SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — The San Francisco 49ers–five-time Super Bowl champions, “The team of the 80s,” “Niner Empire.”
These are the type of positive words you might associate with the 49ers. But the days of dominant football and the dynamic West Coast Offense appear to be over–for now.
The red and gold went 7-25 over the last two seasons to the dismay of the loyal Niner Empire. Gone is the dominant defense with the likes of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith.
Gone is the dominant defense with the likes of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith. Gone is the revived West Coast offense that led the team to the Super Bowl in 2012-13 and multiple NFC Championship games. And the coach that brought them back from mediocrity in the 2000s–Jim Harbaugh–is also gone.
And now, the 49ers are in full rebuild mode heading into the 2017-18 season.
Here is how the 49ers got there–how they rose and fell through the decades:
(Click the play button below to start the full audio interview with KRON4’s Sports Director Gary Radnich)
Established in 1946, the 49ers were really bad in the 1950s and 1960s.
They didn’t make their first NFL playoff appearance until 1957–when they lost to the Detroit Lions in the Western Conference Championship at Kezar Stadium.
In that game, the Lions trailed the 49ers 24-7 at halftime, but the Lions rallied to beat the 49ers 31-27.
But there was optimism in San Francisco.
“The 49ers were the first real team we had here in the Bay Area,” Gary said. “Giants didn’t come until the late 50s, the A’s came in the 60s, the Raiders in the early 60s, so people have a real feeling for the 49ers because they in many eyes were the first team.”
The 49ers would not taste success again until the 1970s.
A hint of 49ers greatness came in the early 1970s.
The 49ers won their division title in 1970 but lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. The next year, they moved from Kezar to frigid Candlestick Park.
The 49ers won the division again in 1971 and 1972 but lost yet again to the Cowboys both those years in the NFC Championship Game.
“During that era, the Dallas Cowboys were the kings of the sport,” Gary said. “49ers were all right but they certainly didn’t get rolling until (Joe) Montana and (Bill) Walsh showed up in 1980.”
In the late 1970s, the 49ers looked more like the current team. They went 2-14 in 1978, just like they did in 2016.
But greatness was coming.
Quarterback Joe Montana was selected by the 49ers in the 1979 NFL Draft and would dominate for the next two decades.
Also, ownership changes came.
In 1979, Edward DeBartolo Jr. became the owner of the red and gold, and Bill Walsh would bring a whole new offensive style to the 49ers that would lead the team to great success in the 1980s.
The 49ers won their first four championships in the 1980s. In fact, they were so good during this decade, they were dubbed as the “Team of the 80s.”
They only failed to make the playoffs twice in this period.
“They were everybody’s first love,” Gary said. “The A’s had won three championships during the 70s, but on this side of the bay, you didn’t have anything going from the Giants, they had never won a championship, 49ers, again, when they won that first one with Montana–and that’s why to this day, I think Montana is still the most popular athlete [in the Bay Area]…and the 49ers are still the most popular team despite what the Warriors, Giants, and Raiders have done.”
The 49ers perfected the West Coast Offense during the 1980s. This particular offense consisted of small six-to-eight yard gains through passing vertical downfield.
Walsh targeted Montana, who was not thought of as a top prospect. Montana proved his ability as a quarterback in 1980 when he led them to a comeback win when they trailed the New Orleans Saints 35-7 in a game at halftime.
The 49ers had an improved defense too, anchored by Ronnie Lott.
After back-to-back 2-14 seasons, the 49ers got their first real taste of glory in 1981-82.
Dwight Clark, who was on the receiving end of “The Catch” in the 1981-82 NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys, emerged in 1980. That touchdown catch, Montana to Clark, helped the 49ers beat the Cowboys and send them to the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The 49ers would win that game, bringing San Francisco its first Super Bowl victory.
“I think [The Catch] was a turning point for the 49ers…and to this day, Dwight Clark can just walk around. (I don’t think) he’s paid for a meal or drink since,” Gary said. “(It was) the singular play people remember over all others.”
San Francisco was right back in the Super Bowl three years later. In 1984-85, they went 15-1, and their entire defensive backfield was selected for the Pro Bowl that year.
The 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins in the 1985 Super Bowl, winning their second as a franchise.
And the 49ers didn’t stop there.
In 1987-88, Quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young were on the roster together. Both Hall-of-Fame Quarterbacks were together for six seasons.
One year later, the red and gold went 10-6–and won their third Super Bowl that year. The 49ers were becoming a dynasty.
In 1989-90, the 49ers simply dominated. Going 14-2 in the regular season, they won the Super Bowl under new head coach George Seifert (Walsh had retired) by steamrolling the other teams in the playoffs. The 49ers won all three playoff games by 100 points combined.
That year, San Francisco became the only team in the NFL to win back-to-back Super Bowls under different coaches.
