Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Value of a Single Catch

I have often wondered how different professional football would have been if the San Francisco 49ers had not won the NFC championship on this day 30 years ago.

I've been following sports since I was a child, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is that there really is such a thing as destiny — at least when it comes to sports teams.

Some franchises never overcome their initial reputations as losers, and some allow those reputations to continue to hinder their progress long after they have risen above those reputations.

Sometimes franchises that have been struggling surge to the top from nowhere, get close to grabbing the brass ring but come up short and then fall back into relative obscurity — after which you might hear from them again in another 10 or 15 years.

But sometimes those franchises that surge to the top break on through to the other side and win it all — and a dynasty is born.

I believe that's what happened with the San Francisco 49ers 30 years ago today.

The 49ers weren't strangers to the playoffs, but they hadn't been participants in the postseason for nearly a decade.

Shoot, it had been five years since they had had a winning season.

In their memorable showdown with the Dallas Cowboys on that Sunday afternoon, the 49ers introduced the West Coast Offense to football fans, many of whom were seeing it for the first time. If it had failed, Joe Montana might never have enjoyed the career that he did — and the West Coast Offense might not have risen to the prominence it did.

At least, at that time.

It's safe to assume that, if Dallas had won the game, something else would have been the popular offense — and some other quarterback would have emerged as the NFL's top signal–caller — of the 1980s.

Failure on this day would have meant that the Cowboys would return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in seven years. Success for the 49ers, however, brought the energy and excitement of a new team in the Super Bowl — and that is what the 49ers were in January 1982, first–timers in the Super Bowl (as were their opponents, the Cincinnati Bengals).

But it might never have happened if Montana hadn't completed a six–yard pass to Dwight Clark in the end zone, an iconic moment that was captured in photographs that appeared in newspapers across the country the next day.

It isn't hard for me to imagine Bill Walsh and his coaching staff abandoning the West Coast Offense if it failed to produce a conference championship on this day in 1982.

Walsh was kind of like football's version of Franklin D. Roosevelt. From the moment he became the 49ers' coach, his mission was to revive a foundering franchise, just as it was Roosevelt's mission to revive the nation. FDR's presidency in the 1930s was very experimental; if something didn't have the desired effect, it would be scrapped and something else would replace it.

If the 49ers had failed to win the NFC championship on this day 30 years ago, Walsh and his staff certainly would have re–evaluated their roster — and they might well have concluded that their personnel was better suited for a different strategy.

That doesn't mean that the West Coast Offense would have died three decades ago today, never to be seen on an NFL field again.

No, I'm sure someone would have resurrected it — and probably thrived with it — if it had gone unused for years following a 49ers defeat 30 years ago today because defensive coordinators would have spent little, if any, time planning for it.

But Montana completed that pass to Clark — and the 49ers went on to win four of the next nine Super Bowls.

And the West Coast Offense set the pace in professional football for the next two decades.

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