Record: 13-3 (Lost in Divisional Round to Minnesota)
Head Coach: Bill Walsh
Starting Quarterbacks: Joe Montana, Steve Young, Bob Gagliano
Best Players: NT Michael Carter, FS Ronnie Lott, QB Joe Montana
This is it. This is the Lombardi that got away. More than being five yards short in the Super Bowl in 2012, or Kaepernick throwing an interception at the end of the 2013 NFC Championship, or Roger Craig fumbling in 1990, or the controversial calls in 1983, this is the squad that should have brought home a ring and been properly recognized as the best the 49ers have ever had. One game changed the historical memories of this team significantly, but it’s still the best unit the 49ers have ever put on the field.
This is the direct midpoint of the 49ers’ dynasty, and as such, you have the greatest players both from the early Walsh years, when the 49ers were building up a powerhouse and from the later Seifert years, where they were extending the greatest run any NFL franchise has ever seen.
Just look at this roster:
- Coaches Bill Walsh, George Seifert and Mike Holmgren
- Quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young
- Running back Roger Craig
- Wide receivers Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark and John Taylor
- Tight end Brent Jones
- Offensive linemen Jesse Sapolu, Randy Cross, Harris Barton, Keith Fahnhorst, Fred Quillan, Steve Wallace and Guy McIntyre
- Defensive linemen Michael Carter and Charles Haley
- Linebacker Keena Turner
- Defensive backs Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright
Every one of them 49ers greats—some had reached the end of their career and were no longer as productive, and some were waiting for their time to shine, but never before or since has the franchise had so much talent on one roster at one time. Barton, Young, Jones and Taylor were all new to the team, or at least the active roster, in ’87, while Fahnhorst, Clark and Quillan would leave the year after; this was a one-year convergence.
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The ’87 49ers led the NFL in points scored. They led it in yards gained. They led it in yards allowed. They led it in point and yard differential. Jerry Rice earned multiple MVP awards—essentially, everything but the AP award, which went to John Elway. In a strike-shortened season, Rice still set an NFL record with 22 touchdowns, accomplishing the feat in only 12 games. Montana led the league in passing touchdowns, completion percentage and passer rating. They had the fewest turnovers in the league. This wash Walsh’s team running on all cylinders—it’s no surprise, then, that they went on to win the Super Bowl in 1988 and 1989, and would be one game short of it in 1990. They won their final three games by a combined score of 124-7…mostly without Montana.
So what the heck happened in the divisional playoffs against Minnesota!? The Vikings were just 8-7 on the season, so this had to be one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history. Montana picked the worst time to sputter, and was rusty—he had last thrown more than ten passes in a game more than a month prior, as the combination of a bye week and letting the battered Montana heal up ended up caking him in rust. He was actually pulled at halftime with the 49ers trailing 20-3, and while Steve Young sparked the offense, it wasn’t enough.
Who knows what would have happened had the 49ers not rested so many starters down the stretch—maybe they would have been sharper and handled the mediocre Vikings squad. This was a collection of talent that deserved more than bombing out of the first round of the playoffs, as their record over the next three seasons would ultimately prove. They may have only had 12 regular season games together because of the players’ strike, but for those 12 games, the 49ers trotted out the best team the franchise has ever seen.
For the record, the 10 greatest seasons goes, from top to bottom, 1989, 1984, 1994, 1981, 1988, 2012, 1992, 1983, 1990, 1997. The 49ers were pretty darn good in the ’80s and ’90s, as it turns out.