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“The Catch”: How The Ability To Adjust Can Help You Win Big

When All Else Fails…Adjust
They know how – and when – to adjust their game plan

So in next week’s Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers will be trying to get back to a mountaintop that they as a team seemed to own in the 1980s. Four times during that decade the 49ers won the world championship. That “dynasty” era began with a play 31 years ago this month that was so iconic that even to this day, it is simply known as “The Catch.”

There are many lessons in Greatness which should be taken from a team that wins four titles in nine years, but for this month’s newsletter I wanted to focus on what I’ve learned over the years talking to players involved in the play that took a fundamental component of the sport and turned it into the kind of moment normally reserved for dreams. With one game-winning pass and accompanying reception, January 10th, 1982 was forever engraved in NFL lore. “The Catch” from quarterback Joe Montana to receiver Dwight Clark took just 7 seconds off the game-clock, but recollections of that monumental moment have an endless shelf-life. And just think–it started with a failed plan.

Apply this Characteristic: How willing are you to embrace change when the normal flow begins to slow? Are any of your old patterns or habits holding you back from continuing or unlocking more success? Close your eyes and imagine an extra option to fixing a potential problem. Remain open to the impact of all options- those adjustments could be exactly what you need to achieve Greatness.Trailing 27-21 with 58 seconds left in the game, the 49ers had scored one touchdown in every quarter except the 4th. The Cowboys defense, led by Ed “Too Tall” Jones and his 6’9″ frame had forced San Francisco into a 3rd down and three yards-to-go situation from the 6 yard line. Not only had every attempt at scoring failed that quarter for Joe Montana and the 49ers, but now they were faced with a definitive loss if they didn’t score a touchdown in less than a minute. Bill Walsh’s team dialed up a play where Montana would sprint to his right with the option of either running for the first down, or throwing the football to his primary wide receiver target, Freddie Solomon.

catch3But when Montana took the snap, the play didn’t unfold as planned. Three Cowboys defenders were instantly chasing him towards the sideline. There was no way he’d outrun them for the first down. To make matters worse, Solomon slipped while running his route so the first option was no longer available. Still running to his right, Montana regrouped, backpedaled, and heaved a throw just over the fingertips of a leaping “Too Tall” Jones. As Montana later explained in a Sports Illustrated article, he didn’t even see what happened next because the Dallas defenders knocked him to the ground. Once the home crowd erupted in celebration, the outcome was obvious. Dwight Clark had leapt high in the back of the endzone and hauled in the game-tying touchdown pass.

catch4“We never threw the ball to Dwight. His job was to go down and set a screen for Freddie,” admitted Montana. “We never threw the ball to Dwight because he was great at setting the pick for the others.”

But on that day, the crowd at Candlestick Park–and millions of football fans watching around the country–witnessed a quick adjustment that, in the face of adversity, forever shaped NFL history.

The 49ers went on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl that year, beginning a string of eight playoff appearances over the next ten seasons. And in many ways, that march to Greatness went back to that one moment when things went horribly wrong . . . and wonderfully right.

Tips From the Great Ones

"We're all gonna make mistakes, it's about how you react to those mistakes... It was all about how can we fix what the problem is." -Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame QuarterbackWhen all else fails, adjust. Great leaders find a way out of no way; they are able to assess the current situation and adjust their mindset to one that has the potential for success. As Montana’s ideal options failed during that 7-second play, the Hall of Fame quarterback needed to adapt to the situation. He knew that the play also called for Clark, as a 3rd option, to sprint into the back of the endzone after serving as a decoy. When the initial intentions of either running the ball or throwing it to Solomon failed, Montana made an on-the-spot adjustment and created Greatness.

“It’s about trusting the guys next to you. We’re all gonna make mistakes, it’s about how you react to those mistakes,” Montana said in a recent get-together of San Francisco legends.

But the lesson doesn’t stop there. It’s important to remember that Montana and the 49ers refused to panic in the face of failure. Instead, they searched for better ways to break through. “Rarely did you hear anybody argue in our huddles,” continued Montana. “It was all about how can we fix what the problem is.”

In that same gathering, the man on the other end of that iconic play, Dwight Clark, admitted that the team’s heroics were from a “never give up” mentality. Their refusal to accept failure motivated Montana to keep moving and for Clark to still run his route and remain aware of the possibility that a pass would come his way.

“We practiced it over and over again, and in practice Joe could never get it right,” remembered Clark. “He would throw it way over my head . . . But under duress, with three people on him, off his back foot, the magic of Joe Montana–he put it in the exact spot it needed to be.”

Inevitably, life gives us moments when our efforts just aren’t good enough to get the job done. But those are the ideal moments to make a minor adjustment. Just as Montana threw to Clark in a crucial moment, sometimes we must open ourselves to trying a different way to achieving desired Greatness.

This 31-year NFL flashback is a prime example of how Great leaders seem to rapidly adjust to their surroundings. But here’s the next question–what will YOU reflect on in the next 31 years? Here’s to all of the Great adjustments I hope you will make along the way.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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