Super Bowl XXIII (Bengals vs. 49ers): An Ultimate Recount of the Game

Today we have Super Bowl XXIII, which was held on January 22, 1989, at brand-new Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, between the two-time AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals and the three-time NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. If you’re looking for the full story of this 1988 season, pick up my Great Eighties book and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about that year and the rest of the eighties.

As always, we have a pop quiz, and then homework at the end of the episode. The pop quiz question for today is this: Jerry Rice caught 11 passes in this game, tying a Super Bowl record. Who was the first player in Super Bowl history to catch 11 passes? The answer will come at the end of the podcast.

Prelude to Super Bowl XXIII

The 1988 San Francisco 49ers were not supposed to win the Super Bowl. The 1987 49ers were. In ’87, the Niners went 13-2, and they were clearly the NFL’s best team in the regular season. Consider this: the ’87 49ers outscored their final three opponents 124-7.

Receiver Jerry Rice set a single-season NFL record with 22 touchdown catches, while playing only 12 games, as he sat out the three strike games. Between quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young were 41 touchdown passes. The Niners were absolutely loaded, and they deserved to win the Super Bowl.

But they didn’t. The 49ers got knocked off at home in the divisional round by the 8-7 Minnesota Vikings, 36-24. The game could have been worse, too; the Vikings settled for field goals five times. Montana was benched for Young, but nothing went right. The Vikings went to the NFC Championship Game; the 13-2 49ers went home.

The next season, the 49ers were a mess. The quarterback controversy between Montana and Young was out of control. It was Favre-Rodgers on steroids. At midseason, the 49ers blew a three-touchdown lead against Phoenix, while scoring only nine points against Chicago and three points against the Raiders in two more losses.

But Montana eventually wrested the job away from Young, and the 49ers cruised to a four-game winning streak to get to 10-5 and clinch the NFC West title. The 49ers then “lay down like dogs” in their final game according to Giants quarterback Phil Simms.

They lost to the Rams to finish 10-6, allowing L.A. to make it as a wild card and knocking the Giants out of the playoffs. The 10-6 49ers made it in as a #2 seed, and in their first playoff game, they got revenge on the Vikings, beating them 34-9. They then crushed the #1-seeded Chicago Bears 28-3 to advance to their third Super Bowl.

While the controversy between Montana and Young raged, it was clear that at this point, the team still belonged to Montana. He threw for 2,981 yards and 18 touchdowns as opposed to ten interceptions. As for Young, he threw for 680 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions in limited play time. His passer rating was 15 points lower than Montana’s.

Running back Roger Craig ran for over 1,500 yards with nine touchdowns, and he also led the team with 76 catches, going for 534 yards. Rice led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, of course, with over 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns. With Montana taking over the quarterback situation late in the year, the 49ers were set to put all the controversy behind them and come away with a third Super Bowl in eight years.

Over in the AFC, the Cincinnati Bengals won their first six games of the season on their way to a 12-4 regular season record and the #1 seed. They beat Seattle 21-13 in the divisional round before knocking off Buffalo 21-10 in the AFC Championship Game to advance to their second Super Bowl.

Under head coach Sam Wyche, the Bengals ran an early form of the no-huddle offense. It doesn’t look like an up-tempo offense when you watch it in retrospect; but at the time, it was revolutionary. NFL MVP Boomer Esiason won league MVP by throwing for 3,572 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, running back Ickey Woods ran for over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns while doing the Ickey Shuffle all the way to the Super Bowl. Receiver Eddie Brown was Esiason’s top target with 53 catches for 1,273 yards and nine touchdowns.

Super Bowl XXIII: First Quarter

The Bengals called tails, and the coin toss from Bob Griese ended up heads. San Francisco won the toss, and naturally chose to receive. What would ensue in the first half was totally unexpected – a defensive struggle. You would think these high-powered offenses would light up the scoreboard, but they didn’t, at least not in the first half.

The 49ers started with a reverse to Rice, and he gained about five yards despite having what the NBC broadcast described as a “sore ankle.” That ankle wouldn’t bother him much throughout this night.

Montana threw to Craig for a first down at the 42, but then Bengals defensive back David Fulcher brought him down for a sack, forcing a punt. Esiason started at his own 26, and he immediately threw to Brown for 17 yards. Woods ran for eight more, then pounded for a first down two plays later. But the Niners defense stepped up, and they forced a punt.