The 49ers had owned the 1980s, winning four championships–with more to come in the 1990s.
The 49ers’ bid for a three-peat fell short during the 1990-91 season, as they lost to the New York Giants on a last-second field goal in the NFC Championship Game. With Montana and Young injured over the next couple of seasons, the 49ers missed the playoffs in the 1991-92 season.
The 49ers stayed good for the next two years, but lost to their old nemesis the Dallas Cowboys in both NFC Championship Games, just like in the 1970s.
Then–controversy in 1993.
With two able quarterbacks–Young and Montana–there wasn’t room for both. Montana asked for a trade and went to the Kansas City Chiefs before the season.
“The thing is with Steve Young…to this day, when you’re doing sports talk radio, that was the No. 1 topic ever–Montana or Young,” Gary said. “…And Bill Walsh brought in Young because he thought Montana, coming off a back injury, wasn’t going to make it into the 90s. Instead, Montana won two championships after Walsh had pretty much thought that Young would be taking over.”
The 49ers returned to glory in 1994. They added free agents Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson, Gary Plummer, and Ken Norton Jr.
But after a slow start that year, including a 40-8 loss at Candlestick Park against the Philadelphia Eagles, the fans were not happy. According to a poll by KNBR radio that year, the vast majority wanted coach George Seifert fired.
But a big comeback win, after being down 14-0 against the Detroit Lions, turned the 49ers’ season around. San Francisco went on to win 10-in-a-row, led by Young.
The 49ers finished the season 13-3 and torched the San Diego Chargers in the 1995 Super Bowl, becoming the first NFL team to win five Super Bowls.
This Super Bowl win solidified the 49ers as one of the all-time greatest NFL teams.
But they have not won a Super Bowl since.
The 49ers changed ownership in 2000 after DeBartolo was connected with a corruption case involving riverboat casinos and the Louisiana governor. DeBartolo pleaded guilty to a charge.
That led the way for the current ownership, the Yorks.
On the field, the 49ers would not reach a Super Bowl until the 2012-13 season. Young retired after an injury in 1999, and the 49ers struggled.
Jeff Garcia emerged as the new 49ers quarterback, leading them to the playoffs in 2002-03, but they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round.
After that season, coach Steve Mariucci was fired and Dennis Erickson was hired.
Erickson was heavily criticized by fans, veering away from the West coast offense. He was fired in 2004.
The 49ers continued to be a bad team through most of the Alex Smith era, a quarterback they drafted in 2005.
“They started fresh, but people without vision, apparently without real talent, and they went through a long, long drought, that with the exception of the (Jim) Harbaugh for a few years, which has continued today,” Gary said.
Mike Singletary coached the 49ers in 2008, and current owner Jed York took over that same year.
But it wasn’t until the next decade the 49ers returned to glory.
The 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh in 2011, a move that would prove highly beneficial for the team. That season, he got the most out of his talent.
“He came in with credibility,” Gary said. “I think he’s got a spirit.”
The previously-maligned Smith stepped up as a team leader and led the team to a 13-3 record. But they lost in the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants.
After Smith suffered a concussion in 2012, backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick emerged. His stronger arm and scrambling ability made him a more attractive option than Smith. Kaepernick led the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl, but they ultimately lost to the Baltimore Ravens.
Smith was then traded to Kansas City before the 2013 season.
In 2013, the 49ers again made it to the NFC Championship Game but lost to the rival Seattle Seahawks.
The 49ers moved into Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara in 2014, but they only finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
After reported clashing between the 49ers and Harbaugh, both sides mutually agreed to part ways.
Jim Tomsula was named head coach the next year, but he struggled to a 5-11 record. Kaepernick also struggled as well.
“He had never been a head coach, and there are some people that could walk into a room and command attention, command respect,” Gary said. “Everybody liked him, but he’s…I mean…if there ever was an assistant coach–Jim Tomsula….He wasn’t Harbaugh.”
Kaepernick struggled as well.
The 49ers then hired offensive-minded Chip Kelly, but the 49ers only went 2-14 under his watch and a quarterback shuffle.
Off-the-field issues also plagued the 49ers.
So, after the 2016 season, the 49ers fired General Manager Trent Baalke and Tomsula. In their place, they hired John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan.
Hoping for a revival, the 49ers had a strong 2017 NFL Draft.
John Lynch turned out to be an aggressive dealer in his first draft as San Francisco 49ers general manager.
The front-office novice moved down one spot in the NFL draft before taking Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas to upgrade a porous defense.
He then used one of the three extra picks he got in that deal to move up from the second round to No. 31 overall to take Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster.
Under Lynch and Shanahan, the future appears strong for the red and gold in 2017 and beyond.
“Look me up in November, and we’ll see how they’re doing,” Gary said.