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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SUPER BOWL XVI CHAMPION 1981 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Michigan where the San Francisco 49ers 26-21 won over the Cincinnati Bengals.  Two weeks after the catch….I can remember that it was somewhere in the 3rd quarter and I was still saying to myself “The Bengals and the Niners in the Super Bowl?”

sbxvi1.2The NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys was so good you forgot there was a Super Bowl yet to be played.  Then with the 59 below AFC Championship Game I don’t know if the Bengals had thawed out from that game.  For the first time in memory, you could see the national magazines and media outlets scrambling to sell these teams to the masses. Or actually to sell themselves that the 49ers and Bengals were in the Super Bowl.

Sports media was completely reeling from the high profile darling Cowboys of Tom Landry and “Air Coryell” Chargers going down in the conference finals. They weren’t ready for both Cinderella teams to crash the Super Bowl in Pontiac. Since Joe Montana had made so many so called experts eat their words with “The Catch”, he wasn’t covered as a great quarterback like he was later in his career. He had thrown 3 interceptions in the NFC Championship before “The Catch.” In fact the national figure that emerged from Super Bowl XVI wasn’t a player, it was Head Coach Bill Walsh.

Can you believe a team winning the Super Bowl on the basis of squib kicks?

sbxvi5After taking a 14-0 lead late in the 2nd quarter, most teams would be satisfied with the upper hand and not push the envelope. Walsh implemented his genius and stamp on the game with the ensuing kickoff. Totally unprepared, the ball bounced downfield and put the Bengals in horrible field position inside their own 15. Cincinnati played conservatively, couldn’t move the football and punted. The 49ers, on a short field, kicked a quick field goal and hit them with a squib kick again.

Archie Griffin (yes OSU fans) fumbled the second squib kick that the 49ers converted to another quick field goal to put them up 20-0 at the half.  Of course someone would say “But this was the middle of the game and the Niners were up 14-0.”  Yes but in a game decided by 5 points (26-21) you look at what could have been… and these 6 points were the difference in Bill Walsh becoming a genius and Forrest Gregg almost becoming the new Vince Lombardi.

Others point to the great goal line stand in the 3rd quarter that kept the Niners in strategic control of the game. San Francisco was up 20-7, however the Bengals could have stuck to their regular game plan had it just been 14-7 without the special team gaffes before halftime.

The late Bill Walsh was meticulous in his preparation and the blueprint for modern coaches to follow. He was the first to spend the game wearing a headset as well as scripting the first 15 plays. To game plan squib kicks into the mix showed he didn’t give lip service to the adage “special teams is 1/3 of the game.” Most coaches say that and don’t implement anything different to use it as a mode of attack.

sbxvi4A few of the reasons Coach Walsh scripted his first 15 plays he offered in one of his books. He did it not only because it kept him from getting excited and calling something different than what study showed he should do. It allowed the team to know what plays would be run from the outset and they could perform them no matter how nervous they were at the beginning of a game. By practicing them over and over they could run those plays on autopilot.

Before the Bill Walsh coaching tree would blossom and implement his intricacies throughout the league, it was Super Bowl XVI that gave genesis to this. If you take away “The Catch” in the NFC Championship Game, it looks similar to the Super Bowl. There was no marquee performer or performance that you could think of. Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana only threw for 157 yards against the Bengals. They were the first Super Bowl champion to allow more than 20 points in each of their postseason wins.

Joe Montana at the public memorial service for former coach Bill Walsh.

Joe Montana at the public memorial service for former coach Bill Walsh.

Bill Walsh made all the difference and is the model each present day coach is descended from.

This article is dedicated in his memory.

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