Every time Ronnie Lott stepped on the field in his legendary San Francisco 49ers career, he made an impact. A first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer in 2020, Lott’s journey through the NFL varied from the extremely brutal to the incredibly brilliant.
While the final years of his career with the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets were impressive in their own right, Lott’s nine seasons and four Super Bowls wins as a 49er are what solidified him as an all-time great.
30 years on from his final season at Candlestick Park, Lott’s personality and hard-hitting style still impresses and inspires. In these five games with San Francisco, the now-62-year-old built the foundation of his NFL legend.
Week 4, 1981: Saints 14, 49ers 21
Lott came to the 49ers with high expectations as the eighth overall pick of the 1981 NFL Draft. A 1978 National Champion with the University of Southern California and coming off an eight-interception senior season, Lott was understandably expected to make an impact from the first snap.
While he hadn’t performed poorly, San Francisco was 1-2 after three games and back home to host an eventual 4-12 New Orleans Saints squad. In light of the 49ers’ eventual 26-21 Super Bowl XVI win and 16-3 final record, it seems like a mismatch.
That’s not how things played out, however, as the Saints and head coach Bum Phillips’ initially took a 7-0 lead. San Francisco battled back, eventually taking a 14-7 lead after a 60-yard touchdown pass from QB Joe Montana to WR Freddie Solomon.
But with just a touchdown lead on New Orleans in the fourth quarter, the 49ers needed a big play to put away the game. Lott delivered and picked off Saints QB Archie Manning, taking it for a touchdown to secure a win.
After Lott properly introducing himself to Candlestick Park, the 49ers rattled off a seven-game win streak, only losing one more time the rest of the 1981 season before hoisting the Lombardi.
Divisional Round, 1982: Giants 24, 49ers 38
In between Week 4 of 1981 and the 49ers’ first playoff game, a divisional-round clash with the New York Giants, Lott had added six more interceptions and two more touchdowns as the 49ers defense only allowed 13.4 points per game over that span.
A rookie of similar greatness just happened to be on the Giants: Lawrence Taylor.
Taylor would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award after totaling 9.5 sacks in the regular season. Lott finished second in the voting but probably doesn’t mind after he played a starring role in the 49ers’ first Super Bowl.
Over the course of the game, the 49ers’ and Giants’ offenses fluctuated, but like the game against the Saints, the 49ers again found themselves up late in the game, this time 31-17, and in need of a game-breaking moment.
This time, Lott recorded his second interception of the matchup, housing a pick off New York QB Scott Brunner to put San Francisco up by 21 and out of reach.
Lott’s ensuing performances against the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals were on par as well, but his ninth and final interception of the 1981 NFL season showcased his ability on a national stage while putting the 49ers through to the NFC Championship.
Week 16, 1985: Cowboys 16, 49ers 31
When people bring up the 49ers’ final game of the 1985 regular season, especially in the context of Lott’s legend, the play in which Dallas Cowboys RB Timmy Newsome broke the defensive back’s pinkie finger is the first thing mentioned.
Understandably so. The injury led to Lott’s famous decision to amputate a part of his finger to ensure a timely return for the start of the 1986 season.
What people don’t bring up is that Lott picked Dallas QB Gary Hogeboom before leaving the contest, an important play in a game that had massive implications.
The 49ers, Giants and Washington Redskins were tied for the two NFC Wild Card spots heading into Week 16 at 9-6. Washington and New York were taking care of the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Redskins had to beat a Cowboys team that had already secured a bye week in the playoffs.
The 49ers eventually won the game despite trailing 16-10 at the half, and with a 35-8 tiebreaker win over the Redskins earlier in the season, the 49ers got a chance at the playoffs, although it eventually ended in a 17-3 loss to the Giants.
Divisional Round, 1989: 49ers 34, Vikings 9
San Francisco required a 4-1 regular-season finish to secure a 10-6 finish and a divisional title and the right to host a playoff game. While Lott did his part with two interceptions during that stretch, his first playoff game that year was a different monster.
49ers WR Jerry Rice’s first-half hat-trick is one of the defining moments of this game, but an understated part was Lott’s role in the victory. The then-safety intercepted Minnesota Vikings QB Wade Wilson twice and added a fumble recovery, dominating the game from the defensive perspective.
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Super Bowl XXIV, 1990: Broncos 10, 49ers 55
A dominant San Francisco offense made an eternal impression by scoring 55 points in the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl victory of the decade, but Lott and the 49ers
While QB Joe Montana was busy throwing five passing touchdowns over the Denver Broncos defense, Lott and the San Francisco defense stayed resilient and dominant for the entirety of the game.
Denver QB John Elway was able to score a rushing touchdown, but only late in the third quarter and down 41-3. The statement Montana and his receivers made may have spoken loudest, Lott and his defenders made a statement of their own.
Playing in the Super Bowl XXIV win, along with the other three, puts Lott in a special company of five players who were on the roster for all four 49ers Super Bowl wins in the decade.
The game was also the last Super Bowl win for Lott, as he would depart San Francisco after the 1990 season. From his first seasons as a 49er to the last ones, Lott was a legend in the making.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the San Francisco 49ers for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, MT. Follow and reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier.