Dwight Clark

What if 49ers' Dwight Clark didn't make 'The Catch' vs. Cowboys in 1982?

What if 49ers' Dwight Clark didn't make 'The Catch' vs. Cowboys in 1982?

Editor's note: Twice a week, NBC Sports Bay Area will look back on biggest "What If?" moments in Bay Area sports history in our "Hindsight 2020" series. The fifth installment: What if Dwight Clark didn't make "The Catch"?

The third-down play was doomed from the beginning.

The primary receiver, Freddie Solomon, slipped on the saturated Candlestick Park turf. Joe Montana was under pressure as he drifted right, toward the sideline, and threw off his back foot. The pass sailed high, out of the back of the end zone, just beyond the reach of Dwight Clark, who was weakened from the flu.

Of course, that’s not how it really happened. But ... what if?

What if Montana threw the pass just an inch higher. What if Clark could not stretch his 6-foot-4 frame to the absolute limit and secure the football in his fingertips? What if the 49ers had lost the NFC Championship Game to the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 10, 1982?

First, it’s a matter of how they would have lost that game, which in real life was the springboard to the 49ers’ first of five Super Bowl championships over 14 seasons.

The play that would become known as "The Catch" happened on third and 3 from the 6-yard line with 51 seconds remaining, with the 49ers trailing the Cowboys 27-21. Coach Bill Walsh often said he had already planned on calling a run play on fourth down.

And for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to assume the Cowboys’ defense was able to stop 49ers running back Lenvil Elliott short of the first down. Walsh would have undoubtedly been widely second-guessed for that decision.

Fans and media would have scrutinized Walsh’s decision to run the ball, for sure.

“I suspect Walsh would have pointed out that, on that final drive, the 49ers ran the ball five times for 45 yards,” said Ira Miller, the preeminent 49ers beat reporter for decades with the San Francisco Chronicle.

“His thinking was that a running play on fourth down would have had a good chance against the Cowboys defense, which would have been going all-out on a pass rush.”

It would have been added to the list of crushing playoff defeats at the hands of the Cowboys, an organization that eliminated the 49ers from the postseason three straight seasons in the early 1970s.

How would have young, brash owner Eddie DeBartolo reacted? His view on the third-down play was blocked as he stood behind a police horse behind the opposite end zone. We assume he would have situated himself in a more-ideal spot to watch the fourth-down play.

DeBartolo and Walsh often clashed during their nine seasons together. But that game against the Cowboys took place before success was measured solely on the basis of whether a Lombardi Trophy was added to the collection at the end of the year.

“That season was so out of the blue, the fans might have been happy just to get to the championship game,” Miller said. “Remember, this was a different era; there were no expectations. Not low expectations, no expectations. Not sure how Eddie would have reacted. Remember, at this time, as volatile as he could be, he never had tasted any kind of success with the 49ers. So it’s not as though he was expecting it.”

For all his genius, Walsh had deep-seated insecurities. And Miller wonders if Walsh might have dwelled on the missed opportunity and been “crushed by himself.”

After the 49ers finished 3-6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, Walsh contemplated resigning as coach. Walsh said drug use on the team contributed to the team’s dramatic drop-off. Throughout his time with the 49ers, he either quit or was fired numerous times before Walsh and DeBartolo would cool down and come to some understanding to continue the union.

The 49ers bounced back in 1983 to post a record of 10-6. Then, Walsh’s team sustained a heartbreaking loss to Washington in the NFC Championship Game, during which several questionable calls went against the 49ers in key situations.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Without the background and credit of the team’s first Super Bowl following the 1981 season, there would have been questions about Walsh – if he remained as coach for this long. Is he capable of taking a team all the way?

Walsh once famously said of journeyman quarterback Steve DeBerg, “He’s just good enough to get you beat.” There would have been a similar thought about Walsh at that point.

If Walsh was not around long enough to win a first Super Bowl, when would the 49ers have won it all? The team's offense would have been a different system with entirely new coaches, and the new decision-makers undoubtedly would've brought in different players.

Now, of course, the late Walsh’s status among the elites is secure.

Walsh ranks near the top in the history of professional football when it comes to innovation and intelligence, as well as motivation and organizational skills.

He did not reach the pinnacle of his profession by himself.

DeBartolo gave him the chance and opened his wallet to provide all the support he requested.

Walsh had such individuals on the football side as executive John McVay and scout Tony Razzano to assist him with personnel.

He established a coaching staff that included George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Sam Wyche, Dennis Green, Bobb McKittrick and Bill McPherson.

The 49ers added great players, as well as the right kinds of players to fit Walsh’s structure. The 49ers’ first Super Bowl championship team had three rookies – Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson – starting in the defensive backfield.

Joe Montana took to Walsh’s coaching and system, combining that with his skills, to become one of the great quarterbacks of all time.

And, most important, Dwight Clark did not allow that ball to slip through his hands.

