The 49ers sat at their own 10 yard line with 4:54 left on the clock. The Cowboys were ahead 27-21 and all they needed to do was prevent a touchdown and stand tall like they had done so many times before in the 1981 NFC Championship game. A victory over the 49ers would send the Cowboys to Super Bowl XVI to play the Cincinnati Bengals. The Cowboys defense had already forced six 49ers turnovers during the game, which included three interceptions off Joe Montana.
From the start 49ers Coach Bill Walsh saw that the Cowboys were playing their nickel defense, consisting of one linebacker and seven defensive backs. Walsh wanted to take advantage of that by keeping the Cowboys on their heels and guessing. It was Cowboys safety Charlie Waters who confronted Cowboys defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner as to why it was a bad idea to be playing nickel defense with so much time left on the clock. Stautner’s response to Waters was…
“Look, we’ll get out of the nickel, but it’s going to be all on you.”
…meaning that Waters would have to answer to coach Landry. And Waters responded…
So the Cowboys stayed in their nickel defense as the 49ers started on their 14 play drive. Over the years some have said that the 49ers called more rushing plays on the drive due to the Cowboys nickel defense, but the fact is that the 49ers actually ran 8 passing plays and 6 running plays on the drive. Of the 14 plays on the drive 11 of them went for positive yardage. The 49ers seemed to move down the field with ease and the 4:54 that was on the clock when the drive started dwindled down to just 58 seconds left when Joe Montana faced 3rd and 3 from the Cowboys six yard line. It was at that point Ernie Stautner removed his nickel defense and replaced it with the Cowboys base 4-3 defense.
I’m sure we have all seen the play more than we have wanted over the years. Joe Montana rolled to his right while being chased down by Ed Jones, Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis. He then threw into the back of the end zone before being knocked to the ground. Dwight Clark leaped high with Everson Walls covering and came down with the ball for the touchdown. The play became one of the most famous in NFL history. It also became one of the greatest plays in 49ers history and one of the worst in Cowboys history. The score put the 49ers ahead 28-27 with just 51 seconds left in the game.
The Cowboys returned the kickoff to their 25 yard line and the offense took over with just 47 seconds left to play. With two timeouts left and a great kicker in Rafael Septien, the Cowboys knew there was a sense of urgency, but at the same time there were no signs of panic or a need to rush as Danny White and the offense broke the huddle.
On first down Danny White dropped back and fired the ball into triple coverage as Drew Pearson neared midfield. Pearson made the reception and never broke stride as he crossed midfield. If it wasn’t for 49ers cornerback Eric Wright dragging Pearson down by the back of the jersey chances are that Pearson would have scored or at the very least gained enough yards to put the Cowboys in field goal range. Pearson gained 31 yards on the play to reach the 49ers 44 yard line and the Cowboys quickly called a timeout with 38 seconds left.
The Cowboys were looking to get as close to the 30 yard line as possible if not past it to give Septien the best chance to kick the game winning field goal. But it wasn’t meant to be as the game came to a crashing end on the next play. Danny White dropped back looking for Tony Hill on the left sideline. 49ers defensive lineman Lawrence Pillers bull rushed Cowboys guard Kurt Petersen who never had a chance. Pillars knocked Petersen off his feet and slammed into White. The ball came loose and the 49ers recovered to end the game and to end the hopes of the Cowboys advancing to Super Bowl XVI.
Watching the play over and over again it does look as though Danny White’s arm was going forward when he was hit. White can also be seen jumping to his feet after the play and motioning to the official that his arm was going forward, but all the arguing in the world wasn’t going to change the call and the 49ers took possession and ran out the clock.
“My arm was going forward, White said after the game. I was throwing the ball. I told Jim (Jim Tunney, who was the referee), but he said no. He said my arm was coming up rather than throwing. Tony (Hill) was open on the sidelines. I knew the rush was closing in, but I didn’t feel any guy in particular. I didn’t want to take a sack. I was in the middle of throwing when I got hit.”
A few years back I was able to interview Danny White and I asked him about that particular play.
Q. Watching the 1981 Championship game recently, I’ve always wanted to ask you if you thought your arm was going forward on that last play?
A. Danny White: “It was. However under the rules at that time I think it was the right call. Today it would definitely be an incomplete pass.”
I also asked White if he thought the 1981 Cowboys had the best chance of making the Super Bowl and winning it.
Q. Do you think the 1981 team had the best chance to make the Super Bowl and win it?
A. Danny White: “I think 80, 81 and 82 would all have won the Super Bowl if we had played the Championship games at home.”
It was 32 seasons ago that the Cowboys left the ball on the field in the 1981 NFC Championship game, along with so many questions. What if the Cowboys had not played in the nickel defense on that last 49ers drive? What if the Cowboys rush had been a second quicker getting to Joe Montana on that touchdown to Clark? What if White’s fumble was actually called an incomplete pass? The “what ifs” really mean nothing other than interesting conversations. And even though the game was heart breaking for the Cowboys and their fans and still is to this day, there is no mistaking that it was also one of the greatest football games I have ever watched.