Thursday, January 31, 2013

Champions Endure

Between 1981 and 1994, the 49ers won 5 Super Bowl Championships. Though this isn't the most among NFL franchises, it does represent perhaps the greatest string of extended success in league history. Under the stewardship of former Owner Eddie DeBartolo, and two coaches, Bill Walsh and George Seifert, the 49ers won titles in 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989 and 1994, placing themselves among the elite franchises in the league and making legends out of some of the great players who won with them, players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young, Brent Jones, Dwight Clark, Fred Dean and Roger Craig, and even some of their lesser-known players like Dwight Hicks, Freddie Solomon, Randy Cross, Jesse Sapolu and John Taylor grabbed a piece of the spotlight.

The 49ers have only won Super Bowls. If they didn't win it, they never got there in the first place. These seasons usually ended with disappointing playoff losses, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were bad years. The 49ers had some marvelous seasons during the 80s and 90s, years like 1983, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997, and even several others where they made the playoffs, only to get picked off before reaching their ultimate goal. Most teams would be envious for a string of success. Hell, the current incarnation of the Jets appears to be trading high on losing consecutive AFC Championship Games.

But for the 49ers, getting close hasn't been good enough. The 49ers lost consecutive Championship Games to Dallas in 1992 and 1993. Great seasons for the team, but rarely, if ever, discussed, because for the 49ers, bringing home a Super Bowl Championship was the only thing that mattered. It holds true a generation later. Getting to the NFC Championship in 2011 after so many losing seasons was sweet, but they lost. Going back to the NFC Championship in 2012 was, again, sweet, but they couldn't lose it again. Another loss would not only have hurt, as every one of those losses does, but it would have killed the legitimacy of this recent string of good fortune that the 49ers have had. But they won.

2011 could have been like 1981 for the 49ers. The 49ers, for the majority of the 1970s had been bad, embarrassingly bad, to the point where they suffered through 2-14 seasons in both 1978 and 1979. But in 1979, Bill Walsh was brought in as head coach, and he rebuilt the team, piece by piece. In 1980, they jumped to 6-10. But their meteoric rise to 13-3 in 1981 was completely unexpected. Much like in 2011, the 49ers found themselves hosting the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys. Unlike 2011, the 49ers made it through victorious, in a game that lives on in NFL Lore thanks to The Catch. Two weeks later, the 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals to win their first title.

Three seasons later, the 49ers won another Super Bowl. The 1984 49ers were, arguably, the finest team the 49ers had assembled. Buoyed by a Championship Game loss the year before, the 49ers rampaged through the season losing only once, finishing with a 15-1 record, coasted through the playoffs and pasted the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.

It's probably the 1988 Super Bowl that everyone remembers most, as Super Bowl XXIII culminated with Joe Montana orchestrating a 92-yard drive in the closing minutes of the game, throwing the winning touchdown to John Taylor with :34 seconds left as the 49ers beat the Bengals once again, 20-16.

The 49ers rode the momentum of their 1988 Championship right through 1989. Despite Bill Walsh retiring and George Seifert taking over as coach, the 49ers never missed a beat, going 14-2 and steamrolling their way to their second consecutive Super Bowl Championship. Joe Montana cemented his place as one of the best Quarterbacks ever, throwing a then-record 5 Touchdown passes in a 55-10 demolition of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

The following years brought more transition and a lot of frustration. Primed for an unprecedented 3rd consecutive title, the 49ers found themselves back in the NFC Championship against the New York Giants. Though the 49ers held a lead in the 4th quarter, Joe Montana was knocked from the game after a crushing hit from Leonard Marshall. The Giants would capitalize on a fake punt and a Roger Craig fumble to push across the winning points on a last second Field Goal, ending the 49ers run and effectively ending Joe Montana's career with the 49ers. Steve Young, who had spent several seasons as a more-than-capable backup for Montana, was now given a chance to start. The 49ers missed the playoffs altogether in 1991, with Young missing part of the season due to injury, but in 1992, the 49ers were dominant once again, going 14-2 and once again in the NFC Championship game. But they were knocked off at home by a young and opportunistic Dallas Cowboys team, and in 1993, the Cowboys beat them in the Championship again. Though Steve Young had some fine seasons, he was in an impossible position, having to live up to the shadow cast by Joe Montana.

By 1994, the 49ers and Cowboys had clearly established themselves as the two dominant teams in the NFL. They would surely meet in the NFC Championship, and the winner was a mortal lock to win the Super Bowl. After losing the past two seasons, the 49ers had re-tooled themselves with an eye towards one goal: Beat Dallas. Many new faces, such as Deion Sanders and Rickey Jackson were brought in, but many of the main characters remained the same as the two teams followed the collision course everyone had expected. The 49ers were once again hosting Dallas in the Championship. A third loss would have been catastrophic. Everyone knew that. Lose again and the team would blow itself up. But the 49ers were so keyed in on this game and attacked Dallas with ferocity, forcing 3 turnovers and running out to a 21-0 lead less than 7 minutes into the 1st Quarter. Though Dallas gamely hung around, they couldn't overcome the early deficit, falling 38-28, as the 49ers advanced to, and ultimately won, Super Bowl XXIX, a 49-26 victory over the San Diego Chargers, who may as well have been sacrificial lambs. Steve Young broke Joe Montana's record with 6 Touchdown passes, won the game's MVP and finally stepped out of the shadow and grabbed some of the spotlight for himself.

Though many of the 2012 incarnation of the 49ers weren't even alive in 1981, and were in their formative years in 1994, the mission that was established in the 1980s still holds true for them. The 49ers go to the Super Bowl and Win. Patrick Willis was one of the first to say this during the week. Losing in the Championship game hurts badly enough, and the 49ers have certainly played with thoughts of last year's loss in their minds all season long, and I think it's one of the things that has carried them into the Super Bowl this year. But now, they have to win that final game. The team that loses the Super Bowl is forgotten rather quickly, and for the 49ers, who knows how that would sit among their history. The years that the 49ers played well and didn't win tend to be treated like footnotes. That's the fine line between winning and losing, especially for a team with the winning tradition like the 49ers have established. Few teams have even been to the Super Bowl 5 times, and fewer still have won 5 Titles. The 49ers are the only team that has been there 5 times and won it each time. That's the way the 49ers have done it. And it's this team's turn to continue that tradition. When you win, your Championship will endure forever.

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