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PROLOGUE: 89 Yards

Tom Landry and Bill Walsh did more to shape modern football than anyone else. Paul Brown was a crucial forefather, but his ideas blossomed in the 1940s. If you look at football’s distinctively modern attributes, you see the fingerprints of Landry and Walsh.

Landry’s innovations and Walsh’s are separate. One had almost no influence on the other. But if you turn on the TV and watch football today, you see vivid reflections of both men.

The distance between their contributions is 89 yards.

The 1981 National Football Conference Championship Game is the pivot in the history of modern football. Understanding football in the Super Bowl era means appreciating this game, when Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers moved the ball 89 yards in the final minutes against Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. Going into the game, the Cowboys were a monument to football since the mid-1960s, when the National Football League and the American Football League agreed to merge. Coming out of the game, Walsh’s 49ers embodied a new epoch of football excellence.

A little context helps set the scene.

Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers earned berths in the first two Super Bowls by eking out last-second victories over Landry’s Cowboys. Those wins over the Cowboys did more than the Super Bowl triumphs to make the Packers pro football’s team of the 1960s.

The Cowboys made it to pro football’s final four 10 times during the Super Bowl’s first 15 years. Dallas advanced to five Super Bowls, which included two World Championships and a pair of tense, four-point losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, pro football’s team of the 1970s.

It is now the second week of 1982, and the Cowboys are in pro football’s final four for the eleventh time. The 1981 NFC Championship Game has reached its latter stages. The winner will go to the sixteenth Super Bowl. The Cowboys have an 89-yard buffer protecting their sixth Super Bowl appearance.

The Cowboys are a glamour franchise. They are innovators who introduced the sports world to everything from computers to scandalously sexy cheerleaders. They haven’t experienced a losing year since 1964. They are America’s Team.

The fellows who appear to be the foils in this exercise are the 49ers. The Niners are trying to become a Cinderella team, but they are taking the field at their own 11 trailing 27-21 with 4:54 to play. They not only have to go 89 yards, but they have to do it against Dallas’ Doomsday II Defense, which has forced six turnovers through the game’s first 55 minutes.

These are the days before the salary cap, free agency, and all the other ingredients that will make the NFL so competitive. These are the days when owners patiently give coaches several years to transform a losing team into a playoff team. There is no such thing as a Cinderella team. No team has ever followed a losing season with a Super Bowl championship season. “Return of the Jedi” won’t hit theaters for more than a year. It is inconceivable that a bunch of Ewoks can defeat the Empire.

This is the first year the 49ers haven’t been losers since 1976. If they can somehow win today’s game they’ll have 15 wins for the year. That’s as many victories as they’ve managed in the previous four seasons put together.

Meanwhile, on the Dallas sidelines, Landry has more wins than any other coach in the league. He has prevailed 214 times during his 22 seasons. He is the contemporary face of NFL coaching.

The Cowboys like their chances. To protect their lead, they employ a defensive alignment that trades all three starting linebackers for two defensive backs and one reserve linebacker – Anthony Dickerson, an athlete suited for pass defense. This prevent defense is a reasonable move. The 49ers are a pass-happy team to begin with, and time is now becoming precious.

In the years to come, talking about offensive football in the NFL will mean talking about Bill Walsh. But now, with the Reagan Administration less than a year old, the only guy running Walsh’s offense is Walsh.

First-and-10 from the 49er 11

Quarterback Joe Montana’s pass falls incomplete. In a few years, even teams enjoying tremendous leads will fear Montana, but this is his first full year as a starter, and up to this point in the game, he has thrown three interceptions against only two touchdowns. It seems Landry’s sixth NFC championship might be three plays away.

Second-and-10 from the 49er 11

Lenvil Elliott carries on a delay for a gain of six yards. This is curious. Elliott was the 49ers’ eleventh-best rusher during the regular season, which isn’t saying much considering the Niners’ top rusher gained only 543 yards. Why is a bad running team turning to one of its least productive runners?

Third-and-4 from the 49er 17

Elliott’s run on second down has made things a little more manageable, so the 49ers feel comfortable getting back to their staple – the short passing game. A Montana pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon gains six yards and gets the 49ers a first down at the 23.

It is peculiar to see a team whose offense is perfectly suited to third-and-four. Ten and 20 years down the road, many teams will run Walsh’s offense or some variation, and they’ll all be equally comfortable on third-and-not-too-long. It will seem perfectly normal when quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning win championships with carefully choreographed aerial games. It will seem inconceivable that Walsh, the ultimate passing guru, was ever mocked. In a quarter of a century, Brady will talk about the day when he was 4 and his dad took him to Candlestick Park to see this game. But right now, Brady is an anonymous kid, and the 49er system is years away from being named the West Coast Offense.

