For a quarter century they have been each other's greatest
obstacle and spur. Between them, the Dallas Cowboys and the San
Francisco 49ers have won five of the last seven Super Bowls, seven of
the last 14. The Niners' 38-28 win over Dallas on a sodden
Candlestick field last month was but a natural phase in the waxing
and waning of power in the NFL's most sublime rivalry. This time it
was Dallas's turn to get waxed.
Disregard the internationally televised, Roman-numeraled
anticlimax that occurred a fortnight later in Miami: For the third
time in as many years, the NFC Championship Game served as the de
facto Super Bowl. Considering the Super futility experienced by the
AFC over the previous decade, one could hardly blame 49er president
Carmen Policy for saying, on the eve of the NFC title game, ''In our
minds, if we get to the Super Bowl, we win.''
Once there, in other words, the hard part of their season is over:
They've gotten past Dallas. And the converse applies -- did apply the
previous two seasons, as the Cowboys beat the Niners in two
conference title games and, as an afterthought, twice crushed the
Buffalo Bills for the Lombardi Trophy.
Considering the up-and-down pattern of this rivalry (the rise of
one has nearly always come at the expense of the other), it seems
appropriate that the seeds of San Francisco's return to the Super
Bowl were planted in an elevator. Down-and-out after watching their
team get manhandled by the Cowboys in the January '94 conference
championship game, Policy and team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. boarded
the elevator to the locker room in Texas Stadium and vowed during
their descent that the 49ers -- having just lost to the Cowboys for
the third time in a row and having been expelled from the playoffs by
Dallas for the second straight year -- would fall no further.
They began to plot the housecleaning and the binge signing of
defensive free agents that would lead to their return to the Super
Bowl. Why the urgency to retool?
''((The Cowboys)) are the enemy incarnate,'' Policy recently told
The Dallas Morning News. ''They are the force that has to be overcome
for us to achieve what we are duty- and honor-bound to achieve.''
So transcendent is this rivalry that its defining moment has a
two-word title that, 13 years after the fact, still resonates
throughout the land: Video clips of The Catch are trotted out every
time the Niners face the 'Boys. Fewer people, however, remember The
Preston Riley remembers. The 49ers had lost consecutive NFC title
games to the Cowboys when the two teams hooked up in the '72
divisional playoffs. The Niners led by 12 points with 90 seconds to
play when things went very wrong at the Stick. First, Cowboy
quarterback Roger Staubach threw a 20-yard touchdown pass. Then
Riley, a 49er wideout, fumbled Toni Fritsch's onside kick: The Drop.
Staubach's second TD pass in under two minutes sank San Francisco.
''With five minutes to go, I don't think any of us felt we had a
chance to win,'' admitted Blaine Nye, a Cowboy guard. One game
account described dispirited 49er Vic Washington, his 97-yard kickoff
return squandered, sitting in his cubicle throwing up and Riley
smoking a cigarette as tears streamed down his face. It would be nine
more years before the 49ers made it to their first Super Bowl.
The Cowboys played in five of them -- winning two -- in the '70s,
a decade that saw them go 6-1 against the Niners, knocking them out
of the playoffs three times. By the conclusion of that decade,
however, the luck of America's Team had begun to change. After
suffering the fifth concussion of his career, in a 1979 playoff loss
to the Los Angeles Rams, Staubach retired, leaving the controls of
the Cowboy offense to a succession of less effective field generals
such as Danny White, Gary Hogeboom, Steve Pelleur and Babe
In the 1981 draft, the Cowboy brain trust decided that Baylor
linebacker Mike Singletary was too small to make it in the NFL and
used the club's first- round pick on . . . tackle Howard Richards.
Doesn't really ring a bell, does it? This would be the first in a
series of poor drafts that plagued the Cowboys until Jimmy Johnson
was hired in 1989. In contrast, the 49ers were making quantum leaps
due to the inspired, often brilliant selections of Bill Walsh, who'd
taken over as 49er coach before the '79 season. After going 2-14 that
year, the Niners improved to 6-10 the following season and . . .
what's this? A bit of backsliding? So it appeared when the Niners
dropped two of their first three games in '81. They then won 13 of
their next 14. But in the NFC title game against Dallas, which had
eliminated the Niners from their last three playoffs, San Francisco
was dreadful, turning the ball over six times and committing numerous
dumb penalties. Two interference calls on their rookie cornerback, a
kid by the name of Lott, led to 10 Dallas points. Even so, as the
49ers took possession on their own 11-yard line with 4:54 left, they
trailed only 27-21.
