While history has never stopped celebrating the 49ers great dynasty of the 1980's, few recognize their opponents. While some looked better than others in the big game, each had their own stories as to how and why they got there. These are their stories.
The 1981 Bengals
Since their birth in 1969, the Cincinnati Bengals had always been known as the team that was good but not quite good enough to be the last one standing. Still, they found ways to make an impact in pro football. After their star quarterback Greg Cook went down with a torn rotator cuff that effectively ended his career, the team ws forced to make do with Virgil Carter, a weak-armed castoff from the Bears.
What followed was a truly tremendous time for the Bengals. Forced to abandon many of their longer passing routes and with no running game in sight, Bill Walsh and Paul Brown developed an offensive philosophy based around shorter, timing-based passes. The scheme worked and the Bengals stunned the NFL by winning their Division and earning their first playoff spot.
But as the clock wound down on their remarkable season in a loss to the Colts in the first round, Brown and Walsh were already searching for a long term solution under center. They found that solution in tiny Augustana College. In the years to come, Ken Anderson helped Paul Brown and Bill Walsh develop what would one day be known as the "West Coast Offense", a system littered with short, timed patterns and wholly reliant on making yards after the catch.
While the entire league was generally caught off guard by their new-fangled approach, this was a time in the league's history where three great organizations that were loaded with future Hall of Famers dominated the competition. In that decade, the Miami Dolphins, the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers won a combined eight Super Bowls. As a young franchise with scant talent at their disposal, the Bengals would have been considered more than fortunate to escape the first round of the playoffs. Alas, they could never approach that summit in any of their three playoff appearances.
As the years went on by, changes happened in the organization that set it back aways. After a quick exit form the playoffs in 1975, Paul Brown abruptly retired from coaching and stunned his aspiring protegé by choosing offensive line coach Bill Johnson as his replacement over Bill Walsh. Deeply depressed, Walsh left Cincinnati and ultimately traveled a road that led him to the Golden State.
Meanwhile, the Bengals began to struggle, bottoming out at 4-12 in 1979, the same year that Bill Walsh's 49ers stumbled to 2-14. But despite the vast amount of changes within the organization, the Bengals still managed to keep their franchise quarterback. Searching for answers, they hired former Packers great Forrest Gregg as their coach in 1980 and drafted USC left tackle Anthony Muñoz.
The team's fortunes began to change, finishing that year an improved 6-10. They drafted Florida's Cris Collinsworth the following year and suddenly everything began to click. After a 39-yard, two interception clunker in an opening day 27-21 win over the Seahawks, Ken Anderson went on a tear. By the end of the year, he had completed 62.6% of his passes for 3754 yards and 29 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions while leading the league with 8.1 yards per attempt. For his efforts, Anderson earned the league's MVP.
But Ken Anderson was not a one-man army. He had a bulldozing running back in Pete Johnson who rumbled for 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns while their precocious first-year receiver Cris Collinsworth gained 1,009 yards and scored eight touchdowns while earning his first Pro Bowl invitation. In addition to those two, tight end Dan Ross caught 910 yards worth of passes and scored five touchdowns, pacing the Bengals offense well over the course of the year.
Sitting pretty at 12-4, the Bengals stormed into the playoffs determined to win their first playoff game and so much more. Things looked good in the first round as they went up by 14 against the Bills, but their fortunes began to change when Buffalo roared back to tie the game. It wasn't until Collinsworth caught a 16-yarder in the fourth quarter that Cincinnati had clinched its first playoff victory, winning 28-21.
In terms of weather alone, the following week was truly epic. With a temperature as low as -59 F°, Ken Anderson outshined passing great Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers, completing 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns to help his teammates punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.
Things were different in the Super Bowl as the 49ers stormed to a 20-point halftime lead. Not wanting to let their opportunity slip away like that Ken Anderson led a tremendous comeback attempt, ultimately completing 25 of 34 passes for two touchdowns and rushing. for a third. But Pete Johnson's reliable running came to a screeching halt that evening as the 49ers stuffed him at the goal line multiple times to win their first Super Bowl 26-20.
