1994 San Francisco 49ers: Steve Young Gets The Monkey Off His Back

Steve Young had become the regular quarterback for San Francisco in 1991, when Joe Montana was injured. Young had clearly proven himself as an elite QB—he won an MVP award in 1992 and reached the NFC Championship Game in ’92 and 1993. But that wasn’t the standard Montana had set. Young had a monkey to get off his back, and so did the franchise after consecutive playoff losses to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1994 San Francisco 49ers got their revenge on Dallas, and then finished the job with a Super Bowl title.

Young was 33-years-old, having spent time in the United States Football League in the mid-1980s, and then waiting behind Montana for his chance. Young had another monster season—his 70 percent completion rate and 8.6 yards-per-attempt were each the best in the league. He threw 35 touchdown passes against just ten interceptions. And his 2.2 interception rate was fourth-best among starting quarterbacks. It was enough to make him an easy choice for another MVP trophy.

The passing game in San Francisco was also about Jerry Rice. The man who leads the discussion for the greatest receiver of all-time had a vintage year in ’94. Rice caught 122 passes for nearly 1,500 yards and made All-Pro.

Young moved the ball around well in what was a balanced attack. Ricky Watters caught 66 passes out of the backfield, and his 10.9 yards-per-catch was high for a running back. Tight end Brent Jones caught 49 passes. And if you focused too much on Rice? John Taylor caught 41 balls and could stretch the field.

Watters ran for nearly 900 yards, although at 3.7 yards-per-attempt, the running game wasn’t dominant. Left guard Jesse Sapolu and center Bart Oates each made the Pro Bowl. San Francisco’s offense scored more points than anyone else in the NFL.

Head coach George Seifert was a former defensive coordinator, and the D ranked a solid sixth in points allowed. Dana Stubblefield was a Pro Bowl defensive tackle. But the real source of strength in this 49er defense was the secondary. And that secondary had been drastically strengthened by a high-profile free agent move.

Deion Sanders was a two-sport athlete, playing baseball, and then joining the Atlanta Falcons for the football season. The 49ers went out and got the future Hall of Fame corner in the offseason. Then they got a break. A baseball strike ended that sport’s season on August 12. Deion was able to start football early and he got 12 regular season games in.

Twelve games were all Deion needed to win Defensive Player of the Year. Free safety Merton Hanks and strong safety Tim McDonald each made the Pro Bowl.

 San Francisco opened at home on Monday Night against the Raiders, who then played in Los Angeles. This was a Raider team with high expectations, but that in the end, missed the playoffs. Young and Rice put on a show, connecting on TD passes from 69, 23, and 38 yards. Young threw two more touchdown passes to Jones and finished with 308 yards passing. The result was a 44-14 blowout.

It was on to Kansas City for a hyped showdown with the Chiefs. KC was not only a perennial contender, but they had become the landing place for Montana after he recovered from his back problems. It was a less-than-ideal outcome for Young. The 24-17 loss was difficult, but understandable. But the difference was that Montana played mistake-free, while Young threw two interceptions. It gave rise to further anxiety about how he would perform in the season’s biggest games.

A visit to the lowly Los Angeles Rams saw San Francisco in a 10-10 tie in the second quarter. Then Young and Rice took over. The quarterback went 31/39 for 355 yards with no mistakes. Rice caught 11 balls for 147 yards. Taylor added seven catches and went over 100 yards. The 49ers pulled away to a 34-19 win.

San Francisco hosted mediocre New Orleans and was a hefty (-15) favorite. But Young was sacked five times and the 49ers were down 13-10 at the half. Young put his team ahead with a short TD pass to Rice. The Saints were driving back down the field. Enter Deion—his 74-yard Pick-6 sealed the 24-13 win.

A home game with another mediocre team, the Philadelphia Eagles, turned into a complete disaster. The 49ers were outrushed 191-60. Young threw two interceptions, was held to 99 yards passing and got the hook in the second half. San Francisco lost 40-8.

They were 3-2, and since the first week of the season, had not looked the part of a Super Bowl team. A road game at playoff-bound Detroit wasn’t an immediate turnaround, but it did get San Francsico back on track. In a penalty-ridden game, the 49ers survived, 27-21.

It was a two-game stretch against sub-.500 teams, at Atlanta and at home with Tampa Bay, that San Francisco really got untracked. The defense forced six turnovers in Atlanta. Two of them were interceptions by Dana Hall. Deion came up with a 93-yard Pick-6 in his old stomping grounds. The final was 42-3. Back home against Tampa, Watters rushed for over 100 yards for the first time this season. Young went 20/26 for 255 yards with no mistakes. The 49ers led 34-0 after three quarters and closed out a 41-16 win. They were going into their bye week at 6-2.

A trip to the nation’s capital to face a bad Redskins team was on the far side of the bye. The Niner defense held the ‘Skins to 76 yards rushing. McDonald had a Pick-6. Dexter Carter ran a kickoff back for a touchdown. Young went 15/25 for 291 yards. San Francisco won 37-22 in a game they led 37-6.

It was time. The 49ers were 7-2. The Cowboys were 8-1. Both teams were in complete control of their division races. They were clearly the class of the NFC—in fact, the entire NFL. Their November 13 meeting in San Francisco was as anticipated as any regular season game has ever been.

