After Alex Smith and Vernon Davis connected for that clutch game-winning TD in the closing seconds of Saturday's divisional playoff game, I immediately thought of TO's emotional and cathartic grab 13 years ago vs the Packers. I know Vernon tried to coin his catch as "The Grab", but I like "The Catch III" much better. I decided to dig into the details of each of these catches, for heck of it.
Each of the moments happened at home, in Candlestick Park. Interestingly, each happened on 3rd down and 3 yards to go (to a first down). All 3 were in different rounds of the playoffs: Montana's was in the conference championship, while Young's was in the Wildcard round and Smith's was in the Divisional round.
While TO and Vernon's catches happened with mere seconds on the clock, Clark's catch was actually at the 58 second mark. TO and Vernon caught the ball near the goalline and absorbed contact, while Clark snatched it at the back of the endzone, free from harassing defenders. Montana actually had to deal with more defenders than Clark did.
Date: January 10, 1982
Game: 1981 NFC Championship
Final Score: SF 49ers 28 - Dallas Cowboys 27
QB-Receiver: Joe Montana to Dwight Clark
Game situation: Dal 27 - SF 21. 3rd and 3 from the 6 yd line. 58 seconds left.
Drive info: 13 plays, 90 yards, 4:03 (started at 4:54 left)
The Catch II
Date: January 3, 1999
Game: 1998 Wildcard Round
Final score: SF 49ers 30 - Green Bay Packers 27
QB-Receiver: Steve Young to Terrell Owens
Game situation: GB 27 - SF 23. 3rd and 3 from the 25 yard line. 8 seconds left.
Drive info: 9 plays, 76 yards, 1:43 (started at 1:47)
The Catch III
Date: January 14, 2012
Game: 2011 Divisional Round
Final score: SF 49ers 36 - New Orleans Saints 32
QB-Receiver: Alex Smith to Vernon Davis
Game situation: NO 32 - SF 29. 3rd and 3 from the 14 yard line. 14 seconds left.
Drive info: 7 plays, 85 yards, 1:28 (started at 1:37)
So I guess the inevitable question would be, which Catch was the best? Looking at the play itself, Clark's catch might have been the most beautiful, but I'd say TO's catch was the most impressive. Young slipped in his drop back, but regained his balance and fired a 25 yard pass to TO, who was immediately and viciously hammered (sandwiched) by 2 defenders, but still hung on. Don't forget, there was only 8 seconds left, and they had no timeouts. Young had to go to the endzone, and the Packers knew it. Montana had nearly a minute left, was already at the 6 yard line and actually could have gained another 1st down.
As for its significance in the moment, Montana's throw symbolized the transformation of the 9ers from a losing franchise into winners. TO's catch was important because of the catharsis that it provided since the Packers had eliminated the 49ers the 3 previous seasons. So Smith's throw has a chance to have the significance of Montana's. Ultimately, Montana-Dwight was in the NFC title game and led to a SB championship, while Young-TO flamed out the following week in the 2nd round.
The Smith-Davis play had the least degree of difficulty since it was in essence a simple post pattern. In fact, it was really the culmination (and the easiest) of 4 great plays through 2 separate comeback TD drives in the last 3 minutes. However, after 8 years of being deprived of the playoffs, that throw launched us into the NFC championship game and instantly became the greatest moment since the Catch II. Where it finally finds a home in 49er lore depends on whether Smith and Davis are hoisting the trophy come Feb 5th.
In the big picture, Montana to Dwight throw jump-started the 49er dynasty in 1981 while Young's throw in the last playoff win of his career was essentially the end of that dynasty. Might Smith's throw be the first of a new 49er age?
But even if it is, nothing will ever compare to the original Catch. Nothing, except for a comeback in the Superbowl, that is.
For my money, Montana to John Taylor in the 1988 SB was the greatest 49ers play (and drive) in history. (Game situation: Cin 16 - SF 13. 2nd and 2, 10 yard line, 39 seconds left. Drive info: 14 plays, 92 yards, 2:36)