In January 1999, the Green Bay Packers traveled west to take on the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC wild-card game at 3Com Park — the fourth consecutive season the two franchises met in the postseason after the 49ers’ Super Bowl title in the 1994 season.
The combination of head coach Mike Holmgren and quarterback Brett Favre proved to be a nemesis for Steve Young and his 49ers, with the Packers winning each of the first three meetings. The Packers had advanced to the Super Bowl after the second and third victories over the 49ers.
This time, the 49ers would win 30-27 in the final moments, but those 60 minutes on Jan. 3, 1999 meant more than just a win or loss.
FROM THE ARCHIVES - Jan. 3, 1999: Steve Young ends Green Bay's season
“That was the game that killed our dynasty,” former Packers defensive lineman Gilbert Brown said.
That game 20 years ago not only signaled the end of an era in Green Bay on the field, it started a coaching search as well. It also was the last gasp for the great 49ers teams of the 1990s. Over a half dozen Hall of Famers were on the field, and some retired shortly thereafter. And, rules by which the game is played were changed, rules that are still in effect today.
“When I say it was a changing of the guard, I didn’t mean just for Green Bay,” former 49ers safety Merton Hanks said. “It was for everyone.”
The Packers (11-5) went into the game planning on taking another step to becoming the first Green Bay team to reach three straight Super Bowls despite finishing second in the division to the Minnesota Vikings (15-1). They also were supremely confident in facing the 49ers.
Brown: “We started to feel like that trophy belongs to us, so going down to this Frisco game, we was banking on winning that game and going to the Super Bowl.”
Packers running back Dorsey Levens: “A whole lot of confidence. A lot of confidence. I wouldn’t say we were overconfident, but I was planning on playing in Atlanta the next week.”
The 49ers (12-4) had won five of their last six games but were injured on the defensive line. So they found some unlikely help on the street: Charles Haley.
49ers head coach Steve Mariucci: “I go, ‘Oh my God, what?’ He hadn’t played in a year or more. I didn’t remember the last time he played. I had a meeting, I called my guys, I go all right, players, ‘Dirty Dozen’ meeting. So we all go down to the team meeting room and I say all right, listen. For this game, fellas, we have a chance to sign Charles Haley. And we’re going to vote. And if you guys don’t have him on the team, we will not have him on the team. If you want him, if you all want him, we’ll do it. What the heck. We’re thin.
“It was unanimous.”
49ers fullback Marc Edwards: “It was interesting the type of guys they brought in those two years I was there, all of it was basically to — bring in the head coach, bring all these guys — to beat the Packers.”
Brown: “They had to go find guys to beat us. They had the home-field advantage. Flying in there, coming from our way to there, so it’s the time change. Everything was to their advantage. And you sit there and think about that the week of, they got this, they got that. But it all matters about what you do when that referee blows the whistle to start the game. And we felt confident. We felt we were going to win this game. We felt like we matched up extremely well with their offense. And we was ready to fight.”
Beyond the playing field, there was tension. Both teams felt Holmgren was going to leave at the end of the Packers playoff run and player contracts were coming up.
Packers safety LeRoy Butler: “We had a three-year, four-year window and we wanted to stay together and try to win as many Super Bowls as possible. So it was definitely talked about.”
And Mariucci, who coached under Holmgren in Green Bay from 1992-95, was feeling the heat.
Edwards: “They specifically brought him in to beat Green Bay. ‘Mooch’ was probably on — I wouldn’t say the hot seat, but it was warm.”
Mariucci, now an NFL Network analyst: “The rumor in San Francisco was that (Holmgren) would be in San Francisco possibly. I had no idea if it was true or not. I didn’t know if it was an important game for me to win or not. But it sure sounded like it if you listened to the noise.”
An ugly affair
Despite all the talent on the field, the two teams traded drops, fumbles, interceptions, field goals and touchdowns for the better part of the game. Haley was a factor, with a pressure of Favre resulting in an interception by the 49ers.
Favre (292 yards, 2 TDs, 2 interceptions, 79.7 rating) and Young (182 yards, 3 TDs, 2 interceptions, 77.9 rating) were held relatively in check while running backs Levens (116 rush yards, six catches) and the 49ers' Garrison Hearst (128 rush yards, three catches) became focal points.
