November 11, 2011

1985: Elway & Broncos Beat 49ers in Game of Kicking Miscues

The San Francisco 49ers had been the champions of the 1984 NFL season, but were off to a slow start in ’85. They were 3-4 following back-to-back losses to the Bears and Lions, but then defeated the Rams and Eagles to enter the November 11 contest against the Denver Broncos with a 5-4 record. Head Coach Bill Walsh’s team had problems on defense, but still had QB Joe Montana and a fine group of receivers that was augmented by rookie WR Jerry Rice, plus versatile third-year FB Roger Craig.

Denver, under Head Coach Dan Reeves, was 6-3 and coming off a division-winning season in ’84. QB John Elway (pictured above), in his third year out of Stanford, was a rising talent and the key to an offense that lacked a dominating running game. The defense contained another emerging star in LB Karl Mecklenburg, as well as DE Rulon Jones and SS Dennis Smith.

It was a cold, foggy Monday night at Mile High Stadium. Early in the game, the Broncos achieved good field position when San Francisco’s Max Runager shanked a punt that traveled only a yard. They didn’t take advantage right away, going three-and-out on their first possession, but they were also winning the battle for field position as the teams punted back and forth.

Getting the ball at the 49ers’ 37 following another Runager punt, Denver took eight plays to score as Elway threw to RB Gene Lang for a three-yard touchdown. The clubs again traded punts, but LB Ron Ferrari partially blocked a kick by Denver’s Chris Norman, giving the 49ers the ball at the Denver 40.

Montana immediately passed to TE John Frank for 14 yards and carries by running backs Derrick Harmon and Roger Craig gained 18 more. On the first play of the second quarter, Ray Wersching kicked a 26-yard field goal that made the score 7-3.

After trading punts once again, Elway threw to TE James Wright for nine yards and then followed up on a flea-flicker with a pass to rookie WR Vance Johnson that gained 50 yards to the San Francisco eight yard line. Three plays later, Elway found WR Steve Watson in the end zone for a touchdown and 11-point lead.

On their next possession, the Broncos went three-and-out and suffered another miscue on a punt as Norman was unable to get the kick away after fielding a high snap and was tackled for an 11-yard loss that gave the Niners first-and-goal on the Denver four yard line. Harmon gained two yards up the middle, but Montana threw two incomplete passes and, electing to go for it on fourth-and-two, Craig was stopped short on a one-yard run.

Taking over at their one, the Broncos drove to their 27 before having to punt just after the two minute warning. The 49ers regained possession at their 39 and Montana threw to Rice for a 33-yard gain to the Denver 28. Craig ran the ball four times for 26 yards, including eight yards in a fourth-and-one situation at the 19 and nine yards to the one on third-and-ten.

With 17 seconds left in the half, the 49ers lined up to attempt the short field goal. But just before the snap, a snowball sailed out of the stands and landed in front of holder Matt Cavanaugh, the backup quarterback. The distracted Cavanaugh bobbled the snap and had to abort the three-point try. His pass into the end zone falling incomplete, Denver remained in front by a score of 14-3 at the intermission.

The 49ers rallied in the second half. In their first play of the third quarter, following a Denver punt, Montana threw to WR Mike Wilson for a 44-yard gain. Craig ran the ball twice, and then Wilson caught another pass, this one for 13 yards and a touchdown. With the extra point, it was now a four-point game.

Following the kickoff, Elway went to the air and was intercepted by CB Ronnie Lott, and with an 18-yard return the 49ers had possession at the Denver 40. Craig gained 24 yards on four carries and Harmon ran twice for 11 yards as San Francisco stuck to the ground to advance to the six yard line. From there, Wersching kicked a 22-yard field goal and Denver’s margin was down to one point at 14-13.

