January 10, 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of what may be the most iconic moment in professional football ever.
Down 27-21 with just under a minute left to play in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana rolled to his right on a designed play. Sprint right option was a roll-out play designed for a quick pass to the receiver running in motion to the roll-out side of the play, but also left the option for the quarterback to run.
On the play, Montana's primary receiver was Freddie Solomon, who slipped on his route. Montana continued to his right, pumped to slow down the Dallas Cowboys' pass rush of Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Larry Bethea, and floated a rainbow into the end zone that changed the course of NFL history.
One Dynasty was born, another decimated.
30 years later, with the current NFL rules, "The Catch" would have been an afterthought.
In following Dwight Clark's catch in the end zone and the point after to put the 49ers up 28-27, Dallas took the following kickoff to the 25-yard line. With 47 seconds left in the NFC Title Game, Cowboys quarterback Danny White hit Drew Pearson on a post pattern near midfield.
If it were not for a horse-collar tackle made by 49ers cornerback Eric Wright, Pearson might have run the Cowboys into field-goal range, or perhaps cut up field into the end zone.
Instead, Pearson was brought down by a fingertip tackle on his jersey at the 49ers 44-yard line for a gain of 31 yards.
On the very next play, Danny White took the ball under center, dropping all the way back to the 49ers 46-yard line where he was in the middle of attempting a pass, only to bring the ball back in time to get hit and fumble away the ball to the 49ers. Game, set match.
Thirty years ago that was the National Football League, a game decided by the players. Today, the Cowboys would have benefited not from one, but from the final two plays of that title game.
The horse-collar tackle in today's NFL would have been a penalty, and an added 15 yards to the end of Pearson's catch and run, to put the ball at the 49ers 29-yard line, which is easily in range for a game-winning field goal.
The horse-collar rule went into effect in 2004 thanks to a serious of devastating injuries to players lost from being tackled, because they were dragged down and held on by the back of their jerseys near the collar. Eric Wright's tackle against Pearson was by definition, a horse-collar tackle in today's NFL.
If that call was missed, then the Cowboys would have benefited from the infamous "Tuck Rule", which showed its ugly head in the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders.
Danny White's fumble would have been ruled an incomplete pass under the "Tuck Rule" ironically, and Dallas would have maintained possession at the 49ers 44-yard line. White's fumble is almost identical to Brady's tuck pass 19 years later.
The "Tuck Rule" was introduced in 1999 with the understanding that any forward passing motion made by the quarterback would be ruled as an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. If the quarterback in the middle of his passing motion changed his mind mid-throw, like Danny White did, and never was able to "tuck" the ball back into his body before getting hit and fumbling, then the Tuck Rule would apply.
In today's NFL,"The Catch" would have been an afterthought. The 49ers would have lost thanks to two controversial rules in the NFL Rule book, rather than what was done on the field by the players themselves.
As the years go by, the NFL will never forget how one play changed the course of NFL History. However, they will put the final drive of the game into perspective with respect to today's rules. How the times have changed indeed.