Montana's magic touch made Clark a hero

10/17/2007 - NFL

In his new book, "The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches & Moments in NFL History," Sal Paolantonio challenges some of your long-held beliefs about America's popular game.

You walk into NFL Films in Mount Laurel, N.J., and you feel like you've just stepped into a time machine, with all those momentous snapshots of pro football history in life-sized color photographs on the walls.

And you know the story behind each image, because -- like an old home movie that has been brought into your living room over and over again by Steve Sabol and John Facenda -- those moments have been cinematically mythologized.

You know them all so well -- you can be Joe Namath waving his right index finger in the air after Super Bowl III. You could be Johnny Unitas handing the ball to Alan Ameche at twilight at Yankee Stadium in 1958. You could be Joe Montana tossing the perfect pass to Dwight Clark at Candlestick Park in 1982.

Those highlights have been replayed so many times on TV, written about so much in every history of the NFL, that it has become almost sacrilegious to question their importance.

For example, "The Catch." It's been overrated and overhyped for years. First of all, it's a misnomer. It should be called "The Pass." It was a nice catch, no doubt about that. Clark's catch made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But the throw -- that was an absolute thing of beauty. Montana never gets credit for it. He's running out of real estate along the sideline. He's got three Cowboys ready to climb down his throat.

Later, humble to the end, Montana would describe his pass as "like throwing paper into a trash can. You have no idea of whether you can make it."

Just like Montana, who was very close to Clark, to play down his role. But Montana threw that football under significant duress to the only spot where the 6-foot-4 Clark could catch it -- at the top of his leap in the back of the end zone. The catch, which got all the credit, was really an accident of Clark's anatomy.

But The Throw (yes, we're capitalizing it here) was the thing. It had the right trajectory, the right touch, the right height. In short, it was the kind of pass that Montana would execute for the rest of his career, sending to him to eight Pro Bowls -- the kind of pass that would collect all those Lombardi trophies, the kind of pass that would put him, and others, in Canton. After the year of "The Catch," Clark would not make another Pro Bowl, and he would catch just one more touchdown pass in eight more postseason games with the Niners.

And "The Catch" got credit not just for the signature moment of that game, but for a rivalry decided and a dynasty delivered. That's overrated, too.

First of all, the Niners should have easily won that game. San Francisco had 393 total yards to the Cowboys' 250. But the 49ers committed six turnovers in the game. They were determined to give it away. "The Catch" was the unlikely half of a great play in a game that was absolutely controlled by Dallas. But the Cowboys were just not good enough. In fact, that game was one of a long line of postseason games that the Cowboys were finding ways to lose in that era.

From 1978 to 1983, the Cowboys had five successive years in which they underperformed in the postseason. They lost Super Bowl XIII to the Steelers -- "Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America" -- in the 1978 season. The following season, they lost to the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams 21-19 in the divisional playoffs. In 1980, Dallas went down hard in Philadelphia, losing 20-7 to Ron Jaworski's Eagles, a team that was embarrassed by the Raiders in Super Bowl XV.

After the loss to the Niners in 1981, the Cowboys lost their third straight NFC Championship Game in 1982, this time to the eventual Super Bowl champion Redskins.

So, despite the claims that The (so-called) Catch ushered in the demise of the Cowboys, that's simply wrong. The loss to the Niners was a symptom, not a catalyst of what happened to the Cowboys.

That's what "The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches & Moments in NFL History" is all about: It challenges you to take another look at pro football history. Take out those old snapshots. Look a little closer and you might find some hidden meanings or draw a different conclusion.

And the historical significance of some moments has been vastly overlooked, and undervalued.

For example, let's look at the year following Ameche's dramatic touchdown run in OT in 1958. The Giants had just lost back-to-back NFL championship games to the Baltimore Colts: the thriller in 1958, considered the NFL's greatest game; then, a blowout in 1959. Vince Lombardi was coaching the Giants' offense alongside Tom Landry, who coached the defense. Jim Lee Howell was the head coach of a team that had won one NFL championship (1956) since the mid-1930s.

A year earlier, CBS-TV had signed the first-ever national broadcast contract with the NFL. Sports Illustrated, the country's first but still fledgling magazine dedicated only to sports, decided to have full-time coverage of the league.

The Giants were about to move from the old, rundown Polo Grounds to the sparkling House That Ruth Built in the Bronx. The Giants at Yankee Stadium on national TV with a boy wonder star running back named Frank Gifford. It was all aligned for New York to become the mecca of football.

Owner Wellington Mara was not about to fire Howell. He was loyal -- perhaps to a fault. But he was sitting on a gold mine, two assistant coaches who were in high demand: Lombardi and Landry.

And Mara and Lombardi shared something else in common -- a Jesuit heritage forged at Fordham University. Twice, Mara had almost lost Lombardi, but stopped him from leaving. In 1955, the Giants' owner persuaded Lombardi not to return to West Point as an assistant coach. And in 1958, Mara talked Lombardi out of taking a low-ball offer to become the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

But now the Green Bay Packers, which had not tasted a championship since 1944 (by beating the Giants that year, 14-7 in the NFL title game), needed a head coach. Lombardi, who had two years remaining on his Giants contract as offensive coordinator, flew to Wisconsin to meet with a group of civic leaders that ran the team.

And the Giants were at a crossroads. In fact, the NFL was at a crossroads. Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, realizing the power of a national TV audience, needed the game to be re-seeded at its roots, in the heartland -- the Midwest. But he also needed a strong team in the country's top media markets to milk the networks out of more and more cash.

Mara understood this. There is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that Rozelle and Mara conspired to undermine the Giants' future by allowing Lombardi to go to Green Bay. It's a nice idea. But it's merely an accident of history. Mara was loyal to Howell. He thought Lombardi's incendiary personality was too volatile for the head job, that Lombardi was not the ready for prime time in New York. Obviously, it was one of the greatest blunders in professional sports history.

On Feb. 2, 1959, Vince and Marie Lombardi flew to Green Bay. And, as John Facenda, the late, great voice of NFL Films, once said: "Lombardi, a certain magic still lingers in the very name."

Had Lombardi stayed in New York, would Rozelle's vision -- of a national game on national TV with teams in small markets and big markets on the same financial playing field -- survived and flourished? Probably not.

Had Lombardi not gone to Green Bay, would there have been an insatiable desire for a successful AFL franchise in New York? Probably not. And what about the Broadway in Joe Namath? Does that happen? And maybe the AFL takes many more years to challenge the NFL's hegemony. And you do the calculations for what that would have meant for TV contracts, the future of the Super Bowl as an unparalleled national extravaganza, the extraordinary growth of the league.

Now, had Lombardi stayed in New York, had Mara hired him to lead the Giants, would the legendary coach have had enough control over the personnel to put his unique stamp on the team and win all those championships? Maybe not.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN. "The Paolantonio Report: the Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches & Moments in NFL History" can be found on Amazon.com or at local bookstores.