A Date With Dynasty: The 49ers’ Epic March to Glory in Super Bowl XXIII
John Taylor just wanted to catch his one big break.
The San Francisco 49ers wide receiver, playing in the biggest game of his life, had been frustratingly inconsistent as his team was losing, 16-13, to the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
Taylor had his share of ups and downs but as the Super Bowl, played on Jan. 22, 1989, crept into the late fourth quarter, he was held without a catch. With 3:10 left and an NFL championship on the line, it was do or die for Taylor and the Niners. Stuck deep in their territory, the Niners were hoping, at the very least to give kicker Mike Cofer a shot to tie the game, potentially sending it to overtime.
But as quarterback Joe Montana methodically led his team downfield, confidence built in the Niners’ huddle. They would surely take a field goal, but a touchdown would likely ice the game. As Montana marched San Francisco to Cincinnati’s 10-yard line, Taylor still hadn’t made an impact.
That would soon change.
In a span of five seconds, Montana, noticing both Jerry Rice and Roger Craig double-covered, hit the streaking Taylor in stride in the back of the end zone. Taylor, exulted, leapt high in the air, an image etched in Super Bowl history. Cofer banged the extra-point through the uprights. 49ers 20, Bengals 16. Thirty-four seconds left.
Taylor had only one reception on that balmy night in Miami, but what a catch it was. Considering Taylor
began the year serving a 30-day drug suspension and spent most the 1988 season trying to prove himself, it was a monumental moment. He was a second-year starter, a former walk-on at Delaware State (not exactly a football powerhouse), a third-round draft pick, playing in Rice’s enormous shadow. But Taylor’s place in Super Bowl history will forever be stamped by a game-winning touchdown catch, culminating a drive for the ages.
The Niners’ heart-stomping comeback to win in Super Bowl XXIII was a signature moment in San Francisco’s Dynasty. With three world titles in eight years, the victory ascended them to the throne of “Team of the 80s.” The thrilling march to the end zone also helped Montana’s legend grow. Montana, completing his tenth season and another Super Bowl triumph, was starting to be mentioned in the greatest QB of all-time conversations.
Niners center Randy Cross talked about how cool and calm Montana was leading his team on that remarkable drive.
“You don’t want anyone else who’s ever played on a big drive other than him,” Cross told the San Francisco Examiner in the postgame locker room. “He’s the biggest winner I’ve ever been associated with.”
“Joe Cool” completed 8 of 9 passes on the 92-yard TD drive. Bengal wide receiver Cris Collinsworth marveled at Montana’s performance following the game.
“Joe Montana is not human,” Collinsworth told The Examiner. “I’ve never seen a guy – and I’m sure he did it in college, high school, pee wee football – that every single time he’s had the chips down and people counting him out, he’s come back.
“He’s maybe the greatest player who’s ever played the game.”
Before we dive into “The Drive,” we have to talk about … John Candy? Legend has it Montana, after huddling his troops deep in Niners’ territory said, “Hey, isn’t that John Candy standing on the sideline?”
Turns out, Montana was teasing offensive tackle Harris Barton. Barton turned giddy whenever he spotted a celebrity on South Beach in the days leading up to the big game.
However, Rice, in an interview with NBC Sports in June, said he doesn’t recall Montana saying the line about Candy, a lovable comedic actor, popular in the late 80s. Candy attended the game as a celebrity guest, even doing a John Madden impression during NBC’s pregame show. Rice, however, told NBC Sports’ Liam McHugh he was so locked in, he didn’t notice it.
“I had my blinders on and I was so focused on making every play I could make,” Rice said. “I was a young guy and I was probably thinking, ‘Why are you talking about John Candy right now?’ But I think with Joe, he just wanted to take that pressure away from everybody by just saying that. Once he did that, you had some guys chuckle and just say, hey, we got the best quarterback to ever play the game. Let’s go get this job done.”
Here’s how the Niners pieced together their victory march:
3:04 – Montana passes to Craig, a model of consistency at running back, for an 8-yard gain.
2:48 – Montana hits TE John Frank for seven yards.
2:32 – Montana finds Rice for a seven-yard gain.
2:16 – 2:00 – The Niners catch their breath with two straight runs from Craig for five yards.
1:54 -- After the 2-minute warning, Montana finds Rice for a 17-yard gain.
1:49 – Craig hauls in a pass for another 13 yards.
1:36 – Montana throws only incompletion of the drive, trying to hit Rice.
The legendary QB said after the game he was so anxious he was hyperventilating. The missed throw stopped the clock and gave Montana a moment to collect himself.
1:22 – Craig picks up five yards on a reception, but Cross is penalized for being an ineligible receiver downfield. The Niners take a 10-yard penalty. Cross, a 13-year veteran in his final game, hopes he didn’t cost his team the Super Bowl. Despite the penalty, Cross didn’t get down on himself. He implored his teammates, telling them “you gotta believe,” as they huddled for the next play.
“That’s not the time to get down on yourself and go into a shell,” Cross told The Examiner. “I didn’t play the best game of my career, but when it had to be done, I did it.”
1:17 – Montana hits Rice again for 27 yards.
Rice discussed the uncanny chemistry he shared with Montana. Little needed to be said. They simply understood each other’s body language.
“I joke around about this all the time,” Rice told McHugh, “if Joe was a female, we probably would have dated. We had such great chemistry.”
Timeout, San Francisco. Montana discusses play execution with coach Bill Walsh.
0:39 – Craig hauls in an 8-yard reception. In less than 3 minutes, the Niners have gone 82 yards in 10 plays. Second down and 10, ball resting on Bengals’ 10-yard line.
