Record: 13-5 (Lost in the Divisional Round to Green Bay)
Head Coach: George Seifert
Starting Quarterbacks: Steve Young, Elvis Grbac
Best Players: DT Bryant Young, WR Jerry Rice, QB Steve Young
Three of my greatest teams in franchise history lost in the divisional round. That’s how hard the NFL’s playoffs are—it’s rare that the best team throughout the course of the year actually wins the championship at the end, because all it takes is one bad day—and sometimes, just one bad play—to undo an entire season’s worth of work.
The 1996 team wasn’t as proficient on offense as the 1994 Super Bowl squad—they scored just 398 points, compared to 1994’s 505. They made up for it with a ferocious defense, allowing just 257 points all season long—the franchise has only topped that number once since then. That defensive upgrade can, in large part, be credited to Bryant Young’s best season. His 11.5 sacks was a career high, and his dominating play earned him first-team All-Pro honors. Merton Hanks joined him in the Pro Bowl from the defensive side of things, though his four interceptions were actually second on the team to Marquez Pope.
Not that the offense was shabby by any stretch of the imagination! Jerry Rice led the league with 108 receptions, and Steve Young led the league in both completion percentage and quarterback rating. They didn’t reach the same offensive heights as they did in previous seasons in large part due to Young handling a large variety of injuries—a groin strain hobbled him for much of the year, and two concussions knocked him out of games as well.
Still, when Young was healthy, this team fired on all cylinders. They still had Harris Barton, Jesse Sapolu and Steve Wallace on the offensive line, a rookie Terrell Owens and Brent Young providing secondary options to Rice in the receiving game, and Dana Stubblefield, Derrick Deese and Ken Norton chipping in on defense. This was a loaded team.
This is a ranking of teams without luck, and it’s bad luck that really doomed the ’96 squad against the Packers. The record will show that they lost 35-14, but let the record also show that both Steve and Bryant Young essentially missed the entire game with injuries, with the quarterback lasting only two series thanks to broken ribs suffered the week before, and the defensive tackle hurting his neck and back in the second quarter. Even with all that, the 49ers had the game at 21-14 before a couple huge punt returns by Desmond Howard blew things open. Had both Youngs been healthy and able to play, I firmly believe they would have won this game, and many more.