In a corner of the cramped, damp visitors' locker room at Texas
Stadium on Sunday, San Francisco 49er receiver Jerry Rice
finally snapped. The pressure of the hype-filled week leading to
the Niners' rematch with the Dallas Cowboys, whom San Francisco
had beaten in last year's NFC Championship Game, had been
enormous. Niner quarterback Steve Young's injured shoulder had
not healed enough for him to play, and Dallas cornerback Deion
Sanders had messed with Rice's head in a Thursday press
Now it was halftime of the biggest NFL game of the season, and
Rice was unable to focus as his teammates chattered and--the
horror of it!--even laughed as they awaited the second half. Even
though San Francisco had an astounding 31-7 lead, Rice, the
greatest receiver in NFL history, was so mortified by the
behavior of his fellow 49ers that he pitched a fit that made his
oft-televised early-season tirade against Bay Area reporters
sound like a love sonnet.
"Hey, this is ---- serious!" Rice screamed. "Cut out all this
bull. We haven't won ---- yet!" As Young later described Rice's
tirade, "Jerry was going nuts." But once Rice had finished, the
locker room was so quiet you could hear a jaw drop. The
chastened Niners began to remember, as tackle Harris Barton said
later, "how hard it is to win a football game."
San Francisco went back out and polished off Dallas in a 38-20
victory that threw the NFL landscape into a tizzy but shouldn't
have surprised those who have watched the 49ers become the most
successful NFL franchise over the past 15 years. During that
time, the Niners have won a record five Super Bowls; even more
revealing of the 49ers' personality is a seldom-cited statistic:
San Francisco has not lost three consecutive games in the same
season since 1980. No other NFL team has ever gone this long--225
games--without losing three straight.
That the Niners went into this game as 10-point underdogs only
brought out the fierce pride of Rice & Co. It remains to be seen
whether the defending Super Bowl champions, who suffered
back-to-back home losses to the New Orleans Saints and the
expansion Carolina Panthers in the two weeks before the Dallas
game, have risen anew or whether they were able to merely summon
up a final momentous roar. But certainly the Cowboys and
everyone else must wonder: Isn't it possible that San
Francisco--despite a 6-4 record, a star quarterback who can't
throw and a spiritual leader who goes berserk in the locker room
at halftime, even with the 49ers holding a 24-point lead and him
having rolled up 155 first-half receiving yards--could still wind
up in Phoenix on Jan. 28?
"All week long," Rice said later Sunday, in more polite tones,
"we just wanted to show that the 49ers are still champions."
As the final moments of Sunday's victory wound down, Niner
cornerback Eric Davis, an undersized warrior who has accepted
intense pain as part of his day-to-day existence, beat his right
hand furiously across the left side of his chest. "Too much
heart," Davis said. Moments later, as he walked slowly off the
field, Pro Bowl guard Jesse Sapolu pointed to his heart and
said, "I always knew it in here."
What the Niners knew going into this game was that this team
simply does not tolerate lapses that extend beyond a fortnight.
Over the past 15 years there have been four U.S. presidents,
three Grateful Dead keyboardists, four James Bonds, seven Steve
Howe drug suspensions and approximately 37 Liz Taylor hairstyle
changes. But never has there been a Niner three-game losing
streak in one season.
Yet the 49ers arrived in Dallas having given every indication
that this reign of consistency was about to end. Without the
services of Young (who was scheduled to undergo surgery Monday
on his left shoulder) and second-year fullback William Floyd,
whose career was in jeopardy following reconstructive knee
surgery on Oct. 30, San Francisco had lost those games to the
Saints and the Panthers, scoring only 14 points in the process.
The Niners seemed headed for disaster in Dallas, where the 8-1
Cowboys had regained the swagger they carried through their two
Super Bowl seasons of 1992 and '93. Having procured the services
of Sanders, the itinerant cornerback who was one of San
Francisco's most important players last season, Dallas was
thought to be unbeatable in this game and on into January and
Super Bowl XXX. The Niners' mission, it appeared, was simply to
avoid being embarrassed by the Cowboys.
