Folks, I always hate to write in bearing bad news, but you know, the San Francisco 49ers actually DID have a history before Joe Montana.
Of all the cities which you would expect to have football teams and devoted fans, San Francisco perhaps pops into your head next to last. Well, obviously team owners follow the money, and San Francisco - though not quite as large as its California brothers Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose - has a huge population and massive truckloads of cash to go with it. But it's also a world class city with a lot to do, and pro sports are not among the first things people think of when they think about San Francisco. When you think about San Francisco natives, the first thoughts are usually drifting towards the gay-friendly culture, almost extreme liberal population, or an overblown city government which apparently now thinks it has international jurisdiction. You don't normally think about diehard sports fans. But according to a few polls I've read, San Francisco sports fans easily hold their own among more notorious devotees like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago.
The west coast is part of the United States too, so the surprise is that it took until 1946 for the west coast to get any attention from any major leagues. Frankly, the word "major" in "major leagues" is worthy of quotation marks because the NFL in the 1940's was barely on the scene. In popularity, it was still far outdone by college football, and the Baltimore Colts/New York Giants title game which announced the NFL's arrival as a major sports player was still over a decade away. The west coast got its first pro sports teams in 1946: One was the Los Angeles Rams, who moved in from Cleveland and because one of the premier NFL teams in the 50's. The other was the San Francisco 49ers, created out of the blue.
The Niners picked up their defining franchise player in 1951 from the Baltimore Colts - Yelberton Abraham Tittle, better known as YA Tittle, who was the face of San Francisco from 1951 until 1960, when he was sent to the New York Giants. (Tittle actually played at as high, if not an even higher level with the Giants. Despite being with New York for just four years, the Giants retired his number.) Tittle went to four Pro Bowls with the Niners, was an All-Pro selection in 1957, and won the UPI NFL MVP that same year. Despite Tittle's excellence and the presence of a second Million Dollar Backfield (the original being the Chicago Cardinals of the 40's, as I previously noted) featuring Tittle and running backs John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, and Joe Perry, the 49ers didn't enjoy sustained success until their first playoff year in 1957. They went 8-4 and tied the Detroit Lions for the NFL Western Division title. While the Niners ran the score in the playoff between them and Detroit 27-7 in the third quarter, the Lions came back and won 31-27. Eventually, Detroit beat the Cleveland Browns for the NFL Championship.
The 49ers sank to the depths of the league in 1963 and 1964, going 2-12 and 4-10 respectively, but other than those two years, the 13 years after 1957 saw them being the kind of team the Cincinnati Bengals currently are: Not bad, but not quite good, and just strong enough for the good teams to not look past them. The team did get around to being the first NFL team to use that current staple of passing offense - the shotgun formation - during those years, though. It wasn't until 1970 when they won their first divisional title, a feat they repeated the following two seasons. They formed a playoff rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys during this time, and kept right on getting beat by them. And the late 70's were a nightmare for the team, as they kept finishing poorly in the standings and making questionable personnel choices, like bringing in quarterback Jim Plunkett in 1975 and OJ Simpson in 1978. In 1978, San Francisco hit rock bottom, finishing with two wins - against the Cincinnati Bengals and expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers - and having Simpson, their leading rusher, pick up less than 600 rushing yards.
In 1978, the 49ers hired Stanford head coach Bill Walsh to turn their team around. Walsh was known for stockpiling draft picks, making excellent selections, and using the free agent market to patch up key weak points in the roster. (Funny how most teams still have trouble figuring out that these even need to be done.) Walsh's first draft was the 1979 draft, and in the third round he picked a quarterback from Notre Dame who was small, slow, had suspect arm strength, and was thought of as a system player - insert him into position, surround him with good players, and eh, he'll do okay. That quarterback's name was Joe Montana.
In 1980 the 49ers went 6-10, but in week 14 they gave fans a sign of what was to come: Down 35-7 to the winless New Orleans Saints, the 49ers came back and won 38-35, which was the biggest comeback in NFL history until 1993. At the time, Montana was being alternated with Steve DeBerg, who had played well for the Niners. Montana helmed the Saints game, though, and was given the starting quarterback position full time afterward.
Montana was the perfect fit for Walsh's unique offensive system, which relied on the short pass and yards after the catch in order to move the ball downfield in a way the NFL had never seen before. The idea of the system, called the West Coast Offense, was to stretch out the defense and make it vulnerable to long plays. I don't think I need to say very much about Montana's natural ability to use the West Coast Offense to carve up defenses, because the man has four Super Bowl rings and three Super Bowl MVP awards which do all the speaking for him. Montana, never expected to be anything more than a middling quarterback who did well because of his team, is now an absolute mainstay in greatest quarterback conversations; if his name isn't in the conversation, the conversation is invalid. He evolved into his role and by the last few years of the 80's, he was one of the NFL's shining stars. In 1984, Montana led the season to the league's first 15-win record. By 1985, the Niners picked up Jerry Rice in the draft. The 1988 season saw Montana's finest moment in the Super Bowl: Down 16-13 to Cincinnati with 3:08 left in the game and surrounded by a frantic team, Montana pointed out actor John Candy in the stands, then drove the Niners 92 yards which ended with a touchdown pass to John Taylor with only 34 seconds left. The game ended in a 20-16 Niner victory. Bill Walsh retired the following year.
