Photo Credit: NFL

By Zane Miller

After being selected with the 82nd overall pick in the 1979 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, quarterback Joe Montana would not see significant playing time until the beginning of the 1980s decade, as he remained stuck behind starter Steve DeBerg for nearly all of his debut season. However, there’s one thing that the San Francisco 49ers of the late 1970s were known for, and that is being terrible. Following the departure of starting quarterback Jim Plunkett after the 1977 season, the team quickly nosedived to the bottom of the standings, finishing dead last in the league in 1978 with a 2-14 record. However, after another 2-14 season in 1979 and a three-game losing streak in 1980, the 49ers decided it was time to give their former third round pick a shot.

Though Montana was far from setting the world on fire in 1980, he still did well enough with the opportunity to guide the 49ers to 6-10 record, far better than the 2-14 purgatory they had been in for the past two seasons. Montana was then named the full-time starter in 1981, which he parlayed into a dominant season which reached well beyond expectations from where the team had been just two short years ago.

Montana’s best game of the 1981 season occurred on September 13th against the Chicago Bears, as he threw for three touchdowns and 287 yards with no interceptions as the 49ers picked up their first victory of the season 28-17. However, San Francisco would go on to have their best regular season in franchise history to that point, taking a 13-3 record to earn their first NFC West title since 1972. Montana led the league’s seventh-ranked offense in all 16 games, despite finishing well outside the top-10 in passing touchdowns with 19, though he was able to claim eighth in passing yards with 3,565, just three behind Washington Redskins (now Washington Commanders) quarterback Joe Theismann.

After locking up the #1 seed for the postseason, the 49ers would be at home on January 3rd, 1982 to face their first opponent in the New York Giants, who had won in the wild card round against the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles just a week before. However, Montana and the 49ers would not be victims of another Giants upset win, taking down New York 38-24 to move on to the NFC championship. Montana had one of his best performances of the year, passing for two touchdowns and 304 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown strike to veteran wide receiver Freddie Solomon, while the offensive line also did their job as they held Defensive Player of the Year Lawrence Taylor to just one sack on the evening. In contrast, while Giants backup quarterback Scott Brunner also had a valiant effort with three touchdown passes and 290 passing yards, he would be done in by a pair of interceptions.

For the NFC title matchup on January 10th, the 49ers would again be at home for their next opponent in the NFC East-winning Dallas Cowboys. In a back and forth affair which saw the lead change hands six times over the course of the game, San Francisco would come out on top by the skin of their teeth, hanging on for the 28-27 win to make it to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Despite giving up three interceptions, Montana was still able to rebound with three touchdown passes for 286 yards, while Cowboys quarterback Danny White was held to just two touchdowns and 173 yards through the air, while also throwing an interception.

As the 49ers headed to the Detroit area for Super Bowl XVI on January 24th, they would be set to take on the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals, who were also making their first Super Bowl appearance. After Montana scored both a rushing and a passing touchdown, the 49ers were ahead by a 20-0 scoreline at halftime. Hungry to turn the momentum around, the Bengals rattled off a pair of touchdowns of their own to cut the lead down to just one possession. However, a pair of fourth quarter field goals by 49ers kicker Ray Wersching would be enough to quell Cincinnati’s charge, as San Francisco captured their first-ever Super Bowl 26-21. Montana had a somewhat disappointing showing, only getting one touchdown pass and 157 passing yards compared to Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson’s two touchdowns and 300 yards, though Montana committed no turnovers while Anderson threw two interceptions.

While this massive turnaround from four straight losing seasons to Super Bowl champions made for quite the inspiring story, Montana’s run of dominance in the league was far from over, as he would have an ever better season just a couple years down the road.