The Eighties Milestone game: ‘The Catch’
We started with the Galloping Ghost in the 1920’s, and the first playoff game in the 1930’s. Then onto the popularization of the T-formation in the 1940’s. The ‘greatest game ever played’ in the 1950’s, one of the great upsets in Superbowl III from the 1960’s. And latterly a franchise foundation game with the immaculate reception in the 1970’s.
We will be moving all the way to the 2010’s and will explore the games that made the NFL what it is today. Now we are into the Eighties. An era that saw the NFL solidify its grip on the US sporting landscape.
With that in mind we will look at a game that set a team on its way to dominance and perhaps helped shape how we look back on not just the Eighties. But also the develoment of offensive football across the league from then on. That game is the 1981 NFC Championship Game played between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.
This is all very subjective of course, and you may well disagree. If you do, let us know in the comments below, or contact us at Ninety-Nine Yards.
Some Key Games in the Eighties
As with every decade, the Eighties saw some key games. Games that you could argue were key to the solidifcation of the NFL’s prominence in the national psyche. Some key moments that really define both the era and the ever-increasing popularity of the league itself.
The Diesel Takes Off
January the 30th 1983 saw the conclusion to an extended Playoff tournament following the strike shortened 1982 NFL season.
Joe Theismann had three interceptions in a row, but the Dolphins failed to capitalize on any of them. So instead of talking about turnovers this game was about John Riggins. ‘Diesel’ ran for 166 yards and had 15 yards receiving.
On 4th and one Washington went for it. And Riggins broke it open going 47 yards for the touchdown. This is a play you will have seen time and time again in Super Bowl highlight packages.
Look at the blocking on that play too. There is no wonder that he got the first down. The rest of the run was him. It was a defining moment.
A Dynasty in Waiting
When Washington, the regining champs, Hogs and all, won this game it looked like they were well on the way to establishing a Dynasty. They would crash 38-9 to the then LA Raiders in the title match however.
Washington were up 21-0 in the fourth quarter when Joe Montana did his thing. The Niners made it back to 21-21. Only for Washington to go on a 13-play, 78-yard drive that took more than six minutes off the clock. They were helped out by two controversial penalties.
Joe Montana and the Niners got the ball back and were driving for what would’ve been the winning score, but he was intercepted on the last play of the game. Joe Cool would have better days.
Washington would win another Super Bowl in 1987. But Montana and San Francisco would go on to win another three in the Eightees. Their four in a decade matched the Steelers achievements in the 1970’s. But if it hadn’t been for those calls? They would have had a chance at a fifth in the Eighties.
December the 2nd 1985 saw the highest rated Monday Night Football game ever for ABC. This was a game that mattered.
The Chicago Bears would roll their way to a 15-1 regular season. Then destory everything in their path on the way to victory in Super Bowl XX.
In the UK this was a peak moment for the first wave of NFL fandom. But for Coach Don Shula and the Dolphins this game was about protecting something.
Most people thought the Bears could go all the way. Miami wanted to stop them so they would remain the only team with a perfect season. The Dolphins and Dan Marino partly rode their luck, and partly brashly went after the vaunted 46 Defence.
Miami would win 38-24 and it was a season highlight. The Dolphins were upset in the AFC title game by New England so we never got to see a title match between these two teams.
January 11th 1987 saw one of the most iconic playoff moments as John Elway led an incredible game saving drive against the Cleveland Browns in the AFC championship game.
Elway and the Broncos came to Cleveland, off the back of a double-overtime victory over the Jets the week before. The game was closely contested. But it is best remembered for the 15 play drive that started with 5:32 on the clock.
The Browns were up 20-13 and within touching dstance of the Super Bowl. Instead Elway led an incredbile drive and forced overtime. After forcing the Browns to punt, the Broncos drove 60 yards to a game winning Field Goal from Rich Karlis.
The following year the Broncos would again edge the Browns 38-33, in the AFC title game. Denver would get blown out in three Super Bowl games between 1986 & 1989 as part of a long stretch of NFC dominance. We will never know how it would have gone had the Browns made it instead.
The Fog Bowl
December the 31st 1988 saw the Chicago Bears host the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC Divisional playoff game.
It sarted off normally enough. It was 7-3 to the home team after a quarter of play. But late in the second frame things got weird. With just over 2 minutes on the clock and the Bears leading 17-6 a thick fog rolled over Soldier Field.
Vision was poor enough for CBS to have to land the helicopter that provided overhead footage. The third quarter felt like a throwback. It was pretty much all ground game. Visibility had dropped to 10-15 yards & receivers couldn’t see long passes.
Fans in the stands couldn’t see much. Neither could the radio announcers and the TV pictures were far from clear to follow.