The 1984 Dolphins
Still reeling from their gut-wrenching loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs the previous year, the Miami Dolphins set out to etch their name's in stone in 1984. Second-year quarterback Dan Marino was on fire from the very first game, tossing five touchdown passes in a 35-17 win over the two-time defending NFC Champion Redskins. But it wasn't just Marino that was hot. Sackless through their first four games, his offensive line was sizzling all year, giving up just 13 for the entire year.
By far, the biggest story of the year in Miami was their prolific offense. Blessed with two quick-footed receivers in Mark Clayton (1,389 yds, 18 tds) and Mark Duper (1,309 yds, eight tds), Dan Marino obliterated the NFL's ancient single season passing records, becoming the first in league history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season while passing for 48 touchdowns, both records safely sitting idly bye for decades thereafter.
After going 14-2 in the regular season, the Dolphins handled Seattle with ease in the first round of the playoffs, coasting to a 31-10 victory. With the sweet taste of vengeance still on their tongues, the Dolphins then outlasted the Steelers in the highest scoring AFC Championship Game ever, winning 45-28.
But alas, their magical run came to an abrupt end in Palo Alto. For while the Dolphins were outscoring their opponents with nary a thought to their defense, the San Francisco 49ers were quietly yet effectively eviscerating their opponents with a well-balanced offensive attack and a ferocious defense.
Briefly caught off guard in the first quarter, the 49ers defense eventually found their stride against Miami's no-huddle aerial assault and went with a nickel defense for much of the game. The strategy worked as Marino was sacked a season-high four times while being picked off twice. The 49ers won 38-16.
The 1988 Bengals
The Bengals had changed quite a bit since their loss in the Super Bowl seven years . earlier. By 1988, Cris Collinsworth had blossomed from a scrawny, unknown rookie to a three time second-team All Pro team leader. Meanwhile, the Bengals took a page out of their history by hiring their old backup quarterback as their new head coach. Having been there when they first developed the concept and then working under Bill Walsh as he won the Super Bowl by utilizing the system, Sam Wyche had extensive knowledge of the West Coast Offense.
Shortly being hired, Wyche drafted Maryland's Boomer Esiason in hopes that he would soon be the heir apparent to incumbent starter Ken Anderson. He proved. to be a quick study, never completing less than half of his passes and even leading the league in passing yards in 1986. But football is a team game and, while talented, the Bengals were still trying to find their way.
After bottoming out at 4-11 in the strike shortened 1987, Wyche installed some major changes within the system, chief among them a no-huddle offense that bewildered unprepared defenses. Making their offense ever stronger was a stellar running game by a trifecta of excellent running backs in rookie Ickey Woods, James Brooks and Stanley Wilson with Woods and Brooks alone combining for 23 touchdowns on the ground. Woods especially took the league by storm, rushing for 1,068 yards and 15 touchdowns -celebrating each with a memorable dance- and gaining an impressive 5.3 yards per carry.
Boomer had weapons in the passing game too, including Eddie Brown (1,273 yds, nine tds) Tim McGee (686 yds, six tds) and tight end Rodney Holman (527 yds, three tds). Oddly, the one slouch was the team's biggest leader. After years of taking abuse from bigger defenders, Cris Collinsworth was beginning to show his age, catching 13 passes for 227 yards and a single touchdown in what would turn out to be his final season.
Having finished so poorly the year before, the Bengals began 1988 like they were shot out of a cannon, beginning the year 6-0. Riding the fumes of success with wins over the division rival Steelers and Browns in back-to-back games, the Bengals clinched the division in an overtime thriller over the Washington Redskins in the regular season finale, finishing with a 12-4 record.
It was a complete reversal of fortune. Adding more glitz to their season, Boomer Esiason earned the league's Most Valuable Player Award after completing 57.5% of his passes for 3,572 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Ickey Woods and Stanley Wilson led the charge in the first round of the playoffs, scoring thrice in a 21-13 win over the Seahawks. After Woods's one-yard plunge clinched the AFC Championship over the Bills 21-10, the Bengals found themselves headed to Miami to face off against Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers.
Despite being ten-point underdogs and losing All-Pro nose tackle Tim Krumrie to a broken leg in the first quarter, the Bengals defense put up a valiant effort for much of the game as both teams entered halftime tied at three-all. Things started to get interesting in the third quarter when Stanford Jennings ran a kickoff 93-yards to the end zone to put Cincinnati up 13-6.
