Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco 49ers, NFC Championship Game, January 10, 1982

The second game of The Canon Review football fix weekend is one of the most memorable games of all time, the 1981 NFC Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. This game is remembered for 'The Catch', as Dwight Clark leaped high in the air to score the winning touchdown for the 49ers with less than a minute to go. The 49ers won this game 28-27, in a game that put them on the map and sent them on their way to becoming the team of the 1980s. In a way, this was almost a passing of the torch, as the Cowboys had been the dominant power in the NFC during the 1970s while the 49ers would become the top dog in the 1980s. This game featured five Hall of Fame players, two Hall of Fame coaches on the sideline and a third one, Hank Stram, in the broadcast booth with Vin Scully, and also featured a bunch of obscure running backs for the 49ers, including Lenvil Elliott. Elliott had been cut before the season and was only activated the week before due to injury, but ended up starting the game despite carrying the ball seven times during the regular season. A few other notes from this game:

- The 49ers started their game winning drive from their own 11 yard line with less than five minutes to go. The Cowboys played the pass by putting in six defensive backs, but coach Bill Walsh crossed the Cowboys up by relying a lot on the running game even though the 49ers had mixed success with the running game up to that point. The team relied on Elliott to carry the ball and short passes to move the ball downfield. Also, they called a reverse to WR Freddie Solomon which gained 12 yards after the two minute warning. A risky play, but unlike the reverse the Bears called in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, this one worked like a charm. Right after that, Montana fired a pass into double coverage which Dwight Clark somehow caught. If CB Everson Walls had gotten to that spot a split second earlier, he would have had an interception (which would have been his third) and the Cowboys would have won the game. Also, two plays before The Catch, Solomon was wide open in the end zone, but Montana rushed his throw and overthrew his receiver, just like he nearly overthrew Clark.

- Even though the niners gained the lead after 'The Catch', the game had 52 seconds left and the Cowboys had two timeouts. On the first play from scrimmage, QB Danny White hit Drew Pearson streaking down the middle of the field, and only a horse-collar tackle by 49ers CB Eric Wright stopped Dallas from taking the lead. On the next play, the 49ers defense recovered, as lineman Lawrence Pillers tore through the Cowboys' offensive line and forced a fumble, which DE Jim Stuckey recovered to salt the game. Nevertheless, the Cowboys were only a step away from going to the Super Bowl.

- One thing that struck me about this game is that the 49ers seemed to be the more talented team of the two, as they easily moved the ball down the field all game long and their defense caused all sorts of trouble for Danny White. However, the 49ers kept shooting themselves in the foot, as they turned the ball over six times. Montana threw three interceptions, two deep balls that Walls picked off, and one short pass that was tipped and picked off by DT Randy White. Also, the Cowboys scored two touchdowns after fumbles by RBs Bill Ring and Walt Easley in 49ers territory. If the 49ers were able to hold on to the ball better, they would have won this game by two touchdowns. Perhaps nerves got the better of them early on, but at least the 49ers were cool and collected when it mattered most.

- The Cowboys scored another touchdown after an interception by Ronnie Lott was called back due to pass interference. It was a terrible call, as Lott never even touched Pearson when the two were going for the ball. Maybe it's by anti-Cowboy bias, but it sure seemed as if the refs were favoring the so called "America's Team". On the play just before Lott's penalty, Tony Hill seemed to be out of bounds on a catch, but the catch was allowed anyway, and the Cowboys seemed to get some generous spots on plays close to the first down marker. Later on in the game, Lott was called for another pass interefernce penalty, although this one was obvious, and in the fourth quarter, Lott injured his hand and after every play would bend over wincing in pain. So, all in all, not the greatest day for Lott, although maybe at the time he felt it was the greatest day he ever had.

- This was an intense, hard-hitting football game between two top notch teams, although it wasn't the greatest game ever played. For one, all the turnovers didn't help, and also the field at Candlestick Park was a mess. Even though the grounds crew did the best they could, players were slipping and sliding all game long on the field, and the Cowboys seemed more effected by it than the 49ers. I don't think it made a difference in the final result, but who knows what would have happened if the game was played on a drier field.

- The 49ers played rather well on defense given the fact that they had to overcome six turnovers. DEs Dwaine Board and Fred Dean applied pressure all day, and while Tony Dorsett gained 91 yards, he never popped off a huge gain, as his longest gain went 11 yards. OLB Willie Harper was probably the best player on the 49ers defense this day, as he was all over the field making key stops on both the run and the pass. The game must have extra important for Harper, as he was the longest tenured 49er on the roster having been there since 1973, and played on some really bad teams. Also, the other outside linebacker, Keena Turner, played the game despite having the chicken pox. Hopefully the Cowboys got some shots before the game or at least had chicken pox during their childhoods.

- Here's something that I found interesting. The Cowboys punter was also their starting quarterback, Danny White, and I beleive that he was the last full-time starting quarterback who also doubled as a punter (Tom Tupa played QB and punter a few times during his career, but he was never a long term starter). Also, San Francisco's punter Jim Miller punted barefoot, which I can't imagine doing without hurting. But I guess it worked for him.

- One thing that I noticed about the telecast was that there weren't a lot of cutaways to the head coaches. Sure, there were some, but it's nothing like modern day telecasts where every play is followed by a shot of Andy Reid or Bill Belicheck reacting to the previous play. I think it was better back then, as we really don't need to see Belicheck have the same stone faced look after every play or Norv Turner looking befuddled as usual. As for the broadcast team, I though Vin Scully and Stram did a great job calling the game, as Stram was very informative and Scully was his typical great self.

So, that's that. As you may know, the 49ers would go on to win the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks after this game, and would win three more during the decade. While the Dallas Cowboys would rebound and make another appearance in the NFC Championship Game next year, 1981 was probably the Landry Cowboys last best shot at winning a title, and a few years later, the Cowboys would fade into mediocrity before Jimmy Johnson brought them back a decade later. Well, thanks for reading, and if you any ideas for future posts, or thoughts about this post, than either leave a comment on the blog or send them to me at e-mail at

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