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Re-Living ‘99: The Story of Steve Stenstrom’s Start Against St. Louis

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It was the worst of times, it was the worst

Steve Stenstrom #18...

Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.

I had several directions that I could have gone in for this flashback and strangely enough, I’m choosing the strangest road. This is the story of Steve Stenstrom of Stanford.

Stick with me.

Stenstrom started staying alive on Dec. 23, 1971. He grew up in Plano, Texas, but his family moved to Lake Forest, California in 1987 (Orange County) and that’s when Stenstrom transferred to El Toro High. According to his father Pete, “he was known at the school as the quarterback from Texas.”

He became the starter on varsity by his junior season and in 1989 he went 178-of-270 for 2,830 yards and 25 touchdowns. He has since been inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame for his efforts. Not praised for being an exceptional athlete in any way other than his strong arm, Stenstrom made up for it with leadership, intelligence, and toughness according to former assistant coach Bob Bosanko.

That was enough to get Stenstrom started at Stanford, which at that point was more of a stepping stone for head coaches than it was a stay-steady type of deal. Regardless of who was in charge though — and Stenstrom would get to play for some big names — he’d end his career as the most prolific passer in school history.

And then some.

As he redshirted in 1990, the team went 5-6 under second-year head coach Dennis Green, who prior to that had spent five years in charge at Northwestern. But before Northwestern, Green served two years under Bill Walsh at Stanford, one with the San Francisco 49ers when Walsh moved to the NFL, and then he went back to the Cardinal for one year as offensive coordinator under Paul Wiggen.

Green had gone 10-45 during his tenure at Northwestern, never winning more than three games, but his reputation and his connection to Walsh was enough to keep forward momentum moving on his career. Which would get even more heated up after one season with Stenstrom as his stellar starter.

After all, consider where Stanford was at quarterback in 1990 when Green was in year two and Stenstrom was awaiting his turn: it got to the point where John Lynch went 10-of-25 for 184 yards and two interceptions that season.

Yes, that John Lynch.

Washington v Stanford

Lynch went to Stanford to play quarterback and baseball but found out he wasn’t very good at the former and was really good at the latter. Ready to quit the sport altogether and pursue his opportunity with the Florida Marlins ... I’ll get back to that later.

The regular starter in 1990 was Jason Palumbis, who is most famously known for helping Stanford to one of the most unbelievable finishes in school history. The “McCaffrey” who helps the Cardinal win a game that seemed literally lost at moments is of course Ed, not his son Christian.

Though he was expected to become a career legend rather than a one-game legend, Palumbis lost the starting gig in 1991 to Stenstrom. The new number one receiver became Chris Walsh, a future ninth round pick of the Buffalo Bills who ended up spending nine years with the Minnesota Vikings despite catching 67 career passes.

Most of you probably see the connection to the Vikings and Green already.

Stanford’s star player was running back Tommy Vardell, who rushed for 22 touchdowns that season and ended up going to the Cleveland Browns with the ninth overall pick in the 1992 draft; a stain on Bill Belichick’s underwhelming track record in the draft, which may only cement his status as a legendary gameday coach even more.

The first-year starter Stenstrom completed 59% of his passes for 1,853 yards, 8.1 yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. It was not necessarily tremendous improvement compared to Palumbis, but he was only a redshirt freshman and the team finish 22nd in the AP poll. And he’d be getting an incredible opportunity for a mentor the next year.

Steve Stenstrom

In 1992, Green bolted for a head coaching job with the Vikings, a place he remained for 10 years, not posting a losing record until he was fired in 2001. His replacement was his former mentor, Bill Walsh. Four years after he coached the 49ers to a Super Bowl championship with both Joe Montana and Steve Young at QB, Walsh returned to Stanford to help Stenstrom stay the stourse course.

He’d also convince Lynch to return to the football field. As a safety. And that’s a significant component that factors into how Lynch became the current general manager in San Francisco rather than the current GM of the Marlins. Or Giants.

Though Stenstrom’s numbers didn’t really improve (58.8%, 7.2 Y/A, 14 TD, nine INT), the Cardinal went 10-3, their first season with double-digit wins since 1940. The 10th win came in the Netflix Blockbuster Bowl, a game that featured Bill Walsh facing off against Joe Paterno. Walsh won and Stanford was ninth in the AP poll, their highest finish since 1970.

Oh if only momentum was reliable and real.

