Thirty-two years ago, America saw its first glimpse of what the San Francisco 49ers were slated to become, and that is arguably the best single decade any team has ever had in modern NFL history.
On Pearl Harbor Day 1980, a young Joe Montana and the 49ers came back from being down 35-7 at halftime to the winless New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park. This is one of those games where about four million people will tell you either that they were there at the game, or that they watched the entire game on TV. Ninety-nine percent of those people are lying. This was not a nationally televised game, and both teams were in the last leg of miserable seasons.
San Francisco started the year with three straight wins, but then continued to drop their next eight. The most embarrassing of those eight losses was a 59-14 shellacking by the Cowboys, a game in which San Francisco turned the ball over ten times. The 49ers came into this game having won two in a row, but the 5-9 49ers were playing for pride in this game, not a playoff spot.
The 49ers’ problems were pretty moot by comparison to the Saints. New Orleans came into the game with an 0-13 record, and things were getting pretty ugly. There were two games in which the Saints did not gain 100 yards in offense. In their 40-7 loss to the Saint Louis Cardinals, the Saints offense had the same amount of turnovers as first downs (3).
Something funny happened at the start of this game, though. Archie Manning and the Saints came out like they were fighting for a playoff spot or home-field advantage in the playoffs, and the 49ers were flat. Manning threw three first half touchdown passes, and the 49ers’ offense didn’t cross midfield. The 49ers’ only touchdown came on a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown by Freddy Solomon. New Orleans went in to halftime ahead 35-7, and looked well on their way to chalking up their first win of the season.
In the second half, the 49ers didn’t do anything they didn’t try in the first. No gimmicks, tricks, or special plays. Just execution. They scored two touchdowns in the third, and two more in the fourth, all while holding New Orleans scoreless for the rest of the game. Dwight Clark made what I believe to be the most athletic play of his career (yes, including The Catch) when he made a sideline-to-sideline 71-yard catch and run for a touchdown to put the 49ers within 14 points heading into the fourth quarter. Once that play occurred, it seemed like the fourth quarter was nothing but a formality. the 49ers were on a roll, and the Saints could do nothing to stop them. The game ended up going to overtime, where Ray Wersching kicked a 36-yard field goal to win it, 38-35. At the time, this was the greatest comeback to victory (by margin of deficit) in NFL history.
New Orleans would have to wait one more week for their first victory, 21-20 over the Jets (always the Jets).
Even though they didn’t win another game for the rest of the season, this one game gave the 49ers the confidence that they could win any game they were in, no matter the opponent or the situation.