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 postseason. Six of the previous seven matchups came in the NFC title game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and the most memorable, at least from the 49ers’ perspective, came on Jan. 10, 1982, when “The Catch”. it was written in the tradition of the NFL. This story, which appeared in the January 23, 1982 edition of The Sporting News, captured the electricity of the game.

SAN FRANCISCO — The comeback spanned more than 89 yards on a magnificent final drive. If the truth be known, it spanned three years, from the time a longtime assistant named Bill Walsh finally got 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 passing play, engineered 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 an old Super Bowl team, either, but just the second Super Bowl team to rise from a losing record last season (the Cincinnati Bengals beat them to the honor by about four hours).

The 49ers were a sorry sight when Walsh brought them together in Santa Clara for training camp in 1979. They went 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 hoped to hit .500.

“I would have been happy to be 8-8,” club president Ed DeBartolo Jr. said on the eve of the NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys.

So this was a team that overcame mediocrity, the team that outscored the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27, in the last minute of play on Jan. 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 California mudslide after a heavy rain. The other day, street vendors near Ghirardelli Square were pushing T-shirts that read, “I Survived the Storm of ’82.” The 49ers not only survived, they thrived in a week few people in the Bay Area will soon forget.

It all came down to Montana and Clark and a 13-play march to the end zone because the 49ers, who had the fewest turnovers in the league during the regular season, went without a win most of the day. Montana threw three interceptions and 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.”

The 49ers not only had to get off Candlestick’s sticky canvas after those setbacks, they also had to deal with a suspicious call from an official. Side judge Dean Look nullified 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 the San Francisco 12-yard line. Dallas scored three plays later on a Tony Dorsett slide for a 17-14 halftime lead.

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

Walsh told Look, who played about a minute and a half at quarterback for the former New York Titans, exactly what he thought from the bench. Still, the call went through.

There was another pass interference call on Lott near the end of the third quarter, this one evident to almost everyone in Candlestick’s record crowd of 60,525. He set up 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 too much. In the second, there wasn’t much question. 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 the next drive, Everson Walls recovered 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 off Walls, the rookie free agent who led the NFL in steals. The 49ers’ uphill journey, like cable cars up picturesque city streets, had apparently ended halfway to 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 away. The first play, an incomplete pass to Lenvil Elliott, won nothing.

Elliott then ran for six yards on a trap play designed to counter Harvey Martin’s deadly run. Montana threw a 6-yard pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon on the first of three critical third-down plays and, suddenly. San Francisco’s ingenious offensive was rolling again.

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

Down the field they swept the 49ers, Elliott running for two first downs. Solomon doing another upside down. Montana passing Clark down the right sideline for 10 yards and Solomon for 12 to the left. Montana knows about 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 led the 49ers from a 28-point deficit when they beat New Orleans in overtime, 38-35, in 1980.

“Joe does so many smart things that 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 the Dallas 13, Montana brought down an open Solomon in the end zone. “Bill usually doesn’t get very emotional,” 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 said. “I jumped as high as I could trying to catch it myself. We had set up that play perfectly. That was the NFC championship, right?” there.”

So much for what could have been. The 49ers still had three cracks and over a minute to work. Elliott swept seven yards on second down and San Francisco called the second of three timeouts. Montana snuggled up to Walsh. Third and three. Fifty-eight seconds left. The right time and place for the “right turn option” again.

Montana rolled to his right, away from Martin’s side, throwing the run to the passer. Solomon dived for the flag but was covered. Clark huddled in the end zone, stopped 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 away,” Montana said. “I cocked my arm to do it when I saw Dwight covered. I didn’t want to take a loss in that situation. But at that moment I saw Dwight walk away from cover.”

Clark’s responsibility was to freeze defenders and then slide down the baseline parallel to Montana. He doesn’t have a lot of 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 49er annals at him. And high, as the work was intended.

“I thought it was too high,” the 6-for-3 Clark said, “because I don’t jump that well. And I was really 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 it’s on top of her baby? You get it from somewhere.”

Clark went down with the ball and the 49er defense snuffed out a potential miracle finish for Dallas when Lawrence Pillers, released by the New York Jets during the 1980 season, sacked White. He caused a fumble recovered by Jim Stuckey.

“Thank you, Walt Michaels,” Pillers said. “That’s the best shot of my life because we’re going to the Super Bowl.”

Luxury what! The 49ers, who had lost their three most recent playoff chances, all to Dallas in 1970, 1971 and 1972, had come back to beat America’s Team.

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

He was not alone in that feeling.