Why did we have to mess around so long with all this extraneous stuff?
Of course, there had to be a Regular Season and Surprising Teams and Resurgent Teams and Disappointing Teams and Experts Calculating Which Team Has A Chance To Sneak In As A Wild-Card Playoff Longshot, and the myriad Pregame Shows and Postgame Wrap-ups and Hope Springing Eternal In Rust-Belt Cities Where Football Is So Much Like Life, and Franchises Looking To The Future and Where Will Georgia Take Her Boys and Blah Blah Blah.
But it was all Nonsense. Had been all season. Only two Real Teams existed: the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. All others were mobiles hanging in The Classroom Where Football Is Taught.
The 49ers and the Cowboys played each other once this year, on Nov. 13 in San Francisco, and it was a Big Game. None of this Maybe The Little Team From Green Bay Or The Clever Team From Chicago Can Pull Off An Upset. No, these were Men Duking It Out.
The Niners won that game 21-14, and San Francisco quarterback Steve Young vindicated himself nicely, showing skeptics that he was worthy of replacing Joe (St. Joseph the Cowboy Killer) Montana. But Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman had a bad thumb on his throwing hand that day, tossed three interceptions and left town in a bad mood. Observers were filled with a distinct sense that Troy and his Boys would be back.
And now they are, and thank god the swill has finally run off into the gutters where it belongs. The 49ers and the Cowboys are so far above all other NFL teams that it's a pity we can't turn their NFC championship matchup this Sunday into Super Bowl XXIX. Then that anticlimactic thing occurring in Miami on Jan. 29 could be some kind of postseason weenie roast.
Yes, there is an AFC, and a champion will also be declared over there this Sunday. But, really. The San Diego Chargers? The Pittsburgh Steelers? O.K., the Steelers are a rugged team, but they are not Terry Bradshaw-Mean Joe Greene rugged. And anyway, an AFC team hasn't won the Super Bowl since January 1984. As this reviewer's favorite critics, Beavis and Butthead, would put it, the AFC sucks.
So the question is, How did Dallas and San Francisco get so far in front of the pack? Isn't this the era of free agency, the salary cap and parity? Shouldn't other teams be rising up almost overnight to smite these two monsters? They should. and yet between them the Cowboys and the Niners have won the last two Super Bowls (both by Dallas), four of the last six Super Bowls and six of the last 13. One or the other of these two teams has been in a Super Bowl 10 times since 1972.
And then there were the playoff games we had to endure last weekend. Boredom settled in at about the time the 49ers surged ahead of the Chicago Bears 13-3 last Saturday. That was the score early in the second quarter, when you found yourself thinking, Hey, look at the way the bristles of San Francisco center Bart Oates's beard poke through the holes in his chin guard. By 20-3 you had become aware that the 49ers were still wearing their throw-back uniforms, that San Francisco offensive tackle Steve Wallace had some sort of protective salad bowl Velcroed on the top of his helmet and that, golly, look at how well the grass at Candlestick Park was holding up.
By 23-3 you were dozing lightly. A tussle roused you briefly at 30-3—just before the half, Bear safety Shaun Gayle put a late hit on Young in the end zone and was nearly dismembered by angry Niners—and then some scrubs played for a while, and it all ended quietly at 44-15. The 49ers are such a well-oiled machine that they could make a nibbling rabbit seem noisy. The Bears, also a quiet team, but for other reasons, never had a chance.
"Most definitely," said San Francisco cornerback Deion Sanders after the game. Sanders, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, basically had nothing to do during his time afield. The Bears never tested him. They knew better. Things will change. Consider that Sanders will be paid a $750,000 bonus by the 49ers if they win the Super Bowl. "Hell, yes, things are going to change," said Prime Time.
They certainly will against Dallas. On Sunday the Cowboys mauled the Green Bay Packers 35-9, with Aikman completing the usual 23 of 30 passes, etc. Two days before the game, Aikman had dug into some onion rings at a Dallas steak-house and allowed as how he was sick and tired of people questioning both his and his team's focus, talent and drive.
"We've been mentally, physically and emotionally drained," he began testily. "All we've heard, starting in July, is Super Bowl talk, and you can't imagine the constant pressure of having to be perfect. We've had to justify being 12-4 and winning our division despite more injuries than we've ever had, and I've had to justify my play. I hear it everywhere: Aikman's not the same guy."
Then his sky-blue eyes bored a hole in his dinner companion. "Believe me," he said. "Aikman's the same guy."
He is, and so is Young, this year's NFL MVP. And that is the first place where the Cowboys and the 49ers step above the barking dogs: They have Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Chicago's Steve Walsh? Pittsburgh's Neil O'Donnell? San Diego's Stan Humphries? Forget it.