The 49ers refused to buy into these presumptions. When the game
began, they jumped on Dallas like a pack of crazed wolves,
scoring on the game's second play from scrimmage. Not only did
the Niners proceed to knock Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman from
the game with a bruised left knee--when he departed with 6:39
remaining in the first quarter, Dallas already trailed 17-0--but
they also won so convincingly that Aikman actually went home
during the second half. "They're a better football team than we
are, period," said Dallas receiver Michael Irvin, who caught
only one pass (which he then fumbled) until the Cowboys' final,
"This is a team that isn't scared to face its mistakes and make
adjustments," said Barton. "All week long we were saying to
ourselves, We're going to go down there, and we are going to
shock the world."
For no logical reason, as early as the previous Sunday, Sapolu,
for one, felt confident about the Niners' chances against
Dallas. One of the last players to clear out of a very morose
locker room following the loss to the Panthers, Sapolu suddenly
perked up and began flashing an I-know-something-you-don't-know
smile. "I was giddy," Sapolu said after Sunday's victory. "I
knew it then, but I couldn't explain it."
As the week progressed, more 49ers began to feel the same way.
For one thing, the emotional edge was all San Francisco's.
Sanders helped that along during a Thursday popping-off session
with the media, in which he accused the Niners of being "in
denial" about their depleted state. "I want to win the game
big--not just by seven points," he said. "I want to do things in
the end zone." Then Sanders began mocking Rice for his initial
locker room tirade, in which he blasted reporters for placing
too much importance upon Sanders's departure from the 49ers. "He
was challenged this week," Young said of Rice, "and he was ready
to face the challenge."
Of course, as driven as he is, Rice needs no artificial
motivation. But other 49ers took notice of Sanders's speech;
even backup quarterback Elvis Grbac, who completed five passes
to Rice for 161 yards on Sunday, abandoned his usual restrained
manner to boldly proclaim, "I think it was wrong for him to go
Ultimately of more importance than Sanders's mouth was the game
plan that the 49ers took with them to Texas, one that took Irvin
out of the Cowboys' offense and wreaked havoc on the Dallas
defense. Criticized by some 49er players for being too tentative
during the season's first nine games, the team's first-year
offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, devised a strategy that
had his offense going at the Cowboys with the subtlety of a Sam
Kinison comedy routine.
Grbac, who would finish the day with 20 completions in 30
attempts for 305 yards, while throwing for two scores and
running for another, was excited when he saw the game plan, and
by the end of Saturday's walk-through at a Dallas-area junior
high school, tight end Brent Jones was saying, "We're going to
win this game, because we're taking it right to them."
A couple of hours later Davis and strong safety Tim McDonald sat
in a restaurant in Arlington, Texas, and expressed similar faith
in their first-year defensive coordinator Pete Carroll's
strategy for Sunday's game. The 49ers would rely on their front
seven to contain NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith, and they would
double-team Irvin, who was seeking to set an NFL record by
gaining 100 yards receiving in his eighth consecutive game.
Doubling up on Irvin would leave the Cowboys' other wide
receiver, Kevin Williams, in single coverage against Davis or
San Francisco's other cornerback, Marquez Pope. "If they're
going to win, Kevin Williams is going to have to beat us,"
Eating what might have been the world's hottest chicken wing,
Davis, who endures the chronic pain of the torn left shoulder
muscles he suffered in 1991, said, "They're not going to beat
us, and here's why: They expect Michael to be open, and when he
isn't, they won't be able to deal with it."
The mood stayed upbeat until Barton, the 49ers' resident
grouch, showed up at the restaurant and joined the discussion,
reminding his teammates of the Niners' last game at Texas
Stadium, a 38-21 loss in the 1993 NFC Championship Game.
"Remember the way the Cowboys jumped on us?" Barton asked. "It
felt like they'd had someone in our meeting rooms the whole week."
