Most fans reading this can likely visualize the defining play of the 1981-82 NFC Championship. “Six yards away from Pontiac, third-and-three… Montana looking, looking, throwing in the end zone. Clark caught it!” In the clip of CBS’s original broadcast hosted on the NFL’s official YouTube channel, the audio peaks and distorts in response to the crowd noise that followed what has become known as ‘The Catch.’
There is no doubt that a short clip of 49ers’ legend Dwight Clark hauling in Montana’s pass with his fingertips at the back of the end zone will be played on broadcast and cable television several times this week, leading up to the divisional round matchup against the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. It is the singular most well-known play in 49ers lore, if not throughout the entire NFL.
However, The Catch is just a mere seven seconds of game time in a rivalry that spans five decades and counting. A rivalry that Sports Illustrated dubbed the third greatest in all of professional football in 2013, and CBS labeled the top NFL rivalry of the ‘90s. Rivalry fans should hope to see continuing this coming Sunday afternoon when Dallas travels to Levi’s Stadium.
The 90s kids out there in Niners Nation will recall the fierce competition over three consecutive NFL Championships between 1992-1994. A trio of games where San Francisco went 1-2 against Dallas’s freshly revamped offense, with Jerry Jones and Troy Aikman at the helm.
Those were two heartbreaking losses after Bill ‘The Genius’ Walsh walked away from what was widely regarded as the team of the decade following a 1989 Super Bowl victory over the Bengals.
If you are a young fan and you hear-tell of older 49ers fans being spoiled, the 80s and early 90s are the reason why. In 1990, Bill Wash gave way to another potential hall-of-fame coach in George Seifert. Around that same time, the 49er fan base was collectively realizing we had not one, but two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks on our roster.
Those three championship games, however, are just the fulcrum from which this 5 decades-long rivalry pivots. The 1960s and 70s were a much different time in the Bay Area. At the beginning of the 70s, the 49ers still played at Kezar Stadium. A venue shared with a soccer club, college and high school football teams, and various other extra-curricular activities, such as Grateful Dead concerts.
This was an era when any notion of Silicon Valley was a pipe dream at best. San Francisco was a glorified lumber town, just a few decades out from truly being the hub of Gold Rush country.
Kezar was the dogs’ den of all NFL stadiums, expected to be waterlogged, with all the turf scraped off from the amateur athletics and rock n’ roll concerts. Monty Stickies, a 49ers tight-end from 1960-67, called Kezar “the ultra-toilet of the league at the time,” comparing it to Pittsburgh’s multi-use stadium, Forbes Field.
An absolute mud pit to play in. San Francisco was still a scrappy upstart city at the time, while Dallas was a burgeoning major-metropolitan hub, still riding high on boomtown oil money.
Dallas dominated the NFL during the 70s, appearing in five Super Bowls and winning two of them. The 49ers didn’t exactly lay belly-up and let the Cowboys walk over them en route to repeat Super Bowl appearances, however, QB John Brodie put up some pretty paltry numbers against Coach Tom Landry’s ‘Doomsday Defense’ during the 1970 and ‘71 NFC Championships.
After those two NFC Championship appearances – the first two in 49ers history – the 1970s could be considered a complete wash for the Niners if it wasn’t for the sale of the team from the original owners, the Morabito family, to Edward J. DeBartolo Jr.
Eddie Debartolo bought the team in 1977 for $13 Million dollars. That’s around $53M adjusted for inflation. Today, the 49ers are among the top 15 most valuable sports franchises in the world, according to Forbes, valued at over five-billion dollars. A real estate developer by trade, Debartolo proved to be more than just a shrewd businessman. The first thing of major consequence Eddie Debartolo did upon entering 49ers headquarters was hiring Bill Walsh as the new head coach.
I try to avoid the term ‘genius.’ Rarely does an intellect tick all the boxes of what traditionally defines genius, and everyone has skeletons in the closet which might reveal viewpoints that would oppose such a term.
However, when it comes to pure football schemes, Walsh was a genius, unparalleled in his time. Watching back over old interviews, I had this eerie feeling that Walsh reminded me of another widely-regarded California genius from a different field — David Lynch.
The football coach and the film director share a placid, calm demeanor. Both are keenly aware of humor and drama, but they deploy their wit subtly, creeping up on you with little personalized tricks of their trades until you are completely enveloped in an otherworldly environment. It takes a little while to figure out all the strings being pulled, allowing the master craftsmen to create their full composition.
And by the time people began to catch on, the entire NFL had just spent a decade being run over by an absolute juggernaut of a football team. Before the team got rolling in the early 80s, the 49ers continued to flounder during Walsh’s first two seasons as the personnel adjusted to the unusual play design of their new coach.
It wasn’t until Walsh plucked Joe Montana from late in the third round of the 1979 draft that things truly started to pick up. By the beginning of the 1981 season, Walsh was prepared to start Montana over his previous QB, Steve DeBerg. At first, Montana was dubbed a “system quarterback” and not yet recognized to possess the dynamic Hall-of-Fame he is now known for.
