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CATCH OF THE DECADE : When Montana and Clark Hooked Up in the 1982 NFC Title Game, It Signaled a Change in the NFL Power Structure

January 17, 1993|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Football fans tend to measure time not with clocks and calendars but with big games or big plays.

Thus in Dallas all week they have been saying that today's 49er-Cowboy game in San Francisco will define the end of the long 49er dynasty and the beginning of a new one for the Cowboys.

If they are right, it won't be the first time that these two powerful NFL franchises have turned around on a drenched, muddy field at Candlestick Park, although there is one pertinent difference now.

When it happened last time, 11 years ago, the bell tolled for the Cowboys--ending a spree of five 1970s Super Bowl appearances.

The 49ers set off the other way that day on a championship run that was to take 1980s San Francisco teams to a record-tying four Super Bowl victories under Bill Walsh and George Seifert.

"The (Cowboy-49er playoff game) marked a real power shift in pro football," Walsh, the Stanford leader who built all four 49er winners and coached the first three, said recently.

"It (matched) teams going in opposite directions. And for us, of course, it all began at the end of the game with The Catch."

THE CATCH

In the Bay Area, it is called simply that.

"I met Dave the night before The Catch," a 49er fan said at a Christmas party last month, introducing her husband.

She meant the big play of Walsh's first big game, the meeting for the NFC title on Jan. 10, 1982, in which, with 51 seconds to play, Dallas still had the lead, 27-21.

But it was 49er quarterback Joe Montana who had the ball at the Dallas six-yard line.

Chased by three or four Cowboys, Montana sprinted to his right and threw a high, hard one over the goal line to his best friend, wide receiver Dwight Clark, who sprang up to make The Catch for the winning touchdown.

That one play knocked Dallas out of the NFL's throne room and swept San Francisco in.

When kicker Ray Wersching added The Point,

with Montana holding, it was 28-27, Dallas was through--until today--and the 49ers were off to their first Super Bowl, where, against the Cincinnati Bengals, they won more easily than they had turned back Dallas.

"Luckiest play I ever saw," longtime Cowboy President Tex Schramm said again last week. "(Montana) was trying to throw the ball away."

Schramm was perhaps the most efficient of the NFL's front-office persons, a distinction he held for 25 years, but the 49ers swear he is wrong about the Montana-Clark play.

It only looked like a throw-away, they insist, because Montana, a former basketball player, jumped above 6-foot-9 Dallas lineman Ed (Too Tall) Jones as he threw it, and because Clark, who stands 6-4, jumped above Dallas cornerback Everson Walls as he caught it.

"The play was in our (game plan)," Walsh said. "Joe and Dwight had practiced it many times."

In the locker room the night of The Catch, Clark said: "We've been working on it since (training camp at) Rocklin."

The game film, as viewed today, is a how-time-flies commentary. The two fresh-faced, long-haired kids in the postgame interview--their upbeat personalities as yet unspoiled by age, adulation or money--are Montana and Clark.

As Montana said not long ago: "The Catch changed all our lives."

A MIRACULOUS YEAR: FROM RONNIE LOTT TO THE DRIVE

In its historical context, the NFL's biggest catch of the 1980s was more frosting than cake.

Two fresh kids didn't pop up out of nowhere to take over pro football.

"(The Catch) was just one play that kind of demonstrated what had gone on that entire season," Clark said from 49er headquarters in Santa Clara, where he is the club's operations coordinator.

As a whole, 1981 was a miraculous season, he meant. And so it seemed.

Two years earlier, after taking over a 2-14 team, Walsh had led the 49ers to a second consecutive 2-14. They finished last in the NFC West that year in the season of the Rams' only Super Bowl team.

Their swift rise under Walsh from 2-14 in 1979 to the Super Bowl at the end of the '81 season was an almost exact precursor of the rise of the Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson 10 years later. A 3-13 club the year before Johnson, the Cowboys fell to 1-15 in 1989 before beginning their rapid climb to the NFC title game this season.

And doing it the same way, Walsh and Johnson accomplished these feats as the preeminent talent scouts of their time in the league.

For the 49ers, the beginning of a golden era was the draft of USC safety Ronnie Lott in the first round of 1981. In his rookie coaching season, 1979, Walsh had drafted Montana in the third round and Clark in the 10th, but they were to become only the foundation for greatness.

To reach a championship level, the 49ers still needed a Super Bowl secondary and a couple of enforcers. Three-fourths of the secondary was drafted in 1981--Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson--and two castoffs were brought in as defensive enforcers: Fred Dean from the San Diego Chargers and Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds from the Rams.

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