''Almost five minutes left, and ((we had)) all our timeouts,''
Walsh would say. ''I liked our chances.'' Why not? This Montana guy,
a third-year man out of Notre Dame, had engineered some nifty
comebacks for the Fighting Irish. Maybe he had some magic up his
Montana commenced whittling away at the Cowboy defense. Twelve
plays got San Francisco to the Cowboy six-yard line with :58 to play.
Walsh's call: sprint right option. Lining up right, wide receiver
Dwight Clark had a lot to think about. He was to clear out for
primary receiver Freddie Solomon, setting a sort of semipick; cut
across the end zone right to left; then, if he still wasn't open,
pull a U-turn and break back to the right. He was completing this
last part of his route with Cowboy cornerback Everson Walls breathing
down the nape of his neck when Montana, forced up against the
sideline by ''Too Tall'' Jones and Larry Bethea, let 'er rip. Recalls
Clark, ''I thought, Uh-oh, I can't jump that high.''
Because Clark was wrong -- he skied for the game-winning catch, or
Catch -- the 49ers went on to the first of the four Super Bowls they
would win in nine years.
Walsh had taken Clark in the 10th round of the '79 draft -- the
same class that yielded Montana, a third-rounder. Though through '84
Walsh and his staff also chose Keena Turner, Ronnie Lott, Jesse
Sapolu, Roger Craig and Todd Shell, it was Walsh's first-round pick
on April 30, 1985, that would go down as one of the shrewdest
draft-day maneuvers ever, a turn of events that confounded the
Cowboys then and haunts them to this day.
The top four wide receivers coming out of college that year were
Eddie Brown of Miami, Wisconsin's Al Toon, Jessie Hester of Florida
State and Mississippi Valley State's Jerry Rice. We intend no slight
to Walsh (the Genius) by pointing out that he wanted Brown -- a lot
of people did -- and phoned Cincinnati Bengal general manager Paul
Brown, who held the 13th pick, offering San Francisco's first-round
pick (28th) plus second- and third-round choices for Cincinnati's
first and third. Brown never returned the call and on draft day
snatched Eddie Brown for himself.
Walsh phoned the New England Patriots, who had the 16th spot, and
offered them the deal he'd offered Cincinnati. The Pats jumped, and
Walsh snatched Rice out from under the noses of the Cowboys, who also
coveted him. In addition to his 139 career touchdowns, Rice -- widely
deemed the best wide receiver in the history of the game -- has
caught 17 touchdowns in the playoffs, among the more recent of which
was a 28-yard reception that ultimately proved to be the winning
score in San Francisco's latest victory over Dallas.
It doesn't seem all that long ago that the Cowboys were at rock
bottom. In 1989, new owner Jerry Jones replaced coach Tom Landry with
Johnson, who lost 15 of his first 16 games. The 49ers, meanwhile,
were winning their second consecutive Super Bowl. Unbowed, Johnson
built a frightfully fast team around a frighteningly good
quarterback. While the 49ers, now under George Seifert, failed to
make the playoffs after the '91 season, the Cowboys reached the
division final. Once again, the teams were headed in opposite
One could not help but be impressed by the talent assembled by
Johnson, which by '94 included Charles Haley, who had worn out his
welcome in San Francisco. A third straight Super Bowl seemed a very
But what the 49ers had not been able to do to the Cowboys, the
Cowboys did to themselves. The momentum of the Dallas juggernaut was
slowed by something every bit as colossal and formidable as the team
itself: the ego of Jerry Jones. Displeased with how little credit he
was receiving for the Cowboys' success and how much of it Johnson was
getting, Jerry served Jimmy his walking papers and brought on the
bootlegger's boy, former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer.
Switzer went to the Cowboys with high expectations, and his
arrival was embraced by almost everyone in Dallas. However, only
one coach in NFL history -- Seifert of the '89 Niners -- had ever led
a defending Super Bowl champion to another title in his first year.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Seifert's Super Bowl win had long been
forgotten, and rumors of his dismissal swirled until the 49ers ousted
the Cowboys in the NFC title game. After that contest, the
finger-pointing began in Dallas.
