There are two kinds of Super Bowls. The first is Really Amazing Team against Really Amazing Team, like this year's matchup, or last year's, or Saints-Colts. This version works whether or not the game is competitive; if it isn't, we just gawk in amused horror at the Really Amazing Team getting kicked to death. (Sorry, 2013 Broncos).
The second Super Bowl is Really Amazing Team against Scrappy Underdog and, when the latter gives the former a tough time, we get some of the best championships. The 2007 edition of Giants-Patriots fits that description, as did New England's upset of the Rams in 2002. But when Scrappy Underdog doesn't manage to play above his pedigree? Welcome to 1995 and Super Bowl XXIX.
Oddsmakers favored San Francisco by a record 18.5 points over San Diego; that's the deference you receive when you become the third team in NFL history to score 500 points in a season. The Niners had spent most of the offseason building up their defense -- they replaced every starting linebacker, signed Deion Sanders and took Bryant Young with the seventh overall draft pick -- but the offense was the instrument of your destruction. If you stripped out scores on defense and special teams and only counted its offensive touchdowns in the 1994 season, San Francisco would still have been the sixth-highest scoring team in the league. And while they were volume scorers, the 49ers were also efficient scorers. 5.79 percent of San Francisco offensive snaps ended in a touchdown. The only team with a higher rate since the AFL-NFL merger had been the 1984 Dolphins.
Weapons were plentiful on the Niners offense. Brent Jones led all tight ends in receiving touchdowns and was fifth in receiving yards. Jerry Rice was top two among wide receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns. Ricky Watters ranked fifth overall in total yards from scrimmage. You had to plan against all three, and then you had to pray for mercy from Steve Young.
These are the statistical categories where Steve Young ranked first in 1994:
- passing touchdowns
- passer rating (at the time, this set an NFL record)
- yards per passing attempt
- pass completion percentage (also a new NFL record at the time)
As a passer and runner, Young accounted for 42 touchdowns that season. The only other quarterback to break 40 at that point was Dan Marino. After getting benched in a blowout loss to the Eagles in Week 5, Steve Young went on an unstoppable tear for the rest of the season, throwing 26 touchdowns against three interceptions.
This was what San Diego had to either shut down or keep up with. On paper, you couldn't see it. Outside of making field goals and returning kicks and punts, the ‘94 Chargers hovered around league average in almost every statistical category. They had four Pro Bowlers on the roster, only one of whom was on the offense. That was Natrone Means, a running back with the torso of a middle linebacker and the feet of a kickoff returner.
If the Chargers had saved up any miracles during the regular season, it certainly felt like they'd cashed them in just to get to the Super Bowl. They'd come back from a 15-point deficit to beat Miami in the Divisional round, scoring the winning touchdown with 35 seconds left; San Diego followed that with a road win over the Steelers despite being down 10 in the third quarter, thanks to a goal line stand at the end of the game.
Chargers +18.5 may not have been the championship game the NFL dreamed of, but the league knew how to spin it. The pregame segment led with Joe Namath describing the joy of leading the Jets to the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. It's not a subtle message, but it keeps you from bailing. You don't want to miss the next heir to Broadway Joe, do you?
San Diego didn't have Namath, but the Chargers were led by a quarterback with a Super Bowl ring: Stan Humphries, who'd been a backup for Washington in 1991. Humphries, now an assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, talked about his memories of that team's run to the first (and so far only) Super Bowl in franchise history.
"We were a young team, and it wasn't like we had a ton of Pro Bowlers. It was just a team that played well together. You need some breaks to go your way, and you need to be lucky with injuries, and we knew that, in most instances that season, we were the underdogs. But I don't know if there was a chip on our shoulder as much as we knew were capable of winning every time we went out."
Which is not to say that the Chargers underestimated their NFC counterpart. They'd played the 49ers seven weeks prior and gotten thumped 38-15, after San Francisco jumped out to an 18 point lead at halftime and didn't slow down. "At the end of the season and through the playoffs, they were clicking on all cylinders," Humphries recalled. "I guess you could say we caught them at a bad time."