The Niners attempted an onside kick that failed to go the required distance and, the element of surprise gone, kicked away. Starting at their 34, the Broncos got a first down thanks to two Elway passes and, faced with a third-and-ten situation, the quarterback took off on a 12-yard run to keep the drive going. A 16-yard completion to TE Clarence Kay and an 18-yard run by Lang gave Denver a first-and-goal at the San Francisco 9. RB Gerald Willhite ran for six yards, but then was held to no gain on his next attempt. A third consecutive carry was good for two yards to the Niners’ one. The Broncos elected to go for it on fourth-and-one, but RB Sammy Winder was stopped for no gain and they came up empty as the 49ers produced a goal line stand of their own and took over on downs.

With the third quarter running down, the Niners gained nothing in three plays and punted, giving Denver good field position at the San Francisco 45. On the last play of the period, Elway connected with Johnson for 14 yards. However, the Broncos were unable to advance beyond the 49ers’ 31 and a 48-yard field goal attempt by Karlis was wide to the left.

The teams traded punts twice each. From his own 37, Montana threw to Craig for 13 yards and Rice for 16 to the Denver 34. Four plays later, Wersching’s 45-yard field goal put the 49ers ahead for the first time at 16-14 with 3:46 to go.

Denver countered with a 63-yard drive that included a 42-yard pass interference call on FS Dwight Hicks. On third-and-ten at the San Francisco 31, Elway scrambled away from a blitzing Lott and, sprinting to his right, fired a 22-yard pass completion to Watson. It set up a 24-yard Karlis field goal by for the winning points with 1:27 to play. The Broncos won by a score of 17-16.

The statistics reflected the closeness of the score. The 49ers barely outgained Denver by 341 yards to 336, while the Broncos had the edge in first downs, 18 to 16. There was just one turnover (by Denver) and five penalties were called (three for 57 yards on the 49ers, two for 14 yards on Denver).

Neither quarterback completed half of his passes. John Elway was successful on 20 of 42 throws for 215 yards with two touchdowns and one intercepted. Vance Johnson (pictured at right) had 6 catches for 92 yards while Steve Watson contributed 5 receptions for 61 yards and a TD. Sammy Winder led the ground game with 51 yards on 18 carries.

For San Francisco, Joe Montana went to the air 40 times and completed 17 for 222 yards and a touchdown. Roger Craig ran for 117 yards on 22 attempts and added 21 more yards on three catches. Jerry Rice caught 4 passes for 67 yards.

Failures and oddities pertaining to the kicking game for both teams played a role in the outcome. Regarding the critical botched field goal attempt at the end of the first half, Matt Cavanaugh said, “I saw the snowball. It broke my concentration. I'm not sure if I got the ball back up in time to kick it, but there must not have been time because Ray decided not to kick it.”

Referee Jim Tunney saw the offending snowball but could do nothing about it other than confer with security. “Cooperation was excellent by security,” said Tunney. “There were virtually no snowballs thrown during the second half…We had no recourse in terms of a foul or to call it on the home team or the fans. There's nothing in the rule book that allows us to do that…There is no way you can construe unsportsmanlike conduct on a snowball incident like that.”

Denver won four of its last six games to finish at 11-5 and second in the AFC West. Tiebreakers kept the Broncos from qualifying for a wild card spot, however (the Jets and Patriots had the same record). The 49ers did make the playoffs as they rallied to win five of their last six to place second in the NFC West at 10-6. They lost to the Giants in the Wild Card round.

John Elway threw the most passes in the NFL during the season (605) and placed second in completions (327), yards (3891) and, on the downside, interceptions (23). He tossed 22 touchdown passes and the win over the 49ers was one of six game-winning drives that he engineered.

Joe Montana led the league in completion percentage (61.3) and ranked third in passing (91.3 rating). He threw for 3653 yards with 27 TDs and 13 interceptions and was chosen for the Pro Bowl for the fourth time. Roger Craig also earned Pro Bowl recognition as he became the first player in NFL history to gain a thousand yards both rushing and pass receiving in the same season. He ran for 1050 yards on 214 carries and added 1016 yards on a league-leading 92 catches. Craig totaled 2066 yards and scored 15 touchdowns.