Mike Vandermause column: '99 shocker at Candlestick capped classic era in this rivalry

Jan. 11, 2013

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With 3 seconds left in the game, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens, center, hauls in the game-winning touchdown pass between Green Bay Packers safeties Darren Sharper, left, and Pat Terrell during the NFC wild-card playoff game at 3Com Park in San Francisco on Jan. 3, 1999. The Packers lost 30-27. / File/AFP/Getty Images


Ron Wolf still winces at the memory of the last playoff game the Green Bay Packers played in San Francisco.

It ended badly for the Packers, who lost 30-27 in a wild-card game in January 1999 on a last-second touchdown pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens.

The taste of defeat was particularly bitter for the Packers because 49ers receiver Jerry Rice fumbled on the final drive and the Packers recovered, but officials had blown the play dead and San Francisco kept the ball and drove for the winning score.

It was especially galling because Wolf, Green Bay’s general manager at the time, was convinced that Packers team had a good chance of earning a third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl.

“Mike (Holmgren) and I still talk about that because we felt we had a real shot to go back (to the Super Bowl) because our team was just starting to get well and to jell,” said Wolf during a telephone interview this week.

Former Packers President Bob Harlan was standing on the sideline with Wolf during the waning minutes of that game at Candlestick Park and remembers vividly the shocking finish.

“I think the thing that got me was the suddenness of it,” Harlan said. “It really looked like we were gonna win the ballgame.

“I mean, we quite honestly all stood there feeling, ‘It’s ours, we’re going to win it,’ and then when they did that, the silence on our bench and in the locker room, it was just, it was a devastated team.”

On Saturday night, 14 years later, the Packers and 49ers again square off in a playoff game at Candlestick. The renewal of this postseason rivalry rekindles memories of four consecutive seasons in the 1990s in which these teams met in the playoffs.

They were defining, benchmark games for the Packers, who won the first three with resounding efficiency to stake their claim as one of the NFL’s elite teams.

But the fourth and final game, known in some circles as the T.O. game, is the one no one can seem to forget. The last-second defeat marked the end of a glorious era for the Packers because it was the final time Holmgren would walk the sideline as the team’s coach and the last game in a Packers uniform for Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White.

It also was the final playoff game for Wolf, who retired two years later.

Deep down, Wolf still believes the Packers won that game.

“(Holmgren) never really and truly when we played them lost to San Francisco, ever,” Wolf said. “(The 49ers) never beat him in the regular season, and other than that T.O. game which they really lost, Steve Young never beat the Packers.”

Officially, Holmgren was 5-1 against his old team. He had served as the San Francisco offensive coordinator before becoming Packers coach in 1992, and he brought with him the 49ers’ winning mystique. San Francisco was the team of the decade in the 1980s with four Super Bowl titles and added another following the 1994 season.

But it was Holmgren’s Packers that shocked the football world and knocked the 49ers from their perch in a January 1996 playoff game at Candlestick.

The 49ers were the reigning Super Bowl champions and were favored by 101/2 points, yet the Packers soundly beat them in their backyard.

It was a coming-out party of sorts for the Packers.

“There’s only a few that can sit at the head table, and when the Packers beat the 49ers that time, that put the Packers at the table,” said Harry Sydney, who served as Packers running backs coach at the time but also was part of two 49ers Super Bowl championship teams in the 1980s.

“No longer were the Grean Bay Packers the weak sisters. No longer were they a team that was trying to duplicate the 49ers. Now the Packers were a team that could compete and beat the 49ers.”

The Packers were a year away from claiming a championship of their own, but their 27-17 victory over the 49ers sent a message around the league.

“We had gone through so many years where we just could not win,” Harlan said. “And here all at once, in the early part of the Wolf-Holmgren era, we were starting to make some major noise in the NFL.”

Wolf added: “Clearly the model was the San Francisco 49ers. That’s a model of excellence in the NFC. … I do remember very very vividly the real pleasure of defeating San Francisco.”

As if to prove it was no fluke, the Packers came back the next season in 1996 and beat the 49ers twice at Lambeau Field, once during the regular season and again during the playoffs, 35-14.

And for good measure, the Packers pounded the 49ers into submission again the following season 23-10 in the NFC title game at Candlestick.

The passing of the torch was complete. The Packers took hold of the crown as the new kings of the NFC.

To their credit, the 49ers handled their fall from grace with class.

“I remember in the locker room after all those games (49ers owner) Eddie DeBartolo and (general manager) Carmen Policy would always come in and congratulate (Holmgren),” recalled Harlan. “They couldn’t have been more gracious as losers.”

But in 1999, Rice, Young and Owens broke the Packers’ hearts, and things were never quite the same.

The Packers would go on to make the playoffs in only four of the next eight years. The 49ers fell on hard times, missing the playoffs in 10 of the next 12 seasons.

But now both teams have returned to the top of the league and will resume their intriguing playoff rivalry.

Only one team will survive, but the memories will live on.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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