No question about it, 49ers-Cowboys has become the rivalry in the NFL. What the game has is star power. Dallas and San Francisco have been the two best teams in football for three seasons, and between them they have a hefty share of the league's marquee players. The 49ers have become so fixated on the Cowboys that many of their personnel moves are designed specifically to counter Dallas's strengths. "We waived or traded half the team in the off-season, with the only focus of it all to beat Dallas," says 49er tackle Harris Barton. The Niners' early-season acquisition of right cornerback Deion Sanders is the best example of that.
The rivalry has gained intensity even though the 49ers have lost three games in a row to the Cowboys. The answers to three questions will determine whether San Francisco can halt this streak.
Can the 49er defense, which has allowed Dallas 94 points in the teams' last three meetings, finally derail the Dallas offense?
It's doubtful, though the loss of All-Pro Dallas right tackle Erik Williams—out for the year after a car accident on Oct. 24—may level the playing field a bit. In fact, the absence of Williams from the Cowboy offense will have more impact on the game than will the addition of Sanders to the Niner defense. But the 49er pass rush must keep the heat on quarterback Troy Aikman, and with defensive end Richard Dent still rehabilitating a surgically repaired right knee, there is no one on the Niner line capable of doing that consistently—the 49ers are averaging just over two sacks a game. The bottom line: Aikman is dangerous not only because he can go long to wideouts Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, but also because he can take a short drop and swing passes to running back Emmitt Smith, which everyone knows are coming but no one can stop. Smith has caught 19 passes in the last three wins over San Francisco.
Can Sanders take Irvin out of this game?
History says probably not. In the two games that Aikman and Irvin played together against Sanders—when Sanders was with Atlanta—Irvin caught 11 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. Sanders did dominate Irvin in their meeting last year (one catch for five yards). But the Cowboy quarterback that day was backup Bernie Kosar, not Aikman. "Bernie didn't want to challenge Deion," recalls former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson. "But Troy doesn't give a darn. He'll throw it at anybody, even into tight spaces. He's got the guts to throw it into the tight coverage Deion will have on Michael."
Can Steve Young exorcize the ghost of Joe Montana?
Young has won three straight NFL passing titles, but he has been only an average playoff player, and the 49ers have never reached the Super Bowl with him behind center. Several recent events, however, indicate that Young, now 33, may at last be developing the toughness that spells the difference between a talented quarterback and a winning quarterback. Young has often been too gentlemanly for his own good. But on Oct. 2, before national TV cameras, he openly displayed his anger after 49er coach George Seifert yanked him in the middle of a series during the second half of a disastrous 40-8 loss to the Eagles. Since then the Niners, who defeated Washington 37-22 on Sunday, are 4-0, and Young has been playing the best football of his life. Behind a makeshift line, Young has been taking a three-step drop and hitting receivers perfectly. In the four-game streak he has completed 75% of his throws, with seven touchdowns and one interception.
Last Saturday, Young sat in the lobby of his Washington hotel and explained his torrid streak. "I'm having more fun than ever, maybe because I feel much more in control of everything than I did before," he said. "I don't think I could be more satisfied with the organization, the coaching or the game plan than I am right now."
Young thinks that last month's vein-popping sideline scene helped. "Let's face it," he said. "The last few years I've gotten a lot of scrutiny. And when things didn't go right, it was easy for everyone to say, 'Well, it must be Steve.' The game against Philadelphia, we all didn't play well. To me, the image George put there was: We didn't play well, so let's yank Steve. I was glad to finally let it out, because a lot of times I would just go home and internalize things when they'd go wrong. Now, if I have something on my mind, I just say it."
Cowboys-49ers. It doesn't get any better than this.
The fashionable thing to say about the 5-4 Bills this year is that they get up for tough opponents and are flat against lesser foes. However, that analysis is too simplistic. Center Kent Hull pegged the team's problem perfectly on Sunday, after Buffalo had lost to the Jets, 22-17, for the second time this season. "People in this division have spent their whole off-season the past three or four years trying to figure out how to stop our offense," Hull said. "We have had people picked off our roster, first through Plan B and then free agency. We're choosing low in the draft every year. In the past we had much more talent than everybody else. When you continually lose talent and everyone else gains talent, it's pretty natural everybody's going to catch up."
