The play is simply known as “The Catch.”
It was the 1981 NFC Championship game pitting the San Francisco 49’ers against the Dallas Cowboys.
It was third down and three with 58 seconds left in the game. The 49’ers had the ball at the Dallas 6-yard line trailing 27-21.
Quarterback Joe Montana took the snap and dropped back. Cowboys’ defensive ends Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Larry Bethrea, as well as linebacker D.D. Lewis, forced Montana to backpedal towards the sidelines.
Montana was about to be sacked, or at least run out-of-bounds, when he threw the ball towards the back of the end zone. His pass looked like it was going to sail to into the crowd. There was no way anyone was going to catch his errant throw.
Just when you thought all was lost, Dwight Clark leaped and snatched the ball from the sky. As soon as his feet landed in the back of the end zone the referees’ arms shot up to signal touchdown.
Many assumed Montana was throwing the ball away but as any fan of NFL Films will tell you, the 49ers frequently practiced the play known as “Sprint Right Option” and Clark was Montana’s second option.
As he launched the ball, Montana was knocked down by Jones. Meaning, “Joe Cool” never saw “The Catch.” He only saw Clark’s feet land in the end zone and the crowd erupt in celebration.
As the lore goes, Jones turned to Montana and said, “You just beat American’s Team.” The calm and collected Montana responded by saying, “Well, you can watch the Super Bowl on TV with the rest of America.”
“The Catch” is probably the most famous play in NFL history but what most people fail to realize is there was still 51 seconds left in the game. Dallas had plenty of time to mount a drive and kick a game winning field goal.
Sure enough, Dallas quarterback Danny White found receiver Drew Pearson over-the-middle, deep down the field. Pearson had a chance to make a big play, if not a touchdown, but he was tackled from behind by 49’ers defensive back Eric C. Wright. Had Pearson been able to get around Wright he would have had a clear path to the end zone.
On the next play White fumbled. The 49’ers recovered the ball to seal the victory and send them to their first ever Super Bowl.
Eventually, the 49’ers would become the first team to win five Super Bowls: 1981 (XVI), 1984 (XIX), 1988 (XXIII), 1989 (XXIV) and 1994 (XXIX). Between 1981 and 2002, the 49’ers reached the playoffs 18 times.
The 49’ers of this era featured one hall of fame player after another. Montana, a candidate for the “Babe Ruth of football” led the team to four Super Bowl victories.
The undersized, weak-armed quarterback became synonymous with amazing comebacks, keeping calm under pressure and playing big in big games. The 3-time Super Bowl MVP was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
In 1985, the 49’ers drafted an unheralded receiver out of Mississippi Valley State by the name of Jerry Rice. He simply went on to be the best football player the NFL has ever seen. Before retiring in 2005, Rice rewrote the record books for wide receivers and was selected to 13 Pro Bowls and 12 All-Pro teams.
From 1987 through 1992 the 49’ers had two hall of fame quarterbacks on their roster, Montana and Steve Young.
The former USFL player finished his NFL career with the highest career passer rating. Young was a two time NFL MVP and MVP of Super Bowl XXIX. In 2005, the fleet of foot quarterback, who rushed for 43 touchdowns in his career, became the first left-handed quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The 49’ers of the 1980’s and the early 1990’s were known for their prolific offense but they also played some very good defense. Leading the “D” for most of the 1980’s was hall of fame defensive back Ronnie Lott. His uncanny game awareness and his hard-hitting style made him one of the NFL’s greatest defenders. He finished his career with 63 interceptions.
Coaching these great 49’ers team was the legend himself, Bill Walsh. A disciple of Paul Brown, Walsh joined the 49’ers in 1978. He’s credited with popularizing the “West Coast Offense” and heralded for drafting Montana.
His West Coast Offense, which has been employed by just about every NFL team at one time or another, used the short pass to control the game and stretch the defense.
Walsh coached the 49’ers to three Super Bowl victories, six division titles, a 92-49-1 regular season record, and a 10-4 postseason record. The teams that won Super Bowls in 1989 and 1994 were coached by his handpicked successor George Seifert.
The 49’ers are part of the NFC West. Historically their main division rival has been the St. Louis Rams. Not only have these two teams been in the same division for decades but they were once fierce regional rivals when the Rams were located in Los Angeles.
In addition to the Rams, the 49’ers also have rivalries with their new NFC West foes the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks.
The 49’ers and the Dallas Cowboys have a long history of meeting in crucial games. These intra-conference combatants have met seven times in the post season. Several of those battles occurred in the NFC Championship game with the victor eventually going to and winning the Super Bowl.
The 49’ers and the New York Giants have also played seven times in the post season and another geographical rival for the 49’ers is their Bay Area brethren, the Oakland Raiders.
Candlestick Park was the 49’ers home from 1971 to 2013. It has undergone several renovations and several name changes including 3Com Park at Candlestick Point (1995-2002), San Francisco Stadium at Candlestick Point (2002-2004) and Monster Park (2004-2008). In 2014, the 49ers moved into the state-of-the-art Levi's Stadium located in Santa Clara, California.
The 49’ers began play in 1946 in the All-American Football Conference. That league dissolved in 1949 and the 49’ers were allowed into the NFL with two other AAFC teams (The Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Colts).
In 1978, Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. bought the franchise. He would own the team until 2000.
After a corruption investigation and pleading guilty to failing to report a felony charge, DeBartolo was forced to surrender controlling interest in the team to his sister Denise DeBartolo York and her husband Dr. John York.
In the first eight years of the York’s regime, the 49’ers went 60-84 with four seasons of 10 or more losses and just one playoff victory.