San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers: The Five Worst Losses In Franchise History

This series commemorates the 160 Worst Losses in NFL history. We will examine the five worst losses of each franchise.

We’re going to start off our look at the worst losses of all-time with one of the NFL’s most famous franchises, the San Francisco 49ers.

  1. 1990 NFC Championship Game

January 20, 1991…the day the music died in San Francisco. Perhaps the most damning quote about this game’s significance came from former 49ers head coach George Seifert during a salute to the 1989 49ers on the NFL Films production of America’s Game: “I don’t know if I was ever forgiven for that. I always felt like I was battling uphill after that game,” said Seifert when discussing the ’90 NFC title game loss.

In retrospect, it’s a wild statement considering Seifert led the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl in January 1995. Yet, this wasn’t just any ordinary conference championship game. The 49ers became the first team in NFL history to win consecutive Super Bowls and then reach the conference title game during the following season.

With home-field advantage, the Giants faced with starting their backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler, and the G-Men only able to muster three points in a December loss with then-starting quarterback Phil Simms, a third straight trip to the Super Bowl for the 49ers and a meeting with the AFC champion Buffalo Bills seemed inevitable.

Holding a 13-9 fourth quarter lead with the ball, the first of two franchise altering plays took place. Quarterback Joe Montana got crushed on a monster hit by Leonard Marshall and subsequently left the game due to injury. As play-by-play announcer Pat Summerall said in a report to describe Montana’s injury update, “….everything hurts.”

Despite losing their leader, the 49ers pressed on in the fourth. Now clinging to just a one-point lead, backup quarterback Steve Young hit Brent Jones near mid-field. Then, trying to seal up a trip back to the Super Bowl, battered and aging running back Roger Craig met New York defensive tackle Erik Howard in the hole on a run, which forced a fumble. Lawrence Taylor swooped in to make the recovery.

Moments later, Giants kicker Matt Bahr connected on his fifth (and game-winning) field goal of the game that caused Summerall to bellow the famous line “THERE WILL BE NOOOOOOOO THREE-PEAT.”

The Giants played eight quarters of football against the 49ers in Candlestick Park during the ’90 season. They scored a grand total of 18 points and never scored a touchdown.

They won the NFC title and a week later, Super Bowl XXV.

AFTERMATH:

  • This game essentially led to the start of the Steve Young era. Even if the 49ers had held on to win, there was no way Montana would have been ready to play in Super Bowl XXV against the Buffalo Bills due to the injuries suffered from the Marshall hit.
  • There was indeed no three-peat. No team has gotten as close as the ’90 49ers. In fact, only the ‘76 Steelers, 90 49ers, and ’94 Cowboys have ever reached the conference championship round after winning consecutive Super Bowls.
  • As detailed recently, Joe Montana was in year one of a new four-year contract in 1990 that made him the highest paid player in the NFL. Unfortunately, the Giants loss was the final start of his 49ers career.
  • The Marshall hit broke Montana’s hand and led to injury-plagued conclusion to his time in San Francisco. However, this is not the play that ended his run in San Francisco…but it lit the fuse. Following the ’90 NFC title game, Montana recovered from the broken hand and sternum injuries from the Marshall hit. A new problem arose though. He suffered a torn tendon in his right elbow leading up to the ’91 season. That injury, paired with Young’s ascension, caused Seifert to lose patience with Montana’s recovery. Montana’s last appearance for the 49ers came in the ’92 season finale against Detroit in a 24-6 San Francisco win.
  • Montana was traded to Kansas City after the ’92 season. He led the Chiefs to the 1993 AFC Championship Game – a 30-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills. During the ’94 regular season, Montana enacted a measure of revenge beating the 49ers in one of the most hyped regular season games in NFL history – 24-17.
  • San Francisco labored to get back to the Super Bowl after the Giants loss. Missing the playoffs in ’91, and back-to-back losses to the Cowboys in conference championship games caused 49ers management to go Defcon 1 during the ’94 offseason and add a slew of names in free agency to take down Dallas. The 49ers would win Super Bowl XXIX but one thing was for certain. Montana Magic was long gone in San Francisco.

