Never before in NFL history has a team been so openly underappreciated than the 1984 49ers. Despite a 15-1 regular season, followed by convincing playoff wins over the Giants and Bears (the next two Super Bowl champions), San Francisco was not the primary subject heading into its matchup with Miami in Super Bowl XIX. The pregame spotlight was instead focused on the Dolphins and their second-year quarterback, Dan Marino, who that season threw for then NFL record 5,048 yards and 48 touchdowns. It was assumed that no defense would be able to stop Marino and the Dolphins offense, a unit that also featured receivers Mark "Super" Duper and Mark Clayton.
The media's obsession with Miami was not lost on 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who, like his players, had grown incensed with the amount of media attention that was being showered on the Dolphins. In the locker room prior to the game, Walsh, instead of giving his team the usual pregame pep talk, used sarcasm to get his message across to his players.
"I can remember Walsh lying down in the middle of the floor," recalled 49ers cornerback Dwight Hicks, "and he just started rumbling on and on about Miami. 'Oh, they have such great offense. Oh my god, how are we going to stop them? And geez, their defense, and the Killer Bees, how are we going to be able to get a first down, or even a yard.' And he just wanted to light that fire before we came out of the locker room.
"And I can remember, he turned, and he looked at me and just said, 'God, don't you just want to break the wall and go kick their [expletive] right now?"
Despite Walsh's pregame speech, the 49ers found themselves trailing at the end of the first quarter, 10-7. While the 49ers scored the game's first touchdown on a 33-yard touchdown catch by running back Carl Monroe (who, at 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds was the smallest player on the field that day), the Dolphins, who kicked a field goal on their opening drive, countered with Marino's two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dan Johnson. For a quarter, the media's heavy pregame focus on Miami appeared to be justified.
The 49ers, who appeared to spend the first quarter sparring with the Dolphins, started to land a series of blows in the second quarter. After allowing scores on Miami's first two possessions, the 49ers' defense started turning up the heat on Marino, the league's best-protected quarterback during the regular season. The pressure led to three consecutive quick three-and-outs for the Dolphins. Conversely, the 49ers scored on three consecutive drives that included two touchdowns by running back Roger Craig and a six-yard score by Montana.
While the Dolphins did end the half with two field goals, the 49ers had found their blueprint for victory: keep the pressure on Marino and dissect the Dolphins defense with high-percentage passes and a steady diet of runs by Craig and Wendell Tyler. While Marino would throw for 318 yards (which was, at the time, the second-highest total in Super Bowl history), he and his offense were blanked in the second half of Super Bowl XIX. Along with being sacked four times (two times by defensive end Dwaine Board), Marino threw two second-half interceptions, as the Dolphins, who averaged 32.1 points per game during the season, were held to their lowest scoring output of the season.
"We rushed him, and that was the first time you had seen him get rushed in the pocket," longtime 49ers linebacker Keena Turner recalled during an NFL Films documentary. "And so, Danny was getting frustrated with the pressure, with the people flashing in his face. Getting bumped around. It was something that hadn't happened all season."
While Marino was flustered, Montana was flourishing in Walsh's West Coast offense. Not only did Montana throw for a then Super Bowl record 333 yards, but he also rushed for 59 yards, the most rushing yards gained by a quarterback until Steve McNair broke the record 15 years later. Montana, after setting up a field goal on a 12-yard run, put the game out of reach with his 16-yard touchdown pass to Craig with 6:43 left in the third quarter. Craig, the first player to score three touchdowns in the Super Bowl, combined with Tyler to amass 273 total yards on 39 touches, as the 49ers out-gained the Dolphins, 537-314.
"They came to see an offense," 49ers center Randy Cross told NFL Films cameras near the end of the 49ers' 38-16 victory, "and the wrong one showed up."
While Super Bowl XIX marked a then-record sixth Super Bowl appearance for Dolphins coach Don Shula, it was Walsh's team that, in the end, stole the headlines.
"Walsh had a game plan that was beautiful," said Hicks, who presented his coach with the game ball during San Francisco's postgame celebration. "And he had one of the greatest quarterbacks who has ever played the game, orchestrate it."
Speaking of Montana, the Hall of Fame quarterback hasn't forgotten about that game as well as the pregame hype that was centered on San Francisco's opponent that day. Earlier this week, with the 49ers and Dolphins set to face off this weekend, Montana shared a commercial with Marino that aired immediately following Super Bowl XIX. While he is obviously pleased with the outcome of that game, Montana was clearly motivated to show what he and his team could do leading up to the Super Bowl, something the three-time Super Bowl MVP made clear during his postgame interview.
"All we heard all week long about Miami's offense; how are you going to stop them?" Montana said. "I think deep inside of us, nothing was said, but we just knew that we had an offense too, and nobody was worried about having to stop us. I think we were just out to prove something."
The 49ers not only proved that they were the superior team, but they also made history by becoming the first team in NFL history to win 18 games.
"In my mind," former 49ers tight end Russ Francis said years later, "not just because I played there, but when you look at all the facts, that was one of the greatest teams that's ever taken the field, bar none."