On this day in 1982, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in the NFC Championship, thanks to a touchdown pass from Joe Montana that was seemingly pulled out of the air by Dwight Clark with 58 seconds left. The play, simply known as “The Catch,” was captured in one of the most iconic photographs in NFL history and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week. The 49ers would go on to win Super Bowl XVI two weeks later with a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and begin their 20-year dynastic run.
Gary Myers excellent book, “The Catch,” argues that the game and its decisive play represented the beginning of the 49ers dominance in the 1980s and the 90s and the end of the Cowboys reign under head coach Tom Landry that began in the late 1960s. Myers does concede that this hypothesis doesn’t wrap up neatly in a bow as the 49ers went 3-6 in the following strike-shortened season and Dallas made the NFC Championship game again, losing to the Washington Redskins. Both teams, however, did begin their respective trajectories in 1983. By the end of the 1988 season, the 49ers had won a third Super Bowl and Landry had been fired. Who knows how things would have been different if that pass had sailed over Clark’s head?
A couple of points that are forgotten about this game are the fact that the 49ers had to overcome six turnovers and that the Cowboys still had 51 seconds to set up a field goal after the 49ers go-ahead touchdown. On the ensuing drive, Cowboy quarterback Danny White hit Drew Pearson with a beautiful pass up the middle. Had it not been for a game-saving tackle by 49er cornerback Eric Wright, Pearson would have scored and “The Catch” would be all but forgotten.