First-and-10 from the 49er 23

Elliott sweeps right for a gain of 11, and suddenly this drive has a fool-me-once-shame-on-you, fool-me-twice-shame-on-me dimension. Over his entire, nine-year career, Elliott has never gained more than 345 yards in a single season. To put that in perspective, the Cowboys’ top runner, halfback Tony Dorsett, rushed for 1646 yards during the 1981 regular season alone. Elliott has no business being a factor in this or any other big game.

The 11-yard gain owes itself to a play the Niners refer to as 18 Bob. That’s their name for a sweep. The 49ers consider 18 Bob and 19 Bob (a sweep the other direction) as their bread-and-butter running plays. Walsh realizes his running backs aren’t very good, but he also knows his guards, Randy Cross and John Ayers, are superb, especially when pulling and leading the way on sweeps. Walsh is several years away from having gifted runners such as Roger Craig or Wendell Tyler. He coaches his guards to run fast and hard, and he coaches his runners to blindly follow these talented escorts. By making the guards the stars of the running game, Walsh partially compensates for his poor collection of running backs.[i]

First-and-10 from the 49er 34

Same play, other direction – Elliott runs left on 19 Bob for a gain of seven yards. At this point, things are officially getting ridiculous. If the sweep is going to make anyone nervous in this game, it is supposed to be the Cowboy sweep – not the sweep for a 49er team whose rushing average tied for worst in the league. Maybe 18 Bob is the Niners’ bread-and-butter running play. But the Cowboys’ sweep (which they call 48) is the Dallas bread-and-butter offensive play. While much of Dorsett’s Hall of Fame career rests upon elegant inside running, this is the finest season he will ever have, and most of this year’s good work is the fruit of 48. The 48 play is a big reason the Cowboys are the league’s second-best rushing team for the 1981 season.

Things are upside down. Why is Walsh, the savant of the short pass, using a journeyman runner with barely three minutes to go in the game? And why is this wacky play selection working?

Second-and-3 from the 49er 41

Montana throws a pass to Elliott, but it’s incomplete. On the bright side for Dallas, San Francisco now faces third down. On the other hand, San Francisco has already gained 30 yards (thanks largely to Lenvil Elliott!). The drive may have started with bad field position, but a conversion here and this drive will start to threaten the Cowboys’ Super Bowl plans.

Third-and-3 from the 49er 41

The Cowboys get two headaches on one play. The maddening Elliott runs up the middle for four yards and a first down. But the Niners don’t need that, opting instead to accept a five-yard penalty against the Cowboys, who stepped offside.

First-and-10 from the 49er 46

Since Walsh took over the 49ers in 1979, they have been masters of throwing to the running backs. A love affair with short passes is unusual enough, but this passing attack is doubly strange because it goes way beyond throwing to wide receivers. All cats and dogs are in on the action. Running backs, tight ends, slot receivers, and God knows what else run all kinds of dinky pass routes for gains of four, five, and six yards.

It’s just plain wrong. These are the days when men are men.

Football teams run the ball with the resolve of burly construction workers or they throw down the field with the abandon of Wall Street speculators. Under no circumstances do teams set out to pepper the opposition with precise, well-timed, short passes. Outside the nutty environs of Northern California, short passes are always Plan B. To be sure, a few people are starting to wonder if Walsh might be a genius. But right around 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Jan. 10, 1982, most observers are still inclined to see him as an unproven coach better suited to hosting roundtables on PBS. After all, he has no titles and he runs an eccentric, “nickel-and-dime” offense.

As a smug Walsh will note many years later, nickels and dimes can be the coins of the realm.

With a first down and good field position, Walsh goes back to 49er basics. Montana hits running back Earl Cooper with a five-yard completion.

Second-and-5 from the Cowboy 49

Now this drive is getting scary. The 49ers started deep in their own territory, but somehow they have made it to the Dallas side of the field. Montana has hooked up on a couple of his patented short passes. And this 30-year-old mediocrity named Lenvil Elliott has rushed for 24 yards (and it would be 28 yards if not for the penalty).

The two minute warning is at hand. What will the 49ers do next? Will Montana stick to the 49er persona and throw a short pass? Or will this newly found problem child, Lenvil Elliott, get the ball on another running play, which will probably be a sweep? It has to be a short pass or another sweep, right?