Levens: “It just kind of worked out that way. I know it was kind of chilly and I think it was kind of damp, but the running game was effective and it was effective for San Francisco as well.”
Edwards: “It was a very, very controlled, physical game. Even with what the quarterbacks were doing.”
Two minutes to Atlanta
The back-and-forth game seemed destined to go to the final moments and with 1:56 left, Favre hit Antonio Freeman for a 15-yard touchdown to put the Packers up 27-23.
Edwards: “If Terrell Owens hadn’t dropped six passes in that game or however many it was, we never would have been in that position in the first place. He had a terrible game.”
Mariucci: “(Favre's) touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman was kind of a deke and it was kind of an audible. He told him, 'If I ever get that play I want you to do this and then change it and we’ll hit you for a touchdown.' And sure enough it came up, it presented itself and that’s what happened.”
Edwards: “You’re thinking ah, s---, it’s the same old same old here.”
Mariucci: “The problem is, they scored too soon.”
Packers linebacker George Koonce: “The 49ers had to put together one of the best drives of their season to be able to win. We was betting that they couldn’t. But we lost that bet.”
The fumble that wasn’t
It looked like Packers linebacker Bernardo Harris won the game when he dislodged the ball from 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice on a 6-yard completion with 30 seconds left near midfield. But the officials blew the play dead and ruled Rice down by contact. Replay review was not available at that time, and the 49ers had the ball back at the Packers’ 41.
Brown: “I believe Jerry Rice fumbled that ball.”
Mariucci: “Sometimes you get ‘em and sometimes you don’t get a break. We got a break there.”
The Catch II
It was third- and-3 at the Packers 25 with eight seconds to play. Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur rushed three and dropped eight with simple instructions.
Koonce: “’Look guys, put your heels on the goal line. And do not back up. Keep everything in front of you.’”
Butler: “Basically everybody has assignments, if everybody do their assignment it’s a walk off. I think guys were still thinking about the Jerry Rice fumble, it was going through their head.”
The 49ers called a play Holmgren and the Packers knew well: “Three-Jet All-Go.”
Mariucci: "We went four verticals and put Jerry Rice over on the left and I think everybody in the world that was watching probably felt like we gotta throw it to Jerry Rice to save the day.”
Young, to the San Jose Mercury News in 2013: “You’ve got to move people around, and they’re not going to move around because there’s nowhere to go. So to get some kind of movement from LeRoy and get movement from Darren (Sharper) that shouldn’t be there, is the toughest job.”
And upon taking the snap, Young slipped, creating that movement he so desperately needed.
Koonce: “That was a distraction for us on the defensive side of the ball. And we blinked. That’s all he needed.”
Butler: “As a defensive back you saw Steve Young kind of fell, he stumbled, I think when that happened guys may have relaxed. We were playing a traditional Cover 4 coverage. Terrell Owens was going down the middle. Sharper was the deepest safety. His only job was anybody come down the middle, intercept it or break it up. He just can’t catch it. It’s the perfect defense for anybody going down the middle because you’ve got four guys in each quarter of the field.”
Mariucci: “Maybe it was a blessing that he stumbled a little bit. Maybe it delayed him just a (tick) where if he had thrown it sooner maybe T.O. would’ve got tackled on the 2. I don’t know. It was just a perfect up-and-down throw, which means he had to get it up over the linebackers and down soon enough to beat the safeties. Perfect. It was perfect. But it had to be the end zone.”
Hanks: “I’m yelling, ‘T.O. is open! Hit him now!’ And open in the NFL is he has a defender within a yard of him. That’s open. I’m like, ‘He’s open! Throw the freakin’ ball!’ And that’s when I see him slip. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ That’s what had me in a little bit of a panic.”
Young zipped the ball to Owens, fitting the ball between four Packers in the middle of the field.
Butler: "When he threw it, I said game’s over. No way you can fit a ball in there because you got guys already back there on the goal line waiting. But Sharper was in the end zone. He was too deep.”