RUNNERS-UP:

2. Super Bowl LIV – There’s a little recency bias here but it’s tough for some games to eclipse losing a Super Bowl. In fact, this might be number one under different circumstances. Yet, a pandemic and 49ers head coach Kyle Shananan’s dubious Super Bowl history somewhat muddies the devastating nature of this loss.

The 49ers held a 20-10 lead in Super Bowl LIV over the Kansas City Chiefs with just over 11 minutes left and had the ball following a Patrick Mahomes interception. Much like Shanahan’s Atlanta Falcons three years earlier in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, San Francisco could not hold off Kansas City’s furious comeback.

The next 11 minutes were amongst the worst in 49ers playoff history. Kansas City scored 21 unanswered points over the next 10 minutes of game action. San Francisco’s best chance to regain the lead came with just under two minutes left when 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missed Emmanuel Sanders on a deep throw that would have potentially given the lead back to San Francisco.

Instead, Garoppolo’s throw missed the mark and Kansas City eventually won the first Super Bowl in 50 years.

AFTERMATH:

  • The story remains unwritten on this one since it just took place. Here’s what we do know though. Raheem Mostert wanted to be traded at one point and this game helped make Mahomes the first-ever half-billion dollar athlete.
  • How hard is it to get the Super Bowl? If not for the Dre Greenlaw tackle in Week 17 at Seattle to give the 49ers home-field advantage over a wild card berth, this game may have never even taken place. Getting back to the Super Bowl may not prove to be easy.
  • Kansas City’s 10-point comeback tied for the second-largest comeback in Super Bowl history. Meanwhile, the Chiefs joined the ’14 Patriots and ’16 Patriots as the only teams in Super Bowl history to erase a 10-point fourth quarter deficit.

3. 1987 NFC Divisional Playoffs – This game capped a run of three straight one-and-dones for the 49ers but it lands on this list for a dubious reason. Yes, the Leonard Marshall play was the final nail in the coffin for Montana but this game proved to be a pivotal point during his 49ers tenure.

The 1987 season is best remembered for being the year of a players strike, replacements, and half-empty stadiums. Once things returned to normal, the 49ers became a saw. One year earlier, Montana and the 49ers were crushed by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, which featured Montana getting annihilated on a hit by defensive tackle Jim Burt.

Enter 49ers head coach Bill Walsh and his infatuation with new quarterback Steve Young.

During San Francisco’s ill-fated effort in the Vikings loss as 11-point favorites in the ’87 playoffs, Walsh pulled Montana (who posted an awful 42.0 passer rating on the day) in favor of Young in a 36-24 loss. This started a quarterback controversy that lasted well into the ’88 season.

Montana/Young debacle included, at the time, this was the most disappointing game of the Walsh era.

Minnesota finished 9-7 during the regular season to earn a playoff spot and beat the 12-3 Saints in the wild card game a week prior. Despite the 49ers having arguably the greatest receiver of all-time at their disposal in Jerry Rice, another receiver stole the show.

Vikings receiver Anthony Carter caught nearly everything in sight and was partially responsible for the Vikings building a 27-10 lead before Montana was yanked.

Carter’s performance is still one of the best postseason efforts ever. He caught 10 passes for 227 yards in the win.

AFTERMATH:

  • This was the last game for a few 49er mainstays including receiver Dwight Clark and kicker Ray Wersching – members of the ’81 and ’84 Super Bowl winners.
  • Walsh’s infatuation with Young continued into the ’88 season. Even though the BYU product started only three games, he appeared in 11 games. Finally, Montana wrestled the job away from Young and the led the 49ers to four straight weeks towards the end of the regular season.
  • San Francisco avenged their loss to the Vikings in the ’88 playoffs with a decisive 34-9 win. Three weeks later, the Niners claimed the franchise’s third Super Bowl.
  • The 49ers went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls with George Seifert taking over for Walsh as head coach before the start of the 1989 season.
  • Was this game a franchise-crippling defeat? Nope. However, it surely is the most embarrassing playoff loss in franchise history and establishes a narrative that doesn’t quite go away the rest of Montana’s time in San Francisco: Steve Young wants to be the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers…and the front office kind of, sort of, wanted him to be as well.

