“To me that’s the biggest similarity — the shock value. It’s surprising. And it’s awesome.”
Tuesday is the 30th anniversary of “The Catch,” Clark’s touchdown reception against Dallas that put the 49ers in their first Super Bowl and launched a dynasty. The run of success lasted more than 15 seasons and five Super Bowl victories, before the 49ers fell on hard times.
Now, with the 49ers back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, hosting the New Orleans Saints in an NFC divisional matchup Saturday, the parallels between this season of rebirth and that season three decades ago are inescapable here.
Jim Harbaugh, the head coach who has orchestrated the turnaround, came to the 49ers from Stanford, like former head coach Bill Walsh.
He runs a version of the West Coast offense that Walsh perfected in the early 1980s. And, like Walsh before him, Harbaugh has taken a league laughing stock and turned it into a formidable force.
“Three quarters of the guys on the ’81 team are [angry] at me for saying so, but position by position — and we obviously had some great, great players — all in all, I think this is a better team,” said former team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
The 49ers roster — save for a handful of players such as former Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers — is virtually the same as it was a year ago, when the team finished 6-10 under Mike Singletary, who was fired with one game remaining in the regular season.
Harbaugh was hired in early January but, because of the NFL lockout, he had virtually no time to work directly with his players. Expectations were decidedly low.
“I just wanted Harbaugh to get people talking about the 49ers again,” Clark said. “Nationally, no one paid any attention to us. I was just hoping he could jump-start things a little.”
Harbaugh’s debut as head coach came in a preseason game in New Orleans. His team looked every bit like the inept group that had struggled in previous seasons. The 49ers lost, 24-3, the offensive line was overwhelmed by the Saints’ relentless blitzes, quarterback Alex Smith struggled and it seemed obvious it would take Harbaugh at least a full season to execute a turnaround.
Five months later, the 49ers have a 13-3 record and secured the second seed in the NFC, nudging out the Saints in a tiebreaker.
“We’re not even the same team as that preseason game,” said tackle Joe Staley. “We have so much more confidence, we’re so much more sure of ourselves and the schemes and what we’re doing.”
As they were in 1981 when they took on Danny White and “America’s team,” the 49ers are likely to be overshadowed by Drew Brees and the record-setting Saints offense. The Saints are favored by 31
2 points despite being on the road.