The six most important yards in 49er history were gained in a way that was awfully close to poetic. Even a cynic would have to admit that much.
Joe Montana rolled right, holding the ball, tapping it once or twice. You’ve seen it, over and over and over. Dallas Cowboys linemen in pursuit, the fans in the orange Candlestick background standing with their mouths open and their hearts firing like a Briggs and Stratton.
It was called Sprint Right Option, and it was third and three from the six-yard line, with less than 90 seconds to play in the 1981 NFC championship game. The 49ers trailed the Cowboys by six points, and Montana was rolling out so deliberately that the sideline became a concern.
To the untrained eye, it appeared Montana was wandering right, hoping more than devising, maybe even looking for a way out. But by that time, with Montana and the 49ers proceeding deep into their first — and most improbable — Super Bowl run, everybody had learned to admire and not question.
He threw it, finally, off his back foot and slightly across his body. His flamingo legs scissored a little from the torque, and it looked for the entire world like a throwaway, with everybody walking back to the huddle to confront fourth down.
But Dwight Clark caught it. He reached above the unfortunate immortality of Everson Walls and caught the ball in the back of the end zone. Those faces in the stands thawed into a delirium of incredulity and joy. Back then, the idea of a Super Bowl was new and unexpected.
Clark seemed to spike the ball before he landed. Clark later said “his mind raced with disbelief and excitement”. “The thought that we were going to the Super Bowl was incredible”. He was so excited that he didn’t realize they had to kick the extra point to win the game. He just figured they had scored and it was over.
At the time, no one had any idea what it would come to mean. Nobody did. Nobody realized how bitter the San Francisco fans were toward the Cowboys. No one paid any attention to what happened in the early 1970’s.
There was some history lurking in the background of “The Catch”, as well. In the 1980 regular season, the Cowboys beat the 49ers 59-14, scoring until they simply could not score again. Then, in the ’81 regular season, the 49ers beat the Cowboys 45-14, prompting the Dallas players to say the real Cowboy team didn’t show up.
The Cowboys were looking forward to seeing the 49ers again. Once again it was the same result.
Clark was not the primary receiver on what became the signature play of the Montana legend. In fact, the 49ers had scored a touchdown in the first quarter on the very same play — Sprint Right Option — when Montana hit Freddie Solomon, the first option. But this time Solomon slipped coming off the line of scrimmage and Montana’s assignment — as per the intricate dealings of Bill Walsh — called for him to continue to roll out, and continue to hold the ball until Clark could slide into position.
The play was designed so that by the time he threw it, the ball either goes out of bounds or is caught. The now 49ers’ Director of Player Personnel has been asked many times. “Was Montana trying to throw the ball away”? Clark simply answers, “No, it was a spectacular throw, made under duress.” “It was thrown exactly where it needed to be thrown”.
When Montana threw the ball, Walls had to think it was out bounds. When Clark slid back there, Walls was right beside him, in the only spot he could have been.
Walls ended up being helpless, both then and on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In much the same way as “The Catch” is seen as the catapulting force for the 49ers dominance in the ’80s, Walls’ helplessness is seen as the symbolic anchor drop of the Cowboys’ fall.
Mostly forgotten is the drive that preceded “The Catch”. It started at the 49er 11-yard line and began with just under five minutes to play.
During the TV timeout, the 49ers didn’t know if they had time for it. They just kept saying “we can do it”!
So, I wonder if after all these years, you think new head coach Mike Singletary will show the team the clip of “The Catch”.
After all these years there is still some legend. The drive ended with Clark and Montana covering the six most important six yards ever traveled by the 49ers. You could make the case that those six yards made everything that followed possible.
“I think that whole season was the end of the bad old days”, Clark says. “And judging from the way it’s still re-lived, that one play is seen as the culmination”.