The Biggest Games for the Biggest Quarterbacks: Chronicling Breakout Games for 49ers PlayCallers

January 9, 2020

 Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann





The San Francisco 49ers have maybe the most storied list of quarterbacks in NFL history. Not everyone who manned the position throughout the years was an All-Pro, but since the days when Y.A. Tittle led the Million Dollar Backfield, they have been expected to be among the best in the league. In the 40 years since Joe Montana was drafted in the third round and inevitably took over for the illustrious Steve DeBerg there have been 24 quarterbacks who have started a regular season game for the 49ers.


Four of those quarterbacks have been a part of leading the 49ers into a Super Bowl appearance, and everyone is hoping that Jimmy Garoppolo will be the fifth quarterback on that list. For each of these five quarterbacks (Montana, Steve Young, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and Garoppolo) there was one game that pushed them over the edge of national prowess and league domination. Sometimes it was a playoff game, sometimes just an important regular season game that pushed the 49ers into a playoff position.


Here’s a look at those five quarterbacks, and their coming out games.


Joe Montana, 1981 NFC Championship Game: 49ers 28 - Cowboys 27

The game that propelled the franchise to its first Super Bowl game also helped to start Montana’s “Joe Cool” persona and end the Dallas Cowboys’ domination of the NFC. Interestingly enough, his stat line wasn’t completely dominating,as he went 22-for-35 for 286 yards, 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions to go along with being sacked three times. This game will forever be remembered for the last play of the 49ers offense. While retreating to his right, trying to avoid being sacked for a fourth time, Montana did what present day announcers say all the time: he put the ball where no one but his receiver could catch it – and catch it Dwight Clark did. “The Catch” has gone down in football lore as one of the biggest plays in NFL history.


Throughout the game the 49ers leaned on Montana to move the offense, as the team was only able to mount 127 yards on 31 rushing attempts and turned the ball over an incredible six times to the Cowboys’ three turnovers. The 49ers played steady throughout the game. Montana opened up the scoring with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Solomon. The Cowboys responded with the next ten points (a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septien and a 26-yard TD pass from Danny White to Tony Hill) to end the first quarter with a 10-7 lead. The two teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter with Montana throwing a 20 yard TD pass to Dwight Clark and Tony Dorsett answering with a 5-yard touchdown rush to make it 17-14 at halftime.


The second half was also opened up with a 49ers touchdown, this time on the ground for 2 yards by Johnny Davis, the only score of the third quarter. Looking at a 21-17 deficit to open the fourth quarter, The Cowboys once again scored ten straight points on a 22 yard Septien field goal and a 21-yard TD pass from White to Doug Cosbie.


This set the stage for Montana to play the hero. There wasn’t a John Candy in the stands moment, but Montana marched the offense 83 yards on 14 plays. On the drive the team only had to convert two third downs, one of which was an offsides penalty by the Cowboys’ defense. Freddie Solomon did a lot of the heavy lifting for the passing attack on the drive, and even had a 14 yard run on a wide receiver reverse.


The game wasn’t all Montana, with Clark and Solomon doing a lot of work catching the ball, and Jim Stuckey recovering a Cowboy fumble on the last drive of the game to seal the team’s victory. It wasn’t the first time Montana had been a fourth-quarter hero, but it was the first time in such a meaningful NFL contest.


The game helped propel the 49ers as the team of the 1980s, winning four Super Bowls and making the playoffs in eight of the next ten seasons. Montana finished his career as the most decorated QB of his time, and arguably the greatest of all time.


Steve Young 1994 NFC Championship Game: 49ers 38 – Cowboys 28

Young might not have felt the monkey jump off his back until he threw for six touchdowns against the San Diego Chargers and won the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl two weeks later, but this was the game that put him over the top. After losing to the Cowboys the past two seasons, Young, and possibly the best-assembled offense in 49ers history, got some help from one of the better defenses in the franchise’s history.


Statistically speaking, Young was outplayed by Cowboys QB Troy Aikman, but Young was able to keep his offense from making the mistakes that had plagued the team the past two NFC championship games. Young only threw for 155 yards on 13 of 29 attempts, but he kept from throwing any interceptions while Aikman threw for 380 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. The 49ers defense was able to create five turnovers, three of them on the Cowboys’ first three possessions, which led to a 21-0 lead on a 44 yard pick-six by Eric Davis, a 29-yard TD pass from Young to Ricky Watters, and a 1-yard TD run by William “Bar None” Floyd.


After those first three drives, the 49ers never relinquished the lead and led 31–14 at halftime, with the last score of the first half a 28-yard touchdown pass from Young to Jerry Rice. The second half only saw one 49ers TD – Young converting a 3-yard run in the third – but it was enough for the 49ers to head to their fifth Super Bowl. It was the only appearance of the decade for the team, the offense put up historic numbers in the Super Bowl, and Young had already put up big numbers in games, but this was the first and only NFC championship game Young was able to win, and it cemented his place in 49er history as one of the best to ever don the Red and Gold.


