John Taylor is one of three players in NFL history to catch a game-winning touchdown with less than a minute left in a Super Bowl.
But the former 49ers wide receiver isn’t sure the biggest play of his career has generated the biggest reaction from eager-to-reminisce fans over the past three decades.
That’s because 11 months after his 10-yard reception sealed a win over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, Taylor did something that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t been duplicated since.
“I’m not sure what I’ve talked about more because I get a lot of people that want to talk about both games,” Taylor said. “I’ll tell you, a lot of people sure do remember that Monday night game.”
Thirty years ago this month, on Dec. 11, 1989, Taylor became the only player to have two touchdowns from scrimmage of 90-plus yards in a game in an improbable prime-time comeback win against the Rams, who will visit the 49ers on Saturday night.
Taylor scored on 92- and 95-yard slant passes from Joe Montana as the 49ers erased a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit in a 30-27 victory at Anaheim Stadium to win the NFC West title.
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Taylor’s catches are the third- and fifth-longest passes in the 49ers’ 74-season history. And they came within a 25-minute span during a performance that included 11 catches and 286 yards, a franchise record Jerry Rice broke in 1995. Montana had 458 passing yards, a franchise record he broke the following season.
Taylor’s former teammates remain stunned by his feat.
“Two 90-yarders in the same game?” linebacker Keena Turner said. “It was remarkable.”
Said tight end Brent Jones: “One is rare enough. Two in the same game? I’m not sure we’ll ever see that again.”
After that one-of-a-kind game, Taylor, now 57, who rarely did interviews during a nine-year career that included two Pro Bowls, two 1,000-yard seasons and three Super Bowl rings, reluctantly consented to speak with reporters.
His analysis of his touchdowns was brief.
“I caught the ball,” he explained, “and followed my blocking.”
Would he rather not discuss his big game?
“Really, I wouldn’t,” Taylor said “glumly,” according to a story in The Chronicle, “but some things you have to do.”
On Thursday, however, Taylor was expansive and jovial during a 50-minute phone interview. A truck driver who delivers Driscoll’s berries to locations across California, Taylor, who lives in Clovis, spoke during a stop at a Safeway in Tracy.
It was hardly the first time he’d relived the game. In fact, he’s developed standard lines for fans who recount his catch-and-run grabs in which Rice provided key downfield blocks.
“People are always like ‘I was at such-and-such’s house watching that game we were pissed off because you guys were getting slaughtered,’” Taylor said. “… I always say so did you win any money off that game? Then I tell them, ‘OK, so where’s my cut?’”
Taylor’s first touchdown came with the 49ers trailing 17-3 late in the second quarter. Lined up to the left, Taylor shook free from press coverage from cornerback Clifford Hicks, caught Montana’s pass at the 19-yard line as Hicks was sprawled behind him, made a cut at midfield to lose safety Vince Newsome and zigzagged the rest of the way as Rice provided the escort by blocking cornerback Jerry Gray for the final 30 yards.
Head coach George Seifert has said before Taylor’s score he saw Rams owner Georgia Frontiere on the opposite sideline raising a wine glass to the delirious home crowd, which had witnessed the Rams take a 17-0 lead.
Jones, who had never heard that story, laughed when it was relayed Thursday.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Take a bow when you can get it. Even if it’s only halftime.”
Taylor’s second score came just after it appeared the Rams, who trailed the 49ers by two games in the NFC West and had won their earlier meeting at Candlestick Park, were poised to close out the defending Super Bowl champions.
Leading 27-17 with seven minutes left, the Rams had the ball at the 49ers’ 4-yard line when the snap between center Doug Smith and quarterback Jim Everett was fumbled and linebacker Matt Millen recovered the loose ball.
On the next play, Taylor, lined up on the left, caught a slant at the 16-yard line and broke or eluded tackles by cornerback LeRoy Irvin, Newsome and Gray over the next 11 yards. He finished by making a beeline for the right sideline, where Rice provided interference and cut-blocked safety Michael Stewart to the ground at the 10-yard line as Taylor cruised into history.
“Those plays showed off all J.T.’s great qualities,” Turner said. “One, in those days, you had to be one tough, gutsy receiver to catch that slant over the middle. Then, he had the strength and agility to break away. And then the long speed to go the distance. And he did it twice in one night.”
The 49ers capped the comeback when Ron Brown fumbled the kickoff following Taylor’s second score, the 49ers recovered and finished the comeback with Roger Craig’s 1-yard run with 3:42 left.
It was part of a 14-2 regular season that was followed by more domination: The 49ers beat the Broncos 55-10 in the Super Bowl to end a postseason in which they outscored their three opponents 126-26.
“Those 49ers teams are some of the best teams that have ever played professional football,” Jones said. “So I just feel like we had this grit and determination that even if we got behind in a tough game, there’s some way we’d pull it out.”
Taylor was an unlikely part of the dynasty. He didn’t expect to be selected before he was drafted in the third round in 1986 out of Delaware State, where he began as a walk-on after a year at even-more-obscure John C. Smith University.
But Taylor and four others he grew up with in Pennsauken, N.J., outside Philadelphia, reached the NFL. The secret to their success? Taylor, perhaps only half-jokingly, said it came from a cemetery where they played because lush open fields weren’t plentiful.
“We used to always say, ‘You better learn to make some moves because tombstones don’t move,’” Taylor said.
Taylor, listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, had far more toughness than size.
And that made him uniquely suited for slants, the route he also ran on his Super Bowl XXIII-winning catch against the Bengals in January 1989.
Taylor said his first snap in his first game at Delaware State was a touchdown that came on a slant thrown by quarterback Rod Lester against Virginia Union.
“When I got to the NFL, what do I become known for? The slant pattern,” Taylor said. “That was my play in college and here I am in the pros running the same slant pattern, over and over.”
Taylor was known for more than his slants, which accounted for a good portion of his 347 catches and 5,598 receiving yards. He was also a member of the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade team as a punt returner. He owns the franchise record for longest punt return (95 yards) and longest reception, a 97-yarder against the Falcons in 1991.
Taylor noted the fleeting nature of records Thursday. However, he allowed that one of his accomplishments may not be matched.
Those two long touchdowns against the Rams?
Taylor laughed. He explained his 95-yard punt return, in a 1988 game against Washington, was made possible because he lost track of where he was on the field and mistakenly fielded the kick near the end zone.
“For somebody to beat that, you’ve got a catch a punt at the 4-yard line,” he said, “and I don’t think you should be doing that.”