On the 35-year anniversary of the game, we look back at the 49ers thrilling victory over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. Mandatory Credit: Photo by USA TODAY Sports (c) 1989 by USA TODAY Sports Jan 23, 1989; Miami, FL, USA; FILE PHOTO; John Taylor of the San Francisco 49ers catches the winning touchdown from Joe Montana (not pictured) during Super Bowl XXIII against the Cincinnati Bengals. The 49ers won the game 20-16. Mandatory Credit: Photo byUSA TODAY Sports (c) 1989 by USA TODAY Sports

Ask NFL fans what the greatest Super Bowl of all-time and you’ll certainly get a variety of responses. One response that you’d probably hear a lot would be Super Bowl XXIII, played 35 years ago on Jan. 22, 1989.

The favored San Francisco 49ers, already winners of two Super Bowls in the decade, trailed the Cincinnati Bengals in the game’s final minutes. But led by quarterback Joe Montana, the 49ers moved down the field and scored a touchdown for a 20-16 win.

It was a defining moment for Montana, who established himself as arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. It was also a defining moment for his coach, Bill Walsh, who never coached another NFL game.


As previously stated, this was San Francisco’s third of what would be four championships in the 1980s. The first championship, in 1981, was capped off by a win in Super Bowl XVI. It had some tremendous parallels to the championship won seven years later.

The most obvious parallel, of course, is that in Super Bowl XVI, the AFC Champion across the field from the 49ers was the Bengals. But while San Francisco was seen as the more experienced team in Super Bowl XXIII, that was a reversal of the roles the teams had seven years later. While Super Bowl XVI marked both franchise’s Super Bowl debuts, the Bengals were more established, particularly at one spot on the field.

While Montana was an accomplished college quarterback, winning a national championship at Notre Dame, he was still largely unproven in the NFL. The 1981 season was his first as San Francisco’s full-time starter and the eventual 49ers triumph in the game made Montana (at the time) the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl. His counterpart, Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson, was a different story.

Anderson made his third Pro Bowl in 1981 and was the regular season MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. Early in his career, he worked with a young offensive assistant coach with the Bengals named Bill Walsh.

Seven years later, Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason was the young, budding star. The veteran quarterback in Super Bowl XXIII was Montana, still on the San Francisco sideline. Montana came into the NFL in 1979 and was mentored by a young assistant coach with the 49ers — Sam Wyche — now the head coach of the Bengals.

Both Cincinnati and San Francisco came into the 1988 season trying to shake off 1987’s unpleasant memories. However, the reasons for the unpleasantness were entirely different.

The Bengals struggled after winning the AFC Championship in 1981. They enjoyed a nice 7-2 record in 1982’s strike-shortened season but missed the playoffs every season from 1983 to1987. The 1986 season left reason for optimism as, despite missing the playoffs, Cincinnati went 10-6. But that optimism was wiped out with a dismal 4-11 record in another strike-shortened season in 1987. Both Wyche and Esiason entered 1988 on a short leash.

For San Francisco, the 1982 to 1987 seasons were almost the complete opposite. The 49ers struggled in 1982, missing the playoffs with a 3-6 record. They bounced back from there, though, making the playoffs every year from 1983-1987 and winning a Super Bowl in 1984. But in 1985 and 1986, Walsh brought in new players to replace some of the older veterans. And while the 49ers had good seasons, they had no playoff success, losing 17-3 and 49-3, respectively, both times to the New York Giants.

In 1987, things clicked. The 49ers rolled to a 13-2 season and were the clear favorites to win Super Bowl XXII. But the divisional round game against the Minnesota Vikings was a disaster. Minnesota receiver Anthony Carter had a playoff-record 227 receiving yards. While the 49ers managed to score 24 points, none were courtesy of Montana, receiver Jerry Rice and running back Roger Craig. Late in the game, Montana was replaced by Steve Young, who led an admirable but futile comeback bid in a 36-24 loss.

As far as the regular season goes, 1988 was much smoother for the Bengals than the 49ers. Cincinnati started 6-0, finished 12-4, won the AFC Central and had the No. 1 seed in the AFC, thanks to a regular season win over the Buffalo Bills, who also finished 12-4.

The 49ers also started well, jumping out to a 4-1 record. But they lost four of six games to fall to 6-5 and looked to be in danger of missing the playoffs. But San Francisco won four straight before losing a meaningless (for them, anyway) finale to finish at 10-6. That was good enough for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. But to get to the Super Bowl, the 49ers would likely need to go on the road to beat the Chicago Bears, a team that had beaten them 10-9 in the regular season.

Cincinnati’s first playoff appearance in six years went well. The Bengals jumped out to a 21-0 lead against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. While Seattle mounted a comeback bid, it ultimately fell well short and Cincinnati came away with a 21-13 win. The AFC Championship Game against the Bills was close throughout. The Bengals led 14-10 at halftime and pitched a shutout in the second half. Cincinnati got a fourth-quarter touchdown from Ickey Woods to secure a 21-10 win.

