You can’t discuss sports in the ‘90s without talking about the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. These two arguably had the best rivalry of the decade. I can think of the Bulls vs. the Knicks, Holyfield vs. Tyson, the Braves vs. the Yankees, Florida State vs. Miami, and the UConn women’s basketball team facing the Volunteers. Still, the star power between Dallas and San Francisco was unmatched.
Both teams combined to win five Super Bowl titles during the ‘90s. It felt like the two teams played each other each year to decide who would come out of the NFC. The 49ers won their head-to-head matchup 5-4 during the ‘90s. As it’s rivalry week at SB Nation, let’s relive some of the best moments between the two teams, starting with the ‘92 NFC championship.
Fumbles were the story in this one, and two proved to be costly for the 49ers. Dallas’s first ten points came off turnovers from the 49ers after a fumbled punt return and a, after an impressive run, a Ricky Watters fumble. Steve Young threw two interceptions as well, but boy was he brilliant in this game. One pass, he threw down the field to Jerry Rice down the sideline where Rice had to adjust and make an over the shoulder catch. We were all knotted at ten points headed into halftime.
The Cowboys third quarter score was another fluke after Alvin Harper was the beneficiary of a deep pass from Troy Aikman. Eric Davis—a friend of the podcast—let the ball go right through his hands. Dallas ended up punching it in for a score to take a seven-point lead. Harper had another long catch and run, followed by a costly interception from Young, and the 49ers couldn’t mount a comeback losing 30-20 at home.
Rematch went wrong
The 49ers would play the Cowboys twice in the next season and lose both times. The big matchup came in the playoffs once again. Before the ball was kicked off, both teams were jawing at each other in the end zone. The PA announcer introduced the 49ers, but they didn’t run onto the field.
In the ‘93 NFC Championship, the Niners didn’t have an answer for Emmitt Smith, who finished with 88 yards rushing, 85 yards receiving, and two touchdowns. Smith made it look easy and often made the first defender miss. George Siefert’s offense stalled on third down while Dallas found Smith or Harper. The Cowboys scored three touchdowns in the second quarter, and that was the difference. A 3rd & 13 pass went through the hands of John Taylor that led to an interception, and San Francisco never recovered. The 49ers looked outmatched in this one. The defense was a dog chasing its tail in the first half as the Cowboys spread them out and took advantage of their skill players against the 49ers second-level defenders.
A 28-7 halftime deficit was too much to overcome, even after Troy Aikman left the game after taking a knee to the head. Davis jumped a slant route on third down that should’ve been a pick-six, but the ball was so poorly thrown that Davis couldn’t make a play. Harper made a fantastic catch, and just like that, it was 35-7.
Third time’s a charm
The 49ers would meet Dallas twice in ‘94 and come away victorious in both meetings. The new-look Niners forced three interceptions from Aikman in the regular season, including one from Deion Sanders. Davis’s luck changed in the NFC Championship after intercepting Aikman on the opening possession and taking it to the house to give the Niners an early lead. It was a trap coverage known as “Cougar Five,” and Aikman never saw Davis coming. This was the type of start San Francisco needed.
Thank goodness there was no instant replay as Dallas turned the ball over again on the following possession. Davis stripped Michael Irvin, and the 49ers were in Cowboys’ territory up a touchdown, and the game isn’t even four minutes in. Ted Popson made a diving catch on 4th & 2 that gave the Niners a first down by about six inches. On the ensuing play, Watters ran a wheel route out of the backfield and high-stepped into the end zone from 29 yards out. 14-0 good guys, but it gets better.
Dallas fumbled the kickoff, and San Francisco recovered. Taylor dropped the next pass, then caught the very next throw for 14 yards, and after a Young scramble, William Floyd punches it in from a yard out to give the 49ers a 21-0 victory. Folks, this one is OVER.
Wait a minute.
On 3rd & 23, after doubling Irvin, he still finds a way to get behind the defense and scored from 44-yards out. I know that drove the coaching staff crazy. The worst part was the route Irvin ran was nothing special. That made it 21-7. At this point in the game, Sanders hadn’t been targeted once as soon as the broadcast showed that graphic, Deion gave up a first down to Irvin. On a crucial second down, however, primetime didn’t let Irvin off the line of scrimmage. That led to a missed field goal. A questionable pass interference call put the Niners into Dallas territory. Young threw a bullet to Rice, but he couldn’t hold on in the end zone, and San Francisco had to settle for a field goal to make it 24-7. The Cowboys wasted no time answering with a touchdown to make it 24-14.
An exciting first half was coming to a close as Young and the offense got the ball back after a 23-yard punt with just under a minute to play. A perfect—and I cannot emphasize the word perfect enough—pass to Rice on a vertical route 28 yards down the field put the Niners up 31-14 heading into the half. Reason No. 38 to be aggressive before the half.
Rice’s touchdown proved to be vital after Kevin Williams fumbled the opening kickoff Dallas would score to make it 21-31. Young led a scoring drive capped off by a scramble where he scored. Aikman tested primetime again, and he’s going to wish he had this one back. Deion picks it off, and that sealed the deal as Dallas had to score twice in the fourth quarter while hoping San Francisco wouldn’t score.
Young was amazing. His improv skills were second to none. He had a sense/feel for the game that very few that play the position has. To this day, I still don’t think Young gets the credit he deserves as an athlete. What a player.