This week marked the 30th anniversary of one of the single most famous moments in the history of our game of football. As any Cowboys fan recalls, January 10, 1982 was the day of "The Catch" in Candlestick Park where Joe Montana found Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone with Everson Walls attempting to lunge and stop this moment in time which defined both franchises in the 1980's in their respective cities.
The 49ers had gone 13-3 in 1981, after 3 seasons where they combined for 10 wins total (2 wins in 1978, 2 in 1979, and 6 in 1980). Meanwhile, the Cowboys had won 35 games in those 3 previous years (12, 11, and 12) and had put up another 12 win season in 1981. These were two teams on a collision course at Candlestick the entire season long it seemed, but the Cowboys were still the team that most thought would win this game. The 49ers were home, but really, who were the 49ers in 1981? Just an upstart, not that unlike the team that will host New Orleans on Saturday in 2012.
Everyone remembers the catch by Clark and the throw from Montana. It would send the 49ers on their way to dominate the 1980s and it would start a stretch of 18 years in which the 49ers would win at least 10 games on 17 occasions - during a stretch where they went 5 for 5 in Super Bowl appearances.
But, what seems to elude the memory of many is that the catch was made with 0:51 left on the clock. Trailing 28-27, the Cowboys had the ball and needed only a field goal from the reliable kicker, Rafeal Septien. What would happen next would not only define the fates of the teams involved, but also the legacies of two of main players in the game.
On the very first pass of the final Cowboys drive, starting at the Dallas 25 and with 0:47 left, QB Danny White dropped back to pass and threw a dart to Drew Pearson on a "dig" route at midfield. The throw required precision as it threaded the needle between the corner and safety perfectly to hit Pearson at midfield and in stride. Rookie cornerback Eric Wright was in a trail position, but was able to get his right arm under the collar of Pearson and dragged him down to the ground at the 49ers 44 yard line.
His one armed tackle arguably saved a touchdown, and a one-play answer to the drive by Montana. A score would have then put the Cowboys into Super Bowl 16 against the Bengals and history would have changed forever. Replays showed that Dwight Hicks, the 49ers free safety had a great angle to bring down Pearson inside the 40, but we will never know if that would have happened or if the announcers were right, that Wright saved a sure touchdown.
Regardless, the Cowboys still had 0:39 to work with, and the ball less than 10 yards out of field goal range. From the 49ers 44, White dropped back to pass again, but an inside stunt from the 49ers defensive line matched Lawrence Pillers up against Cowboys right guard, Kurt Peterson. Peterson was over-powered, thrown aside, and Pillers sacked White and stripped the ball. Jim Stuckey recovered the ball for San Francisco and the game was won for the 49ers and they were on their way to Pontiac Michigan for Super Bowl 16.
And in that moment in time, the day was saved for the Niners and the Cowboys had lost their 2nd of 3 straight NFC Championship Games.
One can only wonder, what was done to the legacies of Danny White and Drew Pearson with that one play. For White, a player who started 92 games for the Cowboys at QB and won 62 of them, he would be forever known as a "2nd-tier" QB between Staubach and Aikman, despite winning a lot of games in the regular season and 6 playoff games. Years later, Tony Romo would be compared to him rather than the legends who won Super Bowls. But, had he won that game and carried his team into the Super Bowl, perhaps he would have a better place saved for him in Cowboys' lore.
Meanwhile, there is no real great reason that Drew Pearson has been out of the Hall of Fame. With his numbers and his moments in the post season that defined greatness, he has a resume that is limitless. He absolutely should be in Canton, but for whatever reason, he was left out when the shrines were built to honor those from his era. One can only imagine what that catch and that moment would have done for his legend. It would have ranked up there with his Hail Mary moment and his performance in Atlanta in the 1980 playoffs as his greatest hits and would have made him an automatic entry into the Hall of Fame.
The point to all of this is that White and Pearson did what they could. If Walls could get his fingers on that pass or Peterson could have held off Pillers, the game would have been won. It demonstrated the hands of fate that a QB and a WR have no control over, and yet, they must forever be remembered as "losing those games". Even in individual honors, it is truly a team sport.
Here are some playoff picks for the weekend:
New Orleans at San Francisco: This contest involves the great discussion of a wonderful offense against a solid defense. The 49ers are better than most will admit, as they have beaten a host of playoff teams this season, and the Saints give us pause when they leave the friendly confines of the Superdome. The question is whether the front 7 of the Niners can disrupt the multiple-faceted attack of the Saints for 3 hours and generate enough offense of their own in their short passing game and pounding the rock with a big, physical offensive line. This could be a real war and a very entertaining game. In the end, I like the Saints, but I believe they will be stretched to the outer limits of their abilities to advance. Saints 24, 49ers 20.
Denver at New England: Ah yes, what could be the most watched divisional round playoff game in NFL history will explode for all to see on Saturday night in prime time. Everyone knows that strange things occur on Saturday night in the NFL playoffs, but it will take more than the kickoff time of this game to save Denver. They are a truly wonderful story and the Tim Tebow narrative is fascinating on a number of levels, but the idea that they can beat a wounded Steelers team at home is a way different challenge to slowing down Tom Brady and the Patriots at their place. Also factor in that the Patriots have been a very poor playoff team at him in the last several years, requiring them to hear this again and again stack the odds more against Denver. And that doesn't even weigh the short work week and the cross-country travel. It has been a nice run for the Broncos, but it won't advance past this game. Patriots 31, Broncos 17.
Houston at Baltimore: The wonderful journey of what is left of the Houston Texans puts them 60 minutes from the AFC Championship Game. Despite crippling injury issues hitting the squad, they pounded the Bengals last week in front of their adoring public. Now, they face a team that had a QB that certainly seems shaky and vulnerable in many situations, but has the luxury of playing with a lead on most occasions. How TJ Yates is able to make plays down the field to Andre Johnson will tell us a bit about how this game plays out, but more importantly to the pace of the game will be how Houston can move the football on the ground. I am tempted to take Houston here, but that would be underselling the Baltimore defense - something that is not to be done unless there is a very dynamic QB taking them down. And there is not. Baltimore 20, Houston 16.
New York at Green Bay: Finally, the game that has had so many people on the underdog, that they might actually be the popular choice. There is no doubt that the Giants have a few things working for them here. 1) they have strengths where the Packers have weaknesses. The Giants DL against the Packers OL is a major mismatch, and the Giants passing game should be able to accomplish some things against the Packers secondary and lack of pass rush (provided Dom Capers doesn't get there with the blitz like he did last post season so well). Also, the Giants have the swagger of having won in Lambeau in 2007 with many players remaining. But, the trendy pick is also a pick that ignores the wild inconsistencies of the Giants this year and the fact that Aaron Rodgers has not thrown a multiple-interception game all year. With that and home field, I believe form holds here: Green Bay 31, New York 24.
Enjoy the games, after this weekend there are only 3 more games until September.