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 sodden Santa Clara to practice in dry Tempe, Ariz.,
for the Jan. 15 NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys.
''The only thing that could have been better was thunder.''
The NFL's MVP had been so cheery in recent days, he could have
been the advance man for Barney and Friends. He was like a sieve. All
bad vibes and negative thoughts just flowed through him, as breezes
pass through a screen door. After the 49ers had whupped the
world-champion Cowboys 38-28, 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 had haunted Young because he wasn't Joe Montana and hadn't
yet won the Big One. Though the Super Bowl and the San Diego Chargers
lay 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 after
the game. ''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 three straight seasons 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 were 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 in the '93 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 had the Cowboys become the impetus for the 49ers to
build the NFL's most complete team. The Niners jumped out to a 21-0
lead in the first quarter against Dallas, the result of three Cowboy
turnovers. But even without those errors, San Francisco was the
superior team on almost every level. ''Hey, we're a lot better than
those guys, talentwise,'' 49er linebacker Rickey Jackson said
afterward. ''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 the NFC Championship Game to
scary proportions. ''If we lose,'' said 49er president Carmen Policy,
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. In the game against
San Francisco, Switzer cost his team by failing to carefully manage
the clock or the Cowboys' 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. Three plays later, 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 for the Cowboys.
''Sure, it's a mistake that I gave them 15 yards,'' Switzer said. ''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. So Switzer was left in the very
position 49er coach George Seifert would have found himself in had he
lost this game: He had to apologize for having a team that was
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 the Thursday before the game, and among
the walking wounded were most of the offensive line and All-Pro
running back Emmitt Smith. ''Think about it,'' Cowboy trainer Kevin
O'Neill said 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 minimart hours all week, and Smith's
pulled left hamstring became the focus of a nationwide healing
effort. The muscle needed four to six weeks of rest. What Smith
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
Earlier in the week, talking with friends in the Cowboys Sports
Cafe 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 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
As the first clot of 49ers and Cowboys appeared on the field, a
slugfest began. One expected 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 this latest
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 49er
running back Ricky Watters, who was in the skirmish. But that's what
these Niners had become -- some fairly aggressive trash talkers who
could serve and volley all night with the cockiest of Cowboys. You
think, for instance, that the recently acquired Sanders just
improvised his end-zone dances? Well, there he was the day before the
game at a 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 called them the New Generation, and he was pleased
with the emotion and swagger that these young players brought to the
49ers. One of these additions was rookie defensive tackle Bryant
Young from Notre Dame, a speedy housewrecker who said that this
49er-Cowboy tilt 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 had changed 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 loved it. Against the Cowboys, the 49ers kept tight end Brent
Jones in on a lot of pass patterns just to stop Charles 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