The Catch: One Play, Two Dynasties, and the Game that Changed the NFL by Gary Meyers
Review by C. Douglas Baker
On January 10, 1982 the San Francisco 49’ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game on one of the most memorable catches in NFL history. Late in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana threw up a prayer to wide receiver Dwight Clark in the end zone, beating Dallas 28-27. This improbable catch launched the San Francisco 49’ers into Super Bowl XVI, which they won over the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21.
The theme of this book is that this seminal catch by Dwight Clark marked the rise of the San Francisco 49’ers, winners of five Super Bowls and the team of the 1980’s, and the demise of the Dallas Cowboys, who slowly declined into obscurity.
There is a lot to like about this book. This is a great theme and the author supports it well through describing the highs and lows of the players that struggled on this overcast afternoon in January. But it is so poorly written and sloppily organized that at times I found it infuriating and ultimately very disappointing.
The book is mostly about the rise of the 49’ers and the decline of the Dallas Cowboys told through the prism of this one game and one catch. For the 49’ers, a loss might have meant either a longer climb to a championship, or maybe even a resigned Walsh going elsewhere and no championships at all. Cowboys’ players said a win might have given them the confidence and moxie to win another championship or more under the helm of Danny White, the Dallas quarterback playing in the long shadow of a retired Roger Staubach. But instead, the teams went in different directions.
For the 49’ers this marked the success of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense and the solidification of Joe Montana as his quarterback. Both rose to incredible heights in the 1980’s. Much of the 49’ers story revolves around Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, as well as the players and coaches around them that saw this seminal moment turn into a decade of excellence.
For the Cowboys this loss raised the red flag on an aging team, with a sometimes aloof quarterback in Danny White trying prove he could lead them to a championship. It also marked the beginning of the end for legendary coach Tom Landry who seemed to lose touch with the players and the game. Much is said about the inability of Danny White, a very fine quarterback, to ever rise out of the shadow of Staubach. He led the team to three straight NFC Championships but didn’t win any of them. Add to that an aging defense and a sudden lack of confidence, you had a team clearly on the decline.
The author tells the post-game story of many of the players on both sides of the ball. Ironically, most of the Cowboys’ stories are not good ones. It’s as if this game marked not only the decline of the team, but the decline of its players both professionally and personally.
But as noted earlier this is a poorly written and organized book that needed a more competent editor. The writing is poor, frankly, and not very engaging to read. Worse yet, even within chapters the author jumps from one chronological point to another, often abruptly, which destroys the flow of the story and the engagement of the reader.
Would I recommend the book? The stories about the players and coaches are very interesting and add to the history of both teams. If you don’t mind the poor writing and organization, it is worth the read.