The image, forever frozen in the mind’s eye, is the ball at the fingertips of the late Dwight Clark, as he stretches over Everson Walls, who he can only uselessly reach with his right arm. Too little and too late.
“The Catch,” 40 years ago this week, capped off a magnificent 89-yard drive, an impressive 6-yard pass play designed by coach Bill Walsh and spectacularly executed by quarterback Joe Montana and Clark, to convert the 49ers become NFC champions in January. October 10, 1982, at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers and Cowboys meet again this weekend in the NFL playoffs, and you’re likely to see and hear a lot about the iconic play.
Here are five things you may not know about the teams, the players, the game and, yes, “The Catch,” from the pages of The Sporting News:
TSN FILES: Right Turn Option Dooms Dallas
1. The 49ers didn’t expect to have a winning record, let alone make the playoffs that season.
In his first season with Walsh, Montana and Clark’s rookie year, San Fran went 2-14. Oh! His record improved, as did Montana and Clark, in 1980, to 6-10.
Suffice to say, expectations weren’t exactly high leading up to the 1981 season.
“I would have been happy to go 8-8,” team president Ed DeBartolo Jr. said on the eve of the NFC title game against the Cowboys.
This was a team, Joe Gergen wrote in The Sporting News, that overlooked mediocrity.
2. The 49ers survived a lot of mistakes in the game… A LOT of mistakes.
Montana threw three interceptions and the Niners running backs missed three times.
Future Hall of Famer DB Ronnie Lott was penalized twice for crucial pass interference calls that extended Cowboys drives.
“Those two calls added up to 10 points,” Lott noted in The Sporting News. “The offense certainly took some of the pressure off me.”
“Some people might call it a buggy game,” Walsh said afterward. “I’m sure the Dallas defense is saying, ‘We forced six errors.’ And they would be right. This is championship football. It’s like a championship fight, like Snipes taking down Holmes.”
Wait, Snipes taking down Holmes?
Holmes, of course, was heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. But Snipes? That would be Renaldo Snipes, who in November 1981 gave Holmes a surprisingly tough fight in Pittsburgh, which included, according to one account, “a perfectly timed overhand right (that) connected cleanly to Holmes’s chin and sent his legs tumbling.” of the champion will bend like a defective lawn chair collapsing under an unsuspecting party guest.”
Holmes survived the knockdown, as did the Niners against the Cowboys.
And, in fact, it was the Cowboys who made the last fatal mistake.
Having taken the lead on the catch from Clark and the PAT, the 49ers saw their defense shut down a potential Cowboys miracle finish when Lawrence Pillers sacked Dallas quarterback Danny White, prompting a fumble recovered by the Cowboys’ Jim Stuckey. Niners.
3. The first touchdown of the game would be repeated later.
Lined up in the right-side slot in the first quarter, 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon darted toward the flag while Clark, lined up to the right, huddled inside.
Solomon caught a quick pass from Montana for an 8-yard touchdown.
The game: the option to turn right.
It’s the same play Niners QB coach Sam Wyche called from the coaching booth on third-and-3 for the Cowboys 6 with 58 seconds left.
Except this time Montana, running right away from the Cowboys’ dominant pass-rusher Harvey Martin, faced a decision.
Gergen wrote in The Sporting News: Solomon dove for the flag but was covered. Clark huddled in the end zone, stopped at the baseline and looked for his quarterback. The walls and free security Michael Downs were close. Montana was running out of room on the sideline.
“I thought about throwing it away,” Montana said. “I cocked my arm to do it when I saw Dwight covered. I didn’t want to take a loss in that situation. But at that moment I saw Dwight walk away from cover.”
Now, Gergen wrote of the play, Montana was throwing “the most significant pass in the annals of the 49er” to Clark. And high, as the work was intended.
Vin Scully’s call, the latest on football for CBS: “Of course, for the upstart 49ers they’re 6 yards (from the Super Bowl in) Pontiac (Mich.) third and three. Montana, looking… looking… …throwing in the end zone. Clark caught him! Dwight Clark! (Long pause for crowd reaction) It’s a madhouse in Candlestick!
“I thought it was too high,” the 6-for-3 Clark said, “because I don’t jump that well. And I was really tired. I had the flu last week and had trouble catching my breath on that last try.”
“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.
4. Everson Walls was not the goat.
In fact, prior to his infamous role in “The Catch,” the Cowboys cornerback had recovered a fumble from the 49ers’ Walt Easley. Four plays later, White passed 21 yards to tight end Doug Cosbie for a touchdown and a 27-21 lead for the Cowboys in the fourth quarter.
Before that, Walls had intercepted Montana, twice.
It could be argued that Walls was an indispensable piece of the Cowboys’ defense that helped the team reach the NFC Championship that year.
Walls, a 22-year-old rookie free agent, had led the NFL in interceptions that season with 11, a mark that was unmatched for 40 years until Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs did it this season.
5. The 49ers became the second team to make it to the Super Bowl after a losing season the year before.
The first? The Bengals, who were 6-10 in 1980 and earned the honor by about four hours, beat the San Diego Chargers, 27-7, for the AFC Championship.
Montana and the 49ers would go on to defeat the Bengals, 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI.
San Francisco’s victory not only started one dynasty, but its victory over Dallas also marked the imminent end of another: the Cowboys under legendary coach Tom Landry. It was the second of three straight NFC title game losses for Dallas.