SUPER BOWL XXIII CHAMPION 1988 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

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!!

xxiiiWith 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 9-6 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.

xxiii2The 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 their last few games and had to have someone else lose just to get in.

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 at the end of the ’87 season 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.

super-bowl-logo-1988However 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

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SUPER BOWL XIX CHAMPIONS 1984 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

On January 20, 1985 in Super Bowl XIX, Joe Montana bested Dan Marino in Stanford Stadium 38-16, or rather the 49ers over the Dolphins.  We had been told the aerial circus came to town with Dan Marino and his 48 TDs during the regular season, and 57 when you add the playoff stats to his totals.  Remember the hype of how it should be a shootout??  A can’t miss aerial show!!  The Marks Brothers: Duper and Clayton!  Mark Clayton had set the record with 18 receiving touchdowns as the Dolphins scored a record 70 touchdowns in 1984.  A young strapping quarterback with a rocket arm at the height of his power. Who could stop them??

xixringEnter the 1984 San Francisco 49ers.  A team motivated by the ’83 NFC Championship debacle against the Washington Redskins in a 24-21 loss. A game marred by a controversial pass interference and defensive holding call that prolonged the final drive where the Redskins milked the clock and made their game winning kick.  This thwarted one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the NFL where the highest scoring team ever (83 Redskins: 541 points), jumped to a 21-0 lead and were about to easily advance to Super Bowl XVIII.

Yet the secondary of Eric Wright, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, and Carlton Williamson shut down the explosive Redskins after that allowing Joe Montana to bring his team back.

In a frantic 4th quarter Joe Montana, who had been shut down all game long, went white hot and completed 3TDs in the quarter to tie the game at 21. The 49ers had all the momentum, their sideline was going nuts and RFK Stadium, home of the famous “We Want Dallas” chant, was so quiet you could hear vendors selling popcorn.

super-bowl-logo-1984Then a questionable pass interference call against Eric Wright going up the sideline, where incidental contact at best would have been a more accurate call.  A few plays later Ronnie Lott was called for defensive holding…which was the first time I ever saw someone get called for holding with his arms down to his side!!  All that could be talked about in the Niner’s locker room after the ’83 Championship was the frustration that the officiating decided the game and not the players.  So they were on a mission to win it all in 1984.

The 49ers became the first team to go through the season 15-1 in the regular season.  How strong was this team?  The only loss during the campaign was a 20-17 loss to Pittsburgh who made it to the AFC Championship that season.  Fair to say Pittsburgh was strong?  Thought so… Well led by their secondary which placed ALL 4 members in the Pro Bowl.  This team was definitely prepared to take on the pass-happy Dolphins who defeated the Steelers to meet them in Super Bowl XIX.

George Seifert put the defense in a 4-1-6 defense and Fred Dean, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, and Duane Board (2 sacks) produced the pass rush that got to Marino by first smothering his receivers.  Many of these Dime defense principles Bill Belichick used with the Giants in stopping the 1990 Bills in Super Bowl XXV and for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.  George Seifert didn’t get enough credit for coming up with a defense that produced upsets against high powered offenses in future Super Bowls.

19 joeOne of the most demoralizing things that a defense can do is intercept a team in the endzone negating a long drive which the 49ers did twice in both the 3rd and 4th quarters of Super Bowl XIX.  This was a signature game for one of the best secondaries ever.  They were built specifically to take on an explosive passing attack and nearly took out two of the greatest offenses of all time. The refs interfered with one in 1983 but they wouldn’t be denied in Palo Alto.

However with Joe Montana throwing for a then record 331 yards and most yards rushing for a QB in a Super Bowl with 59 yards the defense was overshadowed.  Roger Craig scored 3 touchdowns in the game.  The “other” offense set another record with 537 total yards in the contest.

Wow…Dan Marino was only in his second year…he’d return to the Super Bowl in the near future…right?

