January 22, 2012

1989: Late Drive Gives 49ers Win Over Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII

Super Bowl XXIII on January 22, 1989 featured a rematch of two teams who had met in the Super Bowl following the 1981 season. The winning team in that earlier Super Bowl was the San Francisco 49ers, and under Head Coach Bill Walsh they had won a second championship in 1984. However, they had fallen short in the next three years, and it had been especially disappointing in 1987 when they put together the best record in the league but were upset in the Divisional round by the Vikings. There were questions about QB Joe Montana (pictured above), so outstanding in that first Super Bowl-winning year and beyond, but coming off back surgery in ’86 and challenged by younger backup Steve Young in 1988. RB Roger Craig had a great year (2036 yards from scrimmage), but star WR Jerry Rice was hindered by an ankle injury. The Niners were sputtering at 6-5 after eleven games of the ’88 season, but then won four of their last five to top the NFC West with a 10-6 record. Montana was at his best in the playoff run as San Francisco gained revenge on the Vikings at home and then dominated the Bears in the NFC Championship game at Chicago.

The AFC Champions, as in ’81, were the Cincinnati Bengals, now coached by Sam Wyche. They had made a dramatic jump from 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 in ’88. QB Boomer Esiason was the consensus league MVP and RB Ickey Woods rushed for 1066 yards and 15 touchdowns (followed by the “Ickey Shuffle”) behind an outstanding offensive line; backfield mate James Brooks contributed another 931 yards. WR Eddie Brown (53 catches, 1273 yards) and TE Rodney Holman (39 receptions, 527 yards) headed a good group of receivers. The defense was not as impressive but contained stars in All-Pro NT Tim Krumrie (who would be lost to a broken leg early in the Super Bowl) and two Pro Bowlers in the secondary, CB Eric Thomas and SS David Fulcher. The Bengals defeated Seattle in the Divisional playoff round and Buffalo for the AFC title, although there were concerns that Esiason was being slowed by injuries.

There were 75,129 fans on hand at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, along with the usual mammoth television audience, and they were anticipating a shootout between the two potent offenses. Instead, the first half was low-scoring. Both teams punted on their first possession before the 49ers, backed up to their own three yard line to start, put together a long 12-play scoring drive that covered 73 yards. Montana completed three passes along the way but, after reaching the Cincinnati 24, had three straight incompletions that included a drop by Craig. Mike Cofer kicked a 41-yard field goal to make it 3-0.

That was the score heading into the second quarter as San Francisco mounted another drive following a punt by the Bengals. Montana completed a pass to Rice that gained 30 yards to the Cincinnati 11. On third-and-eight, FB Tom Rathman ran for seven yards up the middle and was stopped at the two. However, following a bad snap, Cofer shanked the 19-yard field goal attempt.

The Bengals went three-and-out, and while Lee Johnson’s punt sailed 63 yards, WR John Taylor’s return was for 45 yards to the Cincinnati 46. The Niners moved backward from there, however, as a lateral to RB Harry Sydney lost 10 yards and Montana was sacked for a loss of two more. Craig broke off a 13-yard run on third-and-22, but fumbled and DE Jim Skow recovered for the Bengals at his own 41. Cincinnati moved into San Francisco territory, but DE Daniel Stubbs sacked Esiason for an eight-yard loss to the 50 on a third-and-ten play. Johnson’s punt pinned the 49ers back at their 11 and, in the battle for field position, Cincinnati came out ahead when Barry Helton’s 37-yard punt was returned to the San Francisco 44.

Esiason completed an 18-yard pass to WR Tim McGee and runs by Brooks and Woods got the ball to the 16. Jim Breech booted a 34-yard field goal and the score was tied at 3-3 going into halftime.

The Bengals started off the second half with a long scoring drive that covered 63 yards in 12 plays. Along the way, Esiason threw to WR Cris Collinsworth for 23 yards and Brooks for 20. An 11-yard completion to Collinsworth on a third-and-eight play moved Cincinnati to the San Francisco 22, but the drive stalled there and Breech kicked a 43-yard field goal that put the Bengals in front at 6-3.