Though he posted career-best numbers (66%, 3,627 yards, 8 Y/A, 27 TD, 14 INT), the Cardinal fell to 4-7 in Walsh’s second season. They had a notable backup QB now in Scott Frost, who eventually transferred to Nebraska, which is also where he is the current head coach. One of Stenstrom’s top receivers was David Shaw, the current head coach at Stanford. When you lump in Lynch, I’m not sure what other players under Walsh went onto have careers as coaches or executives, but I suppose it is not surprising.

NCAA Football Covers - Stanford Cardinal Head Coach Bill Walsh - August 24, 1992 Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Running back Glyn Milburn, a second round pick in 1993, did spend five years as a GM in the Arena Football League. Walsh avoided any similar fate by retiring after one more bad season.

Once on the way up, Stanford stayed down and went 3-7-1 in Walsh’s final season as a coach. It was also Stenstrom’s final season at Stanford and he again did pretty good: 65.2% completions, 2,822 yards, 8.5 Y/A, 16 TD, six INT. He didn’t have much around him in terms of talent, though among others, Tony Cline and Mark Harris would have short careers in the NFL.

Keep that in mind.

Stenstrom entered the 1995 NFL Draft and Stanford turned QB duties over to Mark Butterfield, whose fun fact is that his son Jay Butterfield is one of the top quarterbacks in the 2020 class and hopeful to be the next Justin Herbert at Oregon. Stenstrom would not be as high of a pick as Herbert would become 15 years later, but he wasn’t nothing either.

The 1995 draft featured the Cincinnati Bengals taking Ki-Jana Carter with the number one pick. It’s a draft I covered briefly when discussing the Tennessee Titans earlier in this series as it is the one that has Steve McNair going with the third overall pick; the top QB selected in ‘95.

After him, Kerry Collins went to the Panthers at five, Todd Collins went to the Bills at 45, and Kordell Stewart went to the Steelers at 60. Those were the only four quarterbacks to be drafted in the first two rounds that year. Two more went in round three (Stoney Case, Eric Zeier), but then four more came off the board in round four.

The first of those was Rob Johnson, the first QB ever drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars. His eventual path would include replacing Collins in Buffalo back in 1998, though the hype around Johnson quickly died down once he got in extensive playing time.

Rob Johnson #11

The next was Chad May, a quarterback out of Kansas State who was drafted by Minnesota; Green had his choice of any available QB and he opted for May over his former player at Stanford. May never played in the NFL.

(Side note: Shortly after May, Stanford receiver Justin Armour was drafted by the Bills and you can read a throwback 1994 article about best friends Stenstrom and Armour here.)

Next was Dave Barr, who played at Cal and was chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles. Some of you older freaks with good memories that Barr only threw nine passes in the NFL, all of which came during his rookie season which was not in Philadelphia but instead came as a third-string option with the Rams.

Then finally, as the final pick in round four, the Kansas City Chiefs chose Stenstrom. He went four picks after Cline was chosen by Buffalo.

Stenstrom didn’t make the Chiefs that year and he was picked up by the Chicago Bears, who at the time had a pretty good passing attack with quarterback Erik Kramer. That wasn’t so much the case in 1996, which was mostly led by 38-year-old Dave Krieg though four other QBs got in a pass attempt for Chicago that year. Stenstrom went 3-of-4 for 37 yards.

Kramer returned to the field for 13 starts in 1997 and was backed up by another former Seattle quarterback, Rick Mirer, but the Bears fell to 4-12. Mirer threw six interceptions and no touchdowns over three starters, whereas Stenstrom went 8-of-14, throwing two picks of his own. It wasn’t that promising looking for Stenstrom, but he’d get a real opportunity in 1998.

Now elevated to backup, Stenstrom stepped in for Kramer in the ninth game of the 1998 season, making his first career NFL start at age 27. His opponent: the St. Louis Rams. In a matchup of awful teams, Stenstrom went 15-of-25, 154 yards, one touchdowns, one interception in a 20-12 loss to the Rams. The Bears would lose each of his first five starts and finished 1-6 under Stenstrom.

His lone win and best career game came against the Baltimore Ravens the year before they became a dominant defensive force.

Stenstrom’s Chicago career had not done enough to warrant another chance and over his seven starts he threw four touchdowns, six interceptions, and had a passer rating of 70.4. Looking for another gig, he found one in 1999 with San Francisco, who had just hired a new VP/general manager that year.

Bill Walsh.

(If you think the NFL is strictly a meritocracy: lol.)