More from Hindsight 2020

'The Catch' tops 49ers' best five plays in franchise's long history

'The Catch' tops 49ers' best five plays in franchise's long history

Editor's note: This week, we'll be counting down the top 20 plays in 49ers franchise history. This installment will rank plays No. 5-1. Be sure to tune into "Super Bowl Week in America" every night this week on NBC Sports Network and streaming here.

There is no shortage of iconic moments in 49ers franchise history.

With five Super Bowl championships and decades of sustained success in the NFL, San Francisco is regarded as one of the most decorated organizations in the league.

We've reached the end of our countdown, as only the best five plays in team history remain. 

[RELATED: 49ers' top plays -- No. 10-6]

Let the debate begin.


[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Why these four moments belong on Bay Area sports' Mount Rushmore

Why these four moments belong on Bay Area sports' Mount Rushmore

Let's get this over with right away: Read the rules, understand the fine print. 

On Friday, 95.7 The Game came up with their four greatest Bay Area sports moments. Here's what they came up with. 

This got us thinking, if we were to make a Mount Rushmore of the greatest moments in Bay Area sports history, would these be the four? First, back to the rules and fine print.

This is about the greatest moments, not the greatest teams, so just saying a championship or run of championships doesn't count. We also are talking about plays and/or moments that happened during games on the field or court. 

If we were talking more about the grander scheme of things in a broader sense, the 1989 World Series obviously would be added for the Loma Prieta earthquake. On the field, though, the A's swept the Giants and the games mostly are forgettable. Colin Kaepernick first kneeling during the national anthem in a 2016 preseason game certainly would deserve a spot as well. Take a look around at the world right now, and you'll know why.

So, as far as greatest sports moments go, the 95.7 The Game crew almost nailed it. They were right on three out of four, dropping the ball just once. Which brings us to how it should have gone. 

The Catch 

This list can't start any other way. From the play to the situation to the iconic photo and the nickname, "The Catch" has it all.

With 58 seconds left against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, Clark stretched out his arms to snag Joe Montana's pass in the end zone, tying the game at 27 points apiece before an extra-point gave the 49ers the lead and the eventual win. San Francisco went on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI to win their first of five championships.

"The Catch" not only is one of the most iconic plays in 49ers and Bay Area history, it also is one of the most memorable moments in NFL and sports history as a whole. 

The Play

Just like "The Catch," this is a moment that lives on in sports history. Close your eyes and you can see it happening. Actually, you can hear it happening as well. 

"The band is out on the field!" It's an iconic call in a wild scene that will be played until the end of time.

Cal came into the game 6-4 and Stanford was just 5-5. The stakes obviously weren't high, but in a rivalry game, records go out the window. This moment had to make the list. 

Madison Bumgarner, Game 7

This one wasn't easy. There were multiple times where I came close to making a change. What about Travis Ishikawa's walk-off home run in the 2014 NLCS? Or Edgar Renteria's go-ahead homer in Game 5 of the 2010 World Series? Or even just the final out out the 2010 World Series? 

During the Giants' dynasty of winning three titles in five years, from 2010 to 2014, there were plenty of iconic moments. None are like Bumgarner coming out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.

Bumgarner had just thrown a 119-pitch shutout in Game 5. That didn't matter to him, he wanted the ball. So in Game 7, he threw 68 pitches over five shutout innings out of the bullpen to hold off the Royals. MadBum was a rockstar.

The iconic performance lowered his World Series ERA to 1.03 that year, and he was named MVP of the Fall Classic.

Game 6 Klay

Finally, we disagree. Let's let Steve Kerr explain. 

When the Warriors coach was asked Friday by 95.7 The Game what Steph Curry's defining moment is, he answered with three words: "All of them." 

Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals certainly is one of them. Curry scored 12 of the Warriors' final 13 points to give Golden State a three-games-to-two lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers. His 37 points put the Warriors within one win of their first title in 40 years.

That performance was one among a long list that Curry has given Warriors fans. The same goes for his "Bang! Bang!" game-winner in 2016 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and others -- including Baron Davis' dunk over Andrei Kirilenko in the 2007 Western Conference semifinals -- have given Dub Nation unforgettable moments. In this case, we're listening to Kerr once again.

"I've watched that game several times since, and it's almost impossible to fathom what Klay did and what he was able to do individually in that game to pull the game for us," Kerr said on 95.7 The Game while arguing Thompson's performance in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals. "It was just an amazing performance."

With the Warriors on the verge of elimination after a record-breaking 73-win season, Thompson set a single-game NBA playoff record 11 3-pointers in Golden State's 108-101 win. He finished with 41 points and had every Warriors fan glued to their TVs as he quieted Chesapeake Energy Arena. 

"Game 6 Klay" was born and never will be forgotten.


The list is too long. Yell at me on Twitter. @DaltonJ_Johnson