Thursday, February 4, 2010

Super Bowl Countdown #2 - Super Bowl XXIII - 49ers 20, Bengals 16

Over the next two days, Lattanzi Land is continuing a top ten countdown of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. This is a collaborative effort between myself and my good friend and football expert Dustin Holt. Every day, Monday through Friday, the next one will be put up, climaxing with #1 on Friday, February 5th. Some of these may surprise you, and some may make you ask what we are smoking. Enjoy, and any feedback can be made in the comment boxes or via email at or - we are proud to present #2...

Great moments are often born from great opportunity and preparation. On January 22, 1989 in Miami, the Cincinnati Bengals seemed to have taken advantage of their opportunity in Super Bowl 23 to knock off the two-time Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers by taking a 16-13 lead with just over three minutes remaining in the game. Few thought that it would get to this moment, but it was a long journey to one of the most exciting finishes in Super Bowl history.

The Bengals reached Super Bowl 23 by dominating the 1988 NFL season with a league-best 12-4 record. They were led by NFL MVP Norman 'Boomer' Esiason (from the University of Maryland), who threw 28 touchdown passes and 3,572 yards. The Bengals featured a balanced offensive attack that included wide receivers Eddie Brown and Tim McGee as well as running backs Ickey Woods, James Brooks, and Stanley Wilson. The offense was perhaps best known for successfully executing the no-huddle attack installed by head coach Sam Wyche.

The defense was led by assistant coach Dick LeBeau and possessed All-Pros Tim Krumrie at nose tackle and David Fulcher at safety. With this impressive combination of offensive and defensive power, the Bengals were able to reach Miami with convincing wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.

Their opponent in Super Bowl 23, the San Francisco 49ers, entered 1988 after a disappointing upset loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings in the 1987 playoffs. In that game, Bill Walsh replaced quarterback Joe Montana with Steve Young, who led the 49ers to two late scores despite the loss.

As the new season began, much of the speculation was that the 1988 season could be the last in San Francisco for the great Joe Montana. Montana battled injuries throughout the season as he and Young split time as the starting quarterback. After a 6-5 start, the 49ers rallied to win four of their final five games to win the NFC West with a 10-6 record. The surged was led by an increasingly healthy Montana, who was finally beginning to heat up late in the season.

The 49ers delivered a little payback in the playoffs first by crushing the Vikings 34-9 in their opening game and then stunning the Bears in Chicago by a score of 28-3 in a game that exhibited strong winds and a wind chill in the minus 20s. With the win, the 49ers became the first road team to win a NFC title game since 1979, when the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In each playoff game, Montana threw three touchdown passes and Jerry Rice continued his All-Pro season by catching five touchdowns, three against the Vikings and two against the Bears.

Heading into the game itself, there were many story lines to follow. Could Montana win a third Super Bowl since 1981? Could the Bengals stop Jerry Rice? Would this be the final game for the great 49er head coach Bill Walsh? Walsh had taken over the 49ers in 1979 and built them into a consistent and perpetual winner and champion. Speculation was mounting that he would retire after Super Bowl 23, win or lose. Yet another intriguing storyline was the coaching matchup - Walsh would facing off against his former assistant Sam Wyche who was quarterbacks coach for Walsh when the 49ers won Super Bowl 16 after the 1981 season (ironically also against the Bengals).

As the game approached on that January Sunday, two things happened. First, race riots broke out in Miami as a police officer shot a black motorcyclist. Parts of Miami were up in flames, including the area near the Bengals' team hotel. Bengals player Solomon Wilcots remarked, 'We had just come back from seeing Mississippi Burning and we find Miami burning'. Secondly, viewers learned that Bengals running back Stanley Wilson would be suspended for the game after being caught using cocaine in his hotel room the night before the game. Wilson, who had been in trouble with the NFL before f0r drugs, would never play another down in the NFL again.

To add to the apparent doom and gloom, a heavy thunderstorm pounded Miami several hours before the game. The storm in the sky, though, was just a foreshadowing of the approaching storm on the field.