In this game, it was Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman who made the mistakes, while Young was efficient. Aikman threw three interceptions. Young went 12/21 for 183 yards and no mistakes. Furthermore, San Francisco took away Dallas’ traditional advantage in the ground game, outrushing the Cowboys 147-87. The Niners showed they could win in a workmanlike fashion, chiseling out a 21-14 triumph.

San Francisco now had control of the race for the #1 seed, but there was still no room for error, with both teams at 8-2.

When the 49ers jumped out to a 21-6 lead over the Rams on Sunday Night Football, it looked like they would avoid a letdown. But the letdown apparently kicked in late, because Los Angeles rallied to take a 27-24 lead. Rice stepped up. He had a huge night, with 16 catches for 165 yards. And his 18-yard touchdown reception from Young pulled out a 31-27 win.

Another prime-time game was the following Monday in New Orleans (the Saints, along with the Falcons, were in the NFC West prior to 2002). San Francisco led 20-14 at the half, although allowing an 86-yard fumble return, kept the game closer than it should have been. The 49ers calmly pulled back away. Young was sharp, Watters had a 100-yard night, and the final was 35-14.

The rematch against Atlanta was close into the second quarter, with San Francisco only leading 17-14 after Young threw a Pick-6. But the 49er defense limited the Falcons to 43 rush yards and forced five turnovers. It was 27-14 by halftime, and then the avalanche started—the final was 50-14.

Dallas was keeping pace with San Francisco, and both teams were 11-2 with three weeks left. The 49ers had a big road game coming up against the contending San Diego Chargers. The day before, on a Saturday special, the Cowboys lost to Bill Belichick’s playoff-bound Cleveland Browns. San Francisco had the chance to create some big breathing room in the push for the 1-seed.

The 49ers took full advantage of the opportunity. Young went 25/32 for 304 yards, with no mistakes. Rice caught 12 balls for 144 yards. In something that would prove to be foreshadowing, San Francisco leveled early blows against San Diego and went up 21-0 in a hurry. The final was 38-15.

A Saturday afternoon home game with the mediocre Denver Broncos offered the chance to seal up regular season business. Young went 20/29 for 350 yards. Watters caught a 65-yard touchdown pass. Rice’s nine catches went for 121 yards. The 49ers won 42-19 in a game where all the scoring happened in the first three quarters.

With everything clinched, San Francisco only played Young for the first half of the Monday Night finale in Minnesota. The Vikings were playing for a division title, so the 21-14 loss was no real surprise or disappointment. Now, it was all about finishing the job.

The playoff road started late Saturday afternoon in the Divisional Round against the 6-seed Chicago Bears. San Francisco spotted Chicago a field goal and then took over. Floyd’s short touchdown run made it 7-3 after the first quarter. In the second quarter, the 49ers unloaded. Young threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Jones. Floyd ran for another score. Young used his legs to find the end zone. A field goal was in the mix. It was 30-3 by halftime. The defense held the Bears to 39 rush yards, outside linebacker Tim Harris picked up two sacks, and the final was 44-15.

The following afternoon, Dallas took care of their business by beating the Green Bay Packers. Afterwards, Cowboy receiver Michael Irvin said what NFL fans had been saying all along—that the entire point of the regular season was simply to see where the 49ers-Cowboys NFC Championship Game would be played. Now, it was all on the line.

Turnovers had been the difference in the regular season meeting, and it didn’t take long for that same dynamic to take hold in this one. San Francisco corner Eric Davis intercepted Aikman and took it 44 yards to the house. The Cowboys turned it over again. Young threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Watters. The San Francisco defense forced another turnover. Floyd cashed it in with a short TD run. In a stunning development, the 49ers were up 21-0 in the first quarter.

Dallas didn’t go quietly and cut the lead to 24-14 in the second quarter. Young answered with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Rice. In the third quarter, the Cowboys cut the lead to 31-21. Young answered by running one in from three yards out.

The 49er defense would collect five turnovers on the day. By contrast, while Young was only 13/29 for 155 yards, he stayed away from mistakes. Dallas closed to 38-28, but that’s where it ended. The monkey was almost off Young’s back.

San Diego was in a Super Bowl that seemed like a mere formality. Oddsmakers certainly thought so and made San Francisco a huge (-19) favorite. And the 49ers came out firing. Young went on top to Rice for a 44-yard touchdown pass. Then he found Watters for a 51-yard TD pass. It was 14-0 before anyone settled in.

The Chargers got a TD before the first quarter was out, but Young threw two more short touchdown passes in the second quarter—one to Floyd, and another to Watters. It was 28-10 at the half. In the third quarter, San Francisco sealed the deal. Watters ran in from nine yards out, Young tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Rice, and it was 42-18 after three quarters. The final was 49-26.

Young finished 24/36 for 325 yards, with six touchdown passes and no interceptions. Rice caught ten balls for 149 yards. The 49ers won the turnover battle 3-zip. It was complete dominance to cap off a dominating season. Now, the monkey was off Young’s back.

This was San Francisco’s fifth Super Bowl title since 1981. But, while they continued to contend with Young at quarterback, it was also the last. The 49ers were knocked out of the playoffs the next three years by the Packers, and then lost to the Falcons in 1998. That was the end of the Young era. The franchise has made it back to a couple Super Bowls in the years since, in 2012 and 2019. But they haven’t hoisted the Lombardi Trophy since that night in Miami that ended a great 1994 campaign.