FBN-49ERS BILL WALSH-2 Photo by JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP via Getty Images

I already wrote about the 1999 49ers, but quickly: they went 12-4 under first-year head coach Steve Mariucci in 1998 and opened 3-1 in 1999, but Steve Young got injured and they lost eight in a row beginning with the Rams in Week 5.

For most of that season, Jeff Garcia — San Francisco’s “Kurt Warner lite” of 1999 — was the starter. Garcia had gone undrafted in 1994 and then backed up former Rams drafted pick Doug Flutie in the CFL for a short time until becoming a star in Calgary. He signed with the 49ers as a 29-year-old rookie and competed with Stenstrom to backup Young, a job he eventually won.

But Garcia was struggling. After winning his first start, he completed only 50% of his passes and threw one touchdown against five interceptions in the next four games, all losses. Remember that his receivers at the time were Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. That’s when Stenstrom came in for a start against the New Orleans Saints, who were only 1-7 at the time.

Stenstrom went 18-of-32 for 157 yards and an interception in a 24-6 loss. But they didn’t have many other options to turn to and Stenstrom would get a few more throws in his career to prove himself as worthy of being at this level.

Up next: the red hot St. Louis Rams.

Week 1 - Rams 27, Ravens 10

Week 2 - BYE

Week 3 - Rams 35, Falcons 7

Week 4 - Rams 38, Bengals 10

Week 5 - Rams 42, 49ers 20

Week 6 - Rams 41, Falcons 17

Week 7 - Rams 34, Browns 3

Week 8 - Titans 24, Rams 21

Week 9 - Lions 31, Rams 27

Week 10 - Rams 35, Panthers 10

Week 11 - St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, November 21

How much really needs to be said about this game?

Stenstrom gets the start and on the first drive, is sacked for a loss of eight. The punt only goes 35 yards and Az-Zahir Hakim returns it 25 yards for a net of only 10 but Jeff Wilkins misses a 43-yard attempt. Stenstrom is sacked again on the next play, then fumbles on the play after that. Wilkins is good from 40 on the ensuing drive.

3-0.

Stenstrom does complete a 32-yard pass to Owens shortly thereafter, but Owens fumbles the ball and it is recovered by Rams safety Devin Bush Sr., father of highly-touted Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush, Jr; Bush had signed in 1999 after four years in Atlanta and would start seven games for St. Louis that season.

The teams swap punts for a bit and then something really surprising happens, as the 49ers take a 7-3 lead following an 80-yard drive that included a key pass interference penalty on Dre Bly and a 30-yard run by San Francisco’s Charlie Garner. Fullback Fred Beasley finished it off with a one-yard touchdown.

7-3.

That doesn’t last long, as Kurt Warner goes 71 yards and finishes with a touchdown to Isaac Bruce.

10-7.

The Rams likely would have gone up 17-7 before halftime but they didn’t have enough seconds and instead of first and goal from the two with a few chances to punch it in, there’s only :02 left and Wilkins makes it from 20 to put the score at 13-7 at the break.

It’s only a six-point lead at halftime even though these are dramatically unbalanced rosters and coaching staffs at the time. It seemed like it could get even kookier when St. Louis was forced to punt to open the second half series, but Stenstrom was there to Stenstrom.

On the next play of the game, Stenstrom completes a 12-yard pass to Rice, whose first career 100-yard game was a 10-catch, 241-yard effort against the Rams in 1985.

At this point in his life, Stenstrom has replaced John Lynch at QB, played for Bill Walsh, been drafted by the Bears, signed by Walsh, backed up Steve Young, and thrown to two Hall of Fame receivers one of whom is the Hall of Fame receiver. Not a bad life up to that point. Up to that point.

After a Garner run loses three yards, Stenstrom steps back to pass and throws at tight end Greg Clark, a former third round pick who had spent one year as a teammate of his at Stanford. The pass is tipped at the line of scrimmage and instead falls into the arms of Rams linebacker Mike Jones, a former college running back having the season of his life.

Jones returned it 44 yards for a touchdown, giving St. Louis a 20-7 lead and essentially ending the game.

On the next drive, Stenstrom completes a 19-yard pass to Beasley, but is then sacked and has two Rice targets fall incomplete. When the Rams add three points and make the score 23-7 late in the third quarter, Jeff Garcia is back under center.

The player returning kicks for the 49ers that day: Mark Harris, Stenstrom’s former Stanford teammate. He may have beaten out former teammate Tony Cline for that job, and he had been released by San Francisco two weeks before this game.