Around great quarterbacks you need the Big Quartet at the skill positions—two quality wideouts, a tight end and a tailback—and Dallas and San Francisco may have the best four-man packages in the game. The Cowboys have wideouts Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, tight end Jay Novacek and running back Emmitt Smith. Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Brent Jones and Ricky Watters fill the respective slots for the 49ers. You need selfless, strong and crafty offensive linemen to protect these arsenals, and again these two teams are loaded. Finally, you need quality centers, and with Oates and Dallas's Mark Stepnoski the two clubs have Pro Bowl veterans.
On defense, more than anything, you need fervor and speed and a good scheme and at least one standout, slightly antisocial or remarkably self-centered maniac who puts the fear of God in opposing quarterbacks. For the Cowboys that's pass rusher Charles Haley, who looks enraged even during the national anthem, and for the 49ers it is Sanders, who sometimes looks like a peacock running routes for the enemy offense.
So why don't other NFL teams just go out and do what these two have done? Because they don't have ownership or management skills like these two have. Say what you will about the ego of Dallas owner Jerry Jones, but he works hard at his job and he spends money when it can help his team. The same is true of San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo, whose largesse (flowers for players' wives, Hawaiian trips for their families) is legendary and whose right-hand man, Carmen Policy, seems able to stretch the limits of the salary cap beyond rules and reason.
Then, too, both clubs have been built in every way possible—through trades, astute drafting and the cunning acquisition of good players who fit comfortably. Haley was an outcast with the Niners; with the Cowboys he's a leader. The 49ers have so many free-agent additions on defense—Ken Norton, Rickey Jackson. Gary Plummer, Toi Cook and Richard Dent—that you could overlook the fact that Sanders came to San Francisco in mid-September for less money than he might have earned elsewhere so he could be part of a championship venture.
Both clubs are player-friendly, something that means a lot to men who are essentially laborers. "Back when I was with the Bears in 1990, the practice field was so bad the players walked out," Dent recalled last week, while rehabbing his injured right knee in the 49ers' spacious weight room, which is next to the 49ers' swimming pool. "There was just one field, and it was frozen mud. [Coach Mike] Ditka was right behind us." Dent walked over to a shiny new weight machine that is used to strengthen the knee. "They do small stuff for you here. It makes guys want to do a little bit more for them."
Just before Christmas. Jones sent limos to ferry Dallas's upper management and coaches and all their wives to a private party at Neiman Marcus. Each family was given a store credit card with the first $3,000 on the Cowboys, as well as a $1,000 gift certificate to a discount department store and a $3,500 credit at an athletic-shoe store.
After a perplexing 15-10 season-ending loss to the New York Giants, Jones invited Aikman and Novacek to go duck hunting. The owner dispatched his team plane from Stuttgart, Ark., to pick up the players in Dallas. While Jones and Novacek are seasoned hunters, Aikman is a novice, and he quickly ran through a box of shells. Then he emptied a second box. "Hey, Jerry," Aikman said at day's end, "do these extra shells count against the salary cap?"
"I feel so good about investing my time, my spirit, my enthusiasm in this team," Jones said before Sunday's game. He feels so good about the Cowboys and their city that he is spending $6 million to renovate an old mansion in town—carpenters are hand-carving the racks in the wine cellar, and the place will have 54 TV sets—so that he will have a more permanent home than his high-rise apartment.
For the 49ers there is a new surge of emotional spirit that seems to have sent them into the stratosphere of performance. Besides adding skilled players on defense, San Francisco was goosed on offense by the tantrum that Young threw after he was yanked by coach George Seifert in an inexplicable 40-8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 2. "We've played pretty good football since then," says Young. "But I don't know. It was insanity. How many times can you scream at your coach from five feet away?"
Maybe every week if the results are like this year's. During the regular season the 49ers scored a club-record 505 points, for a team-record average of nearly 32 points per game. "We have always had an offense that could put points on the board," says Rice, "but with this offense it's something different. I think it has to do with Steve Young."
So do a lot of people. Young threw for 35 touchdowns and 3,969 yards with only 10 interceptions this regular season. His league-high completion percentage of 70.3 broke the club mark held by Montana. Young also set a new NFL quarterback-rating record of 112.8, surpassing the mark held by. guess who, Montana. Young has now led the NFL in passing proficiency for four straight years, another record. With the clock ticking toward a Super Bowl moment. Young has no time for false modesty. Of his performance this year he says, "I feel like I'm in total control. This offense has the answers to anything anybody does defensively." Even the Cowboys' Number One In The League Slash And Burn Defense? We'll see.
This NFC Championship Game is the Super Bowl, whether Steeler and Charger fans or the TV networks or the NFL brass like it or not. "It would have been a travesty if this game didn't happen," says Cowboy tight end Scott Galbraith.
In the 49er locker room after the game against Chicago, Watters sat fielding questions from the curious. With a bandanna, hoop earring, shoulder tattoo, eye-black and a Breathe Right nasal strip over the bridge of his nose, he looked like a pirate recovering from a minor galleon accident. "When we play like that." he said of the Bear dissection, "a total team effort, I don't know if anybody can beat us."
Ahoy, Dallas. Prepare for battle.
By Rick Telander In San Francisco with Peter King In Dallas