The rain had been coming down all week, as if California needed something to keep its little streak of "events" going—things like earthquakes, fires, riots, droughts, mud slides, that sort of item. But the downpour that turned 34 of the state's counties into federal disaster areas couldn't dispirit the Bay Area's newly anointed Sunshine Boy, San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young. "It was great sleeping weather," he said at midweek, after the 49ers had fled their sodden Santa Clara headquarters to practice in dry Tempe, Ariz., for the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys. "The only thing that could have been better was thunder."
The NFL's Most Valuable Player is so cheery these days he could be the advance man for Barney and Friends. He is a sieve. All bad vibes and negative thoughts just flow through him as breezes pass through a screen door. After the 49ers whupped the world champion Cowboys 38-28 on Sunday, Young ran around Candlestick Park holding the game ball aloft like a kid showing off his first A paper.
Gone were all memories of failures past, of the "Yeah, buts..." that have haunted Young because he isn't Joe Montana and he has yet to win the Big One. Though the Super Bowl and the San Diego Chargers lie ahead, no game could have been bigger than this one. All season the 49ers and the Cowboys had moved relentlessly toward this showdown, a monumental grudge match between the NFL's leviathans.
"I've come to grips with the chip on my shoulder," Young said in an interesting blend of imagery as he strode about the field. "There have been a lot of hurdles, a lot of hoops to jump through. It's like I've been chasing after a rabbit at a dog track. But a year ago someone said, 'Do you realize what you've done? You've done something nobody else has.' [He meant, of course, Young's unprecedented third straight season as the NFL's top-rated quarterback, which became four straight this season.] And I just decided, I'm going to start enjoying this. The sense of dread, all that—honestly, I've left it behind me." Young smiled hugely. He looked at the Niner fans still hanging around, screaming, some of them carrying chunks of mud as game souvenirs. "If you want to enjoy it with me," he said to them, "come on."
Left behind Young and his fellow celebrants are the remnants of a Dallas club that had won the last two Super Bowls, a team of arrogance and unity that had served as the target for all of San Francisco's on-and off-field efforts since late last season. "This organization isn't hiding its intentions," 49er center Bart Oates said before the game. "We've been built with one purpose in mind: Beat Dallas."
Just as the New York Giants' acquisition of linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1981 spurred the Washington Redskins to redefine the role of the Hogs and develop H-backs and total protection for their quarterbacks, so have the Cowboys become the impetus for the 49ers to build the most complete team in the NFL. The Niners jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter of Sunday's game, the result of three Dallas turnovers. But even without those errors San Francisco is probably the superior team on almost every level. "Hey, we're a lot better than those guys, talentwise," said 49er linebacker Rickey Jackson after the game. "We brought in an all-star team."
And by doing that, through wheeling and dealing and salary-cap manipulation and good old arm-twisting salesmanship, the Niners raised the stakes for themselves in this championship game to scary proportions. "If we lose," said 49er president Carmen Policy, "we die."
Dallas had its own pregame burdens. Among them was the fact that first-year coach Barry Switzer had to live up to the impossible expectations left by former coach Jimmy Johnson, who sat untouchable, high in the FOX-TV broadcast booth. Earlier in the season Switzer had pondered the subtleties of the pro game and his role in it. "It's just a chess game," he said. "I play chess. My roommate in college, Billy Gilbow, taught me how to play. He was taught by a priest, who used to play him every weekend—until Billy got too good and beat the priest."
In the game against San Francisco, Switzer may have shown his own weakness at moving the pieces by failing to carefully manage the clock or his team's field position at the end of the second quarter. Trailing 24-14 and holding the ball at their own 16-yard line with 1:02 remaining in the half, the Cowboys could have run out the clock. Instead, they tried three straight passes—all incomplete—and then punted. Badly. Dallas downed John Jett's kick at the Cowboy 39. The 49ers responded with what Young would call "really, the play of the game," a 28-yard pass to wideout Jerry Rice in the back left corner of the end zone that put the winning points on the board.