On the first play following a punt by the Niners, Esiason was intercepted by rookie LB Bill Romanowski, giving San Francisco the ball at the Cincinnati 23. Cofer was successful on a 32-yard field goal that evened the tally at 6-6, but it didn’t stay that way for long. RB Stanford Jennings returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and, with the successful extra point, the Bengals were back in front at 13-6.

Down by seven points, San Francisco’s offense came alive as Montana finished out the third quarter with a 31-yard completion to Rice and started off the final period by going deep to Craig out of the backfield for 40 more to the Cincinnati 14. After a throw intended for Taylor was almost picked off, Montana completed a touchdown pass to Rice, who just managed to get the ball into the end zone and, with Cofer’s PAT, the score was even at 13-13.

Following a Cincinnati punt, Montana again passed for a long gain, hitting Rice for 44 yards to the Bengals’ 38. After Craig’s seven-yard run, the drive stalled and the 49ers came up empty when Cofer was wide to the right on a 49-yard field goal attempt.

Starting from their own 32, the Bengals moved methodically down the field. Esiason connected with WR Ira Hillary for 17 yards on a third-and-13 play, Woods had back-to-back carries that gained 17 more yards, and a pass to Brooks gained 12. Breech kicked a 40-yard field goal and the Bengals were up by 16-13 with 3:20 remaining in the fourth quarter.

An illegal block on the kickoff return started the 49ers off at their own eight yard line. Montana completed three straight passes to start off the series, gaining 22 yards. Craig ran twice and, on third-and-two, Montana found Rice for 17 yards. It was Montana to Craig for 13 yards down the middle, but after an incompletion the Niners were backed up due to an illegal player downfield on another pass play. Montana followed up by throwing to Rice, running a crossing pattern, for a 27-yard gain to the Cincinnati 18. San Francisco was now within field goal range, but Montana went to the air twice more. The first was to Craig for eight yards and, following a timeout, the second was to Taylor in the end zone for a ten-yard touchdown (Taylor’s only catch of the day, pictured below). The 49ers had gone 92 yards in 11 plays and, with the successful extra point, were up by four points with 34 seconds remaining on the clock.

After a short pass on Cincinnati’s first play, three passes fell incomplete, the last broken up by CB Eric Wright at the San Francisco 25, and the 49ers were champions by a score of 20-16.

The 49ers outgained Cincinnati by 452 yards to 229 and had 23 first downs to the Bengals’ 13. The highest-scoring team in the NFL scored no offensive touchdowns and was held to just 123 net passing yards as Esiason was sacked five times (to three of Montana). The 49ers turned the ball over twice, while Cincinnati had one.

Joe Montana completed 23 of 36 passes for 357 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted, and was at his best in the closing drive. Jerry Rice (pictured below) was the game’s MVP, however, as he had 11 catches for 215 yards (a Super Bowl record) and one TD. Roger Craig rushed for 71 yards on 17 carries and pulled in 8 passes for 101 yards. LB/DE Charles Haley accounted for two of the team’s five sacks.

For the Bengals, Boomer Esiason was successful on just 11 of his 25 throws for 144 yards and was picked off once. WR Eddie Brown was the club’s top receiver with 4 catches for 44 yards. Ickey Woods ran the ball 20 times for 79 yards.

The win in Super Bowl XXIII marked the end of Bill Walsh’s successful tenure as head coach of the 49ers. He chose to move exclusively to the front office and defensive coordinator George Seifert took over as coach for 1989. The result was the same – another NFC title and a win in the Super Bowl over Denver (and by a much larger margin).

Sam Wyche, whose job was in trouble after the losing year in ’87, was rewarded with a new contract for 1989. Much was expected of the Bengals, but they dropped to 8-8 and missed the postseason altogether.