It was the beginning of one of the most famous plays in NFL history. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers were battling on this cold January day, but it wasn’t until later that we learned what really happened. Which player caught a pass from Joe Montana with seconds remaining to send his team to their first Super Bowl?
Eric Wright, not Dwight Clark, was the 49ers’ hero against the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. The game is known as “The Catch” and is considered one of the most memorable moments in NFL history.
Consider some of the best, most famous events in sports history, and you’ll notice that the man who gets all the acclaim required a little assistance to gain the limelight.
Sure, Larry Bird stole the ball in 1987, but the Celtics would have lost the game anyhow if Dennis Johnson hadn’t cut to the hoop.
Although we’re on the subject of Boston legends, don’t forget that, while Dave Roberts did steal the base in 2004, he may not have scored the game-tying run had it not been for Bill Mueller’s single off Mariano Rivera.
Today, Jan. 10, 2022, the 40th anniversary of one of the most memorable events in NFL history, these moments are never more instructional. It’s the 30th anniversary of “The Catch,” Dwight Clark’s incredible leaping touchdown catch from Joe Montana in the 1981 NFC Championship Game that gave the San Francisco 49ers a 28-27 lead over the Dallas Cowboys.
It was the play that put an end to the Cowboys’ dynasty under Tom Landry and ushered in the Montana-Bill Walsh era, which would deliver four Super Bowl championships to San Francisco over the course of nine seasons.
Clark’s grab, though, only gave the 49ers a 51-second advantage. Cornerback Eric Wright was the overlooked hero, but the true hero in those last seconds, the one who really took the 49ers to Super Bowl 16.
The 1981 NFC Championship Game provided an opportunity for secondary players to shine.
George Rose/Getty Images/Eric Wright
Despite all the excitement about Montana and Clark, and the offensive heroics of that last 89-yard touchdown drive, this was a game in which two terrific rookie defensive backs, one from each side, stole the show.
Ronnie Lott, a Pro Bowl rookie with the 49ers in 1981, recorded seven interceptions and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. Cowboys rookie Everson Walls, who led the NFL in interceptions with 11 in 1981 and would also make the Pro Bowl, was on the opposite side.
And, with 4:54 remaining in the game and the 49ers taking over at their own 11-yard line, it looked like Walls had won the rookie war, having intercepted Montana twice. But it was Walls who was immortalized in the worst conceivable manner on the Catch, recorded by famed Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. as he reaches for the ball in vain and Clark catches it with his fingers.
Then it was Eric Wright, the other rookie in the secondary on that day, who made the play that cemented the 49ers’ dynasty.
The Cowboys nearly had a Hail Mary II after the catch, but Wright answered the 49ers’ prayers.
A play that is forgotten in this game is “The Tackle” by Eric Wright on Drew Pearson, who would have scored. On the next play Lawrence Pillars causes a fumble and Jim Stuckey recovers. 28-27 #GoNiners pic.twitter.com/OAlU1Wd26o
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 10, 2020
After Roger Staubach retired at the end of the 1979 season, his successor, Danny White, was one minute away from joining Staubach as the newest Captain Comeback. Even though Staubach was gone, wide receiver Drew Pearson, the other half of the iconic “Hail Mary” touchdown from the 1975 playoffs, was ready for his encore.
With 47 seconds remaining and a one-point deficit, the Cowboys took over at their own 25-yard line, and on the first play, Mary was back in town. White found Pearson on a crossing route with a superb ball into a tiny space between Lott following behind Pearson and Carlton Williamson leaping to swat down the pass from the opposing side.
Instead, Pearson received the ball in stride at the Cowboys’ 49-yard line, and Williamson’s diving tackle knocked down Lott, leaving Pearson free to sprint down the middle and score the game-winning 75-yard touchdown.
Years later, White told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I was going down the field, sort of hopping up and down because I believed he was gone.” “For a little moment there, I believed everything was over.”
When White and Pearson collided, Lott and Williamson were between them, while Wright was following the play behind Pearson. With 38 seconds remaining, Wright was able to slip his right hand inside the back of Pearson’s shirt and bring him down at the 49ers’ 44-yard line as the Cowboys receiver recovered the ball and began his rush to the house.
On the following play, White was hit by Lawrence Pillers as he began to pass the ball, and the fumble was recovered by Jim Stuckey with the Cowboys practically in field-goal range. The game is done.
“People who truly know 49ers football tell me that there wouldn’t have been The Catch if you hadn’t made that play there,” Wright told the Chronicle. “It makes me very happy that a few people remember me.” The Catch was a game-changing move, but that’s why football is a team sport. To win the game, we needed everyone.”
The Cowboys won the NFC Championship Game twice in 1981, each time under different rules.
The Cowboys’ defeat to the 49ers was debilitating for a team that is used to pulling off late-game miracles. They would return to the NFC Championship game for the third year in a row in 1982, however they would lose for the third time in a row, this time against Washington. This was the last time Landry and White would get this far.
The Cowboys would not get their vengeance until a decade later, when they upset the 49ers in consecutive NFC Championship Games to win another pair of Super Bowls under new owner Jerry Jones, coach Jimmy Johnson, and quarterback Troy Aikman.
The Cowboys would have defeated the 49ers that January day at Candlestick Park if the game had been played in a different period, with two completely distinct sets of rules.
For one thing, Wright’s horse-collar tackle would have been a 15-yard penalty, putting Dallas the ball at the 49ers’ 29-yard line, well inside Septien’s range. And what about White’s blunder, which sealed Dallas’ fate? If it had occurred between 1999 and 2013, a regulation known as “The Tuck Rule” would have been applied, and the play would have been declared an incomplete pass because White had cocked his arm and was drawing the ball down when Pillers knocked it loose.
By the way, Tom Brady was in the stands at Candlestick that day.
But the rules were the rules, and Wright made the play that cemented “The Catch” as the mascot for the 49ers’ dynasty. The players and coaches, on the other hand, never forgot who helped them out.
“There would have been no The Catch if Eric Wright hadn’t made that tackle,” George Seifert, who was the defensive backs coach in 1981 and Walsh’s replacement as head coach in 1989, told the Chronicle. “For the Dallas Cowboys, it would have been The Catch.” It allowed me to continue coaching. I’ve always been thankful to Eric, and I’ve taught my kids that if they meet Eric Wright, they should be courteous because he made it possible for them to have what they have today.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference
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