Record: 18-1 (Won Super Bowl XIX over Miami)
Head Coach: Bill Walsh
Starting Quarterbacks: Joe Montana, Matt Cavanaugh
Best Players: QB Joe Montana, RT Keith Fahnhorst, RG Randy Cross
The 49ers may never have matched the ’72 Dolphins undefeated season, but they set a record of their own—they were the first team to ever win 18 games in a season, a feat that’s only been duplicated twice since.
They were led by Joe Montana, and his then-career high of 28 touchdowns. The offense, as a whole, was just in top form. Wendell Tyler rushed for 1,262 yards and made his only career Pro Bowl, while Roger Craig added 1,300 yards from scrimmage. Three of the team’s offensive linemen—Fred Quillan, Randy Cross and Keith Fahnhorst—made the Pro Bowl as well, and John Ayers and Bubba Paris weren’t exactly slouches, either. Dwight Clark led the team with 880 receiving yards, as well.
But no, the 1984 team was known for it’s overall defensive performance. The ‘80s 49ers had a reputation for being soft, finesse squads, but they could put a hurting on you when circumstances required. The 227 points the ’84 team gave up remain a franchise low in a 16-game season. Couple that with the very effective offense, and you get a point differential of 248, the best in franchise history. All four members of the secondary—Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Dwight Hicks—made the Pro Bowl, as did linebacker Keena Turner. Rookie Michael Carter, fresh off of a silver medal at the 84 Los Angeles Olympics, is worth noting off the bench, as well.
So, the question is not why the ’84 squad is so high, it’s why it’s not higher.
First and foremost, the 49ers didn’t lose anyone of note from the ’84 squad going forward; nearly all of their stars continued with the team for the next three years, at the very least. Over that time, the 49ers would also add Jerry Rice, Harris Barton, Steve Young, Steve Wallace, Brent Jones, John Taylor and Charles Haley to an already stacked roster. This was still a dynasty in progress of being built, which is fairly incredible in and of itself. The offense, as good as it was, still hadn’t really hit full gear yet, and the defensive performance remained about where it was here for a few more seasons.
While winning 18 games is the greatest single season accomplishment any 49ers team has ever put up, the difference between winning 15 games and 18 is pretty much down to a couple of lucky breaks going a team’s way; the better team doesn’t always win all their games. Five of the ’84 team’s wins came by a touchdown or less; if they had had “average” luck, they probably would have picked up an extra loss or two somewhere in there.
I wouldn’t argue too strenuously with any ranking putting the ’84 team at the top; we’re picking some very fine nits here.