Golden Football Magazine
NFL Championship Games
This series covers the history of the NFL through the prism of its yearly championship games.
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Super Bowl XXII - San Francisco 49ers vs Cincinnati Bengals: 1st Half
The crowd of 75,129 in Joe Robbie Stadium would see a game featuring one of the greatest final drives in football history.

Quarter 1

After RB Harry Sydney returned the kickoff 11y to the 27 for the 49ers, the ques­tion of whether WR Jerry Rice would be at full speed was answered quickly when the took a reverse around the left side for 5y. DE Jason Buck stuffed Roger Craig for no gain, but QB Joe Montana converted third-and-five with a pass to Craig to the 42. LT Steve Wallace suffered a broken ankle on the play and was replaced by Bubba Paris. When play resumed S David Fulcher broke past Paris unblocked to get a sack as Montana fell down to avoid the collision. Craig circled the left side to get those 6y back, but on third down, Montana pulled out too soon from center and was lucky to fall on the ball for a loss of two. So Barry Helton punted out of bounds on the Cincinnati 26.

L: Barry Helton punts; R: Boomer Esiason barks signals.
The Bengals started sharply with a 17y pass from QB Boomer Esiason to WR Ed­die Brown. RB Ickey Woods ran over the left side for 8y. A reverse to RB James Brooks around the right side didn't fool S Jeff Fuller, who dropped the runner for a loss of one. On third-and-three, Woods carried over the left side again for 6y and a first down at the SF 44. But two incompletions sandwiched around a 5y gain by Woods brought on left-footed punter Lee Johnson, whose kick was downed at the three.
"The field conditions were horrendous," recalled Esiason. "It was maybe one of the worst fields ever to have played to a Super Bowl on if not the worst. There was rain the night before and the morning of the Super Bowl. I think they left the drainage system on, and the field was coming up in clumps. You would dig your foot in, and you could easily twist your ankle."
"They were two catastrophic injuries for both teams," said Boomer. "I actually lay the blame on those injuries on the field conditions."

L-R: Eddie Brown, Ickey Woods, James Brooks
Craig gave the Niners breathing room by bolting through the middle to the 11. The play proved fateful for the Bengals because NT Tim Krumrie broke two bones in his left leg when when his ankle caught part of the field while he was trying to make a tackle. His replacement was rookie David Grant. After scrambling for 2y and a first down, Montana dumped the ball to TE John Frank for a gain of eight. Then Joe connected with Rice to move the chains to the 33. Grant was called for rough­ing the passer on the next play an incompletion, to make it first-and-10 on the 48. Runs by Craig for nine and FB Tom Rathman for three produced another first down at the 24. But three straight incompletions forced the 49ers to settle for Mike Co­fer's 41y field goal. 49ers 3 Bengals 0 (3:14)

L: Joe Montana throws on the run; R: John Frank
Walsh recalled that Super Bowl XXIII "was one of the most frustrating I've ever course, so much so that it was well over a year before I could bring myself to look at the film. I had no such problem with our first two Super Bowls ... In sports, there are any number of things that can upset a team. Some of those we have no control of, such as an official's call or the bounce of a ball. Sometimes, too, it can be shaky strategy or the failure of a player to execute.
"In that game, it was all of the above, and two plays in particular illustrate our problems.
"We were driving in the first quarter when Mike Wilson seemed to catch a pass at the two, but instant replay showed that Mike had trapped the ball. If John Taylor had been the receiver, with his great hands, he probably would have caught the ball. But Taylor wasn't in the game because I had gone against my basic philo­sophy.
"Mike Wilson had been a solid performer for us for many years. Usually, he was our third receiver who could be depended on to make the play when he was in the game–as he did in the 1982 Super Bowl–and he had also played well as a starter on occasion. ...
"With Mike at the end of his career, he was not the equal of Taylor, who had the speed and athletic ability to make great plays, but because of his experience, I was still alternating Mike with Taylor. I'll always about this play, whether John could have made it. Again, that makes the point: If a man is the best performer and can come up with a play that makes a difference, he's got to be on the field. Because he wasn't, he didn't make the play, and we lost a chance to take command of the game early."

L-R: Tom Rathman, John Taylor, Ronnie Lott
After a touchback, the Bengals made a first down on carries by Brooks (3y) and Woods (8y). The next two plays showed why S Ronnie Lott was a perennial Pro Bowler. When Ickey took another handoff, Ronnie smashed him after a gain of just two.
49ers defensive line coach Bill McPherson explained: "Ronnie was really PO'd because our guys weren't tackling him. I mean, it was an explosion. It got our guys going, and [Woods] didn't run very well after that."
As Esiason called signals, Lott moved up to within 5y of the line of the scrimmage. But when the ball was snapped, he drifted back and almost intercepted the slant pass to Brown.
The 49ers got in two plays after the punt before the quarter ended. First, Rice made a dazzling one-handed grab of Montana's pass at the right sideline. Then Joe went to Craig on the left side for 8y to the Cincinnati 46.
End Quarter 1: 49ers 3 Bengals 0
Eric Wright: "On defense, we wanted to keep Boomer off balance and force him into doing things that were out of the Bengals' offensive scheme. That way we hoped to keep Ickey Woods from having a productive game on the ground. ... Our thing was to not let the Bengals get untracked where Ickey could do that dance on us."