Garcia lost a fumble. Warner threw an interception. Garcia threw an interception. The Rams punted. Garcia threw an interception. The Rams punted. The 49ers turned it over on downs. Warner took a knee.

FINAL SCORE: Rams 23, 49ers 7

Record: 9-2

Kurt Warner: 22-of-40, 201 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, three sacks,

Marshall Faulk: 21 carries, 126 yards, four catches for 43 yards

Isaac Bruce: 11 catches, 93 yards, 1 TD

Sacks: Kevin Carter (2), D’Marco Farr, London Fletcher, Grant Wistrom, Ray Agnew, Jeff Zgonina

Passes Defensed: Wistrom (3), Carter (2), Dexter McCleon (3), Mike Jones, Devin Bush (2)

Interceptions: Bush, Jones, McCleon

Steve Stenstrom: 7-of-12, 108 yards, 1 INT, four sacks

Jeff Garcia: 8-of-15, 89 yards, 2 INT, three sacks

Jerry Rice: three catches for 23 yards

Terrell Owens: six catches for 120 yards

Game Recap (ESPN):

“Rams get first sweep of 49ers since 1980”

Cast in the unfamiliar role of a team on the rise, the St. Louis Rams showcased their ascendancy by dominating their longtime nemesis.

“The mystique has ended,” Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. “There are a lot of problems in San Francisco right now. Maybe it’s time for the Rams to dominate.

“We’ve caught up. Teams never stay where they are. We’re not as bad we used to be. They’re not as good they used to be.”

Marshall Faulk ran for 126 yards on 21 carries, and Jeff Wilkins kicked field goals of 20, 40 and 49 yards for the Rams, who won in San Francisco for the first time since 1990 and completed their first season sweep in 20 years.

The Rams (8-2), who have a four-game lead in the NFC West with six games to play, ended a 17-game losing streak to the 49ers in a 42-20 victory in St. Louis on Oct. 10.

“This means a lot,” said Bruce, a six-year veteran who had never beaten the 49ers until this season. “I went through a lot of torment trying to win games here. It’s usually over in the first quarter. I didn’t recognize out there. There have been a lot of changes.”

“We got in the end zone today. That’s a positive,” said Niners wide receiver Jerry Rice, who didn’t catch a pass until the third quarter and finished with three receptions for 23 yards.

“This is probably the lowest I’ve ever seen it,” added Rice, complaining he feels left out of the offense. “We’re just not putting any points on the board. It’s very frustrating, very tough to swallow.”

Bonus recap: LA Times

And from the book Eleven Men Believed:

“They’re the new Niners,” Rams cornerback Todd Lyght said. “The brand-new Niners. And I love them, because they just can’t get it done.”

Oof.

Final Takeaway

The oddest thing about this game is actually how good San Francisco’s defense was against Warner and the Rams offense. The 23 points scored was their second-lowest output of the season and the only teams to do as good or better were the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 181 net passing yards was the second-lowest, ahead of only the 94 against the Atlanta Falcons. This was also one of Warner’s worst games of the year and they did a nice job of disrupting him. But San Francisco was simply a bad team after Young’s career ended that season.

That didn’t change much in 2000 as the 49ers went 6-10 and Walsh stepped down, but Mooch wasn’t fired and he rebounded to 12-4 in 2001. Good, but not good enough to beat the Rams for the division title that year and Mariucci was fired after two quick playoff exits in ‘01 and ‘02.

Steve Stenstrom started the week after this game, a 20-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers in which he went 19-of-35 for 195 yards and an interception. In the four games in which Stenstrom threw at least 10 passes, the 49ers scored 6 points, 6 points, 7 points, and 3 points. Two weeks later he went 1-of-2 for nine yards in a win over the Falcons and those would be his final official NFL passes. Stenstrom spent a little time with the Lions in 2000 and the Broncos in 2001, but didn’t make either roster.

He now lives in the Bay Area and is the president of Pro Athletes Outreach, a program aimed at connecting athletes and Christianity. His son Blake Stenstrom was about to be a fellow Pac-12 quarterback with Mark Butterfield as he was a three-star recruit to Colorado a couple of years ago, but Stenstrom recently decided to transfer to Princeton.

He didn’t have a remarkable pro career but Steve Stenstrom did have a lot of special moments along the way to having a career and he always seemed happy to go along for the ride and count his blessings.