Alex Smith 2012 NFC Divisional Round: 49ers 36 – Saints 32

After seven years of being in and out of the starting lineup, Smith was finally living up to being the first-overall draft pick. Pitted against a New Orleans Saints team who was only two years removed from being Super Bowl Champions, Smith led the Jim Harbaugh-coached 49ers at home in one of the wildest games in NFL playoff history. The game included four touchdowns and four lead changes in the last five minutes of the game.


Like the 1994 NFC Championship Game, the defense caused a turnover on the Saints’ first drive (a Donte Whitner forced fumble and Patrick Willis recovery). The 49ers opened up the scoring with a 49-yard TD pass from Smith to tight end Vernon Davis. The defense then stepped it up again with a Dashon Goldson pick that set up a 4-yard TD pass from Smith to Michael Crabtree. On the ensuing kickoff, the 49ers’ Blake Costanzo recovered a Courtney Roby fumble to set up a David Akers field goal, giving the 49ers a 17-0 lead. Drew Brees led the Saints to two touchdown drives before halftime to make it 17-14 halfway through the game.


The game stayed close the rest of the way, with the teams trading field goals and making it 23-17 with the 49ers up with just over seven minutes left in the game. Brees wasn’t done, though. With four minutes and two seconds left in the game, the Saints took their first lead on a 44-yard Brees to Darren Sproles touchdown pass, giving them a 24-23 lead. Smith took only a minute and 51 seconds to take the lead back, hitting Davis for a 37-yard gain to set up his own 28-yard TD run. The 49ers went for two and the conversion failed with Frank Gore getting stopped on the attempt.


Looking at a 29-24 deficit, Brees threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham and then converted the two-point conversion on a pass to Sproles, giving them a 32-29 lead with 1:37 on the game clock. Smith and the 49ers’ offense started their game winning drive on their own 15-yard line. Smith opened the drive with two passes to Gore, moving them to their own 33-yard line. Two plays later, Smith hit Davis for another long gain, this time for 47 yards, putting them on the Saints 20-yard line and in position to tie the game on a 38-yard field goal. Another completion to Gore moved the offense to the 14-yard line, and after spiking the ball to stop the clock, Smith threw the biggest pass of his NFL career. On third-and-4, Smith hit Davis for a 14 yard TD with nine seconds left in the game;a play that was later dubbed “The Catch III.”Alex Smith finally earned his status among 49ers quarterbacks.


Smith ended the game with 299 yards and three touchdowns without any interceptions and the one 28-yard run for another TD. Smith became the first NFL quarterback to lead two fourth-quarter comeback drives in the same game. Only four days after the 30th anniversary of the Montana-to-Clark touchdown to beat the Cowboys, the game goes down as Smith’s biggest and best as a 49ers QB, helping him to shed the game-manager title for at least a couple weeks. If it wasn’t for the Kyle Williams punt return fumble a week later, Smith would have led the franchise to its sixth Super Bowl appearance and possibly would have been able to hold onto his job the 49ers starting quarterback.


Colin Kaepernick 2013 NFC Divisional Round: 49ers 45 – Packers 31

A year after Smith had his coming out party, Colin Kaepernick was doing things nobody had done before. Unlike Montana or Young, Kaepernick put up video game numbers. He outgained the entire Green Bay Packers offense 444 to 352 yards. In the game, Kaepernick’s first in the playoffs, he rushed for 181 yards, an NFL record for a quarterback and a club record for any player, and two TDs while passing for 263 yards and two more TDs.


Unlike the other QBs before him, the defense didn’t give Kaepernick an early lead. In fact, he dug himself his own hole throwing his own pick-6, leading to the Packers taking a 7-0 lead. Kaepernick tied the game up with a 20 yard TD run, but the Packers went back up on an 18 yard run by DuJuan Harris. The 49ers’ offense finally got some help when C.J.Spillman recovered a muffed punt return and set up a 12-yard TD throw from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree before Tarell Brown intercepted Aaron Rodgers on the next drive to set up Kaepernick’s second TD pass to Crabtree, this time from 20 yards out to give the 49ers a 21-14 lead. With halftime closing in, Rodgers evened the score at 21 with a 20-yard TD pass of his own, this time to James Jones. Using his legs, Kaepernick got the 49ers offense into field goal range and David Akers hit a 36-yard FG to give them a 24-21-halftime lead.


Green Bay opened up the second half with a long FG drive, but the 49ers scored TDs on their next three possessions:a magical 56-yard run by Kaepernick, a 2-yard run by Frank Gore, and a 2-yard plunge by Anthony “Boobie” Dixon to go up 45-24. Dixon’s touchdown felt more like garbage-time football than anything else. Rodgers did drive the Packers down for a final TD with under a minute left, but it was too little, too late.


