Legendary Days: The 1981 NFC Championship Game – The Birth of Camelot

With Dwight Clark’s passing a few weeks back it was nearly impossible to not think back to his signature play and this game. The Catch ushered in an era where the 49ers became the NFL’s signature franchise and brought Dallas down a notch. A win 2 weeks later in Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac gave Bill Walsh the platform to showcase his genius, The West Coast (Paul Brown’s) Offense, and launch an era he coined “Camelot”. Joe Montana became one of the NFL’s newest faces and would dominate the decade.

Dwight Clark as he will appear forever in the minds of fans everywhere.

Going into the ’81 NFC Championship the 49ers were an organization that not only hadn’t won a championship in their 36 year history. They were 0-3 against Dallas in the postseason. Even worse is they had left 2 NFL Championships on the table by celebrating victory prematurely then succumbing to huge comeback defeats.

In 1957, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and the Million Dollar Backfield bolted to a 27-7 3rd quarter lead in a playoff with the Detroit Lions. Detroit battled back and won 31-27. Then in ’72, a revenge minded 49er team fresh from back to back defeats in the first two NFC Championship Games to Dallas jumped to a 28-13 3rd quarter lead. Amid the taunts and trash talk Landry replaced ineffective QB Craig Morton for Roger Staubach. In another classic meltdown Dallas stormed to win 30-28.

Each of these losses crippled the franchise as they went into a tailspin for a decade both times.

Now here was a 3rd trip to the summit for an organization fighting for respect. Why would this generation’s group get over the hump where previous teams had failed?? This was the dreaded Dallas Cowboys they were 0-3 against in the postseason.

chancellor.coop

The Chancellor & former 49er Earl Cooper at PFHoF ’16

At the time Hall of Fame Coach Tom Landry was the Bill Walsh / Bill Belichick of his era having taken the Cowboys to the postseason 15 of the last 16 years. Not only had he won 2 Super Bowls, his teams was playing in a championship game for the 10th time with this tilt out in Candlestick. The NFL up to this time hadn’t seen this type of extended success. Not nearing 2 decades worth. Well a berth in Super Bowl XVI was at stake and all he had to do was get past this bunch of no names out in California. Consensus at the time by the national media cited that he would:

Eric Wright’s clutch tackle on Drew Pearson saved the game but Dwight Clark’s catch remains it’s signature. Prestige is much like momentum. You can’t exactly define it yet you know it once you feel it and see it. The mantle of prestige and esteem the Cowboys held transferred to the 49ers the moment Clark came down with the football. From that point on the buzz from NFL media in print and television began with Bill Walsh and his organization. His West Coast offense became the dominant offensive approach for the next four decades.

Epilogue:

For those of us old enough to have watched this game and remember those years it was a unique time in NFL history. A young Chancellor of Football was watching this frozen in -63 wind chill in Columbus, Ohio. These were bigger than life characters that were shaping how I viewed the game and learned of all those making history. When we lose Dwight Clark, who was one of those figures, a piece of us go with them. Things won’t be the same but thanks for the memories. Thankfully former 49er Coach Steve Mariucci shared this on Twitter.

Mariucci was a beneficiary of the prestige borne of The Catch. They were a well oiled and running dynasty 16 years in when he succeeded George Seifert in 1997. Hmmmm…isn’t that the same 16 year mark when Landry had the Cowboys in San Francisco back in ’81?? For irony…. Mariucci and the 49ers also lost the NFC Championship Game that year. Yet that story…can be told at another time.

Thanks for the memories Dwight Clark. RIP

Dedicated To The Memories of: Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Freddie Solomon, Bob McKittrick, John Ayers, Fred Quillan, Keith Fahnhorst, Ernie Stautner, Larry Bethea, Harvey Martin, Ron Springs, narrator Harry Kalas, Ed Sabol & Steve Sabol

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me.mooch

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