In 1988, my last year as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, we
played a late-November game against the Washington Redskins at
Candlestick Park. The Redskins were the defending Super Bowl
champs but, like us, were 6-5 and struggling. Our 37-21 victory
is not so much what I remember about that day. It's what
happened after the game that I recall vividly.
I walked across the field to shake hands with Washington coach
Joe Gibbs, for whom I had tremendous respect. And I said to him,
"Great game, Joe. God, it was like two dethroned champions
battling in the ring out there."
He looked me right in the eye. "The hell we're dethroned!" he
Well, what a fool I am, I thought. I walked off the field that
day, pondering what Joe had said. He wouldn't accept losing. He
wouldn't accept being dethroned. And I'll be honest: Joe
inspired me. It might have been coincidental, but we lost only
one game the rest of the way, and we finished with a classic
20-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
That was the fifth victory in what has become one of the
strangest streaks in football history. With the Dallas Cowboys'
27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the NFC
has now won 12 Super Bowls in a row. I'm baffled by that to some
degree, because the 30 NFL teams draft from the same collegiate
pool, pick free agents from the same pool and hire coaches from
the same college and pro pool.
One big reason for the streak has to be team defense, which has
been clearly better in the NFC than in the AFC. Another was
illuminated by my 10-second encounter with Joe Gibbs more than
seven years ago. It spoke volumes about a point that's very hard
to quantify but that is, I think, vital--the refusal of some NFC
men to accept second place.
Look at the dominant teams in the late 1980s and so far in the
'90s--the Redskins, the 49ers, the Cowboys, the Chicago Bears,
the New York Giants. I know when I looked at the competition
every year, I figured I had to learn from NFC rivals--even those
the Niners wouldn't be playing in the regular season--because
those were the teams we'd have to beat to get to the Super Bowl.
I used to stand on the field with former Giants coach Bill
Parcells before our games with New York, and he'd say, "We're
not very good in this phase or that phase," when he clearly had
one of the best teams in the league. He was like me. We were
always in a crisis mode, always thinking we weren't good enough.
And we'd work our teams that much harder to make sure we were
able to compete with each other. We'd work so hard to raise our
level to beat our NFC opponents that by the time we got to the
Super Bowl, we felt we'd already played the teams at the top
It isn't just NFC coaches and players who feel desperate to win.
The owners do, too. Seven of the 12 victories in this streak
have been by San Francisco and Dallas, and the teams' respective
two owners, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and Jerry Jones, are among the
reasons why. When we lost to the Giants two straight years in
the playoffs, Eddie was despondent each time. Those were killer
days. Just killers. You're at the bottom of life's barrel. And
then there's an unrest, an agitation, that starts, and it's a
motivator. That agonizing pain is channeled into one teamwide
thought: Losing will not be tolerated. Jerry's the same as
Eddie, it seems. The Cowboys lose last year, and he breaks the
bank to get the guy who he thinks will be the difference: Deion
I know every team in a Super Bowl wants to win badly. But I'm
not sure that, say, the Buffalo Bills realized how desperate you
must be to win this game.
Not to single out the Bills, because I think their coach, Marv
Levy, is one of the best in the recent history of the game. But
they did lose four Super Bowls. And I think there has been a
common theme in the AFC losses. While the AFC teams have had
some All-Pro defensive players, they haven't played disciplined
team defense, which is essential to winning a Super Bowl.
Buffalo had a marvelous team and some wonderful defensive
talent, but its Achilles' heel every year was that it would give
up big plays and long drives. You'd see gaping defensive holes
on simple running plays--the Bills gave up 14 rushes of 10 yards
or longer in those four losses, which is an inordinately high
number--and you'd see the defense break down at crucial times. A
perfect example in Super Bowl XXV: The Giants trail 12-10 in the
third quarter and face third-and-13 at the Buffalo 32. Everyone
knows Jeff Hostetler's going to throw, and he completes a short
in-cut to Mark Ingram over the middle. Ingram is not only open,
but he also breaks two tackles and gains 14 yards for the first
down, and the Giants go on to score. That can't happen, but it
There are other reasons for the NFC supremacy, to be sure. In
the past 12 Super Bowls, the AFC has turned the ball over 41
times to the NFC's 10, which is inexcusable. The NFC has more
than twice the rushing yardage of the AFC, even though the
Steelers outgained the Cowboys 103 yards to 56 on Sunday. The
NFC has had the more physical teams. And it has helped immensely
that three of the most efficient passers of all time have been
NFC men: Troy Aikman, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Aikman has
been intercepted only once in three Super Bowls, while Neil
O'Donnell, who entered Sunday's game with the lowest
interception-to-pass ratio in NFL history, was picked off three
Let me bring up one final point. In 1987 we wanted to get Steve
Young in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Bucs'
general manager, Phil Krueger, wouldn't make a deal with me. We
discussed how to make this trade and decided it would be best
that Eddie go straight to the Tampa Bay owner, Hugh Culverhouse.
Eddie took this on as a big project. Here's Eddie, tremendously
busy running an international corporation, and he drops
everything to go make this deal. We traded second- and
fourth-round picks (the 22nd picks in each round) plus a
significant amount of money for Steve, who is a state-of-the-art
player. The point: You do whatever it takes (and employ whomever
it takes) to make your team better.
In this league you're competing against such strong-willed men,
inexhaustible men. To win Super Bowls, you need that insatiable
desire to do whatever it takes to win. Maybe you saw that desire
again last week when the 49ers, coming off a disappointing
playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, brought me back as a
consultant to work with offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. The
battle between Dallas and San Francisco just won't end. I'm not
sure the NFC's dominance of the Super Bowl will either.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Quarterbacks like Montana are one reason, says the author, the NFC is 12 for 12. [Bill Walsh and Joe Montana]