Don’t take any chances for granted, there are no guarantees that you’ll get back…

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Roger Craig Should Be In The Hall of Fame

When you think back to Bill Walsh’s great 49er teams, who are the first players you think of?? Right there with the Joe Montanas, the Jerry Rices, and Ronnie Lotts it only takes a fraction of a second to think of Roger Craig. His high knee running style brought a physicality to the San Francisco offense that was seen as a finesse group up until his arrival. In fact he came to San Francisco as a fullback when they drafted him from Nebraska before the 1983 season.

Roger Craig was the battering ram of the San Francisco offense of the 1980s.

Roger Craig was the battering ram of the San Francisco offense.

In college he had been primarily a blocking back in the Cornhuskers wishbone offense. Normally he paved the way for Jarvis Redwine and then Mike Rozier. Yet when Bill Walsh decided to revamp San Francisco’s dismal backfield after a 3-6 season in 1982, he drafted Craig in the second round.

Although the 49ers had won it all in 1981, it had become apparent Bill Ring, Amos Lawrence, Walt Easley, and Earl Cooper just wasn’t cutting it in the backfield. To raise the stakes in the NFC for 1983, Craig and newly acquired Wendell Tyler would form a more potent backfield.

After posting the worst yards per carry average (3.4) and yardage (742) in 1982, the new backfield duo of Craig and Tyler turned that around completely. The much improved ground game of 1983 ranked 8th with 2,257 yards rushing and a gaudy 4.4 yard average. Ironically just ahead of the Los Angeles Rams, who had traded Tyler to San Francisco so they could draft Eric Dickerson.

You had to give the nod to Craig who ran for 783 yards a team leading 8 TDs, while catching 42 passes for 427 yards and another 4 scores. This more dynamic backfield, along with Joe Montana, powered San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game. A 24-21 loss to the Washington Redskins was shrouded in controversy, thanks to some questionable calls, yet Walsh had the backfield he envisioned. Craig had reinvented himself from a collegiate player who rarely touched the football to a dual threat pro.

The 1984 49ers were a juggernaut becoming the first team to go 15-1 during the regular season. Everyone of the 49 man roster played their role so no one had outstanding stats. However once the 49ers moved past the New York Giants and Chicago Bears during the playoffs, the stage was set for a coming out party in Super Bowl XIX. With all eyes on Joe Montana’s possible second Super Bowl trophy and the electrifying record setting Dan Marino, Craig’s name didn’t even make the marquee.

Roger Craig graces the cover of Sports Illustrated  after his record breaking performance in Super Bowl XIX.

Roger Craig graces the cover of Sports Illustrated after his record breaking performance in Super Bowl XIX.

It was his 1985 that set Craig apart as he amassed his 1,000/ 1,000 yard seasons both rushing and receiving. The first player in league history to do so. Some 27 years later, only Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk shares that accomplishment when he did it in 1999. How dominating was his performance?? Well his 1,050 yards rushing doesn’t jump out at you until you realize he only ran 214 times for a whopping 4.9 yards per carry. The league average is always around 4.0.

Oh by the way, he led the NFL in receiving that year with 92, which set a record for running backs, that amassed 1,016 more yards. His 15 total touchdowns was second to Joe Morris and was 1 better than NFL MVP Marcus Allen. In fact many pundits, including our CEO believes Craig should have been the MVP in 1985 with that dominating performance.

Now buoy his 1985 record setting season not culminating with the league MVP, on the backdrop of a Super Bowl record 3 TDs yet not winning that MVP and you’ll see where we’re going in a minute. Don’t forget he did this on a 10-6 San Francisco team that was a defending champion with Jerry Rice being a rookie that didn’t have 1,000 yards receiving and only 3 touchdowns. Craig quite simply fueled that offense.

Once the 49ers won Super Bowl XIX, they were forced to retool and become a bigger physical team. In 1985, the Chicago Bears emerged with one of the most imposing defenses in NFL history. The Giants followed suit with an overwhelming defense that featured 4 linebackers in the 250 lbs category. When Bill Walsh and his 49ers were dominated 49-3 in the 1986 NFC Divisional Playoffs by the Giants something had to be done.

