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100 Things 49ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Daniel Brown
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Daniel Brown
All rights reserved.
On a typically sweltering training camp day in 1981, coach Bill Walsh asked quarterback Joe Montana and receiver Dwight Clark to stick around a little longer. Never mind that the sun beating down in Rocklin, California, had already taken its toll on the two exhausted players. Never mind that the play Walsh wanted them to rehearse — Sprint Right Option — was already a successful part of the 49ers playbook.
The problem was that Montana always threw to his primary receiver, Freddie Solomon. Walsh wanted his quarterback to demonstrate that he could connect with his second option, Clark.
You know, just in case.
So Montana practiced rolling to his right and lofting the ball to the receiver sprinting across the back of the end zone. Again and again. "Until I threw the ball three times an arm's length above Dwight's head, Bill wouldn't let us off the practice field," Montana said. "When we finally walked off, Dwight and I were both saying, 'That gray-haired guy is going senile. I don't know what he's thinking about, but we would never throw a ball there.'"
Montana smiled and then said: "Little did we know that it would become such a part of 49ers history."
The 49ers would practice Sprint Right Option again and again. The proof that they eventually got it down pat exists in the form of five Super Bowl trophies — and millions of replays and Dallas Cowboys nightmares.
But mostly it exists in two words: The Catch.
The phrase is all it takes to conjure the image of Clark soaring over defensive back Everson Walls to pluck Montana's high-arcing pass from the evening sky. The 6-yard pass with 58 seconds left gave the 49ers a 28–27 victory against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game on January 10, 1982.
The Catch launched the 49ers dynasty and forever altered the NFL landscape. The team would go on to play bigger games — starting with a triumph two weeks later in Super Bowl XVI — but no moment better defines the franchise or provides a better starting place for this top 100 countdown.
The Catch embodies Walsh's genius, Montana's magic, and a generation of 49ers like Clark who managed to rise — even soar — to the occasion.
Montana, though, didn't get to witness the crowning moment. As he let the pass go, the skinny quarterback was engulfed by an avalanche of Cowboys defenders, including Ed "Too Tall" Jones. But when they heard the Candlestick Park crowd going crazy, both of them knew exactly what it meant. "You just beat America's Team," Jones told Montana.
"And you can sit at home with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl," Montana replied.
This represented the changing of the guard. Out with the old, in with the gold. The 1981 Niners, two seasons removed from a 2 — 14 finish, had the seeds of a powerhouse — including a rookie defensive back named Ronnie Lott — and were ready to knock off the Tom Landry-era Cowboys.
But for long stretches during that NFC title game, it looked as though 49ers fans were going to suffer yet another heartbreak. In a game that featured seven lead changes, Cowboys quarterback Danny White connected with Doug Cosbie for a 21-yard touchdown pass with about four minutes gone in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys led 27–21. Of course they did. Dallas had thwarted the 49ers' championship dreams in three consecutive playoffs (1970 to 1972) and looked ready to do it again. In this one the 49ers kept trying to blow it, committing six turnovers after having turned the ball over only 25 times during the regular season.
But then Montana trotted out to the huddle. "He had this look on his face," former lineman Randy Cross told NFL Films. "And he says, 'We're going to go down, we're going to score a touchdown, and we're going to win the game. We're going to stick it in their ear.'"
Taking over at their 11-yard line with 4:54 left, the 49ers unleashed a showcase for the West Coast Offense that would torment opposing defenses for years to come. Montana kept hitting short passes and Lenvil Elliott — a 30-year-old halfback cut by the Cincinnati Bengals in training camp — kept picking up key yardage. Just after the two-minute warning, Solomon ran a reverse that gained 14 yards to the Dallas 35. Solomon picked up 12 more yards on an underneath pattern, getting the ball to the 13.
Solomon, in fact, could have been the hero. With 1:15 remaining, the 49ers ran a play called 29 Scissors that dispatched Solomon to the left corner of the end zone. The receiver ran it beautifully, broke into the clear, and the greatest clutch quarterback in the history of the universe misfired. "The Catch never would have happened if I'd hit Freddie Solomon, who was wide open," Montana said. "I threw it three feet over his head."
Instead, the 49ers followed the incompletion with a draw play to Elliott that got the 49ers to the 6-yard-line. The stage was set.
