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Sports Then and Now

Classic Rewind: Montana and the 49ers’ First Comeback

Posted on September 14, 2010 by A.J. Foss

Of all the games that were played during Week 14 of the 1980 NFL season, the matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers seemed to be one of the least compelling games.

The 49ers were 5-8 entering this game and appeared headed toward their fourth straight losing season and seventh in the last eight seasons.  San Francisco had started the season 3-0 before losing eight games in a row.

Second-year head coach Bill Walsh was trying to move ahead with second-year quarterback Joe Montana as his quarterback of the future, who had traded starts throughout the season with Steve DeBerg.  Montana would get the start against the Saints.

While the 49ers’ recent history had been rather bad, the history of the New Orleans Saints had been all bad.

Ever since their inception in 1967, the Saints had never recorded a winning season.  However, the Saints had high hopes for the 1980 season as they were coming off an 8-8 season the year before and were favorites to win the NFC Western Division, thanks to Pro Bowlers Archie Manning and Chuck Muncie.

But things went bad from the start as the Saints as they lost their first 13 games of the season, and during the stretch they traded Muncie to the San Diego Chargers after the fourth game of the season.

The losing continued and after a 27-7 Monday night loss to the Los Angeles Rams, head coach Dick Nolan was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Dick Stanfel.

The Saints were so bad that New Orleans sportscaster Bernard “Big D” Diliberto encouraged all Saints fans to wear paper bags over their heads at the Saints’ home games at the Louisiana Superdome.  One of the fans that wore a bag on his head wrote “Aints” on his bag on the nickname stuck to the franchise.

But the Week 14 game against the 49ers in San Francisco appeared to be the Saints’ day as they jumped out to a 35-7 halftime lead, thanks to an impressive first half by Manning as he completed 14 of 22 passes for 248 yards and threw three touchdowns, two in the first quarter, Ike Harris for 33 yards and Henry Childs for 21 yards, and one more right before the end of the half to Harris again, this time for 41 yards.

The Saints also got a contribution from running back Jack Holmes who scored on a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs in the first half.

The biggest reason for the Saints’ winless season was not the offense, but its defense which ranked dead last or near the bottom in every category.

Archie Manning tossed three touchdown passes as the Saints jumped out to a 35-7 halftime lead.

However, the defense played their best football of the season as they allowed only 21 yards of offense from the 49ers and did not permit a first down until the Saints had a 21-0 lead.

The only points of the first half for the 49ers came on a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown by Freddie Solomon.

It certainly appeared that the Saints would get their first win of the season and that the 49ers would clinch their fourth straight losing season.

But the second half featured one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NFL history.

It started on the 49ers’ opening possession of the second half when Montana hit wide receiver Dwight Clark for a 48-gain which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Montana which cut the Saints’ lead to 35-14.

Montana and Clark connected again on the next 49ers drive, this time for a touchdown when Clark took a short pass and ran into the end zone for a 71-yard touchdown that made it 35-21 midway through the third quarter.

The score would remain that way until the fourth quarter when Montana found Solomon for a 14-yard touchdown pass, ending a 13-play, 83-yard drive that trimmed the lead to 35-28 with 6:18 to play in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers defense held the Saints to a three-and-out to get the ball back at their own 22-yard line with 5:12 to go.

San Francisco drove down the field to tie the game at 35-35 on a 7-yard touchdown run by Lenvil Elliott with 1:55 left in regulation.

Neither team could score again before the end of regulation so the game went into overtime where the Saints won the coin toss and got the ball first.

Once again, New Orleans went three-and-out and punted the ball back to the 49ers who got the ball at their own 34.

The Saints appeared to have the 49ers stopped on a third down but a 15-yard personal foul was called on Saints defensive lineman Steve Parker, giving San Francisco a first down in Saints territory.

Joe Montana threw two touchdown passes in the second half comeback.

Then behind the running of Elliott and Don Woods, the 49ers drove to the Saints’ 19-yard line when kicker Ray Wersching came on to attempt a game-winning 36-yard field goal.

The result was absolutely perfect as Wersching’s kick split the uprights seven minutes and forty seconds into the overtime period giving the 49ers a 38-35 win to complete the greatest comeback in NFL history until the Buffalo Bills came back from a 35-3 deficit to pull out a 41-38 overtime win against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 AFC Wild Card Playoffs

Still, the 49ers’ comeback remains the greatest comeback in a regular season NFL game.

The loss dropped the Saints to 0-14 and it seemed the team was doomed to finish the season 0-16.  But one week later, the Saints knocked off the New York Jets 21-20 for their only win of the season.

After the season was over, Stanfel was replaced by former Oilers head coach Bum Phillips.

While the 49ers would not win another game in 1980, their dramatic comeback against the Saints was seen as a turning point in the franchise’s history.

The next season, the 49ers, with Montana fully entrenched as starting quarterback, went 13-3 and went on to win the team’s first NFL championship as they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI.

It would be the first of four Super Bowl championships during the decade, leading the 49ers to be named the “Team of the 80s”.

And it all started with a historic comeback win over a winless football team.

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