It felt like nobody really knew what was happening on any play. Somehow they got through it. Chicago ran out 20-12 winners. In the midst of it all Randall Cunningham still racked up 407 yards passing for the Eagles.
If this game proved anything it was that the NFL would find a way. Only extreme weather looked set to stop the games. And even then, not always.
The 1980’s Milestone Game itself
January 10th 1982. San Francisco 49ers 28 Dallas Cowboys 27
Candlestick Park, San Francisco. Attendance 60,525
This was a great back and forth game between two great teams. At the time it seemed like a passing of the torch. Only in retrospect would we come to know how important the Niners win was. For it was a win that would set them on the way to being the ‘team of the Eighties’. And it was also a win that was a foundation for change and the popularization of the ‘West Coast Offence’.
In an exciting back and forth game there were touchdowns, interceptions, fumbles, and enough action to keep even the neutral fan glued to the game. At halftime the Cowboys led 17-14.
The teams traded interceptions in the third quarter before Johnny Davis plunged over from 2 yards out to give the Niners the lead.
Dallas responded by hitting a Field Goal early in the fourth. They then forced a fumble and Dallas QB Danny White hit Tight End Doug Crosby with a 21 yard TD pass and the Cowboys led 27-21.
Montana had an up and down game up to this point. But then he did what he would become best known for. Leading a successful long drive with everything on the line.
San Francisco went 89 yards. Facing third and three from the Dallas six yard line Montana found Clark for the now iconic catch in the back of the End Zone.
That 89 yard drive, and ‘the catch’ would become instant classics for 49ers fans. They would also be something that became woven into the mythology of the NFL.
After ‘The Catch’
If you read a narrative history of the NFL you might be forgiven for thinking it was Clark’s catch that ended this game. That’s the thing about sports after the event. A whole narrative is written retrospectively looking as if it was always going to be that way.
But this was a far from inevitable outcome. The Cowboys got the ball back after Clark’s leaping grab. And, with time ebbing away White hit Drew Pearson for a 31-yard catch. Only Eric Wright’s one handed tackle saved a touchdown.
That still left the Cowboys with a shot at setting up for a Field Goal. As Dallas moved into position, a lot of contemporary fans may have expected the exeprienced team to win.
In fact though, on the very next play, the 49ers’ Lawrence Pillers stripped White of the ball and Jim Stuckey recovered it. The Catch was the winning score. But it was the Niners D that preserved the victory.
The Eighties see two Dynasties pass each other by.
Think of it. Dallas were only 3 years removed from their last Super Bowl win at this point. They could have been making their fourth appearance in seven years in the big game.
At the same time this was the Niners first post season appearance in almost a decade. Sprint Right Option – the play that was called for ‘The catch” changed the direction of these two franchises in the Eighties.
This Milestone Game marked a turning point for both teams. Dallas who had been Americas’ team, and were a dominant force in the Seventies, were about to go into decline.
For the 49ers, a loss might have meant a longer wait for a championship. Or if postseason losses kept coming then perhaps Walsh going elsewhere and no championships at all.
Instead this marked the success of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense and the cementing of Joe Montana as his on filed avatar at quarterback.
Dallas would play only two more playoff games in total throughout the Eighties. Meanwhile the 49ers would win their first Super Bowl this season. Then make the playoffs each year of the decade apart from the strike shortened 1982 season. Four Super Bowl wins in four appearances would cement them as the team of the Eighties.
The West Coast Offense
Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh is remembered as the coaching ‘genius’ who changed the passing game in the NFL. Prior to the success of the Niners in the Eighties it was often a high risk high reward proposition.
Instead of the traditional ‘old school’ tough D, hard running and high risk deep aerial threat Walsh came up with something else.
While offensive coordinator for the Bengals he designed a passing attack that was marked by short, horizontal passing routes in place of running plays to “stretch out” defenses. Get the ball to receivers in space it was reasoned and they could add their own yards. This should then open up the potential for long runs or long passes.
Once Walsh got to San Francisco and thanks to overcoming the terrible trade for OJ Simpson a few years earlier they had the personnel to make this offense work.
I remember old school coaches complaining the Niners were a finesse team at the time. Which just shows how they weren’t aware of the game evolving around them. And it does the Niners D , who throughout the Eighties were always one of the better ones, a disservice.
Take a look at the average quarterback completion percentages before the arrival of Walsh and the west coast offense. Sure, rule changes helped this, but the short, high percentage open field passing had a huge impact too.
Oh, and take a look at Walsh’s coaching tree. His influence is immense, and is still being felt to this day.
All of this influence. All of these changes. They hark back to this milestone game in the Eighties. If the Cowboys had won that day and the Niners lost confidence in what they were doing? We might see a very different game today.
Banner image from ninersnation