But the 49ers were led by the father of the West Coast Offense and his greatest pupil. Sam Wyche could only watch in utter despair as Joe Montana led a drive for the ages in the closing minutes of the season, finishing off the 92-yard drive with a ten-yard strike to John Taylor to beat the Bengals 20-16.
The 1989 Denver Broncos
Having lost twice in the big game, John Elway was getting frustrated. It's not like he didn't have a championship-worthy roster. He was surrounded with talent on offense with the likes of Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson out wide with Bobby Humphrey pacing the team on the ground.
The Broncos started 1989 hot, winning ten and losing twice. But those two losses were to the Browns and Eagles, two of the better squads in the NFL that always seemed to be in contention. But the Broncos stumbled down the stretch, losing three out of their last four regular season games as Elway suffered a subpar year, throwing just as many interceptions (18) as touchdowns.
When they began the playoffs, it was almost as if they were an entirely different team. Seeking their first Super Bowl triumph, the Broncos started off slow against the Steelers, finding themselves trailing 17-7 before David Treadwell's 43-yard field goal ended the half. Smelling blood, John Elway quickly erased the deficit by finding Vance Johnson for a 37-yard catch-and-run to open up the second half.
Even though the Steelers were not as good as they had once been, this was a resilient bunch that had fought and scrapped their way to the postseason. They weren't about to let an opportunity such as this slip through their fingers so easily. Two Gary Anderson field goals gave Pittsburgh a 23-17 lead in the fourth quarter. It wasn't until Mel Bratton plunged into the end zone that the Broncos had clinched the win, escaping with a 24-23 squeaker.
After such a suspenseful game, the Broncos buckled up for another clash in the AFC Championship Game with the Cleveland Browns. It seemed like whenever these two squads met in the playoffs, the crowd was always going to end the game at the edge of their seats. For much of the 1989 clash that was very much the case as Denver entered the fourth quarter up 24-21. At this point, they elected to break from tradition and score 13 unanswered points to win 37-21, stamping their ticket to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos were confidant going into Super Bowl XXIV, but they confidence was quickly squashed on a 20-yard connection between Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. From then on, the Broncos secondary melted away like ice cream on a hot summer day. As Montana ended the game with a Super Bowl record five touchdown passes, the Broncos lost to the 49ers 55-10, another Super Bowl record.
The 1994 San Diego Chargers
They weren't supposed to be this good. At least, no one expected it. While the 1992 San Diego Chargers made it all the way to the Divisional Round, the 1993 stumbled to an 8-8 finish. Led by a ho-hum quarterback in Stan Humphries and a lumbering running back in Natrone Means, the Chargers offense rarely intimidated anyone. It was their defense that breathed life into the organization. Led by the indomitable presence of Junior Seau, the Chargers pass rush was sight to behold, ranking third in the league with 43 sacks at season's end.
The Chargers began to announce their presence with a 6-0 start to the season and even managed to sweep the very Chiefs team that had beaten the 49ers in Week 2. After losing to San Francisco 38-15 in the middle of the year, San Diego shook off the disappointment to finish the year first in their Division.
They opened the playoffs against Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins. Down 21-6 at the half, the Bolts had a tall task in front of them. But their defense had gotten them this far and they were confidant that they could stall Marino's aerial prowess.
Reuben Davis tackled Dolphins running back Bernie Parmalee in the end zone to start the comeback. Inspired by the safety, the Chargers' subtle offense took charge with Natrone Means rumbling for a 24-yard touchdown and Mark Seay caught an eight-yarder from Humphries to beat mighty Miami 22-21.
Against the Steelers in the Steel City for the AFC Championship, the Bolts again found themselves in dire straights, facing a deficit of 13-3 midway through the third quarter against a ferocious defense. Once again, it was their overlooked offense that bailed the team out as both Alfred Pupunu and Tony Martin caught 43-yard touchdown strikes from Stan Humphries to win the game 17-13.
Facing San Francisco's All-Star lineup for a second time that year in the Super Bowl, the Chargers knew that they stood no chance, spending much of the pregame gawking at the 49ers litany of starts. Starstruck, the Chargers lost 49-26.