The play looks like another sweep, but it’s a reverse. Elliott gets the ball and heads right, as if 18 Bob is coming once again. He then hands off to Solomon, who scoots around the left side for a gain of 14 yards. As center Randy Cross will note many years later, this is the pivotal play of the drive. Opponents always have to worry about trick plays to Solomon, who was a running quarterback at the University of Tampa. In the 17 games prior to the NFC Championship Game, Solomon ran the ball 10 times for 55 yards and completed one pass for 25 yards. There is a definite tendency to get the ball to Solomon on trick plays, but the Cowboys are so disoriented by the pass-happy Niner offense and the baffling brilliance of Lenvil Elliott (Lenvil Elliott!) that they are completely duped by the reverse.[ii]

The Cowboy Mystique is now crumbling. Dallas is being outsmarted in a big game. Maybe Vince Lombardi’s Packers were too tough for Landry’s Cowboys in the two NFL Championship Games back in the 1960s. Maybe Chuck Noll’s Steelers were too strong for Landry’s Cowboys in the two Super Bowls back in the 1970s. But nobody outsmarts the Dallas Cowboys … except for this Bill Walsh guy.

First-and-10 at the Cowboy 35

Now it is Montana’s turn to be brilliant. Dwight Clark is supposed to run a 20-yard out pattern, but he is so exhausted he breaks for the sidelines after 10 yards. The third-year quarterback drills the third-year wide receiver with a perfect pass, getting a completion despite airtight coverage and only a few inches separating Clark from the sideline. The play is an improvisation by the winded Clark, but Montana makes it look like something straight out of a football textbook.[iii]

First-and-10 at the Cowboy 25

There are 91 seconds remaining in this game.

The NFL will never see anything more dangerous than Joe Montana getting a hot hand in a big game. But this is the dawn of his pro career, and only fans of Montana’s alma mater, Notre Dame, fully understand what Joe Cool can do in the clutch. To the rest of the football world, the 82nd pick in the 1979 draft is an unproven quarterback who has yet to throw 20 touchdown passes in a single season.

Fresh off the 10-yard completion to Clark, Montana hits Solomon for 12 more yards. Everything is working, and all the offensive players are involved in the drive.

First-and-10 at the Cowboy 13

Dallas is reeling, San Francisco is on fire, Solomon is open in the end zone, Montana drops back, Montana arches a pass Solomon’s way, and … incomplete. Montana put too much on it, and he is irritated, knowing you don’t get many wide-open shots at a trip to the Super Bowl.[iv]

Second-and-10 at the Cowboy 13

Since the 49ers crossed midfield, Walsh has called upon neither Elliott nor 18/19 Bob. The Cowboys are still using their prevent personnel, but over the past three plays Montana has burned them twice and nearly thrown the game-winning score. With the passing game cocked and threatening to deliver a knockout blow, Walsh knows he can jab at the Cowboys with the ground game. He calls 19 Bob, and Elliott runs for seven yards.

The 49ers are only six yards away from an NFC Championship. It’s only third down, and three yards get them a first down. Once again, there is no telling what San Francisco might do. Will it be 18/19 Bob for the first down? Will it be one of those trademark short passes for the first down? Will they go for the end zone? There’s no way to know.

Whatever the next play is, the previous 12 have sent some tremors through the football world. Montana has gone four-for-seven for 33 yards, including a crucial third-down conversion when the drive hadn’t gotten past the San Francisco 25.

Walsh has punched Doomsday II in the stomach with the reverse to Solomon.

And Walsh has squeezed blood from a stone. On this drive, he has given the ball to Elliott four times and watched this anonymous running back gain 31 yards – more yards than he had gained all year. Elliott will not set foot on the field two weeks later in the Super Bowl. His four carries on this famous drive are the last four carries of his NFL life.

Walsh decided to activate Elliott for this game even though defensive coaches argued against the move. They wanted to activate defensive lineman Pete Kugler. Elliott’s tale is one of the more fascinating stories of Walsh’s rise to greatness because Elliott embodies Walsh’s ability to convert small things into big advantages. However, it is a rudiment of football that nobody can run without blocking. And when a non-entity is running well, it’s a sure sign the blockers are especially good. As Walsh will observe in the future, Cross and Ayers have as much to do with this drive’s success as any of the skill players.[v]

For all the things San Francisco has done well up to this point, they still have covered only 83 yards. Their road to greatness requires them to gain 89. 

Third-and-3 at the Cowboy 6

Football’s revolution is at hand. It’s time for the Landry era to start winding down. It’s time for the Walsh era, which will continue for decades, to begin. It's time for The Catch.

[i] Walsh, Bill; Glenn Dickey; Building A Champion; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1990; Page 150

[ii] NFL Films; SF The Complete History; Disc 2, San Francisco 49ers 1981 NFC Championship Game; NFL Films, 2006

[iii] NFL Films; SF The Complete History; Disc 2, San Francisco 49ers 1981 NFC Championship Game; NFL Films, 2006

[iv] NFL Films; SF The Complete History; Disc 2, San Francisco 49ers 1981 NFC Championship Game; NFL Films, 2006

[v] Walsh, Bill; Glenn Dickey; Building A Champion; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1990; Page 150