Super Bowl XXIII was a game for the ages, 49ers 20-16 over the Cincinnati Bengals in Joe Robbie Stadium. When I think of this Super Bowl I think of the moments that take place in a game that could have altered the course of history. If only David Fulcher could have knocked down a couple passes on that last drive…. What if the late Pete Rozelle had allowed the Bengals to use their “Sugar Huddle”?? All banter for historians now since Joe Montana did his thing!!
With the Bengals leading 13-6 early in the 4th quarter, Stanford Jennings had just returned a kickoff 93 yards to put the Bengals up by a touchdown. The 49ers were driving for the tying touchdown when the late Lewis Billups cut in front of Mike Wilson and had a clear endzone interception, then dropped the ball.
The Bengals had shut down the 49er offense all game long but now the 49er offense was clicking. Rice scored on the next play to tie it at 13 . What would have happened had Billups held on for that interception? Would that have been the demoralizing play that would have deflated the 49ers for good in a defensive struggle?
Montana went on to lead that famous last second drive that cemented his legacy…however there are some interesting points to this team. Did you know this 49er team had the worst record of any Super Bowl champion at the time with a 10-6 record? Did you know that the ’88 49ers were 6-5 during the season after back to back losses in Candlestick including a 9-3 loss to the LA Raiders with no touchdowns scored? The first set of back to back losses at home in almost a decade. This was a team that had to overcome the psychological damage that was inflicted a year before that nearly sunk the ’88 season.
The 1987 season was the best 49er team in history (up to that time) in The Chancellor of Football’s opinion. This was the first team since the 1977 Dallas Cowboys to finish #1 on both offense and defense in the same season. So prolific was this team in a strike shortened year of 15 games, Montana led the NFL with 31 TDs in only 12 games played with the regulars and Steve Young throwing for 10 more. It was the most prolific season of Montana’s career. Projected over a 16 game season, he would have thrown for 45 TDs at a time when only Dan Marino had surpassed the 40 mark.
Jerry Rice was league MVP with 23 TDs (22 receiving) in only 12 games that broke the single season TD reception record of Mark Clayton’s 18. Rice was so dominant he had 17TDs in the final 7 games alone. The overall touchdown record at the time was 24 by John Riggins. At the pace that Rice was going he would have had 30 TDs had they played 16 games. So Emmitt, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, and Shawn Alexander NEVER would have touched the record.
The draft class of ’86 came to fruition with Charles Haley, John Taylor, Don Griffin, Tim McKyer, Kevin Fagan (The U), Brent Jones, Tom Rathman, and Harris Barton, who would anchor the team for years to come. This mixed youth with the experience of the Joe Montanas, Ronnie Lotts, Randy Cross’, and Dwight Clarks to form a team that rolled to a 13-2 record finishing on a 6 game winning streak. They scored the most points and gave up the 3rd fewest.
They outscored their last 3 opponents 124-7 including a 41-0 trouncing of the NFC Central Champion Bears on a Monday Night in front of the nation. So what happened?? Two things…the flu and Anthony Carter got hot and did a Larry Fitzgerald thru the 1987 playoffs with this being the centerpiece game of that run and his career.
The Minnesota Vikings were 8-7 and backed into the playoffs with losses in 3 of their last 4 games and had to have someone else lose just to get in. They upset the Cinderella Saints 44-10 in the Wildcard round then boarded a flight to take on a team many thought was about to be crowned “Team of the Decade”…. and then:
Joe wasn’t himself in that divisional playoff game and even though he was weakened with the flu he was getting’ hounded by the Vikings pass rush. He did throw a down and out to Dwight Clark that was late and Reggie Rutland returned for a touchdown that put San Fran down 17-7. Bill Walsh benched Joe Montana for Steve Young, who had been acquired that year in a trade, who did lead a few TD drives that ultimately led to QB controversy to start the ’88 season.
That 36-24 loss along with Anthony Carter’s 227 yards receiving haunted that team to the midway point of the 88 season. This team clearly should have won Super Bowl XXII. I remember the shock that the Bears & Redskins took into their divisional playoff game the next day, realizing whoever won would host the Vikings in the NFC Championship game when they clearly were dreading a trip to San Francisco. Especially the Bears who in a matchup for home field advantage were trounced 41-0 just 4 weeks prior… and who did the ’88 49ers beat in the NFC Championship game to get to Super Bowl XXIII? The Chicago Bears 28-3 in Soldier Field in 28 below zero weather.
However the upset playoff loss to the Vikings caused tensions throughout the organization. Embarrassed by the biggest upset since Super Bowl III, it was rumored Eddie DeBartolo nearly parted ways with Head Coach Bill Walsh. This led to changes within the organization and corporate pressure was one of the reasons Walsh stepped down after Super Bowl XXIII a year later.
The 49ers did get revenge on the Vikings over the next two years in the playoffs. The ’88 postseason began with a 34-9 beat down of Minnesota puncutated by an 80 yard touchdown run by Roger Craig in the 4th quarter.
However when I look at the Super Bowl XXIII ring, the ’88 season doesn’t come to mind. The turmoil that took place from the previous postseason and subsequent retirement of Bill Walsh dimmed the luster of their coronation. With this win, the 49ers had become The Team of the 80’s. It wasn’t a pyrrhic victory but…
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Dedicated to the late Bill Walsh