13 with 3:10 left in the game, Joe Montana and the 49ers offense had to drive 92 yards to the end zone to win the game. In order to calm his huddle down, Montana pointed to the stands and asked, “Isn’t that John Candy?” In that moment he showed his teammates that the game was meant to be fun and that the situation was not beyond their control; his tactic worked.
Montana, wide receiver Jerry Rice, and running back Roger Craig, systematically dissected the defense of the Cincinnati Bengals. They were unstoppable, and their performance has gone down in the books as one of the best. But, despite their contributions to the effort, it was wide receiver John Taylor, who hauled in the game-winning touchdown with 34 seconds left in the game.
The final drive of Super Bowl XXIII represents everything the San Francisco 49ers are as a franchise. A tough, unrelenting, organization that will find a way to win, no matter the odds.