San Francisco, meanwhile, regained the postseason mojo that it lost over the previous three years. The 49ers avenged the previous season’s loss with a 34-9 win over the Vikings in the divisional round. In the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers fought off not only the Bears but a bitter Chicago cold for a 28-3 win at Soldier Field. The 49ers scored nine touchdowns in the NFC Playoffs. Six were Montana touchdown passes (five to Rice) and two were Craig touchdown runs.

With past demons fully exorcised, Super Bowl XXIII was set.

Stanley Wilson

A significant moment in the Super Bowl occurred the night before. Bengals running back Stanley Wilson was suspended for all of 1985 and 1987 for cocaine use. He enjoyed a career resurgence in 1988, though. enjoyed a nice career resurgence in 1988, playing in 15 of Cincinnati’s 16 regular games and starting six of them. In the playoff win over Seattle, Wilson scored the game’s first two touchdowns, giving the Bengals a 14-0 lead.

The Bengals had a team meeting on Saturday night. Wilson went to his room to get his playbook and never returned. He was eventually found in his hotel room, high on cocaine. Not only did that keep him from playing in the game but since it was his third positive test, NFL rules called for a permanent ban on Wilson. He never played again.

The Game

Bad news quickly befell both teams once the game started. Steve Wallace, San Francisco’s starting left tackle, broke his left ankle. Tim Krumrie, Cincinnati’s nose tackle and one NFL’s best defensive players in 1988, suffered multiple breaks in his left leg. Wallace’s injury occurred on the third play of the game while Krumrie’s was on the first play of San Francisco’s second offensive possession.

From there, the play was sloppy and spectacular in equal measure. Each team committed only one turnover, though not for a lack of trying. The 49ers fumbled the ball four times, losing three, while the Bengals recovered their lone fumble. San Francisco nearly doubled Cincinnati’s total yardage (454-229) but the Bengals led for most of the second half.

This was for two reasons. One, 49ers kicker Mike Cofer missed two field goals. The first was from 19 yards. But while Cofer did get a foot on the ball, that miss had more to do with an awful snap. The second was a miss from 49 in the fourth quarter. Additionally, Cincinnati’s biggest play of the game did nothing in the yards from scrimmage battle. Stanford Jennings returned a kickoff 98 yards to give the Bengals what would be their only touchdown of the game.

And while the 49ers missed chances, the biggest missed chance of the game came from the Bengals.

Thanks to a 31-yard completion from Montana to Rice and a 40-yard pass from Montana to Craig, San Francisco quickly moved down the field following Jennings’ touchdown return.

One play later, Montana threw a pass to the end zone for John Taylor (a name that will come up again). Cincinnati’s defense, though had the play read. Lewis Billups stepped in front of Taylor. But while Billups got both hands on the ball, he couldn’t corral it and the seemingly easy interception fell to the ground for a harmless incomplete pass.

One play later, Montana and Rice connected for a 14-yard touchdown pass, tying the game early in the fourth quarter.

Cincinnati punted on its ensuing possession. Montana brought the 49ers in range to take the lead, but Cofer’s aforementioned 49-yard field goal attempt went wide. Esiason then led the Bengals 46 yards down the field and while the drive stalled, Cincinnati’s Jim Breech nailed a 40-yard kick, giving the Bengals a 16-13 lead.

A penalty on the ensuing kickoff backed the 49ers up to their own eight-yard line with 3:10 left. San Francisco had all of its time-outs but had to go 92 yards to win. Heck, the 49ers had to travel a long way just to get in position for a game-tying field goal attempt. Given that they had missed two, that wasn’t exactly a desirable option. The game was not over, but the Bengals were in great shape.

Isn’t that John Candy?

While the story has been told so often, no look back at this game would be complete without mentioning it. When the 49ers huddled up for the beginning of the drive, Harris Barton, San Francisco’s young right tackle, was showing his nerves. Montana, noticing actor John Candy at the other end of the field, pointed him out to Barton and the rest of the team, asking, “Isn’t that John Candy?” Members of the team, including Barton, have since told the story that Montana pointing Candy out helped relax them.

Would everything that happened subsequently have happened without Montana’s observation? We’ll never know.

But for the 49ers, it certainly didn’t hurt anything.

Final Drive

Montana started with an eight-yard pass to Roger Craig. He followed that with a seven-yard pass to tight end John Frank, one of only two plays on the drive that did not include Rice or Craig getting the ball. A seven-yard pass to Rice followed. After that, Craig carried the ball on consecutive plays, picking up a total of five yards for another first down. The second of Craig’s runs came on the first play after the two-minute warning.

A pair of big completions followed, with Montana hitting Rice and Craig for 17 and 13 yards, respectively. While the field goal wasn’t a great option, the 49ers were now within Cofer’s range. Two plays later, that changed. After an incomplete pass to Rice on first down, Montana and Craig connected for five yards on second down. That play was wiped out when San Francisco lineman Randy Cross was penalized for being an illegal man downfield.