Kaepernick would go on to lead the 49ers to within a yard or so of a Super Bowl championship, with one of the greatest second halves for a quarterback in Super Bowl history, but this is the game people point at as his coming out party. He had put up huge numbers before, but never in a game like this with this much pressure and this much riding on the outcome. This is the game that Kaepernick fans point out when people say he isn’t good enough to play in the NFL. Without this game, Smith might have been kept for another season or two.


Jimmy Garoppolo Week 17, 2019: 49ers 26 – Seahawks 21

Originally this spot was going to be about the Week 14 win over the New Orleans Saints, but this game will go down in Jimmy G legend. Sure he has thrown for more yards and more TDs. Those third-and-longs against the Rams were unbelievable, but against the Seahawks Garoppolo played an almost perfect game. He went 18-of-22 for 285 yards with no touchdowns and no turnovers.


Do those numbers look like breakout numbers in the era of 300 yards per game and 50 touchdown seasons? Of course not, but if one watched the game and looked closer, Garoppolo was masterful on that Sunday night. It wasn’t lack of ability, but lack of opportunity;the lack of touchdown throws was due to a couple of long runs that went to the end zone, removing the need for a pass. There was a receiver being downed at the 1-yard line, which set up Mostert’s one-yard touchdown.


Garoppolo ran head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense perfectly.



The game opened with the Seahawks going three-and-out – gaining one yard– on their first drive. The 49ers then went 45 yards on ten plays for a Robbie Gould field goal. Garoppolo went 5-for-5 and never looked back. After another Seahawk punt, this time after 19 yards of offense by the Seahawks, Garoppolo drove them 94 yards on 8 plays – a drive that included a 30-yard pass to Deebo Samuel and then was capped by a 30-yard Samuel run.


Seattle punted again, and Garoppolo once again orchestrated a long drive, this time for 81 yards and ending with a Gould 30-yard field goal. On that drive Garoppolo completed passes of 19, 15, and 26 yards, and would have had a 15-yard TD throw to cap the drive if Samuel would not have fumbled the ball on his third-down catch, setting the team up for the extra-point distance field goal instead.


After the Seahawks stalled on their first real drive before halftime and turned the ball over on downs, the 49ers went into halftime with a 13-0 lead and Garoppolo and the offense looking darn near perfect, scoring on all three of its drives (not counting the fourth drive when they took over with 45 seconds remaining and running the clock out on their own 31).


After the offense started the second half with a three and out, the Seahawks finally stepped up some momentum and scored a touchdown on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett to cap a 75-yard, 11-play drive. As fans have seen them do over and over again, the 49ers responded quickly with their own TD drive, this time going 75 yards in just 5 plays. Garoppolo did the heavy lifting, completing a 49-yard pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk and a 24-yard pass to Samuel to the Seattle 1-yard line to set up the aforementioned Mostert 1-yard TD run. That drive, which took up a little over two minutes, put the 49ers up 19-7, even after the failed two-point conversion, which was a pass to Kendrick Bourne that fell short of the end-zone by the smallest of lengths.


Seattle answered on a 1-yard Marshawn Lynch TD run to cap their eight-minute and thirty-second, 14-play, 75 yard drive that ate up more than half of the third quarter and cut the 49ers’ lead to 19-14. Garoppolo didn’t fret or worry; he was as cool as Joe Montana was and he calmly marched the 49ers on their own 75-yard drive, needing 7 plays to do so. A 7-yard run by Kittle, 13-yard run by Mostert, 16-yard pass to Kittle, 6-yard run by Breida, a -1-yard run by Breida, and then a 21 yard pass to Samuel left the 49ers at first and ten from the Seattle 13 with just 5:55 left in the game. A 13-yard Mostert TD run later and the 49ers are winning 26-14 and seem to be in control of the game.


Even after the Seahawks scored a third touchdown, this time a 14-yard TD pass to D.K. Metcalf, the feeling was the Garoppolo would easily eat up the last couple minutes of clock and the team would ride off into the sunset with the number-one NFC seed just a year after being the second-worst franchise in the league. With two runs, one going for a big loss on an unexplainable unnecessary roughness penalty on center Ben Garland, Garoppolo almost converted on third-and-17, completing a 16-yard pass to Mostert, coming up just a yard short of the first down.


The final Seahawks drive was one for the ages. They had 8 plays from the 49ers twelve-yard line or closer, with Dre Greenlaw closing the end-zone from any visitors with an emphatic fourth-down tackle. The final play of the game was not in victory formation, but rather one last chance to show everyone Garoppolo is just a little bit tougher than the rest. Instead of taking the safety on the kneel-down, Shanahan was seen saying on the sideline, “Run the [expletive] quarterback sneak.” Garoppolo did, netting two rushing yards on the games final play.


In twenty years, this game may be seen as the one that set up the Shanahan-Garoppolo dynasty of the 2020s. Maybe the divisional game this Saturday or the NFC Championship Game a week later will prove to be more memorable, but there aren’t many more enjoyable scenes than Jimmy Garoppolo tossing the game ball into the stands, celebrating the division title and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, in Seattle.

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