Dallas knows now how San Francisco felt then, because from
Sunday's second play from scrimmage, Big D was done in. On
second-and-seven from their own 19-yard line, the 49ers lined up
in a formation that featured four wide receivers--including
halfback Derek Loville--a tight end and only Grbac in the
backfield. Figuring that the Cowboys would have Sanders covering
the outside receiver, Trestman put Rice in the slot and sent him
on a quick crossing route over the middle, a pattern Rice
expertly sold with a stutter step to the outside. Rice moved out
of Cowboy cornerback Larry Brown's zone and faced man-to-man
coverage from linebacker Darrin Smith, who received no help from
slow-to-react safety Brock Marion. Rice caught the ball at the
35, burst untouched up the middle and was gone for an 81-yard
The Cowboys hadn't seen anything yet. On Dallas's second play
Aikman threw a quick slant to Irvin, who caught the ball in the
left flat and then instantly had it jarred loose by Pope. The
ball bounced off the turf into the hands of free safety Merton
Hanks, who in his last three games against the Cowboys, all of
them 49er victories, has been--sorry, Deion--the best defensive
back on the field. Hanks was as gone as Rice had been, on his
way to a 38-yard score. After that, it took the 49er defense
three plays to get another turnover, when defensive end Rickey
Jackson, who had dropped back into coverage, snagged an Aikman
throw intended for Irvin. San Francisco quickly turned that into
a 26-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins.
On Dallas's next series, Aikman went out after a sack by Niner
defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, and before the second
quarter was a minute old, the score was 24-0, on a one-yard run
by Loville. Any hopes of a comeback rested on the shoulders of
backup quarterback Wade Wilson.
Emmitt Smith, who gained 100 yards on the day but was held to 19
in the first half, scored for Dallas from a yard out with 6:30
left before the intermission, but the 49ers slammed the door
shortly before halftime thanks to some more Trestman trickery.
On first-and-10 from the Cowboy 45, Rice slipped free from the
slot and drew man-to-man coverage from veteran backup safety
Bill Bates--the biggest mismatch since Julia Roberts and Lyle
Lovett, and, for Dallas, about as successful. Rice took Grbac's
pass for 26 yards to the 19, and on the next play the 49ers
benefited from an even more absurd matchup. A Cowboy blitz left
263-pound defensive end Tony Tolbert in single coverage against
205-pound halfback Loville, who caught a quick pass over the
middle from Grbac and high-stepped into the end zone, stomping
the life out of Dallas in the process. Dallas's day had become a
gangsta rap video: Six million ways to die, choose one.
"We got our matchups, and Marc exploited them," Grbac said. "A
lot of people are asking why they couldn't just put Deion on
Jerry all the time, but that's not the way their defensive
After the game, the Cowboys respectfully credited San Francisco
for its performance. The only person on the Dallas sideline who
lost his composure was owner Jerry Jones, who had responded to a
heckler behind the Cowboy bench by approaching the stands,
pointing at the offender and saying, "Kiss my ----," punctuating
the command with another expletive. As bitter a day as this was
for Jones, it was a banner afternoon for his verbal sparring
partner, 49er president Carmen Policy, who jokingly thanked
Dallas for not running up the score.
Policy had been far less bold Saturday afternoon when he had
admitted that he feared the 49ers would be blown out. He even
advised his boss, San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo, to stay
home in Youngstown, Ohio, rather than fly to Texas for the game.
DeBartolo took Policy's advice, but he of all people should have
known better. It is DeBartolo who has watched coaches and
players come and go, while the 49ers' excellence has continued
Said Barton late on Sunday, "I hope we keep it going until the
year 2000." But of more immediate concern to the Niners are
Young's shoulder and whether they can maintain Sunday's
intensity in the weeks ahead. "This has to be our turning
point," Young said. "We can't play down to the level of our
competition. We have to come out with the intensity we had out
there today every week. And if we do that, we're still the best
team in football."