Saturday, February 24

1981 NFC Championship: Right Turn 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 postseason. Six of the previous seven matchups occurred in the NFC title game with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, and the most memorable, at least from the 49ers’ perspective, occurred on January 10, 1982, when “The Catch”. It 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 spanned more than 89 yards in a magnificent final drive. If the truth be known, it spanned three years, from the moment a longtime assistant named Bill Walsh finally received a team of his own and selected, in his first college draft, a quarterback named Joe Montana and a receiver named Dwight Clark. . .

In the end, it took an impressive 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. It’s not an old Super Bowl team, either, but the second Super Bowl team to rise from a losing record last season (the Cincinnati Bengals earned them the honor by about four hours).

The 49ers were a sorry sight when Walsh reunited them in Santa Clara for training camp in 1979. They were 2-14 that first year. They were 6-10 in 1980 when Montana and Clark established themselves as two of the best young players in the National Football League. This season they were hoping to hit .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 You Should Know About ‘The Catch’ At 40

So this was a team that overcame mediocrity, the team that beat the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27, in the final minute of play on January 10. And despite their youth, despite their lack of playoff experience, the 49ers made it to that final. incredible boost to the first definitive game in the franchise’s 36-year history.

The 49ers made it seem as inevitable as a mudslide in California after a heavy rain. The other day, street vendors near Ghirardelli Square were pushing T-shirts that read: “I survived the 82 storm.” The 49ers not only survived, they thrived in a week few people in the Bay Area will soon forget.

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It all came down to Montana and Clark and a 13-play drive to the end zone because the 49ers, who had the fewest turnovers in the league during the regular season, played winless for most of the day. Montana threw three interceptions and the running backs contributed three fumbles to the Dallas cause.

“Some people might call it a buggy game,” Walsh said. “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.”

Not only did the 49ers have to get off the sticky canvas of Candlestick after those mishaps, they also had to deal with a suspicious call from an officer. Side judge Dean Look overruled an interception by star cornerback Ronnie Lott midway through the second period with a rare interference call. That gave the Cowboys a first down at San Francisco’s 12-yard line. Dallas scored three plays later on a Tony Dorsett sweep for a 17-14 lead at halftime.

“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 as a quarterback for the former New York Titans, exactly what he thought from the bench. Still, the call stayed.

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

“My focus was on the ball,” Lott said. “I don’t know if I hit him or not in the first one. The officer said, ‘You pushed him. “I don’t think so, but you can’t argue much. In the second, there weren’t many doubts. Those two calls added up to 10 points. The offense certainly took some of the pressure off me.”

But first, the offense put a little more pressure on itself. Walt Easley fumbled on the next drive, Everson Walls rallied 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 of Walls, the rookie free agent who led the NFL in steals. The 49ers’ uphill journey, like the cable cars going up the picturesque streets of the city, had apparently ended halfway to the stars.

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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 away. The first play, an incomplete pass to Lenvil Elliott, won nothing.

Elliott then ran for six yards on a cheat play designed to counter Harvey Martin’s lethal run. Montana threw a six-yard pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon on the first of three critical third-down plays and all of a sudden. San Francisco’s ingenious offense was rolling again.

Solomon had scored the first touchdown of the game on a play identified as a “right turn option.” He’d been the man in the slot between Clark and the line on the right side, taking off for the flag when Clark snuggled in and caught a fast pass from Montana for an eight-yard score. The play was on quarterback coach Sam Wyche’s list in the press box. The 49ers would use it again if the opportunity presented itself.

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

“Joe does so many smart things you can’t train,” Wyche said. “He has a lot of poise and wisdom. He just has the right things.”

But on the first play since Dallas 13, Montana dropped a wide-open Solomon in the end zone. “Bill usually doesn’t get very excited,” Montana said. “But when I lost Freddie in the end zone, I was pretty upset. Me too.”

“The real rush of excitement came when the ball went over Fred Solomon’s fingertips,” Walsh confessed. “I jumped as high as I could trying to catch it myself. We had prepared that play perfectly. That was the National Conference championship, right?” there.”

So much 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 for the second of his three timeouts. Montana snuggled up with Walsh. Third and three. Fifty-eight seconds left. The right time and place for the “right turn option” again.

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Montana rolled to his right, away from Martin’s side, launching the run to the passer. Solomon took to the flag but was covered. Clark huddled in the end zone, braked at the baseline and looked for his quarterback. The walls and free security Michael Downs were close. Montana was running toward the sideline.

“I thought about throwing it out,” Montana said. “I cocked my arm to do it when I saw Dwight covered. He didn’t want to take a loss in that situation. But at that point I saw Dwight walk away from the cover. “

Clark’s responsibility was to freeze the defenders and then slide down the baseline parallel to Montana. He doesn’t have much speed, one of the reasons for his low reputation in the 1979 draft (10th round), but his movements and routes are perfect. Already that day, they had been responsible for seven receptions, one for a touchdown. Now Montana was throwing the most significant pass in the 49er annals at him. And stop, as the work was intended.

“I thought it was too high,” said Clark, 6-3, “because I don’t jump that well. And I was very 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 woman pick up a car when she is on top of her baby? You get it from somewhere. “

Clark came down with the ball and the 49ers’ defense put out a possible miracle finish for Dallas when Lawrence Pillers, cut off by the New York Jets during the 1980 season, sacked White. He caused a fumble recovered by Jim Stuckey.

“Thanks, Walt Michaels,” Pillers said. “That is the best hit of my life because we are going to the Super Bowl.”

What a luxury! The 49ers, who had lost their three most recent playoff chances, all against Dallas in 1970, 1971 and 1972, had returned to beat America’s Team.

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

He was not alone in that feeling.

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