ATLANTA (Reuters) – The team of the 1980s are back, at last.
The San Francisco 49ers, one of the great franchises of the National Football League, will finally return to the Super Bowl in search of a record-equaling sixth Lombardi Trophy when they face the Baltimore Ravens on February 3 in New Orleans.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins, with six triumphs in eight appearances, and the Dallas Cowboys have five wins from eight, but the Niners are the only team to have appeared in multiple Super Bowls and won each of them.
The Green Bay Packers were the first dominant team in the Super Bowl era, in the late 1960s, the Steelers the stars of the 1970s but the 49ers were the team to beat during the 1980s.
Next month’s Super Bowl marks the return to the big stage for the 49ers after an 18-year absence which left many wondering if a franchise that once enjoyed Hall of Famers like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice would ever again be part of the NFL’s elite.
Although formed in 1946, the glory years for a team named after gold prospectors who headed west did not truly begin until Eddie DeBartolo Jr. took over as owner and brought in head coach Bill Walsh in 1978.
Walsh selected quarterback Montana from Notre Dame in the third round of his first draft in 1979, and it was an inspired decision.
In the 1981 season, Montana’s first as starter, the Niners won the NFC West division with a 13-3 record. They advanced to the Super Bowl but only after Montana found Dwight Clark in the end zone during the closing moments of the NFC Championship game in a play known simply as ‘The Catch.’
A Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals kicked off the 49ers dynasty and three years later they captured a second NFL championship with a 38-16 win over a Miami Dolphins team quarterbacked by future Hall of Famer Dan Marino.
In 1985, the 49ers made another inspired draft choice by taking wide receiver Rice in the first round and he played a major role in three more Super Bowl triumphs.
The 1988 season ended with Rice named MVP in one of the great Super Bowls, a thrilling 20-16 victory over the Bengals with a game-winning touchdown pass from Montana to John Taylor in the final minute and Rice collecting 11 passes for 215 yards.
The following year, the 49ers, with rookie head coach, George Seifert now in charge after Walsh’s retirement, utterly crushed the Denver Broncos 55-10 in the title game.
After Montana left for Kansas City in 1992, San Francisco had another Hall of Famer at quarterback in Steve Young, who led them to a 49-26 Super Bowl triumph over San Diego at the end of the 1994 season.
But the turn of the century saw San Francisco in decline. For successive seasons the 49ers failed to muster a winning record and it was not until Jim Harbaugh led them to last year’s NFC Championship game, where they lost to the eventual champion New York Giants, that it was clear a revival was under way.
The links with the past remain – owner Jed York is the nephew of DeBartolo Jr., who was present at the Georgia Dome on Sunday for the 49ers’ 28-24 NFC Championship win over the Atlanta Falcons.
“We set the standard – you are supposed to win the Super Bowl year in, year out and win with class,” said York. “It means a lot to me for us to get there and have an opportunity to win it. But we’ve got a long way to go.”