Along the sidelines, Walsh gave Montana explicit instructions: "We're going to call a sprint option. He's going to break up and break into the corner. You got it? Dwight will clear. If you don't get what you want, simply throw the ball away."
And if that sounds prophetic, consider the video clip of Walsh standing in front of a chalkboard in the meeting room, drawing up the play on the chalkboard, and telling his players: "Dwight is in here sliding back out. This is great when they're tired, and they're confused and they want to get back to Dallas. This is when you knock their ass out."
Solomon lined up in the slot inside Clark. On the Sprint Right Option, Clark first runs out and shields the defender like setting a pick in basketball, so that Solomon can spring free. It almost always works like a charm — just as it had for an 8-yard touchdown earlier in the game. But this time Solomon slipped under tight coverage so Montana scrambled right. As "Too Tall" Jones, Larry Bethea, and D.D. Lewis closed in, chasing the quarterback to the sideline, Montana let it fly.
The funny thing is on all those steamy days in Rocklin, Montana kept messing up. He'd throw it too low, irritating Walsh who told him a defender would be waiting. Or he'd airmail the pass over Clark's head. This time the ball floated to where only Clark's fingertips could find it. "The only time he got it right was with everything on the line, time winding down, and the defense in his face," Clark said. "That was the magic of Joe Montana."CHAPTER 2
Thanks to his dizzying intellect, Bill Walsh was often cast as the NFL's white-haired professor. Don't be fooled. The Genius was tough as nails. As a promising boxer at San Jose State in the 1950s, Walsh had such a potent left hook that he briefly flirted with the idea of turning pro. "I remember telling Bill — and I swear this actually happened — to give up on that sissy football stuff," said friend Al Accurso, who helped train Walsh during his fighting days. "I said, 'Bill, you're an obscure football player at San Jose State. You're not going to go anywhere. If you went into boxing, you could really be somebody.'"
Instead, Walsh stuck to the gridiron. And he turned the 49ers from punching bags into the heavyweight champions of the world. Hired away from Stanford by desperate owner Eddie DeBartolo in 1979, Walsh went 92–59–1 (.609) during his 10 seasons as the 49ers head coach. He won three Super Bowl titles, left behind a blueprint for two more, and revolutionized the game with his choreographed artistry of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, and Steve Young. When Walsh died of leukemia at age 75 on July 30, 2007, Young called him, "the most important person in football over the last 25 years, and I don't think there's any debate about that.
"He brought into Silicon Valley — about the time Silicon Valley was being born — the same kind of innovation. When you mention Steve Jobs or Andy Grove, you just say Bill Walsh. He was doing the same thing, just in a different venue — football. I've always said Bill would have been a great CEO of anything. Luckily for us it was the 49ers."
Perhaps the most influential strategist in NFL history, Walsh was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. He popularized and perfected the West Coast Offense that paved the way for the team's five Super Bowl victories. His teams won six NFC West titles and raised the standard for an organization that had zero titles before his arrival. The new bar? Anything less than a Super Bowl was considered a crushing disappointment. "One of the things I learned from Bill Walsh," Montana said, "is that you want to be perfect."
To be fair, Walsh did look like a professor. As the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: "You half expect his headset is playing Mozart." Walsh made it cool to blend IQ with Xs and Os.
Montana recalled that even one of Walsh's simplest plays was a mental challenge. He pointed to one called 22-Z-In, which often came in a split-back set. The back on one side would run a 12-yard hook while the other back ran a wide flare. The tight end also ran a hook. But depending on the coverage he saw, the running back's hook could turn into a crossing route ... or an out-route ... or a speed-cross and a stop, which means that if the back saw a defender in front of him during a crossing route, he had the freedom to stop. At the same time, receiver John Taylor would be running one of two routes depending on the look he got from the safety in the middle of the field.
Whatever happened, it was all precisely as it had been drawn up on Walsh's chalkboard. "It was easy to believe Bill Walsh because he would tell you things that would happen," Dwight Clark told NFL Films. "He'd say, 'We're going to run this play against this defense. When you catch it, there won't be anybody within 10 yards of you.'
"Then you'd make the catch during the game and you'd turn around, and there'd be nobody there. [Walsh] would do that over and over with his designing of plays. It just got to the point where everything he said you believe."