Time was not a huge concern for the 49ers. They were across midfield and had two time-outs remaining with 1:15 left in the game. But they were now at the Cincinnati 45 and facing a second-and-20. On the following play, Montana found Rice on a deep route. Rice broke two tackles and briefly looked as though he might score, but was brought down by Cincinnati’s Rickey Dixon. Dixon prevented a touchdown, but Rice picked up 27 yards on the play, good enough for a first down.

An eight-yard completion to Craig brought San Francisco to the 10-yard line. The 49ers took their second time-out and both teams went to the sidelines.

Logically, the expectation was that Rice or Craig would get the ball. They had accumulated for most of San Francisco’s yards on that drive and in the game. Rice caught 11 passes for 215 yards while Craig had eight for 101. In addition to accounting for all but seven of the yards accrued on the drive and 316 of Montana’s 347 passing yards to that point, they were the 1987 (Rice) and 1988 (Craig) Offensive Players of the Year. Why would the ball go anywhere else?

Taylor had nice moments in his first two NFL seasons, but they were mostly as a punt returner. His breakout as a receiver wouldn’t come until the following season. He also hadn’t caught a single pass in the Super Bowl. Rice went in motion on the play.

Rice continued to move to the offense’s left. Craig, who was lined up to Montana’s right, ran a wheel route. The ball was snapped as Rice ran behind Taylor, who was lined up to Montana’s left in more of a tight end than receiver position. It would be unfair to say that the Bengals neglected Taylor. Three defenders were close to him as Montana released the pass.

But while the defenders were close to Taylor, Montana had a clear window to his receiver. Unless Montana’s pass was offline or Taylor dropped the pass, it was going to be a touchdown. Montana’s throw was not off line and Taylor did not drop the pass.


Cofer made the extra point to give San Francisco a 20-16 lead, meaning the Bengals needed a touchdown.

Cincinnati started its ensuing drive on the 26-yard line. Esiason’s first pass was completed for five yards to Tim McGee. On second down, Charles Haley sacked Esiason. Esiason nearly connected with Cris Collinsworth on a sideline route that would have given Esiason a chance to reach the end zone on a potential Hail Mary. But the throw was high and Collinsworth couldn’t bring it in. Esiason’s fourth down pass fell incomplete as time expired. The game was over.

When Walsh was coaching as an assistant in Cincinnati, Anderson wasn’t the only quarterback he worked with. Another was Wyche who, like Walsh, joined the Bengals in 1968. Wyche, largely a journeyman backup, left Cincinnati after three seasons. In their three seasons together with the Bengals, Walsh and Wyche formed a friendship, which helped Wyche get into coaching as an assistant in San Francisco in 1979, the first season with the 49ers for both Walsh and Montana.

Wyche and Walsh made their way through a sea of reporters and cameramen on the field to embrace. The two longtime friends expressed their love for each other and walked off of the field arm-in-arm. After congratulating Walsh, Wyche remarked, “That was a good game, huh?” Walsh responded that it was a “great game.” Indeed it was.

When Brent Musburger asked Walsh in the locker room if it was his last game, Walsh broke down in tears. Less than a week later, Walsh retired and was replaced by George Seifert, who worked as an assistant with Walsh with the 49ers and Stanford, where Walsh served as head coach for two seasons before getting hired by San Francisco.

Following the Super Bowl loss, the Bengals went into a period of futility. They narrowly missed the playoffs in 1989. Cincinnati returned to the postseason in 1990, beating the Houston Oilers in the Wild Card round before losing to the then-Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round.

That was the final playoff appearance for the Bengals until 20-15 and the win over Houston was the last postseason victory for the Bengals until 2021. Cincinnati returned to the Super Bowl in that 2021 season, losing in similar fashion to the Los Angeles Rams.

For the 49ers, things continued to go well. San Francisco went 14-2 in 1989 and repeated as champions. The 49ers beat the Vikings 41-13 and the Rams 30-3 in the NFC playoffs before defeating the Denver Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. San Francisco set the record for combined point differential in the playoffs (+100). That record, as well as the Super Bowl record for both points scored and margin of victory, still stands.

The 49ers were on the brink of a third straight Super Bowl appearance, but fell 15-13 to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. In 1994, San Francisco ended a three-peat bid of the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game before routing the then-San Diego Chargers 49-26 in the Super Bowl. The 49ers remained contenders through the 1998 season but didn’t return to the Super Bowl until 2012 and, as of this writing, have yet to win once since 1994.

For Cincinnati, Super Bowl XXIII provided plenty of what-ifs. What if Krumrie didn’t get hurt or Wilson was able to play in the game? What if Billups held onto the crucial interception? Like most what-ifs, we don’t know the answer to that question.

We do know that 35 years ago, the Bengals and 49ers staged a Super Bowl for the ages.

About Michael Dixon

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