Hull's right. Talent is being drained from the Bills. Their young secondary is good, but no other aspect of the team is better than it was in the early '90s. The offensive line, from which two Pro Bowl tackles—Will Wolford and Howard Ballard—were lost to AFC teams via free agency in the last two off-seasons, has dropped in quality. And now it looks as though the Bills will be on the road through the playoffs as they try for a fifth straight Super Bowl appearance—if they make the playoffs at all.
Cris Carter of the Vikings is on pace for a record 128-catch season....
Jet tackle Jeff Criswell mugged Buffalo's All-Pro defensive end, Bruce Smith, all game long, grabbing his shirt and ripping it the length of his side on one play. After Smith's third plea to referee Howard Roe to call Criswell for holding, the ref snapped, "Quit your whining!" To which Smith replied, "If you'd do your job, I'd quit whining."
...Don't look for realignment to happen anytime soon. The expansion teams, Jacksonville and Carolina, will join the four-team divisions, the AFC Central and the NFC West, respectively, because there are too many opponents of any plan that would bring geographic logic to the league. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue delayed a vote on realignment until next year, but he and Steeler president Dan Rooney, who developed one restructuring plan, appear to be fighting a lonely battle....
Money Talks Department: The president of the Fox Network, Chase Carey, has told the Rams' president, John Shaw, that Fox would prefer to see the Rams move to St. Louis if they leave L.A., which is a near certainty.
The End Zone
Pittsburgh kicker Gary Anderson, who scored all the Steelers' points in their 12-9 overtime win in Houston, makes $400,000 a year—$23,529 per week. But he wasn't the highest-paid kicker in the Astrodome. Brian Wright, a 23-year-old Texas A&M student, was pulled out of the stands for a pregame promotion and nailed a 50-yard field goal. His prize: $50,000. "Wow," said Anderson. "I wish I could have kicked in that contest."
Upon Further Review...
Every time an NFL official blows a call, people begin to get nostalgic for the instant-replay system that the league used from 1986 to '91. In recent weeks the Giants, Steelers and Saints have all been burned by boners. But don't get too misty-eyed about instant replay; the numbers prove that it was hardly worth the trouble. Here are the league's own statistics on the six-year experiment. Not a very compelling case for instant replay: one correct reversal every 641 plays, or once every four games. And approximately 10% of the reversals were incorrect. In other words, the officials on the field were almost always right.
Only once during the six years the system was in place did the outcome of a game turn on a replay call in the final minute, and that reversal proved to be wrong. With 32 seconds left in a 1989 game between Chicago and Green Bay, the Bears led 13-7. On fourth down from the Chicago 14, Packer quarterback Don Majkowski threw a touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe, but the officials ruled that Majkowski was beyond the line of scrimmage when he released the ball. Replay official Bill Parkinson overruled the call, and the Packers won 14-13. But a week later the league reviewed a tape of the game and concluded that Parkinson had not been on firm enough ground to reverse the call.
Even if replay calls are usually correct—and few would argue otherwise—are they worth the cost? Forgetting the philosophical debate about whether the game should be officiated by people or machines, is fixing three or four plays per weekend worth the delays that on occasion stretched to four minutes per call? Says Buffalo special teams ace Steve Tasker, "There was so much red tape and so many delays. Let's just forget it and go on with the game. We don't miss it."
Executives around the league seem to agree; there appears to be no chance that the replay system will return. Says Kansas City president Carl Peterson, "The officials are not perfect. Then again, the guy in the booth wasn't perfect either."
As for criticism of the officials, Bengal president Mike Brown is unmoved. "The officiating in this league is very, very good," he says. "Some of our guys who complain about it ought to try to do it sometime."
Total Plays '86-91
Total Replay Reversals
Erroneous Replays Reversals
Correct Reversals Per Game