These were teams the 49ers had beaten on their way to the ’84 championship, now they had taken the game to a new level of brute force. In reinventing the offense from a size perspective, it was Craig who was switched from fullback to halfback to allow for the insertion of Tom Rathman at fullback. The entire offensive line was overhauled.

You have to keep in mind the average career for a runner in pro football is less than 4 years. Yet here Craig was making the switch in year 5 to a position that called for him to be quicker. This at a time where he should have been slowing down from a physical standpoint. Yet he, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana spearheaded one of history’s most accomplished runs. From 1987-1990 the 49ers went 51-12 in the regular season, winning back to back Super Bowls in ’88 & ’89 and were the prohibitive favorites to win it all in 1987 as well as 1990. They finished #1 in offense in ’87 and ’89 and #2 in ’88 and ’90. In each year they made it to at least the divisional round of the playoffs and 3 straight NFC Championship Games as they were trying to threepeat.

Playing in only 12 games due to the ’87 strike, Craig ran for 815 yards which projects out to 1,086 over a full season. The 13-2 Niners were poised to become the greatest team of the modern era yet were upset by the Vikings in the playoffs. They were #1 in both offense and defense yet proved fallible in the playoff loss. Craig went on to his greatest performance in the 1988 campaign. In rushing for a career high and club record 1,502 yards, he also caught 76 passes for an additional 534  yards for his second season with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. More important, he powered San Francisco to another Super Bowl championship with a win over Cincinnati in the XXIII’d edition.

Roger Craig was a hard nosed runner.

Roger Craig was a hard nosed runner.

Yet go back to 1988 being his second season with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Keep in mind this was no sleek, make ’em miss halfback. He brought a punishing style to his position where he bludgeoned the opposition. As you’re reading this you can picture his high knee running style like when he trampled through the Rams on his most famous run in 1988.

Yet did you know that Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, and Barry Sanders only had 2 different seasons amassing 2,000 yards from scrimmage also?? Did you also know that Marcus Allen and Adrian Peterson have only had one?? Only Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk, Ladainian Tomlinson, and Eric Dickerson had more. What do all of these runners have in common?? Peterson and Tomlinson will be in the Hall of Fame and all the others are in. Roger Craig is right there with them.

Now going into the Hall of Fame is based on impact on the game. By the time we bring up the 1989 team that won Super Bowl XXIV, Craig was a driving force behind the team of the decade. Again he was a 1,000 yard rusher as the team won their fourth Super Bowl and Roger had his 3rd ring. When he left the game in 1993, his 566 career receptions was #1 among running backs all time and still remains 7th.

He is in the linear line of great NFL running backs when it comes to catching the football and is a part of the game’s evolution. He took the mantle from Chuck Foreman and propelled it forward. Since then, only a handful of every down running backs have provided that type of versatility. Now everyone has a receiving running back who comes in on 3rd downs where Roger was in every play.

It was Craig’s play that allowed a young Jerry Rice to flourish as teams concentrated their efforts to stop him. If Craig’s move to halfback in 1987 hadn’t panned out, what would have been the legacy of Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense”?? It was the run from 1987-1990 that made the offense spread it’s wings throughout the National Football League. During this time is when it proved it could take on the big bad Chicago Bears defense (see 41-0 1987 Monday Night shutout) and 28-3 NFC Championship win in Soldier Field in ’88. Then you add the rivalry with the New York Giants.

From Mike Holmgren to Denny Green to Mike White to Jon Gruden (who was the piss-boy on the 1990 SF coaching staff) and George Seifert succeeding Bill Walsh. They all could attribute their Head Coaching jobs to some extent to Craig’s performance along with Montana and Rice. Yet the foundation of that offense running and receiving along with goal line and short yardage was #33.

By the way, when did Roger Craig set the Super Bowl record for becoming the first running back to have a 100 yard receiving game?? You guessed it… Super Bowl XXIII against Cincinnati and not his record setting performance against Miami. Now had he won the Super Bowl XIX MVP, or the 1985 NFL MVP, would that have propelled him to winning the NFL MVP in 1988?? Give it some thought.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you…Roger Craig