Hanks: “I thought it was ironic that the very play that ended up defeating the Packers was a play that Mike Holmgren ran in San Francisco (as offensive coordinator before going to Green Bay) quite a bit. That four-vertical concept and then you kind of build route trees off that.”
Owens held on despite a big hit, stunning everyone.
Butler: “You have to give them credit because that was their last shot. But as a defender it’s like you’re drinking bleach. I’m sick to my stomach.”
Levens: “When he caught it, and the crowd started cheering it’s like, they can’t be cheering because he caught the ball. It’s like, that can’t be what happened. He got up and it’s like, 'Oh my God, he really caught the ball.' All the plans, the Atlanta plans, just flush ‘em down the toilet.”
Koonce: “We had a couple guys that didn’t obey his orders or his instructions. Yeah. And Terrell caught the ball in front of us. If you would’ve obeyed his instructions and kept everything in front of you, if he catches the ball he’s not in the end zone. But you had guys to back up and when he caught the ball he was in the end zone. It’s one of those things that happened. But that was very, very unfortunate.”
Levens: “A lot of people were mad at Darren Sharper because I guess that was his assignment, but you don’t lose or win a game on one play. You just don’t. That’s not how the NFL works.”
Brown: “Instead of going for the knockout hit, go for the ball. If you look at the play, and I won’t say nobody’s name, but if he had went for the ball and instead of the knockout hit, trying to knock the ball out, we’d have got it. But let’s go back. They shouldn’t have got that close. There’s fault all over the field.”
It took only days for the Packers to begin to break apart after the loss in San Francisco.
Koonce: “That may have been one of the biggest plays in Packer history because of the ramifications. Not just with the players, but the shift with the organization as well.”
On Jan. 6, Reggie White retired. Two days later, Holmgren was in Seattle to take a position that also gave him general manager power.
FROM THE ARCHIVES - Jan. 8, 1999: Power, money lure Mike Holmgren away
Levens: “I knew he was leaving. He said something to me in practice one day when I had gotten hurt. He said, ‘How you gonna go and get hurt in our last year together?’ I remember I said, 'Can I quote you on that?' and he said you better not. So I was like wow, he’s out of here. So whatever he had planned it was already set up that he was going to Seattle.”
The Packers embarked on their first head-coaching search since 1991 and hired former Holmgren assistant Ray Rhodes on Jan. 11. That same day, quarterbacks coach Andy Reid took the head-coaching job in Philadelphia. Rhodes lasted one year before being fired and though the Packers returned to the playoffs under Mike Sherman 2001, they did not reach another NFC title game until 2007 or another Super Bowl until 2010.
Levens: “At the time I didn’t think about it, because in football it’s always now, what’s now, what are we focused on right now? At that moment it’s about getting back to the playoffs with a new coach and doing what we’re used to doing. I was used to winning a lot of games. All of us were.
“I was spoiled. That was the norm.”
Brown: “You could tell after that game that something was going to happen. You just felt it. You know it. C’mon man.”
The 49ers lost the next week in the playoffs to Atlanta. Young would play only three more games in his career after that. It took another two years for the 49ers to get back to the playoffs, but they never advanced past the divisional round. Mariucci was fired after the 2002 season and the 49ers would not make the postseason again until 2011.
Mariucci: “We didn’t lose just Steve Young. We lost our mojo. Because Steve Young brought that.”
Owens became a controversial superstar from that moment on, playing through 2010 with the 49ers and four other teams.
The league’s owners brought instant replay back for the 1999 season after a seven-year hiatus. They also allowed coaches to have two challenges per game.
The game didn’t decide a championship of any kind, yet it lives on as a classic for those who played, coached and watched.
Koonce: “I’ve had a chance to live in the community close to 27 years. That game is just as vivid in the memory of the Packer nation (as) Super Bowl XXXI. They remember that game in San Francisco just like it was yesterday.”
Brown: “Games like that are just straight classics. I’m so glad that I was a part of being in that classic. And for each team to have their big-time players and Hall of Famers and all that, at the end of the day, that little kid that was watching that game will remember that game the rest of his life. And I enjoyed it myself.”