"I had to throw away a lot of square-outs and intermediate routes," said Young, who completed 13 of 29 passes for a low 155 yards but threw for two touchdowns and ran for one. "Their defensive backs were squatting on [the Niner receivers]. So on that pass to Jerry, maybe they thought they could pick off something underneath. But, I mean, we had to throw it into the end zone."
Switzer would stumble again in the fourth quarter, allowing his temper to get the better of him as he railed at officials for not calling pass interference on 49er cornerback Deion Sanders, who had clearly pushed Cowboy wideout Michael Irvin off his stride on a long pass near the San Francisco goal line. Switzer bumped head linesman Sid Semon while protesting and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. The 15-yard penalty prevented Dallas from getting a first down on that series and pretty much spelled the end of the line for the Cowboys. "Sure, it's a mistake that I gave them 15 yards," Switzer said afterward. "I contributed to us getting beat, no question. It's damn frustrating. If they make the call, we have the ball down there, and I promise we'll score and it'll be a 38-35 ball game."
But they didn't and it wasn't. Now Switzer is in the very position 49er coach George Seifert would have found himself in had he lost this game: He must apologize for having a team that is terrific but not quite as good as the best team in the business.
In fairness, it must be noted that the Cowboys were one beat-up outfit coming into the game, while the 49ers were healthy as kittens. Dallas listed 24 injured on Thursday, and among the walking wounded were most of the offensive line and All-Pro running back Emmitt Smith. "Think about it," said Cowboy trainer Kevin O'Neill during the week. "Every guy who scores points for us has been hurt this season—the quarterback, the running back, the three wide receivers, the tight end. It's unbelievable to have our record with the injuries we've had."
The Cowboy training room kept mini-mart hours all week, and Smith's pulled left hamstring became the focus of a nationwide healing effort. Smith's muscle needed four to six weeks of rest. What he received instead through the mail from amateur medical practitioners were a TEAM stick (a two-foot-long baton that was to be rolled over the damaged muscle), comfrey oil from "an herbal lady in China," a Playtex girdle, panty hose, Japanese oil and something called Topozone, a cream that allegedly cures anything from cancer to male-pattern baldness. Eschewing these home remedies, O'Neill actually subjected Smith to heat; ice; electrical devices called the HVGS 9000 Muscle Stimulator, the Alphastim and the Tuwave; hyperbaric-chamber sessions; and some strange liniment from Columbus, Miss., called Ketoflexacaine. For good measure, O'Neill's two young daughters ate Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast all week.
Did any of it work? Smith played, but he wasn't the real Emmitt, even though he scored two short rushing touchdowns and led all runners with 74 yards on 20 carries. With about 10 minutes left in the game, he popped his other ham and hobbled off, unable to continue. "I gave every ounce," he said later, and certainly he did.
On the Thursday before the game, talking with friends in the Cowboys Sports Cafè not far from the team's training facility in Irving, Smith had noted that the Niners were becoming somewhat arrogant and overbearing with their newfound success—sort of like the Cowboys themselves. Then he smiled, almost with approval. "I'm beginning to hate those 49ers," he said.
It was Karaoke Night at the cafe, and up on the stage veteran defensive end Charles Haley prepared for what would turn out to be his last game in the NFL—he announced his retirement immediately after the loss—by singing, or rather mumbling, a duet with a young woman to the tune of Ebony and Ivory. Was he doing Paul McCartney's or Michael Jackson's part? "I'm just doing background," he said. "I'm a shy guy. I like to be in the background." Or the backfield. His right thumb had an ugly blood blister under the nail. From what? Haley was asked. "I stuck it in someone's mouth," he replied.
It was on similar notes of sweetness and light that the game drew nigh. The field, of course, was a pigsty. The first player out for pregame warmups, Dallas backup quarterback Jason Garrett, studied the gold-and-red muck that passed for the midfield logo and said, "Kitty litter."