The bad time started almost immediately after the coin toss. The Niners got the ball first and took three plays to score on a 44-yard Young-to-Rice touchdown pass. Their second drive, they ran four plays to get into the end zone. "They jumped out on us pretty quick," said Humphries. "We wanted to play physical and run the football. When they scored quickly like that, it kind of got us out of our game plan."
San Diego finally counterpunched with a long scoring drive of its own, but the Chargers were doomed if they couldn't slow down the 49ers offense. At the half, Steve Young had tallied 275 yards of offense. San Diego had 137 and trailed by 18 points.
Indiana Jones and the halftime show of God knows what
The halftime show for Super Bowl XXIX deserves its own area of discussion.
Let's review. The premise, apparently, is that the villains from Temple of Doom, or perhaps their cousins, have taken the Lombardi Trophy. They have also hired or otherwise allied themselves with Patti LaBelle, their featured entertainer. But their plans for the trophy, which are unspecified, quickly go awry when Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood parachute into the stadium and Indy starts whippin' and fightin'.
After grabbing the Lombardi, which was just left out on a table where any old jerk could grab it or smudge it, Indy and Marion make a run for it and somehow wind up inside a nightclub where Tony Bennett is singing. (We can assume that the villains got a good deal on space in the nightclub district, which is otherwise not great for a secret hideout). Arturo Sandoval is there as well, so Indy and Marion grab a table and put the trophy on it while they enjoy the show.
Marion wants to dance with Indy, and, hey, when the mood strikes, you have to get up and just leave the valuable Lombardi Trophy you just punched a dozen dudes to get sitting there on your table. The underlying message of this show may be "hey, stupid, put your trophy in a cabinet so it's slightly harder to steal."
Sure enough, the bad guys catch up with them in the club trying to take back the Lombardi, and a melee breaks out. An unarmed Indy somehow easily handles eight dudes who have scimitars, and reclaims the NFL's ultimate prize. Which, again, was just sitting on a damn table.
Victory achieved, Marion asks Dr. Jones what he plans to do next. Proudly, he raises the trophy and announces "I'm giving it to the winner of Super Bowl XXIX!" Patti LaBelle approves, and somehow everyone ends up singing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." You know. From Indiana Jones and The Animated Lion.
Indiana Jones + singers parents will love + Disney music = a halftime show so 1990s it should be wearing spaghetti straps and feathered bangs.
Entering the third quarter, you may not have thought the Chargers could pull off another stunning comeback. The lead was too big, and the Niners were too talented. Near the end of that quarter, your suspicions had been confirmed, as two more San Francisco touchdowns stretched the lead to 32. Though the Chargers never threw in the towel, there were no more miracles left for them. The final score: San Francisco 49, San Diego 26. Steve Young and his teammates had made the largest point spread in Super Bowl history seem too conservative.
We look back on Super Bowl XXIX and see a rout, a mismatch, a disappointment that never felt like it was in doubt. This is not how Stan Humphries remembers it. "There were just a few mistakes made on both sides of the ball that let them pull away." He might not be all that far off. What if San Diego converts on third-and-1 on its first drive instead of being forced into a three-and-out? What if Ricky Watters doesn't break two tackles to give the Niners a 14-0 lead shortly thereafter? What if, instead of settling for a field goal, Humphries successfully connects with Mark Seay in the end zone near the end of the first half?
And maybe Humphries has it all wrong. Some might view Super Bowl XXIX as a coronation of one of the NFL's best offenses and its leader. You could claim that Steve Young and the 49ers had been playing so well for so long that the identity of the AFC representative was merely a formality. Would the Steelers or Dolphins have fared any better?
Maybe Super Bowl XXIX was about bringing a brief moment of excitement and joy to the city of San Diego, which hadn't seen a team play for a championship in any sport since 1984. Or it was a signal that the NFL had cemented itself as a television matchup when this, a game featuring two West Coast teams that wasn't expected to be close, still drew 83 million viewers.
Maybe it was all of the above. There are only two kinds of Super Bowls, but the game doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.