Rarely has a game had more plots and subplots and subplots to those subplots than the 49ers’ 30-27 victory over the Packers in an NFC wild-card matchup at Candlestick Park on Jan. 3, 1999.
• First, Green Bay had beaten the 49ers in each of the previous three postseasons. Throw in two regular-season Green Bay wins, and San Francisco had lost five straight games to the Packers.
“It was personal. … It just hurt,” former 49ers quarterback Steve Young said in a phone interview Wednesday.
• It was personal because of so much cross-pollination between the Packers and 49ers. For example, San Francisco head coach Steve Mariucci had grown up as a Green Bay fan and had spent four seasons (1992-95) as the quarterbacks coach on Mike Holmgren’s staff with the Packers.
Holmgren grew up in San Francisco and had been a quarterbacks coach for Young when the lefty played at BYU and with the 49ers. Holmgren had worked under Bill Walsh and George Seifert with the Niners.
“Mike Holmgren left and re-created the 49ers,” Young said. “So every time we played (the Packers), it was like playing yourself. …
“You know it was personal for me, (but) what about Mooch? My god.”
• It must have been a trying week for Mariucci heading into the game. He had to deal with rumors that Holmgren was about to replace him as the 49ers’ head coach.
“I heard it. My family read it. I mean, it was out there,” Mariucci said in a phone interview Thursday. “If we lose the game, who knows what happens? Who knows? I don’t know.”
• Of course, the 49ers did win, thanks to a great grab by Terrell Owens in the end zone with three seconds remaining. The same Terrell Owens had dropped four passes and lost a fumble in that game.
“The biggest catch in his career was at the end of the toughest game that he played,” Mariucci said.
We’ll conveniently skip the first 58 minutes of the game and begin with Brett Favre connecting with Antonio Freeman on a 15-yard touchdown pass that put the Packers up 27-23 with 1:55 remaining.
Young recognized the “sprint option” call.
“I could have gone in their huddle and called plays and played for the Packers that day,” Young said. “Brett could have come over” and done the same for the 49ers.
Young and the 49ers began their final possession at their 24-yard line with 1:50 left. A key moment came with less than a minute to go and the ball at the Green Bay 47.
On 2nd-and-10, Young hit Jerry Rice on a 6-yard pass for his lone reception of the afternoon. Rice clearly fumbled before his knee hit the ground, and the Packers recovered the ball.
However, the official had ruled Rice down by contact, and because there were no replay reviews, the Niners retained possession. (Another subplot: This missed call was part of the impetus to reinstate the use of replay for the 1999 season.)
With eight seconds remaining, the 49ers had a 3rd-and-3 at the 25 with no timeouts left. They called “Three-jet. All go,” a play on which four receivers, two on each side of the line, head to the end zone.
“I think everybody in the stadium probably felt that we were going to take a shot to the end zone to Jerry Rice,” Mariucci said.
Said Young: “You send four guys straight to the end zone and pray — but there are nuances to it.”
One nuance: The inside receivers have the option of turning their routes toward the middle, depending on how they view the coverage. Owens, the inside receiver to Young’s right, took that option.
Young stumbled on his dropback but regained his balance, spotted Owens and threaded a strike between three Green Bay players to No. 81, who somehow held on to the ball as he absorbed a big hit from Pat Terrell as he crossed the goal line.
“It was a play that should have been desperate, but was … a really good football play,” Young said. “It wasn’t desperate.
“I knew where he was headed and he broke it off just when I thought he would because if he broke it off another step later, the ball would have been off.”
Owens had made what became known as The Catch II. There’s another subplot: Dwight Clark had made The Catch against Dallas in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 10, 1982.
Seventeen years later, some of Owens’ teammates joyously jumped on him in the end zone. In his column in The Chronicle the following day, Tim Keown quoted Owens: “At the bottom of the pile, I was just saying, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ I was just happy that I had caught the ball. It had been a bad day all around.”
That “bad day all around” was in reference to those four drops and lost fumble. It wound up being a disappointing day for the Packers, the two-time defending NFC champions, and Favre, who had been the league’s MVP in each of the previous three seasons.
Favre and Mariucci, who’s now an analyst for NFL Network, had formed a close bond during their four years together in Green Bay.
After all the postgame celebrations and interviews, Mariucci was in his Candlestick office, getting ready to take a shower when “Favre came in our locker room,” Mariucci recalled, trying to stifle his laughter at the memory. “Hey, when you’re the three-time reigning MVP in the league, you can go anywhere you want, right?”
Favre eventually found Mariucci in his office.
“I’m sitting there. Maybe he said congratulations; I can’t remember,” Mariucci said. “But all I remember for sure is, he goes, ‘Hey, Mooch: You’re getting fat.’
“That’s the kind of relationship we had. He congratulated the players on the team, too. He was a stud that way — but I don’t think he called Steve Young or Jerry Rice fat.”
Whether Mariucci’s physique was expanding or not, this game did signal an end of an era for both teams. Holmgren indeed left the Packers for the West Coast, but instead of returning to San Francisco, he went to Seattle, becoming the head coach and executive vice president of the Seahawks. Andy Reid, after seven seasons on Holmgren’s offensive staff, became the Eagles’ head coach.
It was the last playoff win for Young. The Niners lost 20-18 in Atlanta the following Saturday, and concussions forced Young to retire after the 1999 season.
The 49ers had made the playoffs for seven straight seasons, the Packers six — but each team would not reach the postseason for the next two years.
More than two decades later, though, Mariucci, Owens, Young and the other 49ers still can savor The Catch II and how it enabled them finally to prevail in what Young termed “a family fight.”
The winning drive
After a Brett Favre touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman gives Green Bay a 27-23 lead, R.W. McQuarters returns the kickoff to the 49ers’ 24-yard line with 1:50 remaining:
1:50: Steve Young 17-yard pass to J.J. Stokes to 49ers’ 41.
1:25: Young 9-yard pass to Stokes to 50-yard line.
1:06: Young 3-yard pass to Marc Edwards to Packers’ 47.
0:52: Young incomplete pass to Stokes.
0:46: Young 6-yard pass to Jerry Rice to Packers’ 41.
0:27: Young 9-yard pass to Terry Kirby to Packers’ 32.
0:21: Young 7-yard pass to Garrison Hearst to Packers’ 25.
0:14: Young incomplete pass to Stokes.
0:08: Young 25-yard TD pass to Terrell Owens. Wade Richey kick.
“I’m super grateful that it happened,” he said. “We needed to do that.”
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