On the game's third play, left tackle Steve Wallace, Montana’s blind-side protector, broke his ankle when Montana was pushed into his leg. After the 49ers and Bengals punted, the Bengals also suffered a devastating loss when nose tackle Krumrie suffered a broken leg while trying tackle 49er running back Roger Craig.

The 49ers offense, though, was not broken as it moved seemingly at will - gaining close to 200 yards in the first half. But each time the 49ers moved close to scoring position the Bengals made key sacks to end 49er drives. The 49ers were only able to muster three points in the first half because place kicker Mike Cofer missed the shortest field goal in Super Bowl history (and the shortest possible field goal there is since they moved the goal posts back in 1974), 18 yards.

The Bengals' offense controlled the clock with power running from Woods and Brooks. Esiason was not that sharp all game but used his trademark play-action fake to fool defenders and complete passes down field.

Despite the entertaining first half, the halftime score was only 3-3 after Bengals kicker Jim Breech tied the score late in the second quarter.

The Bengals offense opened the second half with a drive that appeared destined to produce the game’s first touchdown. Mixing hard-nose running and some accurate passes from Esiason, the Bengals moved the ball 61 yards in 13 plays. After completed four of 12 passes in the first half, Esiason completed three of four on the drive for 54 yards. The drive eventually stalled and Breech split the uprights with a 43-yard field goal to give the Bengals a 6-3 lead.

The Bengals forced the 49ers to punt on their next possession but linebacker Bill Romanowski stole the Bengals' momentum by intercepting an Esiason pass on the first play of their drive, giving the 49ers the ball deep in Cincinnati territory, at the 23-yard line. The Bengals defense made a big stand and stopped the 49ers on three plays and Cofer came on to make a 32-yard field goal to tie the game at six late in the third quarter.

The tie lasted but a few seconds - only until the ensuing kickoff, in fact. That moment, lightning struck as Stanford Jennings returned the kick 93 yards for the first touchdown in Super Bowl 23, which gave the Bengals a 13-6 lead.

With the 49ers trailing once again, Montana, Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig came right back and moved the Niners 71 yards in just two plays. Montana hit Rice on the first play for 31 yards then completed to Craig for 40 more which moved the ball to the Cincinnati 14-yard line.

In his four Super Bowl appearances, Joe Montana never threw an interception, but on the third play of the drive, his pass nearly quashed the 49ers' championship hopes as Bengals cornerback Lewis Billups dropped what would have been a drive killing interception in the end zone. He had read the play so well that it looked like he was the receiver looking for the crossing route. Alas, viewers all around the world and in the stadium learned why Billups played defense as the ball hit his hands of stone and fell harmlessly to the ground.

Billups thus learned the hard way never to give Joe Montana a second chance. On the next play, Montana took a three-step drop and found Rice along the left sideline who then dove into the end zone for a San Francisco touchdown. The 49ers scoring drive went 85 yards in only four plays to tie the score at 13 with just over 14 minutes remaining in the game.

The Bengals were forced to punt on their next drive and the 49ers moved quickly down field on the heels of a leaping 44-yard reception by Rice between two defenders that reminded many of Lynn Swann's famous circus catch in Super Bowl 10. When the drive eventually stalled, Cofer was called onto the field but his 49-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right. Two missed field goals by Cofer leads to speculation now about how that played into the offensive strategy toward the end of the game.

The Bengals took over and marched 46 yards on ten plays, which featured an 18 yard completion from Esiason to receiver Ira Hillary on third and 13. The 49ers eventually held the line at their 23-yard line and Breech came out and hit his third field goal of the day from 40 yards to give the Bengals a 16-13 lead with just over three minutes remaining.

With the Bengals in charge, hopes were fading for Bill Walsh especially when a penalty on the kickoff forced the 49ers to start their drive on their own 8 yard line - 92 yards away from victory with 3:10 left in the game. It would seem that a touchdown would be required as Cofer had proven himself completely untrustworthy from short (18 yards) or long (49 yards) distances.

