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1981 NFC Championship: Swing Right Option Dooms Dallas (TSN Archives)

The Cowboys and 49ers meet this weekend in the NFC playoffs, the eighth time the teams have met in the playoffs. Six of the previous seven clashes took place in the NFC title game with a trip to the Super Bowl in play, the most memorable – at least from the 49ers’ perspective – on January 10, 1982, when “The Catch” was written. in the tradition of the NFL. This story, which appeared in the January 23, 1982 issue of The Sporting News, captured the electricity of the game.

SAN FRANCISCO – The comeback encompassed more than 89 yards on a magnificent final practice. If the truth is known, it lasted three years, from when a longtime assistant coach named Bill Walsh finally received his own team and in his very first college draft selected a quarterback named Joe. Montana and a receiver named Dwight Clark.

In the end, it took a mind-boggling six-yard passing game, designed by Walsh and spectacularly executed 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 just any former Super Bowl team either, but the second Super Bowl team to recover from a loss-making record the previous season (the Cincinnati Bengals beat them in the spotlight by roughly four. time).

The 49ers were a sad sight when Walsh rounded them up in 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 were hoping to reach .500.

“I would have been happy to be 8-8,” said Ed DeBartolo Jr., 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 it was a team that got around mediocrity, the team that knocked down the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27, in the last minute of play on January 10. And despite their youth, despite their lack of experience in the playoffs, the 49ers made this final, an incredible progression to the first ultimate game in the 36-year history of the franchise.

The 49ers made it appear as inevitable as a California mudslide after a heavy rain. Just the other day, hawkers near Ghirardelli Square were pushing T-shirts proclaiming, “I survived the storm of ’82.” The 49ers not only survived, but they thrived in a week that few people did. of the Bay Area will soon forget.

It all boiled down to Montana and Clark and a 13-game walk to the end zone because the 49ers, who had the fewest turnovers in the league during the regular season, played a lot for free. of the day. Montana threw three interceptions and the full backs contributed three fumbles to Dallas.

“Some people might call it a game full of mistakes,” Walsh said. “I’m sure the Dallas defense is saying, ‘We forced six mistakes.’ And they would be right. It’s championship football. It’s like a championship fight, like Snipes knocking down Holmes. “

Not only did the 49ers have to step out of Candlestick’s sticky web after those setbacks, they also had to deal with a suspicious call from an official. Side judge Dean Look canceled an interception from star cornerback Ronnie Lott midway through the second period with a bizarre interference call. This gave the Cowboys a first try on the San Francisco 12-yard line. Dallas scored three games later on a Tony Dorsett sweep for a 17-14 halftime lead.

“It was one of those mystical calls,” Walsh said, “when someone steps in and decides to take control of the game itself.”

Walsh told Look, who played for about a minute and a half as quarterback for the former New York Titans, exactly what he thought of the touchdown. Still, the call stuck.

There was another pass interference call on Lott towards the end of the third quarter, this one obvious to just about everyone in Candlestick’s record crowd of 60,525. This positioned the Cowboys for the second of Rafael Septien’s two baskets.

“My focus was on the ball,” Lott said. “I don’t know whether or not I hit him on the first one. The manager said, ‘You pushed him away. “I didn’t think so, but you can’t argue too much. On the second, there wasn’t much doubt. Those two calls totaled 10 points. The attack certainly relieved my back.”

But first, the offense put extra pressure on itself. Walt Easley fumbled on the next series, Everson Walls recovered for Dallas and Danny White passed Doug Cosbie for 21 yards four plays later for a 27-21 Cowboys lead.

Then Montana launched his second interception by Walls, the rookie free agent who led the NFL in thefts. The 49ers’ uphill journey, like the cable cars that ascend the city’s quaint streets, apparently ended halfway through the stars.

When the Cowboys finally returned the ball to Montana’s care, there were four minutes and 54 seconds left and the goal line was 89 yards. The first game, an incomplete pass to Lenvil Elliott, didn’t win anything.

Then Elliott ran six yards on a trap game designed to compensate for Harvey Martin’s deadly pass rush. Montana threw a six-yard pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon on the first of three critical third-down games, and suddenly. San Francisco’s ingenious offensive was rolling again.

Solomon had scored the first touchdown of the game on a game identified as a “right swing option”. He’d been the slot man between Clark and the right-sided line, had taken off for the flag as Clark curled up inside and caught a quick pass from Montana for an eight-yard score. The piece was on quarterback coach Sam Wyche’s list in the press gallery. The 49ers would use it again if the opportunity presented itself.

The 49ers swept the field, Elliott pitching in for two first downs. Solomon doing another on the reverse. Montana passing to Clark along the right sideline for 10 yards and to Solomon for 12 on the left. Montana knows the returns. He once brought Notre Dame back from a 34-12 deficit to win a Cotton Bowl game, 35-34, when time ran out. And he got the 49ers out of a 28-point deficit by beating New Orleans in overtime, 38-35, in 1980.

“Joe does so many smart things that you can’t train,” Wyche said. “He’s got so much composure and good sense. He’s got just what it takes.”

But on Dallas’ first game 13. Montana knocked down an open Solomon in the end zone. “Usually Bill isn’t very excited,” Montana said. “But when I missed Freddie in the end zone he was pretty upset. So was I.”

“The real wave of emotion came when the ball went over Fred Solomon’s fingertips,” said Walsh. “I jumped as high as I could try to catch it on my own. We had organized this game perfectly. It was the National Conference championship. the.”

Too bad for what could have been. The 49ers still had three cracks and more than a minute to work. Elliott swept seven yards on the second down and San Francisco called the second of three timeouts. Montana snuggles up to Walsh. Third and three. Fifty-eight seconds remaining. Right time and right place to “swing right option” again.

Montana rolled to his right, away from Martin’s side, making the pass rush. Salomon broke for the flag but was covered. Clark curled up in the end zone, braked at the baseline and looked for his quarterback. Walls and free Michael Downs security were nearby. Montana sprinted towards the sideline.

“I thought about throwing it out,” Montana said. “I reached out to do it when I saw Dwight covered. I didn’t want to take a loss in this situation. But just then I saw Dwight walk away from the cover.”

Clark’s responsibility was to freeze defenders and then slide down the backline parallel to Montana. He doesn’t have a lot of speed, one of the reasons for his low ranking in the 1979 draft (10th round), but his movements and routes are perfect. Already that day, they had been responsible for seven catches, one for one touchdown. Now Montana was throwing him the most important pass in the history of the 49er. And high, as the room was intended.

“I thought it was too high,” said Clark 6-3, “because I don’t jump very well. And I was really tired. I had the flu last week and had to hard to catch my breath on that last ride. I don’t know how I caught the ball. How can a lady pick up a car when she’s on her baby? You find her from somewhere. “

Clark came back with the ball and the 49er defense stifled a possible Dallas miracle when Lawrence Pillers, sidelined by the New York Jets in the 1980 season, sacked White. He caused a fumble recovered by Jim Stuckey.

“Thanks, Walt Michaels,” Pillers said. “It’s the best hit of my life because we’re going to the Super Bowl.”

Want that! The 49ers, who had lost their last three playoff opportunities, all to Dallas in 1970, 1971 and 1972, had returned to beat the American team.

“Well,” said Clark, “I think we deserved it.”

He was not alone in having this feeling.

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