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

SAN FRANCISCO — The return encompassed more than 89 yards on a beautiful final drive. If the truth is known, it went on for three years, from when a longtime assistant coach named Bill Walsh was finally given his own team and selected, in his first-ever college draft, a quarterback named Joe Montana and a receiver named Dwight Clark. .

In the end, it took a jaw-dropping six-yard passing game, 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 just any former Super Bowl team either, but the second Super Bowl team to rise from a losing record the previous season (the Cincinnati Bengals beat them to the spotlight by about four hours ).

The 49ers were a sad sight when Walsh brought them together in Santa Clara for training camp in 1979. They were 2-14 that first year. They were 6-10 in 1980 as 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,” club president Ed DeBartolo Jr. said on the eve of the National Conference Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys.

MORE: 5 things to know about ‘The Catch’ at 40

So it was a team that bypassed mediocrity, the team that overhauled 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 that final, an incredible road to the ultimate first game in the franchise’s 36-year history.

The 49ers made it appear as inevitable as a landslide in California after a heavy rain. Just the other day, peddlers near Place Ghirardelli were pushing T-shirts proclaiming “I survived the storm of 82”. The 49ers not only survived, they thrived in a week that few in the Bay Area will soon forget.

It all came down to Montana and Clark and a 13-game march to the end zone because the 49ers, who had the fewest turnovers in the league during the regular season, played much of the day. Montana threw three interceptions and the guards contributed three fumbles to Dallas’ cause.

“Some people might call this a game full of mistakes,” 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 knocking down Holmes.”

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

“It was one of those mystical calls,” Walsh said, “when someone steps in and decides to take over the game itself.”

Walsh told Look, who played about a minute and a half as a quarterback for the former New York Titans, exactly how he felt about the sideline. Still, the call held.

There was another pass interference call on Lott near the end of the third quarter, this one obvious to just about everyone in Candlestick’s record crowd of 60,525. That set the Cowboys up 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 on the first one. The official said, ‘You pushed him on it. “I didn’t think so, but you can’t argue too much. On the second, there wasn’t much doubt. Those two calls totaled 10 points. The attack certainly relieved my back.”

But first, the attack imposed additional pressure on itself. Walt Easley fumbled on the next series, 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 by Walls, the rookie free agent who led the NFL in steals. The 49ers’ uphill journey, like the cable cars that ascend scenic city streets, had apparently ended halfway to the stars.

When the Cowboys finally returned the ball to Montana’s care, four minutes and 54 seconds remained and the goal line was 89 yards out. The first play, an incomplete pass to Lenvil Elliott, won nothing.

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

Solomon had scored the game’s first touchdown on a play identified as the “right swing option”. He had been the slot man between Clark and the line on the right side, had taken off for the flag as Clark curled inside and caught a quick pass from Montana for a score of eight yards. The game was on quarterback coach Sam Wyche’s list in the press box. The 49ers would use him again if the opportunity arose.

The pitch swept the 49ers, with Elliott running for two first downs. Solomon making another on the reverse. Montana passes to Clark along the right sideline for 10 yards and to Solomon for 12 down the left. Montana knows the comebacks. He once brought Notre Dame back from a 34-12 deficit to win a Cotton Bowl game, 35-34, when time ran out. And he triggered the 49ers from a 28-point deficit as they beat New Orleans in overtime, 38-35, in 1980.

“Joe does so many smart things that you can’t coach,” Wyche said. “He’s got so much confidence and common sense. He’s got just the right amount of stuff.”

But on the first play of the Dallas 13. Montana knocked down an open Solomon in the end zone. “Usually Bill isn’t very excited,” Montana said. “But when I missed Freddie in the end zone he was quite upset. So was I.”

“The real rush of emotion came when the ball passed through Fred Solomon’s fingertips,” Walsh admitted. “I jumped as high as I could trying to catch it myself. We had that game set up perfectly.”

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

Montana rolled to his right, away from Martin’s side, chaining the pass rush. Solomon broke for the flag but was covered. Clark curled up in the end zone, braked at the baseline, and looked for his quarterback. The walls and the free security of Michael Downs were nearby. Montana sprinted to the sideline.

“I thought about throwing it away,” Montana said. “I raised my arm to do it when I saw Dwight covered. I didn’t want to take any loss in that situation. But just then I saw Dwight walk away from cover.”

Clark’s responsibility was to freeze defenders and then slide along the baseline parallel to Montana. He doesn’t have much speed, one of the reasons for his weak position in the 1979 draft (10th round), but his movements and routes are perfect. Already that day, they had been responsible for seven receptions, including one for a touchdown. Now Montana was throwing him the biggest pass in 49er history. And high, as the game was intended.

“I thought it was too high,” said the 6-3 Clark, “because I don’t jump very well. And I was very tired. I had the flu last week and had hard to breathe in that last practice. I don’t know how I caught the ball. How can a woman get in a car when she’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 in Dallas when Lawrence Pillers, dropped by the New York Jets in the 1980 season, fired White. This prompted a fumble recovered by Jim Stuckey.

“Thank you, Walt Michaels,” Pillers said. “It’s the greatest hit of my life because we’re going to the Super Bowl.”

Imagine that! The 49ers, who had lost their last three playoff opportunities, all to Dallas in 1970, 1971 and 1972, had come back to beat Team USA.

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

He was not alone in this feeling.

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