In Sept. 1995, Dana Carvey took the stage at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to film his new HBO comedy special, and after just two minutes in which he riffed on standing ovations and other meta standup commentary, he started his set in earnest with a declaration of a bygone era:
“Well, all I can say to you folks is: Fuckin’ 49ers!”
While this might seem an odd pronouncement in 2024, back in 1995 the Niners were defending champs and winners of five of the past 14 titles. Their victory in Super Bowl XXIX eight months earlier made them the first franchise to win five Super Bowls, part of a two-decade-long run in which they would miss the playoffs only twice, one of them in the nine-game 1982 strike season, the other in 1991 when they went 10-6 and mollywhopped my playoff-bound Bears in the season finale 52-14, leaving my postseason confidence deeply, and rightly, depleted.
From 1981 to 1998, the 49ers won 10 or more games in every season that had 10 or more games. They went undefeated in the Super Bowl, reached another five NFC Championships, had back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the greatest wide receiver of all time, rewrote the rules of the modern NFL offense and remarkably sent more players to Canton on defense than on their more famous side of the ball. They had three of the top eight biggest ass-whippings in Super Bowl history to that point, including what remains No. 1 today, their 55-10 blasting of the Broncos.
In Super Bowl XXIX, the Niners set records for both the fastest score in a Super Bowl and the fastest two scores in a Super Bowl. Steve Young threw a Super Bowl-record six touchdowns, Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters both tied the Super Bowl record for touchdowns in a game, and Deion Sanders became the first player ever to play in a World Series and a Super Bowl. Niners fans, Dana Carvey included, had reason to believe one or two more championships were coming to the Bay before the century’s end.
Nearly a quarter of the way into the next century, the Bay remains barren.
One thing they have been able to regenerate is their QB greatness. When I think of 49ers history, I think of quarterbacks. The Niners began in 1946 as a charter franchise of the AAFC with rookie QB Frankie Albert named second-team All-Pro behind future HOFer Otto Graham. The two men led their teams to the 1949 AAFC Championship, the first playoff game in 49ers history, the Browns victorious. Albert held the job until 1951; he would be the last 49ers quarterback to start for more than three seasons and not win a league MVP until Jeff Garcia.
Following Albert was Y.A. Tittle, who won UPI MVP in 1957 and brought the Niners to their second playoff game, the 31-27 blown-lead loss to the Lions we heard so much about during the NFC Championship Game. Tittle begat John Brodie, who took the starting job in 1960 and held it for over a decade, leading the Niners to their next playoffs in 1970 and their first playoff win.
Three straight playoff appearances were succeeded by eight straight without, all the way up to 1981, when third-year pro Joe Montana knocked out the 70s Cowboys and kicked off what Carvey’s audience rightly viewed as the greatest dynasty of the Super Bowl era. Under Bill Walsh’s leadership, the 49ers of Montana and then Steve Young completely altered the NFL’s best practices of the passing game, in large part due to the passer rating statistic, which the NFL formalized in 1973.
Entering the 1980s, a season passer rating over 100 was like an NBA player scoring 70 points in a game before 2020 — a freak occurrence, not a goal. Ken Stabler and Bert Jones did it in 1976, and it didn’t happen again until Dan Marino and Joe Montana in 1984. 49ers QBs then started popping them back like Tic Tacs: Montana in 1987 and 1989, and then Steve Young in 1991, 1992, 1993 and a record of 112.8 in 1994, the only QB to top 100 in any of those four seasons, and the first in league history to do it two straight years, much less four straight.
Montana and Young were the beneficiaries and navigators of an offense that Bill Walsh launched while an assistant with the Bengals to cater to the humble abilities of emergency starter Virgil Carter. The late Chris Wesseling described what became known as the West Coast offense as “a horizontal, ball-control passing scheme intended to compensate for Carter’s physical shortcomings while also hiding an expansion-team-caliber offensive line.”
Walsh brought the offense to San Francisco where his offense and his coaching tree blossomed. George Seifert kept the offense humming after Walsh retired, winning two more championships. Mike Holmgren famously climbed the branches as a 49ers assistant before taking the head coaching job in Green Bay in 1992, bringing the West Coast to second-year pro Brett Favre. While no one hired Holmgren’s brilliant offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, Holmgren offensive assistants became head coaches and brought the West Coast offense to the Raiders (Jon Gruden), Lions (Marty Mornhinweg) and the 49ers again (Steve Mariucci).
As Holmgren built a powerhouse in Green Bay, his 49ers offensive coordinator successor helped the Niners get back to their perch as the NFL’s No. 1 offense in points and yards: Mike Shanahan, father of Kyle Shanahan. Despite the younger Shanahan making clear in 2019 that “I don’t run the (bleeping) West Coast offense,” it’s understandable why fans today look at Shanahan turning the former “Mr. Irrelevant” Brock Purdy into an MVP finalist and trace a line back to Walsh, especially on the same franchise. Purdy may have led the NFL in a host of dynamic passing stats this year, but he also led the NFL in that other tried-and-true Walsh stat: passer rating.
Like Walsh and Holmgren, Kyle Shanahan has a way with quarterbacks. He steered Matt Ryan to an MVP, helped Jimmy Garoppolo start a Super Bowl and has unlocked the now-laser-armed Purdy. That makes Shanahan a fit with the 49ers, who always seem one step ahead of the NFL in quarterback trends. Heck, even in San Francisco’s one other Super Bowl appearance, the Niners were frontrunners in re-shaping the position, as second-year pro Colin Kaepernick was a leader in a new wave of dual-threat QBs sweeping the league.
Bringing this full circle is another former Holmgren Packers assistant who left the club in 1999 for his first head coaching job and took the West Coast offense with him: Andy Reid. With Reid and Shanahan facing off in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years, this historian’s eyes gaze back to the 1980s and 1990s.
And a lot of good all that history does for the modern Niners fan.
Today’s 30-year-old 49ers fan was born in 1993, give or take, bequeathed a dynasty on its last legs. Promised a lifetime of championship parades, they instead received the same annual invitation most of us get to someone else’s Super Bowl party. Before this hypothetical Niners fan progeny turned 10, they had the misfortune of seeing the first Niners team miss consecutive postseasons since Montana’s rookie year. They hit the playoffs twice, got destroyed by the future champion Bucs and then set off what is surely one of the most bizarre streaks in the history of sports: Starting in 2003, every 49ers season has either reached the NFC Championship Game or missed the playoffs altogether. They had terrible losses in 2011, 2012 and 2013, blew a Super Bowl in 2019, blew the NFC title game in 2021 and got deconstructed by the Eagles last year.
Now they’re here, in Las Vegas, and you’ll pardon them if they’re still healing from the Super Bowl heartbreak of Kap and Jimmy G. You’ll excuse them if they don’t want to bask in the rays of Montana and Young. You’ll understand if a John Brodie article is not their cup of tea, or if they say that the tales of Y.A. Tittle and certainly Frankie Albert can wait a month or two.
The year is 2024, and Niners fans are ready for some history they can call their own.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, the Bears historian of Windy City Gridiron, a Not in the Hall of Fame committee member, a Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst and a contributor to PFHOF voter Clark Judge’s Talk of Fame. Follow his 1990s Bulls book research at readjack.substack.com. Salute to Bryan Frye.