Even as a fledgling coach, William Ernest Walsh was always one step ahead. In graduate school for physical education at San Jose State, his master's thesis was called "Flank Formation Football — Stress: Defense," a project he later dismissed as "the silliest little thing." But former Spartans coach Bob Bronzan was amazed. In a recommendation for Walsh's file, Bronzan would later write: "I predict Bill Walsh will become the outstanding football coach in the United States."
After a flurry of brief coaching stops that ranged from head coach at Washington Union High School in Fremont, California, to college assistant gigs to the San Jose Apaches of the Continental Football League, Walsh got his big break in 1968. He was hired by legendary Cincinnati Bengals coach Paul Brown to oversee quarterbacks and receivers. Under Brown, Walsh learned the value of the short, high-percentage passes, which would define his West Coast Offense.
But his tenure in Cincinnati ended on a sour note: Walsh turned down several job offers because he was certain he was in line to succeed Brown. When the Bengals instead handed the job to Bill "Tiger" Johnson in 1976, Walsh was shattered. He resigned his post and moved to San Diego, where he served one year as an assistant for Chargers coach Tommy Prothro before getting the top job at Stanford.
The 49ers lured Walsh away from Stanford after the 1978 season just as the NFL franchise was hitting rock bottom. San Francisco staggered to a 2–14 finish that season. General manager Joe Thomas had gone through four coaches in two years and traded 14 draft picks during that span. DeBartolo, the owner, fired Thomas and entrusted the roles of coach and general manager to Walsh. At 47 he was finally in charge of an NFL team. Things didn't look much different in the standings at first, as Walsh endured another 2–14 mess in '79 and sputtered to a 6–10 finish in 1980.
But the climate was changing. "There was a feeling in the air," Montana said, "that something was different."
The 49ers broke through in 1981 with Montana and Clark hooking up for The Catch. After the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC title game, Walsh's first Super Bowl victory came against his old employer, the Bengals. The emotional outpouring from the Bay Area after that '81 championship season, including the 49ers' victory parade down Market Street, stayed with Walsh the rest of his life. "I thought perhaps a few thousand people might show up, and it was more like 200,000," Walsh said. "My God, it was incredible. And what I remember is one of our players, Charle Young, standing up before all those people saying, 'We are champions!'"
Walsh was the NFL's Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1984. The Hall of Famer retired after the 1988 season. After the 49ers organization hit a skid, Walsh came back as vice president and general manager from 1999 to 2001 and served three more years as a consultant, reinvigorating the franchise. But his final act as 49ers coach ended after getting carried off on his players' shoulders after winning Super Bowl XXIII.CHAPTER 3
In addition to getting snowed in for seven days during his senior season, Joe Montana played his final game at Notre Dame during a historically wicked ice storm in Dallas. In that 1979 Cotton Bowl, the quarterback had to down two cans of chicken soup in the halftime locker room just to stave off hypothermia. That explains why some of 1979's early draft rumblings made Montana shiver. He heard that the Green Bay Packers were intrigued. New York was a possibility, too. "I was just begging that it was a little bit nicer than that," Montana said with a laugh. "I'd had enough of snow. I was fortunate to be drafted here. And even more fortunate that it was by a guy named Bill Walsh."
The sunny climate of San Francisco was the perfect spot for Joe Cool. Paired with the brilliant Walsh, who maximized Montana's gift for footwork and timing, the duo revolutionized the NFL landscape. And they forever warmed Bay Area hearts.
Montana played with an unforeseen elegance, tormenting defensive savages with nothing but his skinny legs, so-so arm, and immeasurable resolve. Montana games were part battle, part ballet. "You knew you had the opportunity to win simply because he was on the field," former running back Roger Craig said. "He kind of reminds me of players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan. He's in that category of great players, being able to elevate teammates to another level."
Montana won four Super Bowls during a 49ers career that lasted from 1979 to 1992. He also won three Super Bowl MVP awards, two regular season MVP awards, eight Pro Bowl selections, and six All-Pro honors. In barstool debates over who is the best quarterback of all time, these are the stats to have handy: Montana was 4–0 in Super Bowls with 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a passer rating of 127.8. He is the only player to win three Super Bowl MVP awards, and in the one game he didn't, all he did was throw the game-winning pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left.
Excerpted from 100 Things 49ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Daniel Brown. Copyright © 2013 Daniel Brown. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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