They had practiced the play every day, from the first day of training camp through Week 16 and the playoffs. Yet the play -- "Sprint Right Option" -- caused serious problems for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and his teammates.
"We hated it," Montana would say.
The play forced Montana to throw the ball while running and jumping simultaneously, and every time he attempted to throw the pass in practice, 49ers coach Bill Walsh would yell, "No, no, Joe. Throw it harder. Throw it higher.'"
The players often mumbled in disgust during practice, "How many times are we ever going to use this play, anyway?"
January 10, 1982. The NFC Championship game. The San Francisco 49ers, who had made the playoffs for the first time since 1972, vs. the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys, at Candlestick Park.
The game is an epic showdown on a muddy field, with the lead having changed six times. Dallas leads 27-21 when the 49ers get the ball back at their own 11, with 4:54 on the clock.
The 49ers get a first down on third-and-four and on the Dallas sideline, coach Tom Landry decides to abandon his "flex" defense in favor of nickel coverage -- six defensive backs and one linebacker -- because he's convinced the Niners will continue to throw.
Across the field, the silver-haired Walsh decides to gamble in a most unlikely way. He decides to change his strategy from the pass to the run, even though the Niners are a passing team. Walsh decides to call on Lenvil Elliott -- a player he had cut in preseason only to call him back when starting running back Rickey Patton suffered an injury. On first down, Elliott goes around right end for 11 yards. Two plays later, he veers around left end for seven more yards. On third-and-three, he gets the call again and slams into the line, moves the pile and gets 3 yards for the first down.
"I thought my career was over back when I was cut," Elliott would say. But Walsh knew Elliott would be ready. He'd known Elliott for several years, back when both were with the Cincinnati Bengals, Walsh as the offensive coach, Elliott as a young running back whose ability to catch passes fit into Walsh's game plans.
The two-minute warning approaches. Walsh changes up again, telling Montana to start going to the air. Montana passes five yards to Earl Cooper to the Dallas 49. Walsh and Montana have mixed it up so well, they have Dallas back on its heels.
After the two-minute warning, Walsh and Montana pull off a dozy: they run a double reverse with wide receiver Freddie Solomon. The play gains 14 yards to the Dallas 35. Next, it's a 10-yard pass to Dwight Clark. Then Montana finds Solomon for 12 more to the Dallas 13.
The Candlestick crowd is delirious as the 49ers attempt to advance to their first Super Bowl. From the Dallas 13, Montana takes a shot at Solomon in the end zone, but the pass is too long. Then Walsh goes back to Elliott, mixing up the Cowboys once again, and he goes left for seven yards.
With 58 seconds left, it's now third-and-three at the Dallas 6. The Niners call timeout. Walsh calmly tells Montana, "Sprint Right Option," the play Montana detests. Montana doesn't debate the call. He doesn't even flinch. He simply takes the Niners to the line of scrimmage. Solomon and Clark are flanked out to the right, and two backs stand behind Montana.
Walsh has never thought much of using four wide receivers, or even three, except in crisis situations. He doesn't like shotgun plays either. His theory is to threaten defenses with the same basic look on every down, from first-and-10 to third-and-long. He sees no reason to change now, with a Super Bowl berth on the line. As usual, he has his two backs in position to run, block or catch; and, as usual, the tight end is in position to block or catch.
Dallas' D.D.Lewis, a vital product of Landry's famous ultraconservative flex defense, wonders if he should blitz. Solomon's job is to pick off Dallas corner Everson Walls, who is on Clark, springing Clark open on the other side of the field. But as Montana takes the snap, Solomon slips and can not get away from Dallas' Dennis Thurman. Solomon quickly recovers, however, and grabs Walls' attention, for a split second. That's enough to spring Clark.
Montana rolls right, looking across the field and then toward the right side of the end zone. When Lewis sees Solomon slip and Montana rolling right, he realizes he should have blitzed. "Montana would be on the ground right now," he thinks to himself.
Montana is under heavy pressure from Ed "Too Tall" Jones and then Lewis, both in furious pursuit. Clark, meanwhile, runs inside, then breaks, turns and runs toward the back of the end zone. Montana is running out of room. Suddenly, he spots Clark. Nearing the right sideline, he leaps and lofts the ball toward the rear of the end zone.
The ball floats through the Bay Area mist and fog. Walls, who had picked off two Montana passes earlier in the game, is right on Clark. Walls is convinced that the ball is going long, that it's going over Clark's head and out of bounds.
But as the ball floats in the air, the 6-foot-4 Clark leaps, extending himself as far as he can. He goes high over Walls and grasps the ball with his fingertips, cradling it in his hands as he comes back down to earth. Clark slams the ball into the turf, and Candlestick Park and the 49ers' sideline explodes in celebration. Fifty-one seconds remain. Seconds later, Ray Wersching's point-after is good, and it's now San Francisco 28, Dallas 27.
The Niners hold on, sacking Dallas quarterback Danny White and forcing a fumble. Before the final gun sounds, fans pour out of the stands, rushing past security guards unable to hold back the sea of wild fans in red. Cowboy players have to fight their way to the locker room. Fans mob Montana and Clark, and they relish in the glory of The Catch.