Quarter 2

Following Craig's 5y run for a first down at the Cincinnati 41, S Fulcher blitzed. That left CB Solomon Wilcots one-on-one with Rice. Montana threw a beautiful pass that Jerry took over his shoulder at the right sideline for a 30y gain to the 11. Rathman gained two up the middle before Montana rolled left and threw the ball away when Frank was well covered. Next came one of the signature strategies of the West Coast offense. Walsh sent in four wide receivers to spread the defense. Rathman took the handoff and zipped over left guard to the two. That made it fourth-and-one. After a timeout to think it over, Walsh sent in the field goal team. But a bad snap threw off Cofer's timing, and he hooked the kick to the left.
Walsh: "In the second quarter, we had an excellent, sustained drive that resulted in a fourth-and-one at the goal line. In retrospect I should have run Roger Craig on the same counterplay on which he'd gone 80 yards to score against Minnesota in our playoff game. He would have dived over the top for the necessary yardage. But at that point, in such a pressure-packed game, I thought we should get points on the board. As it happened, there was a bad snap from center, and we didn't even get the field goal."
Desperate to at least get some breathing room before punting, the Bengals went three-and-out. After Esiason's fifth straight incompletion, Woods gained just a yard. Then Boomer, not finding anyone open downfield, threw underneath to Brown, who was hit by Lott a yard short of the first down marker. So Johnson boomed a 63y punt with the wind that drifted away from Taylor and bounced all the way to the SF nine. Glancing back at the coverage, Taylor chased down the ball and fielded it at the nine. He eluded three defenders, and burst into the clear toward the right sideline. The safety man, Ray Horton, fending off a blocker, finally forced Tay­lor out of bounds at the Cincy 46 for a 45y return.
The stop became more crucial when the 49ers frittered away another scoring chance as three straight plays went awry. First, Montana threw backward to Syd­ney on the right–was it meant to be a double pass?–for a loss of 10. Grant finally made his presence felt by sacking Montana for a loss of two. Then Walsh called his "snake eyes" play of the game. That meant no huddle. Just line up an run the prede­termined play, which was a handoff to Craig around the left side. It looked like a brilliant call as Roger turned the corner on his way to a first down. But Fulcher, a major pain in the neck for the 49ers, hit him, causing a fumble that DE Jim Skow recovered on the 41.

L: Jim Skow (70) rushes Montana. R: Craig fumbles when hit by Fulcher.
The Bengals moved quickly into 49er territory on a 6y completion to WR Cris Col­linsworth and Brooks' burst up the middle to the SF 42. But two incompletions and an 8y sack by rookie DE Daniel Stubbs forced a punt to the 11.
On third-and-10, Craig took a short pass and just barely made a first down at the 21. But that just delayed the inevitable punt. On second-and-10, Montana threw to Frank, but a holding penalty negated the gain. Craig ran for 3y, then caught a pass for 4y. So Helton punted to Horton, who returned 5y to the SF 44.
The Bengals took advantage of the great field position to tie the game. Woods gained two. Then Esiason threw to WR Tim McGee who fell as he caught the ball at the left sideline for a gain of 18 and a first down at the 23. Brooks ran for 3y to reach the two-minute warning. Woods got four to make it third-and-three. Esiason then fired a pass to the goal line that Tim McKyer almost intercepted. So Jim Breech, a 49ers fan growing up who wore a size 5 shoe (smallest in the NFL), booted a 43y field goal. 49ers 3 Bengals 3 (1:15)
Trying to get into field goal range, the Niners made a first down on Craig's 11y sweep around left end on the first play after the kickoff. But the Bengals sacked Montana for a loss of 5y to prevent any further advance. So Helton punted 55y to the Bengals three. Esiason took a knee to make XXIII the first Super Bowl to be tied at halftime. END OF 1ST HALF: 49ers 3 Bengals 3

L-R: Tim McGee, Tim McKyer, Jim Breech
Halftime statistics
  • Time of possession: 49ers 16:00 Bengals 14:00
  • First downs: 49ers 11 Bengals 5
  • Rushing yards: 49ers 78 Bengals 53
  • Passing: 49ers 9/16/103 Bengals 4/12/40
  • Turnovers: 49ers 1 Bengals 0
Esiason: "We couldn't really get anything done in the first half. We weren't able to run effectively, and we weren't able to convert on third downs. Our passing game was average at best if not below average. It wasn't who we were as a team."
The Bengals wondered how many third down situations they weren't able to con­vert because Wilson fell prey to his drug problem the night before. "We had a handful of third and short situations that we were unable to convert for whatever reason," recalled Esiason. "That really was a very frustrating aspect."
S Solomon Wilcots: "You've got tremendous offensive players on both sides, yet it was on both sides that defense prevailed. The fense was rockin' out there. It was no joke. Both defenses knew the caliber of offenses they were up against. If you didn't bring it, the score could get out of hand in a heartbeat."

Harry Sydney

Jerry Rice on a reverse

Steve Wallace

Bubba Paris

Lee Johnson

Tim Krumrie wheeled off.

David Grant

Mike Cofer

Mike Wilson

Bill McPherson

David Fulcher

Solomon Wilcots

Roger Craig

Daniel Stubbs

Ray Horton