As the first clot of 49ers and Cowboys appeared on the field, a slugfest began. One expects such behavior from, say, Dallas safety James Washington, who once tried to hold off the entire Giant squad with a camera monopod and, naturally, was involved in Sunday's brawl. But the staid Niners? "Hey, they're coming into our house, and they're going to try to bogart us out of our turf?" said San Francisco running back Ricky Watters, who was in the skirmish. But that's what you've got with the Niners now—some fairly aggressive trash talkers who will serve and volley all night with the cockiest of Cowboys. You think, for instance, that the recently acquired Sanders just comes up with his end-zone dances? Well, there he was at Saturday's closed practice in Santa Clara, working on something like an Ali Shuffle with a bit of Cab Calloway thrown in, while fellow defensive backs Merton Hanks and Eric Davis nodded their approval.
Old man Rice calls them the New Generation, and he personally is pleased with the emotion and swagger that these young players have brought to the 49ers. One of these additions is rookie defensive tackle Bryant Young from Notre Dame, a speedy housewrecker who said that Sunday's game reminded him at times of an old-fashioned Fighting Irish brawl with the woofers from the University of Miami. Young is so young that he has a tattoo of his baby rottweiler on his left deltoid. "He's a pup now," explained Young, who had three tackles and swatted down a pass against the Cowboys, "but we're growing into the stage of being best friends."
So that's how things are changing with the old briefcase-and-wing-tip Niners. Boys and their dogs. Fights and tattoos. Dances and trash. Oh, yes, and hellacious football. Steve Young loves it. In Sunday's game the 49ers kept tight end Brent Jones in on a lot of pass patterns just to stop Haley and his pals from getting near the quarterback. Not only was Young never sacked, but he also ran for 47 yards on 10 carries, including a three-yard draw for the touchdown that made the score 38-21 midway through the third quarter. "More pass blocking this week than ever in my life," said Jones. "We didn't want them battering Steve. It was well worth it."
Though the Niner passing attack suffered because of the strategy—there weren't as many receivers downfield as usual—San Francisco and its helmsman benefited. And the mighty Cowboys were vanquished.
Again, this all happened by design. After losing the NFC Championship Game to Dallas for the second straight year last January, the 49ers began to expertly negotiate the hairpin turns of the newly instituted $34.6 million NFL salary cap. Policy and owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. maneuvered to get a host of defensive free agents to counter the Cowboy offense. They had already locked up their best veterans with long-term contracts that were chock-full of up-front bonuses that would count less against this year's cap. Everybody chipped in when it seemed best for the team. "Would my incentive bonuses be enough to fund the practice squad?" Rice asked Policy in September when it seemed there was nothing left with which to pay those players. Rice handed over his $178,000 in incentives, and sure enough, the 49ers had their practice squad, which included two young receivers who served to lessen the wear and tear on Rice during practices.
"You should have seen it in late December last year just before the cap went into effect," says Jones, chuckling. "They were signing about nine or 10 guys to long deals—Carmen is in his office, Eddie's on the phone—and the trainer is running out and tapping guys on the shoulder, and the players were running right out of practice to go in and talk. Gone for 20 minutes, then running back. It was really comical."
And it really worked. "My talent," says Policy, "is problem-solving. I think I have a unique ability to overcome what might be perceived as insurmountable problems." Indeed, while the rest of the league was moaning about the unfairness and incomprehensible intricacies of the cap, the 49ers were simply sailing ahead, using the formula to their advantage. Above all, Policy wants it known, the franchise is not bankrupt because of it. Last Friday he slid a sheet of paper across the football-shaped mahogany table in his office. At the bottom was the figure $1,597,236.
"That's how much we owe our players in incentives if we win the Super Bowl," he said, indicating that the sum is a paltry amount in a league in which each team receives nearly $33 million from TV contracts before a ball is even pumped up. "The reports of our irresponsible spending bother me, because it's all right here in black and white. We're in better shape than half the league. And we're winning."
Indeed, they are. Rumor has it that the Chargers will actually show up at Joe Robbie Stadium on Jan. 29 just to see firsthand what all the hoopla's about. Before the confetti settles, they might run into a 33-year-old Mormon quarterback by the name of Young who is enjoying himself immensely. He's lefthanded, and he sneaks a Dr Pepper now and then (beware, demon caffeine!), but he looks like a guy who is on a stroll from the Gap to the library. He, like the rest of the 49er organization, is quite deceiving.