Arguably the most memorable of those Super Bowl championships celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, but things didn’t start out so well in 1988 for the Niners.
Joe Montana, not 100 percent physically, opened the door to a near season-long quarterback controversy with Steve Young, who started some games. Piddling along at 6-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs, 49ers safety Ronnie Lott called a players-only meeting after an ugly 9-3 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders.
The team then flew across country and rose to defeat the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins in a Monday night game. Montana, now healthy, was in complete control as the team eventually finished the season at 10-6.
Guy McIntyre, Montana’s right guard, said it was his quarterback’s mastery of the system that carried them.
“Joe was always prepared, studied a lot of film,” McIntyre said. “He had a great ability to throw defenders off, not telegraphing anything. He could look off players then throw to the complete opposite side of the field. Joe was great at going through his progressions, often staying in the pocket and hang on to the ball until the last instant knowing where his receiver would break open and where to place it.”
Montana’s mastery continued in the playoffs, thrashing the Minnesota Vikings 34–9 before traveling to Chicago’s Soldier Field, where the wind chill was 26 degrees below zero. In perhaps one of the franchise’s best performances, San Francisco grabbed the momentum early. After Jerry Rice’s 61-yard touchdown catch silenced the crowd, the 49ers routed the Bears 28–3 and moved on to Miami to face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
Led by Boomer Esiason and running backs James Brooks and Ickey Woods, Bengals coach Sam Wyche hoped to confuse San Francisco’s defense with a no-huddle, high-octane offense. But the 49ers had some dynamite of their own between running back Roger Craig and receivers John Taylor and Rice. Despite twisting his ankle the Monday before the game — and hobbling around all week — Rice walked off with the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player award on Sunday.
Super Bowl XXIII, however, didn’t start out with much offensive fireworks. In a rough-and-tumble first half, 49ers left tackle Steve Wallace fractured his leg and Cincinnati nose tackle Tim Krumrie broke a leg in two places. In a game that felt more like the defensive units controlled the tempo, sending the Super Bowl to halftime tied 3-3 for the first time.
The Bengals started out well in the second half. A 13-play, 61-yard drive consumed over 9 minutes and yielded a field goal to give Cincinnati a 6-3 lead.
Later in the third quarter, 49ers linebacker Bill Romanowski picked off Esiason, leading to a game-tying field goal by Mike Cofer. However, Cincinnati’s Stanford Jennings returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for the game’s first touchdown to give the Bengals a 13-6 lead heading into the final quarter.
San Francisco quickly tied it up on its first possession of the fourth quarter. After a pair of big pass plays to Rice and Craig, Montana connected again with Rice, this time on a short crossing pattern from the Bengals’ 14-yard line where he stuck the nose of the ball over the pylon for a score. After 85 yards in 91 seconds, the 49ers tied the game at 13-13.
After a Cofer 49-yard field goal attempt missed wide right, Cincy put together a 11-play, 47-yard drive that consumed over 5 minutes, before Jim Breech’s 40-yard field goal gave the Bengals a 16-13 lead.
What followed was one of the Super Bowl’s most exciting sequences, one fittingly provided by one of the game’s best quarterbacks.
Montana led his team 92 yards in the game’s final three minutes for a dramatic win.
Montana’s right guard felt very confident when his teammates gathered in the huddle from their own 8-yard line before their march to history.
“Joe certainly had ability, but really it was being calm under pressure that made him special. He was fearless. Joe never let the moment overwhelm him, and if it did, he kept it on the inside,” McIntyre said.
Don’t think Montana’s coolness-under-pressure reputation was unheard of by the team on the other sideline, though. “Knowing Montana and the weapons he had, especially Rice and Taylor, we knew we were in deep trouble despite having the lead,” Bengals guard Max Montoya said.
They never got the chance.
Montana completed short passes to Craig, John Frank and Rice. Then a Craig run took the ball to the 49ers’ own 30-yard line as the two-minute warning hit. After another Craigh run, 17- and 13-yard passes to Rice and Craig, respectively, put San Francisco into Cincinnati territory at the 35.
After an incompletion and a 5-yard pass to Craig was nullified for an illegal man downfield, it was second-and-20.
Rice then made the play of the game, turning a crossing route into a 27-yard gain. Moments later, with the defense focused on him, Rice went in motion and opened just enough space for Montana to dart the game-winning touchdown pass to Taylor.
“Watching Montana masterfully taking them down for what would be the game-winning score was tough to take,” Bengals Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz said. “You are so close and then Montana delivers a dagger to the heart.”