The San Francisco 49ers have one of the most decorated histories in the NFL. Which of their teams were the top of the top?
Earlier this week, we looked back at the ten worst seasons in San Francisco 49ers history. It’s only fair, then, in the interest of balance, that we look at the ten best.
Now, these are not the 10 greatest seasons in franchise history. That would just be a list with the five Super Bowl teams at the top, the 2012 Super Bowl loser team in sixth place, and then four randomly assorted conference championship teams. The franchise’s history is littered with great seasons, and we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to talking about the best of the best.
No, instead, I thought I’d rank the top teams in franchise history. That’s a subtle but important difference.
The NFL playoffs are single-elimination. One bad game, one off day, can end a season in a blink. The 2007 New England Patriots are, without a doubt, one of the best teams of all time, but one slip up in Super Bowl XLII ended their perfect season—replay that game 100 times, and the Patriots probably win 60 of them. The 49ers certainly know about near-misses; change the outcome of a few plays, and they might have had four straight Super Bowls in the ‘80s, and we all remember how close they were to winning Super Bowl XLVII. One bad moment at the worst possible time shouldn’t override the accomplishments of the entire year. Similarly, getting hot and going on a roll in the playoffs doesn’t mean that your overall performance matches the best of the best.
We’re looking at sustained performance over the full course of the season, rather than just hot streaks at the best possible times—in other words, which 49ers teams were the best when you take luck out of the equation. Or, to put it another way, if each 49ers team played every other 49ers team a hundred times each, which squads would come out with the best record?
That actually excludes a couple Super Bowl teams on my list. The 1981 team will forever be remembered as one of the franchise’s greatest; they brought home the first Super Bowl in 49ers history and The Catch is essentially the moment the 49ers dynasty began. That being said, the team was coming off of a 6-10 season and was filled with young players just taking their first steps into greatness; the franchise continued to build and build from that point on, and 49ers squads from the late ‘80s would be able to handle their younger ’81 counterparts; by point differential, 1981 is only the 49ers’ 24th best season. While that’s a bit low, it’s low enough to keep them off the list.
Similarly, the 1988 Super Bowl team was the weakest of the 49ers’ five Super Bowl wins by far; their 10-6 record is solid but not an all-time mark on a franchise with as much history as the 49ers. It’s one of the greatest teams in 49ers history, because they brought home that third Lombardi Trophy, but not one of the best teams, if you see where the distinction is made.
Distinction controversial enough? Good. Let’s get to it, then: the greatest 10 teams in 49ers history. Separating these squads requires picking some very small nits, but we might as well give it a shot.