0:34 – In a play known as 20 Halfback Curl, X Up, Rice, split far right, goes in motion, drifting over to Taylor’s left side. As the ball is snapped, Rice, who had 11 receptions for 215 yards, is covered by two defensive backs. Craig (8 receptions, 101 yards) also attracts double coverage. This leaves Taylor, running an up route, single-covered as he crosses the goal line. Montana hits him in stride – touchdown.
With an outside move, Taylor faked safety Barney Bussey. Reserve safety Ray Horton tried to cover the speedy receiver but it was too late.
“Once I came off the ball and I nodded out, the cornerback stayed outside and I just went straight up,” Taylor told The Examiner. “I just wanted to make sure I held onto the ball and got both feet into the end zone. That’s all I wanted to do. Once that happened, I was happy.”
While he knew the ball would likely not come his way, Rice was happy to play decoy as long as his team scored.
“My thing is I have to be that Denzel Washington, I have to win an Oscar right now. I remember coming across in motion, that defense shifted to the left, they thought the ball was coming to me. Taylor ran an X post; he faked like he was going to the outside and ran a post,” Rice recalled to McHugh. “I remember, I was just looking, I had my popcorn and I was just watching it. I saw John make that catch, he jumped up in the air and I’m like Wow, we have the lead.”
Following the crushing score, Bengals coach Sam Wyche looks at the game clock… 34 ticks left. Wyche glances nervously at the clock again, perhaps hoping the football gods would add a few more seconds to keep Cincy’s hopes alive.
The Bengals have one last gasp, but couldn’t muster their own dramatic comeback.
As the jubilant Niners celebrate in a storm of confetti, Wyche, a former offensive assistant to Walsh, finds his mentor in the crush of media confusion. They embrace. Wyche wraps his arm around a relieved but happy Walsh.
“I love you,” Wyche says. “I’m happy for you. You deserve this.”
The Super Bowl victory, Walsh’s third championship, would be his last. He announced his retirement later in the week.
As a thrilled Walsh accepted his third Vince Lombardi Trophy, pundits were already comparing “The Drive” to “The Catch.” The later refers to Dwight Clark’s miraculous leap to snag the winning touchdown in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. The Niners stunned the Cowboys, ending one dynasty and igniting another.
During the drive, the mood was “business-like,” according to Cross.
“We were not thinking field goal,” Cross told The Examiner’s Mark Soltau. “We were going to score a touchdown if we had to throw (Montana) 10 yards through the air to do it. Once we crossed midfield we got more confident. We wouldn’t be denied.”
Bengals running back Ickey Woods, coming off a sensational rookie season, was left to ponder what could have been.
Woods told The Examiner: “We had it in our hands and let it get away. They scored a touchdown and all our dreams fell to the wayside.”
But the Bengals certainly deserve credit for pushing the Niners to the limit. The contest was considered the first great Super Bowl in the game’s 23-year history. Examiner sports columnist Art Spander summed it up succinctly.
“After this game we remove the phrase ‘Super Bore’ from the vocabulary,” Spander wrote. “We have found nirvana.”
RICE EARNS MVP HONORS, BENGALS STILL TALK SMACK
Rice finished with 11 receptions, 215 yards and a touchdown. He also earned the Most Valuable Player award and his first NFL title. The Bengals’ defense switched from man-to-man to zone coverage in the second half, hoping to thwart Rice. It didn’t matter. In the second half, Rice hauled in eight catches for 150 yards, including two huge receptions on “The Drive.”
Trying to limit long passes down the sidelines, Cincinnati played a nickel prevent scheme as San Francisco marched toward the end zone. Walsh, sticking to principals of the West Coast offense, countered with short and mid-range passes up the middle.
Rice reportedly injured an ankle during practice the week prior to the Super Bowl. However, Rice told McHugh in June the ankle was a nuisance throughout the season.
“I didn’t want people to see the anguish on my face,” Rice said. “I think going into the Super Bowl, Bill (Walsh) hyped it up a little more. I’m like ‘Bill, what are you doing? Why are you bringing more attention to my ankle?’ When guys know you have an injury, they’re going to go after that injury.”
Perhaps the thought of a hobbled Rice made the Bengals cocky. Prior to the game, Cincy defensive backs talked trash, claiming Rice wasn’t as good as advertised. Rice refused to take the bait and fire back. He focused on visualizing the game the night before and executing every play. Even after Rice torched the Bengals for 215 yards, cornerback Lewis Billups, while conceding some respect for Rice, thought teammate Eddie Brown was a better receiver.
Eddie Brown? Granted, Rice’s stock was still rising. It would be a few more years before he was considered the G.O.A.T. among wide receivers, but … Eddie Brown? For the record, Rice finished his career with 197 touchdowns, 1,549 receptions and 22,895 receiving yards. Brown played seven years, he did earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in ’85, but finished with 156 less TDs than Rice with 6,134 receiving yards and 363 receptions.
MONTANA CEMENTS LEGEND
Montana completed 23 of 36 passes for 357 yards and two TDs. The ’88 season was a redemption story for the savvy veteran. Montana battled injury and adversity to lead San Francisco to another championship, despite the team’s modest 10-6 record. At one point in the season, the Niners were 6-5 and pundits called for backup Steve Young to take the reins.
Montana rebounded in the playoffs, pacing the Niners to crushing wins over the Vikings and Bears. The Bengals, 14-4 going into the Super Bowl, presented a much steeper challenge. Montana, like so many times before, rose to the occasion on the biggest stage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Damask is an 80sFootballCards.com contributor as well as
the Weeklies Editor of Capital Newspapers - North, in Wisconsin.
You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kdamask