To start out the next 49ers drive, Craig ran the ball out from inside his own 5 to about the 11. On the play, Bengals defensive tackle Tim Krumrie was injured, and he had to come off on a stretcher. He’d later be taken to a Miami hospital, diagnosed with a broken fibula and tibia. A

fter a lengthy delay, the Niners came back on the field and moved the ball well. Montana scrambled for a first down, then he threw to tight end John Frank for eight more yards. Rice caught a pass for a first down at the 33, before the Bengals got called for roughing the passer on the next play. The Niners moved the ball into field goal range, and kicker Mike Cofer made a 42-yard field goal to put San Francisco up 3-0.

Woods ran for a first down to start the next Cincinnati possession, and he knocked over the umpire in doing so. But Esiason threw a couple of incompletions, one almost picked off by 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott, and the Bengals had to punt. Montana started out with a pass to Rice, who made a one-handed catch for 15 yards.

Craig hauled one in for eight more yards, and the teams switched sides for the end of the first quarter. Craig ran for a first down to the Cincinnati 41, before Montana went long for Rice. The pass was complete for over 30 yards down close to the 10. But then the Niners offense got bogged down. Fullback Tom Rathman got down as far as the 2 on third down, and San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh chose to go for the field goal.

On the kick, Randy Cross got off a bad snap, and Cofer missed the 19-yard field goal attempt wide to the left. It was the shortest missed field goal in Super Bowl history.

Super Bowl XXIII: Second Quarter

Cincinnati went three-and-out on their next possession. 49ers receiver John Taylor then returned the ensuing punt 45 yards into Cincinnati territory. San Francisco could do precious little with the great field position, though. First, Bengals defensive tackle David Grant and defensive end Jason Buck combined for a sack of Montana back at the 42. Then Craig fumbled, and defensive end Jim Skow recovered for the Bengals at their own 41.

The Bengals went three-and-out again, with a sack by defensive ends Charles Haley and Daniel Stubbs ending their possession. Craig got one first down on a reception for San Francisco, before they punted it back. The Bengals got great field position after the punt when defensive back Ray Horton took it back to the 49ers 44.

Esiason completed a pass to receiver Tim McGee, and the Bengals got a 34-yard field goal by kicker Jim Breech after the two-minute warning to tie the game at three. The 49ers’ next drive came up well short of field goal range, and the teams went to the half with that 3-3 score. It was the first time in Super Bowl history that the game was tied at halftime.

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    Super Bowl XXIII: Third Quarter

    To start out the second half, Cincinnati put together a great drive. Woods started it with a run for a first down to the 25. Esiason then went over the middle to receiver Cris Collinsworth for a first down. After the Bengals got called for holding, Esiason threw to running back James Brooks to get the yards back to the 38. Woods then picked up a first down at the 35.

    On the next third down, Collinsworth made a leaping catch to give Cincinnati another first down. A couple of flags derailed the Cincinnati drive, but they did get a 43-yard field goal out of Breech to take a 6-3 lead.

    Montana scrambled for a first down and threw to Rice for another 13 yards. But again the Niners’ drive got spoiled, this time by a sack by Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams. On the very first play of the Bengals’ next possession, Esiason threw an interception to linebacker Bill Romanowski at the Bengals 32. That set up a 32-yard Cofer field goal, and the game was tied at six.

    But it wouldn’t be tied long. Kickoff return specialist Stanford Jennings returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. “Oh, my!” NBC announcer Dick Enberg cried, as the Bengals took a 13-6 lead into the fourth quarter.

    Super Bowl XXIII: Fourth Quarter

    The San Francisco offense then caught fire. Montana threw to Rice for a 31-yard gain. He followed by going deep to Craig for 40 yards, before throwing a pass that was nearly intercepted by defensive back Lewis Billups. That fell incomplete, saving the Niners’ drive. Montana then threw to Rice near the left sideline. He extended the ball beyond the goal line for a 14-yard touchdown. The extra point was good, and San Francisco tied it at 13.

    The Bengals got great field position after a kickoff out of bounds, but Haley and defensive end Larry Roberts sacked Esiason to help force another punt. Montana and the now red-hot 49ers offense came out with a bomb to Rice for a first down at the 37. Craig ran it further to the 31, before the Niners drive got gummed up. Cofer had a 49-yard field goal attempt to try to give his team the lead, but he missed it wide to the right, and the game remained tied.

    Now it was time for another methodical drive for Cincinnati. Esiason threw to receiver Ira Hillary for one first down. Woods ran for another first down to the San Francisco 44. He ran for seven more on the next play, then Esiason went play action to Brooks for 12 more yards to the Niners 25.

    A false start penalty on the next play set the Bengals back five yards, which Woods got back on the next play. Jennings ran it as far as the 22, but the Bengals couldn’t get another first down. They had to settle for a 40-yard Breech field goal. They took a 16-13 lead, but they left three minutes on the clock for Montana.