For nearly a quarter of a century, the Super Bowl had been searching for this sort of scenario: pro football’s best quarterback taking pro football’s best team the length of the field for the winning touchdown in the final minutes. In Super Bowl 23, Joe Montana and the 49ers finally delivered (watch this muted, unless you want to listen to play by play in Japanese!).

With the Bengals rushing only three men and covering the sidelines, Montana hit Craig and John Frank over the middle on the first two plays of the drive to move the ball to their own 23-yard line.

Montana then fired to Rice for a seven-yard gain but Rice was able to step out of bounds at the 30-yard line. Two runs by Craig moved the ball to the 35-yard line and got the 49ers another first down.

The 49ers crossed midfield on their next play when Montana hit Rice for a 17-yard gain to the Cincinnati 48-yard line. Wyche, who was wearing a wireless microphone for NFL Films for the game, was heard saying “this is déjà vu” on the sidelines during Montana’s final drive. A year earlier in the regular season, Montana had thrown a touchdown pass to Rice on the final play of the game to beat the Bengals.

Montana continued the march, hitting Craig for a 13-yard gain and another first down. The quarterback threw an incompletion on the next play, and on second down, an ineligible-receiver downfield penalty moved the ball ten yards back to the Bengals' 45-yard line.

On second and 20, Montana began the process of ripping out the Bengals hearts with a 27-yard pass to Jerry Rice over the middle in triple coverage. Rice ran a simple crossing route, caught the ball between three defenders at about the 33, split the defenders and ran another 15 yards to the Bengals 18-yard line with less than a minute remaining. Fellow receiver John Taylor getting caught behind the defense was the only thing that kept Rice from scoring on that play

Rice’s catch was his 11th of the game, which gave him 215 yards; both are Super Bowl records. Montana then ran to the line without calling a time out and hit Craig over the middle for an eight-yard gain to the Bengals ten-yard line before Montana called time out with 39 seconds remaining.

With Wyche and the Bengals anticipating the next play to go to Rice, Walsh crossed up the Bengals and used Rice as a decoy. He lured three defenders into the corner of the end zone and opened up the middle as Montana dropped back and fired to John Taylor for a touchdown over the middle with 34 seconds remaining.

Montana drove the 49ers 92 yards in 11 plays in only 2:36. For his outstanding performance Rice was named Super Bowl 23 MVP. Montana was 24 of 36 with a new Super Bowl record 357 yards passing and two touchdowns.

Some of the story lines that were a source of speculation were answered with absolute certainty.

Jerry Rice was absolute unstoppable, and truly worthy of that MVP. When the opposing team is willing to use three defenders to make sure you don't get the ball - that's frightening. Rice and Roger Craig combined for 392 of the 49ers' 452 yards of total offense. Craig also became the first running back to have over 100 yards receiving with 101 on eight catches.

Bill Walsh did retire after winning his third Super Bowl. He was replaced by defensive coordinator George Seifert, retaining some semblance of continuity that is all too often neglected by NFL teams.

Montana won his third Super Bowl as a starter and he, along with Rice, would win a second consecutive Super Bowl the next year against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 24. The 55-10 massacre was the fourth and final Super Bowl title in Montana’s Hall of Fame Career, in which he earned his third Super Bowl MVP. Montana threw a then-Super Bowl record five touchdown passes, three to Rice, which is a Super Bowl record. Rice would win a third Super Bowl with help from fellow Hall of Famer Steve Young in Super Bowl 29, which was also held in Miami.

Super Bowl 23 was great in many ways - the vindication of the 49ers, the grit of the Bengals, and the constant back and forth punches that were thrown. Many moments occurred where one team could have knocked out the other and yet, both teams just kept getting up. and like the orphan Oliver Twist, asked for more. Great games don't necessarily have high scores, but great individual performances, a massive show of grit, and a compelling show land Super Bowl 23 as #2 on our Top Ten List of Greatest Super Bowls.

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