Surprisingly, Switzer's predecessor is not throwing stones, at
least not from his bully pulpit as a Fox network analyst. Johnson's
Miami Beach restaurant features a Jerry and Barry sandwich -- ''a lot
of tongue and baloney,'' says the ex (for now) coach, who recently
implied that Switzer had screwed up, then absolved him of
responsibility for screwing up when he told USA Today, ''It isn't
Switzer's fault. Jerry's the one who put him in that situation.''
Sure, the departure of Johnson may have hastened the Cowboys'
decline. But as any student of this rich rivalry can tell you, that
fall was inevitable. Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman demonstrated both
his class and his grasp of this verity when he caught up with Steve
Young after their last game.
''This is your year,'' said Aikman. ''It's your turn.''
BOX: A HEAD-TO-HEAD HISTORY
Niners vs. Cowboys: Once a trivial tussle, now a clash of titans
49ers win first meeting with Cowboys 26-14 at Cotton Bowl, in
Dallas. Niner kicker Tommy Davis ties team record with four field
'Dandy' Don Meredith (left) of Cowboys passes for 460 yards, but
Niners still win at home in Kezar Stadium 31-24.
Cowboys get first-ever win over Niners, 39-31, despite gaining
only 41 yards rushing.
Dick Nolan (left), former Cowboy assistant and former teammate of
Dallas coach Tom Landry (right), becomes new 49er head coach.
Cowboys and Niners play on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas. Game is a
turkey, ending 24-24.
Dallas beats 49ers 17-10 in NFC championship, last game in
decrepit Kezar (right). Mayor Joseph Alioto says move to improved but
inhospitable Candlestick is 'perpetuating a mediocrity.'
Cowboys again prevail in NFC Championship Game, 14-3, at Texas
Stadium. Dallas D intercepts John Brodie three times.
Niners lose 30-28 in playoffs at Candlestick, blowing 28-13 lead
in fourth quarter. Roger Staubach replaces Craig Morton at QB and in
final period throws two TD passes.
Niners and Cowboys set a record for points scored on Monday Night
Football. Cowboys escape Candlestick with 42-35 win and go on to win
Danny White (left) throws for four TDs as Cowboys crush San
Francisco 59-14 in second-worst 49er defensive performance ever.
Niners win 45-14 as newly acquired defensive end Fred Dean (left)
sacks White twice. Tom Landry says, 'Our team was in a fog.'
Third down on the six. Fifty-one seconds left. Montana to Clark
(right). The Catch. 28-27. A dynasty ends. A dynasty begins.
San Francisco picks up LB Michael Walter off waivers from Dallas.
A scrub with Cowboys, Walter will lead 49ers in tackles in '87 and
Niners execute draft-day trade with Patriots, enabling 49ers to
select Jerry Rice with 16th overall pick. Cowboys, who coveted Rice,
choose Kevin Brooks with 17th pick.
San Francisco trades first-round pick to Cowboys, who draft Mike
Sherrard. He will eventually sign with Niners.
Frustrated Cowboy owner Jerry Jones (left) runs onto field at
Texas Stadium to protest call at end of 31-14 loss to 49ers.
After a 24-6 loss to Niners in Dallas, demoralized rookie Emmitt
Smith (left) says, 'The way it stands now, we don't have any talent
49ers trade Charles Haley (right) to Cowboys. 'I guess I have a
personality complex with the team,' he says of 49ers.
Cowboys beat Niners for first time since 1980, 30-20 for NFC
title. Troy Aikman passes for 204 yards and three TDs in second half.
After Cowboys club 49ers 26-17, coach Jimmy Johnson remarks,
'What's that Roosevelt said? Never hit a man lightly with a stick?'
Cowboys walk over 49ers 38-21 to second straight Super Bowl. After
the game, Jerry Rice vows, 'We'll be back to knock on the door
Niners pick up free-agent linebacker Ken Norton Jr. (left) from
'I'm not going to rub it in now,' says Norton after 49ers beat
Cowboys 21-14. 'What happened in that game rubbed it in enough.'
Niners drub Cowboys 38-28 for trip to Super Bowl. Says George
Seifert (left), 'Think of the most emotional day of your life and
multiply it by 25.'