1987 also introduced a quarterback controversy. The team picked up a backup named Steve Young. Imagine that: Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the roster, and the Niners had them until 1992. Naturally, such talent is bound to bear a quarterback controversy, and when Montana missed the entire 1992 season, that's exactly what happened when people saw what Young could do. Media hype fueled the controversy, and Montana came to realize there was no way him and Young could stay on the same team. He asked for a trade and was granted one to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993. Despite an aging roster, the Niners became one of the most dangerous teams of the 90's, and Young led them to their fifth - and latest - Super Bowl victory in 1995.
The millennium brought the coming out of wide receiver Terrell Owens and quarterback Jeff Garcia. Although Owens is one of the greatest players in history and Garcia was a known winner in the CFL who had led the Calgary Stampeders to the 86th Grey Cup (and was the MVP of the game) who went to three Pro Bowls with San Francisco, the great dynastic days were clearly behind the team. In the 2002 playoffs, Garcia and Owens engineered the second-greatest playoff comeback in NFL history, coming back from 24 points in the hole in the fourth quarter to win when their opponents, the New York Giants, botched a game-winning field goal snap and threw a desperation pass which fell incomplete. They fell to eventual champion Tampa Bay the next week, and that was the final playoff appearance for the Niners that decade. Their big quarterback pick from 2005, Alex Smith, was inconsistent in every way except in his consistency in disappointing fans. In 2011, though, the team hired former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to coach. (Sensing a pattern here?) Harbaugh placed his faith in Smith, who played a solid season, and built the 49ers a new identity built around a swarming, stingy defense. The team went 13-3, and as of this writing is coming off a thrilling playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints which put them into the Conference Championship for the first time since the 1997 season.
While the Washington Redskins may have revolutionized the quarterback position, it clearly seems to be the Niners who have benefitted from it the most. Their premier players include Tittle, Montana, and Young, all Hall of Famers, with Montana and Young being inducted as Niners. Jerry Rice is also in the Hall of Fame as a 49er, and he owns absolutely every receiving record in the NFL that means anything, as well as most of the ones that don't. Rice is the greatest wideout who ever played in the league, and when there is talk of accumulating all the greatest players on one team, Rice will unquestionably be one of the receivers. The other receivers are all up for debate, and you can't exclude Rice's fellow Niner-in-tandem, Terrell Owens. The 49er defense doesn't get quite the attention, but cornerback Jimmy Johnson, linebacker Ronnie Lott, defensive tackle Leo Nomellini, and defensive end Fred Dean are all in the Hall as 49ers. The team has also fielded Hall of Fame defensive players Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, and Richard Dent at some point or another.
In case you didn't know, the somewhat odd nickname of the San Francisco 49ers has history behind it. California took a very fast track from being a simply territory to official statehood in 1849 when gold was discovered and the state population swelled by about 300,000 who went to California looking for gold and simply never left. San Francisco in 1848 was a tiny village of about 1000 people. By the end of 1849, the population had blown up to 25,000, and the people who moved in to prospect gold were called forty-niners, based on the year they moved in. The team's official legal registry is actually written out as San Francisco Forty Niners. The metallic gold color on the team's scarlet and gold uniforms is a tribute to the area's gold heritage.
Since the 49ers play in the weak NFC West, their divisional rivalries with the St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks aren't dragging a whole lot of weight in either intensity or audience draw. Niner legend Roger Craig says the Rams rivalry, which began when the Rams were in Los Angeles, will always be the big one even though the Rams aren't in Los Angeles anymore. The Cardinals rivalry appears to be growing a little, but it has a long way to go to reach the level of the team's playoff rivalries with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. The Niners have played those two teams a lot in not just the playoffs, but the Conference Championship, and have played them both hard. They've won some, they've lost some. The New Orleans Saints were divisional rivals of the Niners until realignment in 2002, but the two just played against each other in the playoffs. New Orleans lost.
They say defense wins the game (and the recent game against the Saints proves it) but offense gets the glory. Offense is exciting and glamorous, and in that respect it's tough to find a better team to represent the glamorous city of San Francisco than the 49ers.
The San Francisco 49ers participate in the National Football League (NFL) and are based in San Francisco, California. San Francisco plays its games in the West of the NFC. The San Francisco 49ers, founded in 1946, play home games at Candlestick Park and have won five NFL Titles (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994).