    The 49ers then put together the most famous drive in Super Bowl history. The story goes, Montana got into the huddle and pointed out actor John Candy eating popcorn in the stands. “There’s John Candy!” he told his teammates. Nothing ever rattled Joe Cool. He started the next drive with a pass to Frank for a first down and one to Rice for a good gain. The two-minute warning followed a Craig run, and the Niners faced third-and-short coming out of the break.

    Craig ran for a first down on that next play, then Montana hit Rice for a first down at the Cincinnati 47. Next, Montana went to Craig over the middle for 11 more yards and another first down. It looked like Montana had another completion to Craig, but Cross got called for being downfield as an ineligible receiver.

    But Montana knew what to do: he went back to Rice. He brought it in and nearly ran for a touchdown with it, getting tackled at the 18. Montana wanted to call timeout, but Walsh didn’t let him stop the clock. So, Joe Cool kept the drive going, passing to Craig for a first down at the 10. Now the 49ers called timeout, with 39 seconds left on the clock.

    Everyone in the stadium had to be thinking the ball was going to Rice here. But Montana instead threw it over the middle to John Taylor. Touchdown, 49ers with only 34 seconds left! The drive of a lifetime ended with Taylor scoring a ten-yard touchdown and quite easily at that. Sam Wyche looked up at the scoreboard in disbelief.

    His team had come a half-minute from Super Bowl glory. Now the Bengals could only try a few futile plays before running out of time and downs. The 49ers won it, 20-16!

    Super Bowl XXIII: Aftermath and Awards

    Rice was named Super Bowl MVP after setting a record for most receiving yards in a Super Bowl with 215 yards. He also caught 11 passes for a share of a Super Bowl record, tying with Cincinnati Bengals tight end Dan Ross from Super Bowl XVI. That is the answer to today’s trivia question; that record for most receptions now belongs to Patriots running back James White from Super Bowl LI.

    Montana was easily the best player not named Jerry Rice on this day. He would be my choice for runner-up as MVP. He threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner to Taylor. By the way, Craig also went over 100 yards receiving on eight catches. Taylor had just one catch, but it was the game-winner.

    The best player on the losing team was Jennings. His 93-yard kickoff return was Cincinnati’s only touchdown of the game. When your offense can’t get in the end zone and your defense can’t stop the opposing team’s top receiver, you’re not going to win many games. Jennings almost pulled that off with his return.

    The least valuable player, sadly, was Esiason. He was league MVP, so a lot was expected of him. Instead, he threw for just 144 yards, completed only 11 of 25 passes, did not throw a touchdown, had a pass picked off, and ended with a miserable passer rating of 46.1. He put up a real clunker in the biggest game of his life. He would never get this opportunity again.

    The best player you’ve never heard of? How about 49ers defensive end Larry Roberts? He started for the Niners and was in on a sack. Sadly, Roberts died at the age of 53 in 2016. He played a key role in the 49ers’ ability to stop Cincinnati from ever getting in the end zone on offense.

    Biggest play of the game? That’s obvious, Montana’s ten-yarder to Taylor to win the Super Bowl. But the biggest play you don’t remember is Lewis Billups dropping a Montana pass in the end zone with the Bengals leading 13-6. If he picks off that pass, maybe the Bengals go down, get a field goal, take a ten-point lead, and Montana doesn’t get his opportunity. Instead, the Niners scored immediately afterward, and we all know what happened.


    Today’s homework is easy: Best of Rivals by Adam Lazarus and Building a Champion by Bill Walsh with Glenn Dickey. 

    The former has a great author in Lazarus who wrote great books on the Giants and Bills as well as the Redskins. This one takes on the Montana-Young controversy. The latter is a book by the man who retired after winning this game.

    Walsh later regretted retiring, and he went back to coaching at Stanford after an unsuccessful attempt at broadcasting for NBC. If anyone knows how to build a champion, though, it’s Walsh.

    Next time, we will suffer through the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history. If you’ve been following along, you have seen a pattern: 49ers winning Super Bowls, and Broncos losing Super Bowls. What happens when the two collide?

    A massacre. That’s coming up next time. As for now, my website is where you can find all my books. This is Tommy A. Phillips, signing off. So long!

    Lombardi Memories is a show that takes you back in time, into January or February, to the greatest one-day spectacle in all of sports. This is the every-other-Tuesday podcast that looks back at each and every one of the 50-plus Super Bowls and tells the story of who won and why.  Tommy A. Phillips is your host on this Super Journey.  He’s an author of multiple NFL books.  You can purchase below.