4. Super Bowl XLVII – The Harbaugh Bowl in New Orleans became more notable because of a power outage in the Superdome that caused a delay rather the first-ever set of brothers to duel over the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

This game arrives on the list for many reasons including the following:

  • The 49ers were favored to beat the Ravens by 4.5 points.
  • The 49ers as a favorite fell behind 28-6 before realizing football had to be played.
  • San Francisco’s highly questionable playcalling inside of the Baltimore 10 with under three minutes left and down by five points cost them the Super Bowl.
  • This is a bit in the hot take zone but knowing what we know now, this is the beginning and incredibly, the end of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career.

I truly believe had he won this game, Kaepernick would still be in the NFL. Seemingly, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks have far greater brand equity than those that don’t.

Eli Manning retired eight years after his last Super Bowl win. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 2009.

Due to everything that happened over the past four years with Kaepernick, his struggles and lack of success on the field perhaps gave the owners a justifiable exit ramp to prevent him from returning to the NFL in a substantial role.

If he won a Super Bowl, it would have been far tougher to justify his departure to anyone. Kaepernick helped lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his second year in the league and to an NFC Championship Game in his first full year as a starter.

The list of quarterbacks with those types of credentials in their first three seasons over the past 25 years is very short.

AFTERMATH:

  • The 49ers got back to the NFC Championship Game and were poised to go back until Richard Sherman and his dislike for Michael Crabtree got in the way.
  • The NFC title game loss to Seattle was the last postseason game the Niners would play in for six years.
  • We know the story by now. Kaepernick never truly got his fastball back after Jim Harbaugh left San Francisco following the 2014 season. Poor coaching and bad teams helped doom Kaepernick. Then, in 2016, he decided to take a knee. The rest is history.

5. 1972 NFC Divisional Playoffs – The Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl VI a year earlier but entered the ’72 playoffs not exactly playing with the same fire that earned them the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy. They finished 10-4 in the regular season and reached the playoffs via wild card.

The 49ers were 8-5-1 but were NFC West champions and sought revenge against Dallas after the ‘Pokes beat them to win the 1971 NFC Championship Game.

The divisional round found the Niners leading Dallas 28-13 after the end of three quarters. Cowboys head coach Tom Landry pulled starting quarterback Craig Morton for Roger Staubach….and things were never the same for the 49ers.

After cutting the lead to 28-23, Dallas still needed to get the ball back with less than a minute left. They recovered an onside kick and just a few players later, Staubach fired his second touchdown pass – a game-winner to Ron Sellers.

As the Cowboys jumped, yelled, and rolled around the turf of Candlestick Park, the clock struck zero. Dallas reached the NFC Championship Game with a 30-28 win. Once again, the Cowboys foiled the 49ers and Roger Staubach’s nickname, Captain Comeback, was born.

AFTERMATH:

  • Dallas lost the NFC Championship Game a week later to Washington but their stranglehold over the 49ers continued.
  • The Cowboys would eventually reach three more Super Bowls in the 70s including winning Super Bowl XII.
  • The 49ers didn’t reach the playoffs again until 1981 after getting bounced by Dallas during the ’72 playoffs. Fittingly, the 49ers would get their hands on the Cowboys in the ’81 NFC title game to deliver their own devastating blow to the Cowboys.
  • This game would probably be remembered more nationally except for one problem. Something else terrible (and really important) was happening to the other Bay Area team that day same day in Pittsburgh some 3,000 miles away.

Honorable Mentions:

  • 1983 NFC Championship Game – The Washington Football Team nearly blew a 21-0 second half lead until the officials wanted to make sure they got to the Super Bowl.
  • 1986 NFC Divisional Playoffs – At the time, San Francisco’s 49-3 loss to the Giants was the worst loss in NFL postseason history during the Super Bowl era. Also, Jim Burt met Joe Montana.
  • 1992 NFC Championship Game – The good news? That Dallas team eventually won Super Bowl XXVII and is widely considered one of the greatest single-season teams in NFL history. The bad news? This game was the final Joe Montana wore a 49ers jersey.
  • 1957 NFL Divisional Playoffs – The 49ers blew a 24-7 lead at home….TO THE DETROIT LIONS. The Lions have three playoff wins since 1957. This is one of them.
  • 2011 NFC Championship Game – Kyle Williams.
  • 2013 NFC Championship Game – Richard Sherman yelled at Michael Crabtree through Erin Andrews in the last major gasp for the Harbaugh era.

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