Bay Area Sports Franchises: San Francisco 49ers

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Super Bowl Championships: 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994 (5)

Retired Numbers: #8 Steve Young, #12 John Brodie, #16 Joe Montana, #34 Joe Perry, #37 Jimmy Johnson, #39 Hugh McElhenny, #42 Ronnie Lott, #70 Charlie Krueger, #73 Leo Nomellini, #79 Bob St. Clair, #80 Jerry Rice, #87 Dwight Clark

Rivals: St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks

The 49ers are the oldest major professional sports team in California, as well as the first. They began play in 1946 as a charter member of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and joined the NFL in 1950 after the AAFC merged into the older league. The 49ers were also the first franchise to win five Super Bowls, with most of their successes coming in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The early years in 49ers football was highlighted by the “Million Dollar Backfield” in the 1950’s, which consisted of four future Hall of Fame members in QB Y.A. Tittle, and running backs in John Henry Johnson, Joe Perry, and High McElhenny. During the 50’s and 60’s, the Niners would frequently put up .500 seasons, but only made one appearance in the playoffs in 1957. This time period was also the time in which the shotgun formation was created by coach Red Hickey, with the 49ers becoming the first NFL team to use it and seeing much success in using such.

In 1970, the 49ers played their first season as members of the NFC West, exploding to a powerful start, and finishing first in the division before they ousted the Vikings in the divisional playoffs enroute to falling to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship. The 49ers went on to win the NFC West in the following two seasons, but fell in the first and second rounds of the playoffs, respectively. The 1973 season would mark the last time the Niners would make the playoffs until their “Team of the Eighties” era would begin in the last 70’s.

Many of the key players that would be part of the 49ers stunning rise to success began their 40ers careers in 1978, including quarterback Steve DeBerg (future phenom Joe Montana’s first mentor), running back Paul Hofer, and center Randy Cross. As far as off-field leadership, much of the late 70’s/80’s turnaround was under new owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., and head coach Bill Walsh, who popularized the “West Coast offense,” a short and precisely timed passing gain that relies on small gains all the way down the field. This offense was extremely hard to defend, and was a big factor in the resurgence of Niners’ football.

Another huge variable in the play of the 49ers was the 1979 Draft, in which San Francisco acquired quarterback Joe Montana from Notre Dame. Montana would be mentored for his first two seasons under the leadership of Walsh and DeBerg’s teams, before taking the starting role in 1981. A much different type of player than typical quarterbacks, Montana led the Niners’ unusual offense, which was centered around the short passing game, past the Giants and Cowboys enroute to their first Super Bowl against the Bengals. The Niners would go on to win Super Bowl XVI, beginning one of the most dramatic and complete turnarounds in NFL history, going from back-to-back 2-14 seasons to a Super Bowl championship in just two years.
The 1982 season was a rough one for the 49ers, as they lost all five games at their home Candlestick Park (formerly home of the San Francisco Giants), ending the strike-shortened season with a 3-6 record. However, the team came back in 1983 to win their second NFC West Divisional Title in three years, before falling to the Redskins in the NFC Championship game.

In 1984, the team had one of the best seasons in team history, finishing the regular season 15-1, setting the record for most regular season wins that was held until 2007, when it was broken by the Patriots. In the playoffs, they beat the New York Giants, shutout the Bears in the NFC Championship, and shut down Dan Marino’s Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. Notably, their entire defensive backfield was elected to the Pro Bowl this season. In 1985, the Niners were successful during the regular season, winning a wild card berth before a quick elimination by the Giants in the first round. 1986 ended with a loss in the same fashion to the same team. They lost in the first round for a third consecutive year in a strike-shortened 1987 season, falling to the Vikings.

1988 and 1989 were storied times for the franchise, as the 49ers won back-to-back Super Bowls, led by MVP Montana on and off the field, as well as Walsh in 1988 and his handpicked successor, George Seifert, in 1989. The 1989 squad it often regarded as one of the most dominant teams ever, winning all three playoff games by a combined 100 points.

In 1990, the quick Niners’ start made it seem like a three-peat was not out of reach, but the team eventually fell in the second round of playoffs to a Giants squad who capitalized on a fourth quarter injury to Montana enroute to a Super Bowl appearance. Montana would miss almost all of the following two seasons with a recurring elbow injury. Steve Young would go on to fill his shoes, beginning his own powerful tenure with the Niners. But not without a fight from Montana. At the end of the 1992 season, the biggest quarterback controversy in football history was in full swing, as Montana had asked for a trade to the Chiefs, but DeBartolo wanting him to stay and start. However, Montana acknowledged that he and Young could not stay on the same team, as two powerful quarterbacks fighting for a starting spot would just cause “problems,” as Montana diplomatically put it. In their first season without Montana, the 49ers defeated the Giants by a landslide in the divisional playoff game before falling to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship.

The fifth and most recent Super Bowl Championship came to San Francisco in 1994, as Young’s Niners, bolstered by off-season acquisitions of starts such as Deion Sanders, Gary Plummer, Richard Dent, and more, propelled themselves through a third straight 49ers-Cowboys NFC title game to Super Bowl XXIX, where they beat the Chargers, 49-26.

The 49ers made the playoffs in 1995, 1996, and 1997, but were eliminated each season by the Packers. Additionally, they faced the Packers in the NFC Wild Card game, but ousted them enroute to a loss to the Falcons in the divisional playoffs.

In the years following the playoff runs in the 90’s, the 49ers program came to a relative standstill, partially due to dramatic shifts in both the roster and the front office. They made the playoffs in 2001 and 2001, but have not made the playoffs since, with most seasons ending with severe disappointment, despite having some serious pieces in Pro Bowl Players Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, and Andy Lee. Additionally, the end of the 2010-11 season was one of big coaching changes, as Mike Singletary was fired with one game left in the regular season. Defensive Lines coach Jim Tomsula was named interim coach before Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh was signed as the new head coach in January of this year. Changes are on the horizon for the recently struggling Niners. Stay tuned tomorrow as we discuss the pulse of the 49ers today!

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About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

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