The San Francisco 49ers had been a moderately successful franchise in the early 1970s with John Brodie at quarterback, but those teams came up short in the playoffs and the team then fell on hard times. San Francisco struggled to a 6-10 finish in 1980, finishing third in the four-team NFC West they shared with Atlanta, the LA Rams and the New Orleans Saints. Atlanta had gone 12-4 and Los Angeles was 11-5 the previous year, with both making the playoffs, but losing to perennial power Dallas.
Head coach Bill Walsh was of a mind to change that, having already made a jump from two to six wins and now was aiming for more. The godfather of the West Coast offense had his quarterback in place with Joe Montana and a good tandem of receivers in possession man Dwight Clark and deep threat Freddie Solomon.
Defensively the Niners needed help and they were banking on three rookie defensive backs—Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Ronnie Lott to step in and make immediate impact. No one was thinking Super Bowl, but the 1981 San Francisco 49ers had reason to think the winning was around the corner.
The season didn’t start off well. They lost their opener in Detroit and a Week 3 game at Atlanta gave absolutely no evidence that a changing of the guard in the NFC West in the offing. The Niners fell behind early, Montana did not play well and Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski carved up the young secondary in a 34-17 final.
Consecutive wins over New Orleans and Washington got Walsh’s team to 3-2 and set up a mid-October home game with Dallas. No one was prepared for what happened in Candlestick Park. The 49ers had a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and the Cowboys never got back into the game. Montana was efficient and Clark racked up over 100 yards in receiving. The 45-14 final sent a clear message to the conference’s traditional power.
There was no letdown afterward, as a win over Green Bay set up a game with Los Angeles. The 49ers again got off to fast start, leading 14-0 after a quarter. Montana and Ram quarterback Pat Haden—a future TV analyst and current USC athletic director—each played well, but Montana was able to play with a lead, Clark again had 100-plus receiving yards and San Fran churned out a 20-17 win.
One week later it was the defense who took center stage in Pittsburgh. While the Steelers, the dominant team of the 1970s, had begun their decline the previous year and missed the playoffs, they were still respected and the 14-3 shutdown performance was yet another sign that Walsh had something special going by the Bay.
In the meantime, Atlanta and Los Angeles were fading fast and would fall to 7-9 and 6-10 respectively. San Francisco was able to coast home, winning both remaining games against its division rivals, finishing 13-3 and securing both the NFC West and the top seed in the playoffs. They and Dallas were light-years ahead of the rest of the NFC and the October win was the difference in making the road to the Super Bowl come through Frisco.
San Francisco took the field for their first playoff game, facing the New York Giants. The Niners again scored first. Their fast starts were no coincidence, as Walsh had instituted the practice of scripting the first 25 plays, regardless of down and distance and San Fran used its preparation to consistently get the early edge.
In this game, Giant quarterback Scott Brunner wiped out the early deficit with a 72-yard strike to Earnest Gray, but the 49ers kicked into another gear for the second quarter, scoring 17 points, including a 58-yard pass from Montana to Solomon. The day of long scoring passes continued when Brunner completed a 59-yard play to cut the margin back to 24-14, but ultimately the Giant signal-caller was not efficient, completing only 16 of 37 passes, while Montana was a cool 20-for-31. The final was 38-24 and when Dallas destroyed Tampa Bay in the other divisional game, the NFC title showdown was set.
The 1981 NFC Championship Game was about more than who would play in the Super Bowl. It was about one proud traditional power looking to keep what it saw as their rightful place atop the conference, and another up-and-comer looking to change the landscape.
It was a game worthy of those stakes. San Francisco—have you heard this before?—struck first and took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but Dallas scored 10 points before the quarter was out. The teams traded TDs and the lead in the second quarter and it was 17-14 Cowboys at the half.
San Francisco was nursing a 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter when Dallas quarterback Danny White found tight end Doug Cosbie for a touchdown. With the 49ers pinned on their own 12-yard-line and only 4:54 left, it looked like the Old Guard would hold on.
Dallas went to its softer coverages, and Walsh took advantage by running sweeps—without blitzing or constant penetration, the pulling guards could get good blocking angles, and San Francisco ran its way out of the shadow of their end zone. They eventually worked their way down to the Dallas 6-yard line with less than a minute to go, facing third-and-goal.
Montana rolled right, under pressure. He decided to throw the ball away, but didn’t quite get it out of the end zone. It was Clark who skied and snared the ball by his fingertips. An epic Sports Illustrated cover caught Clark’s catch at its apex and it went into NFL lore as simply “The Catch.”
The game didn’t end there. A Cowboy field goal could still undo The Catch and White hit Drew Pearson over the middle and got to the 50-yard line. Pearson nearly pulled away, but Eric Wright grabbed the receiver’s jersey and hung on for dear life. One play later, gut pressure forced White into both a sack and fumble and the 49ers had won.
San Francisco’s win had already ensured a changing of the guard in the NFL. A new team was coming out of the AFC as well, with Cincinnati validating its #1 seed with two home playoff wins over Buffalo and San Diego, the latter played in frigid and windy temperatures. The Super Bowl would be the first one played at a non-warm weather city. Detroit, with the old Pontiac Silverdome, would host the game.
Continuing their pattern, Montana’s offense got on the board with a first-quarter touchdown and with the Bengals suffering turnover problems, The 49ers added another TD in the second quarter and followed it up with two field goals to take a 20-0 lead into the locker room. The lead could’ve been larger, as the Bengal defense had stiffened near the goal line on the last two scoring drives. But it was nothing compared to what the Frisco defense had in store for the nation.
Cincinnati cut the lead to 20-7 and then drove to the 1-yard-line for a 1st-and-goal. Big fullback Pete Johnson was one of the best short-yardage bruisers in the league. He went into the line once and was stopped. He went into the line again and was stopped.
On third down, Cincinnati threw a swing pass to the goal line, but an outstanding tackle saved the touchdown. On fourth and less than a yard, Johnson tried again. And again was stopped. Even though the Bengals did cut the lead to 20-14, the momentum seemed clearly in San Francisco’s direction.
The Niners used that momentum for a pair of time-consuming drives that both ended in field goals from veteran kicker Ray Wersching. The Bengals got another late touchdown to make it 26-21 but when the 49ers covered the onside kick, it was all over.
Not only were two new teams in the Super Bowl, but San Francisco’s win ushered in a new dynasty. The 49ers would win three more championships with Montana at the helm, another with Steve Young in 1994, while Walsh’s successor George Seifert would lead the way to two of those rings. Walsh’s West Coast offense revolutionized the game and his “Coaching Tree” of assistants became the most successful ever spawned.
It all began with the 1981 San Francisco 49ers and The Drive, The Catch & The Goal-Line Stand.