Record: 11-7 (Lost in the NFC Championship to Washington)
Head Coach: Bill Walsh
Starting Quarterback: Joe Montana
Best Players: QB Joe Montana, CB Ronnie Lott, S Dwight Hicks
It was far from a guarantee that the 49ers would become a dynasty after winning Super Bowl XVI. The 49ers fell to 3-6 in the next, strike-shortened season; the history of the NFL is filled with teams who rose to the mountain one year and then faded back to the pack. This was a franchise with five losing seasons in the last six years entering 1983; 1981 might have just been a glorious fluke.
1983 is where that all turned around. From ’83 through ’98, the 49ers won double-digit games in every season; that’s the longest streak in NFL history by some margin. The New England Patriots would have to do it for three more years just to tie the 49ers’ mark, and only the 2002-10 Colts and 1975-81 Cowboys are less than ten years short of the 49ers’ mark. It’s a sustained run of success which has yet to be matched.
It all started in 1983. Joe Montana had his best season to date, completing 64.5 percent of his passes for 3,910 yards and 26 touchdowns, compared to just 12 interceptions. The 49ers had the best passing attack in football, with Montana hooking up with Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon on a regular basis. The rushing game was no slouch, either, with Wendell Tyler and a rookie Roger Craig both topping 700 yards on the ground.
The defense was more of a bend-but-don’t-break affair. Eric Wright led the team with seven interceptions, and both Ronnie Lott and Dwight Hicks made the Pro Bowl thanks to their shutdown play in the secondary. Defensive end Fred Dean’s 17.5 sacks led the team and were second-most in the NFL as well; he was one of the first pure pass-rush specialists in the NFL, racking up six sacks in one contest against the New Orleans Saints—a record at the time.
Add in Keith Fahnhorst, Randy Cross, Keena Turner, Fred Quillan, Jesse Sapolu and John Ayers to the previously mentioned names, and you have a heck of a lineup there. Rookies Craig and Sapolu, especially, would go on to have great years with the franchise.
They lost in the NFC Championship under somewhat controversial circumstances. Washington was the better team overall in ’83, but the 49ers were right there with them even on the road, rallying with three touchdowns in the 4th quarter to tie the game at with just seven minutes left in the game. Two consecutive questionable calls, however, gave Washington the edge—first, a pass interference call against Eric Wright on a clearly uncatchable ball, and then a borderline holding call on Ronnie Lott, both of which extended the drive. Washington kicked the game-winning field goal with 40 seconds left, and that was that. Had those calls gone the other way, maybe we’re talking about the 49ers’ second Super Bowl appearance.