The Cowboys and 49ers face off this weekend in the NFC playoffs, the eighth time the teams have met in the postseason. Six of the previous seven matchups have come in the NFC title game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, with the most memorable — at least from the 49ers’ perspective — coming on Jan. 10, 1982, when “The Catch” was written into NFL lore. This story, which appeared in the Jan. 23, 1982, issue of The Sporting News, captured the electricity of the game.
SAN FRANCISCO — The comeback encompassed more than the 89 yards on a magnificent final drive. If the truth be known, it spanned three years, from the moment a longtime assistant coach named Bill Walsh finally was given a team of his own and selected, in his very first college draft, a quarterback named Joe Montana and a receiver named Dwight Clark.
In the end, it took a breathtaking six-yard pass play, designed by Walsh and executed spectacularly by Montana and Clark, to make the San Francisco 49ers what they are today.
And what they are today, of course, is a Super Bowl team. Not any old Super Bowl team, either, but the second Super Bowl team to have risen from a losing record the previous season (the Cincinnati Bengals beat them to the honor by some four hours).
The 49ers were a sorry sight when Walsh assembled them at Santa Clara for training camp in 1979. They were 2-14 that first year. They were 6-10 in 1980 as Montana and Clark established themselves as two of the best young players in the National Football League. This season they hoped to reach .500.
“I would have been happy to be 8-8,” said Ed DeBartolo Jr., the club president, on the eve of the National Conference championship game against the Dallas Cowboys.
MORE: 5 things to know about ‘The Catch’ at 40
So this was a team that bypassed mediocrity, the team which overhauled the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27, in the final minute of play January 10. And despite their youth, despite their lack of experience in the playoffs, the 49ers made that final, amazing drive to the first ultimate game in the 36-year history of the franchise.
The 49ers made it appear as inevitable as a California mud slide after a heavy rain. Only the other day, hawkers near Ghirardelli Square were pushing T-shirts proclaiming, “I Survived the Storm of 82.” The 49ers not only survived, they prospered in a week few people in the Bay Area will soon forget.
It all came down to Montana and Clark and a 13-play march to the end zone because the 49ers, who had the fewest turnovers in the league during the regular season, played giveaway much of the day. Montana threw three interceptions, and the backs contributed three fumbles to the Dallas cause.
“Some people might call it a mistake-filled game,” Walsh said. “I’m sure the Dallas defense is saying, ‘We forced six errors.’ And they’d be right. This is championship football. It’s like a championship fight, like Snipes knocking down Holmes.”
Not only did the 49ers have to climb off Candlestick’s sticky canvas after those setbacks, they also had to contend with a suspect call by an official. Side judge Dean Look nullified an interception by star cornerback Ronnie Lott midway through the second period with a strange interference call. That gave the Cowboys a first down at the San Francisco 12-yard line. Dallas scored three plays later on a Tony Dorsett sweep for a 17-14 halftime lead.
“That was one of those mystical calls,” Walsh said, “when someone steps in and decides to take control of the game himself.”
Walsh told Look, who played about a minute and a half at quarterback for the old New York Titans, exactly what he thought from the sidelines. Still, the call stood.
There was another pass interference call on Lott near the end of the third quarter, this one apparent to just about everyone in the record Candlestick crowd of 60,525. It positioned the Cowboys for the second of Rafael Septien’s two field goals.
“My concentration was on the ball,” Lott said. “I don’t know if I bumped him or not on the first one. The official said, ‘You pushed off on him.’ I didn’t think so, but you can only argue so much. On the second one, there wasn’t much doubt. Those two calls added up to 10 points. The offense certainly took some pressure off my back.”
But first the offense placed some additional pressure on itself. Walt Easley fumbled on the next series, Everson Walls recovered for Dallas and Danny White passed 21 yards to Doug Cosbie four plays later for a 27-21 Cowboys lead.
Then Montana threw his second interception by Walls, the rookie free agent who led the NFL in thefts. The 49ers’ uphill journey, like the cable cars which climb the city’s picturesque streets, apparently had ended halfway to the stars.
When the Cowboys finally returned the ball to Montana’s care, four minutes and 54 seconds remained and the goal line was 89 yards distant. The first play, an incomplete pass to Lenvil Elliott, gained nothing.
Then Elliott ran six yards on a trap play designed to offset the lethal pass rush of Harvey Martin. Montana threw a six-yard pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon on the first of three critical third-down plays and, suddenly. the resourceful San Francisco offense was rolling again.
Solomon had scored the game’s first touchdown on a play identified as “swing right option.” He had been the slot man between Clark and the line on the right side, had taken off for the flag as Clark curled inside and caught a quick sprintout pass from Montana for an eight-yard score. The play was on quarterback coach Sam Wyche’s list up in the press box. The 49ers would use it again if the chance was presented.
Down the field swept the 49ers, Elliott running for two first downs. Solomon making another on a reverse. Montana passing to Clark along the right sideline for 10 yards and to Solomon for 12 on the left. Montana knows about comebacks. He once brought Notre Dame back from a 34-12 deficit to win a Cotton Bowl game, 35-34, as time expired. And he sparked the 49ers from a 28-point deficit as they overcame New Orleans in overtime, 38-35, in 1980.
“Joe does so many intelligent things you can’t coach,” Wyche said. “He has so much poise and savvy. He just has the right stuff.”
But on the first play from the Dallas 13. Montana overthrew an open Solomon in the end zone. “Usually, Bill doesn’t get very excited,” Montana said. “But when I missed Freddie in the end zone, he was pretty upset. So was I.”
“The real surge of emotion came when the ball just went over Fred Solomon’s fingertips,” Walsh confessed. “I jumped as high as I could trying to catch it myself. We had set up that play perfectly. That was the National Conference championship right there.”
So much for what might have been. The 49ers still had three cracks and more than a minute to work with. Elliott swept seven yards on second down and San Francisco called the second of its three timeouts. Montana huddled with Walsh. Third and three. Fifty-eight seconds left. The right time and place for the “swing right option” again.
Montana rolled to his right, away from Martin’s side, stringing out the pass rush. Solomon broke for the flag but was covered. Clark curled into the end zone, braked at the end line and looked for his quarterback. Walls and free safety Michael Downs were nearby. Montana was sprinting toward the sideline.
“I thought of throwing it away,” Montana said. “I cocked my arm to do that when I saw Dwight covered. I didn’t want to take a loss in that situation. But just then I saw Dwight getting away from the coverage.”
Clark’s responsibility was to freeze the defenders, then slide down the end line parallel to Montana. He doesn’t have much speed, one reason for his low standing in the 1979 draft (10th round) but his moves and routes are picture perfect. Already this day, they’d been responsible for seven catches, one for a touchdown. Now Montana was throwing the most significant pass in 49er annals toward him. And high, as the play was intended.
“I thought it was too high,” said the 6-3 Clark, “because I don’t jump that well. And I was real tired. I had the flu last week and I had trouble getting my breath on that last drive. I don’t know how I caught the ball. How does a lady pick up a car when it’s on top of her baby? You get it from somewhere.”
Clark came down with the ball and the 49er defense snuffed out a potential miracle Dallas finish when Lawrence Pillers, waived by the New York Jets during the 1980 season, sacked White. It caused a fumble recovered by Jim Stuckey.
“Thank you, Walt Michaels,” Pillers said. “That’s the best hit of my life because we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
Fancy that! The 49ers, who had lost their three most recent playoff opportunities, all to Dallas in 1970, 1971 and 1972, had come back to beat America’s Team.
“Well,” Clark said, “I think we deserved it.”
He was not alone in that feeling.