Joe Montana rolls right, backpedals, let's it fly towards the back of the endzone and...through the hands of Dwight Clark.
If Clark fails to haul in "The Catch" on third-and-3 against the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, and the 49ers whiff on their final attempt of the game, that means Montana doesn't win the first of his first four Super Bowls. And who's to say he ever wins one, at that point, let alone any with San Francisco?
An NFL Network panel considered the potential ripple effects.
Dave Dameshek theorizes such a loss could've meant a real shake-up in San Fran, one that would've registered a cool 0.7 on the Richter scale with an epicenter located about 34 miles away in Stanford, California. See where this one's going?
"I think with the Stanford ties and everything else. And there are legitimate rumors out there that Walsh was intrigued by the kid at Palo Alto," Dameshek said, believing 49ers coach Bill Walsh's history with Stanford's football program along with his documented interest in 1983 consensus first overall pick John Elway could've led to a Montana trade.
The idea of Elway tossing TDs to Jerry Rice is both frightening and tantalizing, to say the least. Assuming Elway stays healthy, there's a great chance Steve Young, should he still get drafted by Walsh in '84, never reaches QB1 status with the team. Does he get moved too? Or is he drafted by another team altogether?
Elway never planting roots in the AFC opens that division completely for the next 10-15 years. To Dameshek, that would allows Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer and QB Bernie Kosar to reap the benefits of such an opportunity. Bet you didn't see that coming.
"Marty, you're all getting at least one ring. You're making a Super Bowl trip, maybe a couple," he said. "Denver's not in your path in the late 80s in those back-to-back [AFC] title games. Congratulations, 19. You're playing in the big game, not once but twice."
So, what would this new timeline mean for the losers of that historic contest in '81? Brian Baldinger cited Dallas' conference title loss the previous year as a possible extra bit of motivation for coach Tom Landry and the gang.
"If you win that game, play Cincinnati in [Super Bowl XVI], if they win, they come back right back the following year in a strike-shortened, nine-game season and you go up against the Redskins, maybe things are different if you win one. The confidence that you have. The team that you have. Maybe they play differently," Baldinger said.
Steve Wyche opted to look at the overlooked Bengals' role in all of this fracas, saying a SB XVI win could've changed the future HOF chances of reigning league MVP QB Ken Anderson, who recorded 300/2/2 in the loss.