Nevertheless, when he started the ‘81 season, Montana proved up to the task and led the 49ers through a 13-3 season, all the way to the NFC Championship win over Dallas with Dwight Clark’s big ‘Catch,’ before the first-ever 49ers Super Bowl victory.
If the 49ers and Cowboys rivalry was a heavyweight boxing match, The Catch would be a massive right hook across the defending champs’ temple that lands the big man heaving for air against the ropes in the third round. In 1981 The Cowboys had only missed the playoffs once since the 1966 season. After The Catch, Dallas came off the ropes to swing for a few dizzying seasons, reaching the NFC Championship in ‘82 and winning a weak NFC East division in ‘85. But after that, their playoff record goes dark.
As the rest of the NFL began to adjust around Bill Walsh’s new West Coast offense, Cowboys coach Tom Landry stood staunchly under his pork pie hat, stuck in his old ways. Then, in 1989, another eccentric and flamboyant American businessman swooped in to change the entire culture of the Cowboys, much like Eddie D. Debartolo Jr. did to the 49ers in the late 70s.
Jerry Jones immediately fired Landry and hired Jimmy Johnson. Johnson and Jones drafted Aikman, and the 90s became the most heated decade of the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry.
From my perspective, those back-to-back championship losses to the Cowboys in 1992 and ‘93 were devastating. The first football I can recall witnessing as a small boy was Montana’s legendary drive to close out Super Bowl XXIII. The 49ers began that final drive on their own eight-yard line.
As legend has it, Joe ‘Cool’ the ‘Comeback Kid’ noticed the nerves of offensive-tackle Harris Barton getting to him. To loosen up his lineman, Montana pointed down to the opposite end zone and said, “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?”
Whatever magic words Montana said in that huddle, they worked, as the Niners drove down the field in 11 plays and effectively ended the game with a touchdown. It was electrifying, even as a little kid who barely understood any of the game’s rules at the time.
After the Super Bowl XXIII victory, Walsh walked away, and Seifert stepped up. The 49ers did not skip a beat as they ran over the entire NFL, absolutely demolishing Denver and a young John Elway in Super Bowl XXIV, 55-10.
The 49ers may have had some growing pains as they transitioned from Walsh to Seifert and then, later, from Montana to Steve Young, but still, they were not supposed to lose. At least not in the eyes of a little kid who had the legend of The Catch imparted onto him, not through cable TV highlights or YouTube clips, but orally, through his Bay Area father, as if that singular play was a scene out of The Odyssey.
I remember weeping at the end of those Cowboy Championship games. At the time, I didn’t have the capacity to understand the mechanics of the game, nor the stat sheet, so I could not compute that there was any potential for the 49ers to lose. The term Championship loss had simply failed to enter my vocabulary as it pertained to the 49ers. It was pure emotion for me, and it stung to see my team go down.
However, the third trip to the NFC Championship against Dallas that decade was retribution for San Francisco. According to interviews with players and coaches alike, San Francisco built their 1994 squad to crush the Cowboys. And it worked. The 49ers overcame the defending champs 38-28 and went on to win Super Bowl XXIX.
The Dallas-San Francisco rivalry grew a bit dim after the 1994 season. The two teams play each other every three years, and the 49ers hold a half-game edge over the Cowboys in total regular season games, with a record of 15–14–1 at the time of this writing. However, the Cowboys ultimately have the all-time advantage, as they have gone 5-3 against the Niners in postseason play.
A rivalry renewed
With Dak Prescott seemingly entrenched behind center in Dallas and the 49ers now with three starting QBs on their roster who, at the very least, can manage Kyle Shanahan’s offense, other observers of the NFL have begun to look around the league and wonder if this legendary rivalry is about to reignite. The Niners ended the Cowboys' season handily in last year’s Wild Card round with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. This year, as everyone reading this knows, is a completely wild and unpredictable situation.
If anything can be said for Brock Purdy’s journey from Mr. Irrelevant to Super Bowl contender throughout less than half a season, it is that watching the rookie QB has been fun. I personally don’t remember a feeling like watching Purdy extend plays with his legs since Steve Young was on the field. Sure, I remember Russel Wilson and Patrick Mahomes doing that against our D, but to watch someone in Red and Gold do it is a completely different feeling.
Before fans get all bleary-eyed with nothing but a Lombardi Trophy in our sights, we would be foolhardy not to remind ourselves that Purdy is bound to lose a game eventually — it has to happen at some point. Doesn’t it? As much as this team has me dreaming of the 90s, I now am wise enough to understand the probability of Brock Purdy never losing a game as a starter is next to zero. However, the question is when will Purdy lose that game? This weekend, against the 49ers’ half-century-long rival Dallas Cowboys, is as good a time as any.
As a storyteller who is fighting for scraps of meat out here in the new media land of digital publishing, I would not bet a gram of cat food on either team. I am expecting the euphoria of a potential Super Bowl title and the bitter sting of being shot down from the highest of heights, equally. Whatever the outcome, there is one hell of a game to be played on Sunday afternoon when America’s Team travels to the Bay to continue one of the greatest rivalries in all of the sports.