January 24, 2010
The teams that met in Super Bowl XVI following the 1981 NFL season were both new participants and were not favored to be playing for a title at the beginning of the year. The San Francisco 49ers, under innovative third-year Head Coach Bill Walsh, had gone 6-10 in 1980 (and, moreover, had back-to-back 2-14 seasons in 1978 and ’79) and didn’t give cause for optimism when they lost two of the first three games in ’81. But they caught fire and went 12-1 the rest of the way, winning the NFC West with a 13-3 overall record. In his first full season as the starting quarterback, Joe Montana (pictured) broke out in a big way as he passed for 3565 yards and led the league with a 63.7 completion percentage. WR Dwight Clark may not have been fast, but he was reliable and caught 85 passes for 1105 yards. The defense had three rookies starting in the secondary, but CB Ronnie Lott and FS Dwight Hicks rose to the occasion.
The Cincinnati Bengals, coached by Forrest Gregg, were also coming off a 6-10 season in ’80. They dominated the AFC Central with a conference-best 12-4 record in ’81. Along with their new tiger-striped uniforms, another new addition was rookie WR Cris Collinsworth, who caught 67 passes for 1009 yards. Along with TE Dan Ross (71 receptions, 910 yards), they helped veteran QB Ken Anderson revitalize his career as he threw for a career-high 3754 yards and led the NFL in passing (98.4). FB Pete Johnson led the ground attack with 1077 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The 49ers defeated the Giants in the Divisional round and then won a thrilling 28-27 NFC Championship game over Dallas. Cincinnati got past Buffalo in the Divisional playoff and handily beat the Chargers for the AFC title on a bitterly cold day that gounded San Diego’s potent aerial attack.
Super Bowl XVI was held at the Pontiac Silverdome on January 24, 1982 with 81,270 in attendance. It was the first such contest to be held in a cold-weather city, but while the weather conditions were icy in the Detroit area, inside the domed stadium it was a comfortable 70 degrees. The Bengals got the first break of the day as 49ers RB Amos Lawrence fumbled the opening kickoff and Cincinnati recovered at the San Francisco 26 yard line. But six plays later, Hicks intercepted a badly thrown pass by Anderson at the five and returned it 27 yards.
The 49ers proceeded to drive down field, with Montana effective on short passes and, on a double-reverse, hit TE Charle Young for a 14-yard gain on a third-and-one play. The 68-yard, 11-play drive ended with a one-yard quarterback sneak by Montana for a touchdown and 7-0 lead.
Cincinnati drove deep into San Francisco territory, but early in the second quarter they again turned the ball over as Collinsworth was stripped by CB Eric Wright after making a 19-yard gain and CB Lynn Thomas recovered for the 49ers at their own eight yard line. Montana again led a methodical drive, going 92 yards on 12 plays and ending up with another touchdown, this time on an 11-yard pass to RB Earl Cooper.
San Francisco placekicker Ray Wersching squibbed the ensuing kickoff, and Bengals WR David Verser fumbled; while Cincinnati recovered, it was at their three yard line. Seven plays later the Bengals punted and the 49ers drove to a 22-yard field goal by Wersching with 15 seconds left in the half. That wasn’t it for the first half scoring, however – Wersching again squibbed the kickoff (what he referred to as a “knuckleball”), taking advantage of the artificial turf and its tendency to make the ball bounce unpredictably, and once more the Bengals had difficulty fielding the kick as RB Archie Griffin fumbled at the 11 yard line. San Francisco’s LB Milt McColl recovered at the four, and Wersching booted a 26-yard field goal with five seconds left to provide the 49ers with a 20-0 halftime lead.
Cincinnati came out strong in the third quarter, driving 83 yards in nine plays highlighted by a 13-yard Anderson pass to WR Isaac Curtis on a flea flicker play. Anderson ended the possession with a five-yard TD run. Later in the quarter the Bengals drove deep into 49ers territory once again, highlighted by a 49-yard Anderson-to-Collinsworth pass and a two-yard run by Pete Johnson on fourth-and-one at the Niner five. With first-and-goal at the three, Anderson handed off to the power-running Johnson once more, who bulled down to the one. On second down, it was Johnson again, attempting to follow All-Pro OT Anthony Munoz into the end zone from the left side but being held to no gain. Anderson tried a quick pass to his right to RB Charles Alexander, who was hit hard by LB Dan Bunz and stopped short of the goal. Now with fourth-and-inches, the Bengals went back to Johnson and he attempted to score over right tackle but was stopped by Bunz and LB Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds. The 49ers defense had held.
The 49ers punted following the ensuing possession and the Bengals got the ball back on their own 47. Now in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati again drove deep into San Francisco territory, this time scoring on a four-yard TD pass from Anderson to Dan Ross. With the score 20-14, the Niners responded by turning conservative, abandoning the short passing game and featuring the ground attack. The 50-yard drive ended with a 40-yard Wersching field goal and resulting nine-point lead.
With just over five minutes remaining in the game, Eric Wright picked off an Anderson pass at midfield that effectively sealed the win. Ray Wersching kicked his fourth field goal of the contest from 23 yards out to pad the lead at 26-14. Cincinnati scored once more on a three-yard Anderson-to-Ross pass with 15 seconds left, but any chance for a miracle finish was ended when the 49ers recovered the onside kick that followed. The final score was 26-21.
The Bengals outgained the Niners, 356 yards to 275, but were undone by four turnovers (to San Francisco’s one) and the failure to score in the third quarter thanks to the goal line stand. Joe Montana, the game’s MVP, completed 14 of 22 passes for 157 yards and a TD with no interceptions. Dwight Clark and the other starting wide receiver, Freddie Solomon, both caught four passes, while Solomon had the most yards with 52 to Clark’s 45. The running game accounted for 127 yards on 40 attempts, with Ricky Patton topping the group with 55 yards on 17 carries.
Cincinnati’s Ken Anderson (pictured below) had to pass often, 34 times in all, and completed 25 of them for 300 yards and two touchdowns as well as two interceptions. Dan Ross set a Super Bowl record (tied three times since) with 11 pass receptions, for 104 yards and two scores. Cris Collinsworth accumulated 107 yards on his 5 catches. Pete Johnson was held to just 36 yards on 14 rushes.
Summing up the feeling of coming up short after an outstanding season, Anderson said, “When you walk out on the field for this game, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. And when you walk off after the game, and you haven’t won, it’s the worst feeling in the world.”
San Francisco fell back to earth in the strike-shortened ’82 season, going 3-6, but then commenced on a remarkable run in which the team never had fewer than 10 wins in any of the next 16 seasons – until 1999, long after Montana and Walsh were gone from the scene. There would be four more championships in that span. Cincinnati made the playoffs again in 1982 with a 7-2 tally, lost in the first round, and fell into mediocrity for most of the next five years until returning to the postseason – and a Super Bowl rematch with the 49ers – following the 1988 campaign.