The last time the 49ers player the Cowboys (in 2011), I wrote an article that chronicled the history of the rivalry. I interspersed it with memories of growing up and watching football with my dad, symbolizing that relationship with a gift that my dad gave me. It was a 49ers shirt. The point of the article was to consider how I was inheriting a tradition that has arisen in America in the last 75 years. At least. Football has become a hobby that fathers and mothers pass on to sons and daughters. I had the benefit of having a father who loved the game and loved to share it with me. And, I hope to do the same for my children someday.
But since I wrote that article, a few things have changed with the 49ers. In fact, I would like to focus on two aspects that have really changed: 1) the 49ers have become consistently good again such that we expect wins and playoff appearances on a seasonal basis; and, 2) the major rivalries have moved into the division.
I'll start with the first since that has the greatest impact on me as a fan. For most of my life, the 49ers were really bad. I remember them being quite good in the ‘90s. Heck, the earliest Super Bowl I remember is the one the 49ers won most recently. I consider this one of the greatest joys of my life that I can remember it, especially considering I was born in 1990. But, for the most of my teenage years, the 49ers were terrible. Just terrible. It wasn't until recently that the 49ers became consistently good again.
And, in this way, I have recently inherited something closer to what my father was watching in the ‘80s. There are differences, of course. Most notably in the talent that was on those ‘80s teams: as good as Patrick Willis is, he doesn't have the same status as Joe Montana, for example. And, as good as Jim Harbaugh has been, he's not at the level of Bill Walsh.
But, back then, 49ers fans could expect the team to be consistently good, if not great. Not making the playoffs seemed absolutely unfathomable. And, frankly, I think all of us would be really surprised if the 49ers didn't make the playoffs this season. At the risk of being hubristic (and I literally saw a Greek tragedy tonight, so I should be smarter than this, but oh well, my fandom is my fatal flaw...), I don't think it's outrageous to suggest that we can expect the 49ers to make the playoffs for the next few season.
So, my experience watching the 49ers now is much closer to what my father experience in the ‘80s than what I endured in the PH era (pre-Harbaugh). I am starting to understand what the attitude was back then; fans could expect the team to be consistently good, which is a really high expectation for a team in the NFL. They weren't always great, but they were good. I think this is a realistic expectation for the 49ers: they have shown that they can be consistently good.
My second point from above is what is different, though, and this is how I feel about the Cowboys rivalry now. I wish our major rivalry was outside of the division. Don't get me wrong, the Seattle-San Francisco rivalry has been a lot of fun. And the Seahawks are really easy to dislike. It's totally true. But, given the fact that we play them twice a year (at least) diminishes the intensity of the games. I wish we could return to a rivalry with a team like the Cowboys. I wish we could expect to see a team every year in the playoffs, but only sporadically during the regular season.
That would make things a little more similar for me to how my dad watched the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry. And, I think that's one of the reasons why the rivalry existed for so long. So, given the fact that we are mere hours away from returning to a team that defined parts of 49ers fandom for so long, I think it's a good time to revisit our history.