ESPN frequently airs NFL's Greatest Games, a series produced by NFL Films encapsulating great games. Tuesday night, they aired The Catch II, #21 on my list of most memorable games.
The 49ers came into the game 12-4, with coach Steve Mariucci somehow on the hot seat. They had lost the division the "Dirty Birds" 14-2 Atlanta Falcons and were transitioning to a younger lineup. Third year receiver Terrell Owens was coming off a breakout year where he caught 14 TDs, and was on his way to becoming the #1 option ahead of Jerry Rice, who had played only 2 games in 1997 due to tearing his ACL and MCL in week 1. Formerly thought of as a draft bust, Garrison Hearst blossomed in his second season as a 49er. He had a career high 1570 yards rushing yards in 1998 (3rd in the NFL), including a memorable 96 yard game winning TD run in week one against the Jets. Steve Young was coming off career highs in yards and passing TDs, but had never beaten the Packers, dating back to his days as a Buccaneer. The Packers had eliminated the 49ers from the playoffs the last 3 seasons.
The Packers went into the game 11-5, losing the division to the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings. Brett Favre had arguably the greatest three year stretch in NFL history 1995-97 with 3 straight MVPs and 2 Super Bowls, winning one. In 1998 he took a step back, throwing 23 interceptions, but still topped 30 TDs. Reggie White was coming off a 16 sacks season in which he won Defensive Player of the Year for the second time, but was contemplating retirement. Coach Mike Holmgren had returned the Packers to their glory days, but his contract ran out at the end of the year, and was looking for total control and record money. Calling the plays was offensive coordinator Andy Reid, who figured to be a hot property in the offseason.
Right away, the teams starting making mistakes. On the third play of the game, Young hit Owens for a first down, but Darren Sharper stripped T.O., and safety Pat Terrell recovered around midfield. It took T.O. a while to recover from the fumble, as he went on to drop four passes. Tight end Tyrone Davis would drop a sure TD pass on 3rd and goal from the 5, and the Ryan Longwell nailed a field goal for a 3-0 lead. The 49ers punted on their ensuing possession, but Dorsey Levens fumbled inside the 20, setting up a 19 yard TD drive by the Niners to make in 7-3. Young hit tight end Greg Clark; lined up left he faked like he missed a block and ran an out.
Levens was all over the Packers next drive, including a 22 yard on 4th and 1 to the the Niners 2. Favre then hit Freeman on a post for a TD to go ahead. Darren Sharper picked off Young on the next drive for his second turnover of the game, the Packers punted, and the Niners drove inside the 20 setting up a 34 yard game tying field goal. Longwell missed a 50 yard field goal on the next drive, the Niners went no where and punted, Packers punt returner Roell Preston fumbled, and the Niners recovered inside the Packers 20. Two plays later, Young was picked off for the second time in the half by George Koonce. Levens capped off the drive with a 2 yard TD, and the Packers were up 17-10 at the half.
On the first draft of the second half Favre threw an interception to Lee Woodall on 3rd and 21. Young hit Clark for his second TD to tie it at 17 on a similar fake missed block, except he ran a post toward the middle of the field. Packers punted and the teams exchanged field goals. Then Owens made a physical 37 yard catch, his second, along the sideline to set up a go ahead field goal. The next play, Favre threw an inexplicable pass across his body that was intercepted with under five minutes left. The 49ers ran Hearst twice, then threw a shallow out to Owens. Owens dropped what would have been an easy first down, his fourth drop of the game, and people in the press box were already were already writing stories taking him the goat of the game.
The Niners punted, pinning the Packers at their own 11. Favre goes right down the field, hitting a covered Corey Bradford in the slot with a perfectly placed pass on a go. From the San Francisco 15, Favre set up an audible in the huddle if he saw the safety pressing. Freeman was to run a hook and then float to the back of the end zone. Since Mariucci had been the Packers quarterback coach, the teams had similar terminology in their offenses, and the audible was meant to make the Niners think Freeman would run a hook. Sure enough, Favre called it and the 49ers safety bit, and on Freeman's second TD Green Bay went up 27-23 with 1:56 left.
The Packers had taken Jerry Rice out of the game with extra coverage, so with Owens' struggles, Steve Young went to third receiver J.J. Stokes for much of the ensuing drive. He finally hit Rice for his first catch with 0:27 left, but he put the ball on the ground and it was recovered by Bernardo Harris. The refs had called Rice down, and this was before replay, so the drive went on. The Niners lined up on 3rd down from the Pack 25 with 0:08 left and the Packers dropping eight. Young tripped on the center's feet dropping back, which he says made the defense relax for a moment. He regained his composure and lofts a perfect pass up the middle to T.O. on a skinny post among four Packers defensive backs. T.O. pinballs between Sharper and Terrell, holds on, and bursts into tears hugging the ball in one of the most remarkable finishes in playoff history.
Things would never be the same for either team. Mariucci and his coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinwig and defensive backs coach Jim Mora, Jr., was retained by San Francisco. Steve Young sustained a brutal concussion on a hit by Aeneas Williams week 3 of 1999 and never played again. Rice had two of the worst seasons of his career before leaving San Francisco for Oakland. Garrison Hearst broke his ankle the first play the next week at Atlanta and missed the next two seasons. Owens became a star on that play, and with the other 49ers stars suddenly disappearing all around him, started to morph into the divisive figure he has become a decade later.
Packers General Manager Ron Wolf called for instant replay, blaming the missed call on the Rice fumble for the loss, and replay was adopted the following year. Wolf wouldn't cede control to Holmgren, so less than a week later Holmgren was named Executive VP, General Manager, and Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Two days later, Andy Reid was named head coach of the Eagles, and has said that if T.O. doesn't hold onto that pass, the Eagles would not have wanted to wait another week to name a head coach. Reid replaced Ray Rhodes, who was named Packers coach the same day after being the only person to interview. Reggie White announced his retirement, but would sit out the following season before playing 16 games with the Panthers in 2000.