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    1 thought on “Super Bowl XXIII (Bengals vs. 49ers): An Ultimate Recount of the Game”

    1. When mentioning that Classic 1989 San Francisco Forty Niners team, you may as well refer to the entire calendar-year of 1989 and not just the official season! You can start off in January already, when their ’88 post-season began! I mean, first, they utterly decimate a FLOYD PETERS #1 Vikings defense in the 1st-round (hey, I thought a good defense always beats a good offense), and then to go to freezing Chicago at night and crush a Bears team, 28-3, that finished 12-4 top-seed in the NFC! Ditka’s bunch were definitely no longer the team of three years prior, but still had plenty-enough Super Bowl Shuffle-leftoverture in the tank to at least, maybe, win another Lombardi. 62-12 COMBINED vs the #1 then #2 defense! Not bad for a “finesse” team, heh?

      Yes, San Fran was ALREADY the ’89 version during that very January, but you can also say that it simply started weeks earlier once that 6-5 start was out the way (I’ll actually go with that one, come to think of it). And the Bengals did give them a good game in the Super Bowl unlike Vikings & Bears. But I think the main reason for that was due to Sam Wyche’s obvious familiarity with Walsh and that system. And the Billups almost-INT? I always thought that happened during the final drive and not an earlier one. It likely wouldn’t have mattered anyway if they DID then drive and kick a FG to go up by ten…not with MONTANA on the other team and with his defense playing superb the whole game as they did! I got to see the game again, but reading this article I guess the whole Lott sticking-it-to-Ickey with a brutal hit early and then Woods being ‘quiet’ the rest of the game is a myth. Seems like he made some good runs throughout after all.

      The 1988 season…the ’80s themselves were coming to a close. And, at first, it seemed like San Fran’s run was ending as well for they looked quite mediocre all the way into early November. But if you were a fan of ’70s NFL, and/or a fan of teams that were great that decade but not quite now, the season had to have that extra nail-in-the-’70s-coffin-for-good-measure sad vibe to it. This would mark the third season in a row that powerhouses of that previous decade – Steelers, Raiders, Miami, and Dallas – would miss the playoffs!

      And Landry, in sadly what would turn out to be his final year, visiting Noll at Three Rivers on opening Sunday…well it was best for the game to have been scheduled for that very week being that everyone would soon find out just how far those two Mighty teams of yesteryear have fallen. Almost exactly a decade after squaring off for a second time in the most-IMPORTANT Super Bowl ever (‘Team of the Decade/Ages’, extra Hall of Fame inductees at stake, fair or not), both are on the cover of Sports Illustrated for a reason you’d NEVER expect to see in the future while watching that very January ’79 event! ‘Under Fire’ was the issue! And Shula’s name was also mentioned. Art Rooney passing on before the season began only adding to such sadness.

      But removing any such gloomy feelings and bias, got to admit that ’88 was yet another great NFL season otherwise of that time period. Cincy themselves suddenly taking the league by storm with that 6-0 start, and Buffalo doing one-better winning 11 of their first 12 thus officially beginning the Marv Levy Era in upstate NY! And how about those Eagles?? You can rave about those ‘cardiac’ Cardinals or Browns of ’76 and ’80 respectively, but do place Buddy’s playoff-debut in that very class! What an exciting ‘comeback’ season, led by highlight-reel-God #12 Randall Cunningham Himself, after starting off 1-3! Sweeping the Parcells’ Giants en route to winning their division on the very final week!

      It isn’t fair to say that “the Fog” was the reason for their playoff exit being Chicago was leading beforehand. And Ditka did beat Buddy Ryan’s Eagles every other time he coached against them, but those Eagles WERE a comeback team all year long! It simply would have been nice if nothing did roll in off that very Great Lake at the half! Being that they were upstart, young, cocky, not “knowing” that they were supposed to lose, I’d like to think they would have given San Fran quite a scare at Candlestick in a hypothetical NFC Championship match (kind of as they did to them at the Vet in Week #3 of the following season). But I guess we can never be so sure, especially considering just how scary San Fran looked at cold Chicago in the real event.

      As “far away” the ’88 season may have seemed from the ’70s, two interesting parallels actually connecting it to the ’78 season! First (again with those Eagles), Philly’s ultra-dramatic late-November sweep-completing OT win over the Giants at the Meadowlands, which many were already calling ‘Miracle at the Meadowlands II’ once it ended, was ten years-and-ONE-DAY after the original Pisarcik-to-Edwards event! Ten years-and-ONE-DAY separation can ALSO be said for…Super Bowls XIII and XXIII! Both took place in Miami, the game-winning QB would be named MVP – as he ALSO would the following year – with the winning team basically putting their ‘stamp’ on “team of the decade” if not “Team of All-Time”! Pretty interesting.


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