This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 NFC Championship Game between San Francisco and Dallas, and several former members of that 49ers squad gathered recently to reminisce about “The Catch That Almost Was.”
“Boy that would have been something, if Dwight could have caught that ball,” lamented Ronnie Lott, who played cornerback and safety for the team from 1981-1990. “We never achieved any of the goals we had for ourselves during the 80′s, but I can’t help but wonder if things might have turned out differently if only Dwight had pulled in that pass.”
“Dwight” is of course former 49ers WR Dwight Clark, who came up just inches short of reeling in what would have been a game-winning touchdown catch from QB Joe Montana, that would have propelled the Niners to their first Super Bowl. Instead, the pass sailed out of the end zone, and Tom Landry’s Cowboys went on to win that year’s Lombardi Trophy, along with three others in the decade, while San Francisco never came close to playing in the big game again.
“Something about losing that game just destroyed Joe Montana’s confidence,” recalled right guard Randy Cross. “After that loss, he just seemed to get rattled in every pressure situation. We started calling him, ‘Joe Cold,’ because of how poorly he played in crunch time.”
Many experts surmised that, had Clark held on to the critical pass, the 49ers would likely have gone on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in that season’s Super Bowl, and with a winner’s confidence added to a roster burgeoning with talent, there’s no telling what they might have accomplished over the next several years.
“When they drafted me in ’85, I thought, ‘wow, this team’s got some great players on the roster,” said Hall of Fame WR Jerry Rice. “But there was just this negative attitude among all the players, Montana in particular. Every time a game was close in the 4th quarter, I’d tell him, ‘throw me the rock, Joe.’ And he’d always be like, ‘Why? So you can drop it and break my heart?’ The dude was damaged, man. I had to get out of there.”
Fed up with the franchise’s losing mentality, Rice forced the team to trade him to Buffalo in 1990, where he would team with Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas to win four straight Super Bowls during the 1990′s.
“It all could have been different,” said a softly weeping CB Eric Wright. “If Clark had caught that pass, we could’ve won two, three, maybe even four Super Bowls in that decade. Rice wouldn’t have demanded that trade. We could have been a dynasty! I’m telling you, it all goes back to that damn drop.”
Not everyone laments the famous catch-that-wasn’t, however.
“Man, I was so relieved when Dwight Clark dropped that ball,” said Hall of Fame Cowboys QB Danny White, the MVP of Super Bowls XVI and XIX. “If you remember at that time, some people were whispering that the Cowboys were on their way down, and that Tom Landry was over the hill. But after we won that game against San Fran, it was like the whole franchise found our fountain of youth.”
Indeed, after dominating the 1980′s, the Cowboys became the most valuable franchise in sports. Such was their worth that in 1989, even an enormously wealthy Arkansas oilman named Jerry Jones was unable to purchase the team despite his massive fortune. Landry retired from the team after winning the 1988 Super Bowl as the winningest coach in NFL history, a distinction no coach has since broken.
The 49ers’ Bill Walsh, on the other hand. coached just two more seasons with the team before being fired in 1984, his “west coast offense” experiment having been deemed a failure. Assistant coach George Seifert took over the team, but fared no better than his predecessor.
“Coach Seifert knew that Montana’s confidence was shot, so he went out and traded for Steve Young,” recalled FB Tom Rathman. “And that worked pretty out well for us. Young had some great games and put up some huge numbers. In fact, Joe used to complain about ‘living in Steve Young’s shadow.” But we still never had the confidence as a team to make it to the Super Bowl.”
“Trust me, not a day goes by that I don’t think back to that game, and the memory of that play remains just as agonizing to me now as it was back then” said Clark. “Why, God why? Why couldn’t I have just caught that damn ball?”