1990’s San Francisco 49ers v. Dallas Cowboys: 49ers Perspective

Former San Francisco 49er Head Coach Bill Walsh referred to the early years of the organization’s coming of age as “Camelot”. After the 1981 Super Bowl championship they would go on to become “Team of the Decade” winning another 3 titles. San Francisco became the NFL’s gold standard in on field achievement and the corporate way they conducted themselves.

Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and John Taylor had taken the West Coast Offense to a record level.

Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and John Taylor had taken the West Coast Offense to a record level.

Their players were revered as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott took their place among the league’s greatest ever players. They had been the toast of Presidents as the 80’s drew to a close. In 1989 new Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones traveled to San Francisco to learn from Eddie Debartolo how the league’s model franchise did business. This was nothing new as even former Head Coach Bill Walsh had become a favorite on the corporate motivational speaking circuit.

As the 90’s beckoned, the team was transitioning on the field as Steve Young, Ricky Watters and a new wave of 49ers emerged. It started with a team loss in  the 90 NFC Championship to the New York Giants 15-13 ending their chance at a 3-peat. Gone were 80’s holdovers Montana, Roger Craig, and Lott as the new generation took shape in 1991. Montana from a vicious hit that kept him out of football for two years. The others were released as the team looked to get younger to stay competitive.

They finished 10-6 as Steve Young finished his first season as a passing champion. It took awhile for San Fran to find their footing yet they finished on a 6 game winning streak. By 1992 the Niners hit their stride finishing 14-2 and retooled with Ricky Watters rushing for 1,013 yards to join Young, and Rice in the Pro Bowl. Another passing title moved Young into the elite of the sport yet it came crashing down with a loss to the upstart Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship 30-20.

Steve Young being sacked  during the 1992 NFC Championship Game.

Steve Young being sacked during the 1992 NFC Championship Game.

Yes, those same Dallas Cowboys who had studied the 49er organization some 4 years before. The same Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones who had traded for former 49er Charles Haley to help lead the upstart Cowboys and shift the balance of power. Haley had grown up a 49er and battled T Steve Wallace, G Guy McIntyre, and G Harris Barton for 6 years in practice. His experience and spirit settled the nervous young Cowboys in their ’92 NFC Championship triumph.

Going into the game it was a 50/50 split as to who had the upper hand. What really hurt Steve Young is a now healthy Joe Montana watched from the sideline. As San Fran fell behind in the second half, a growing feeling in the stadium loomed. Would George Seifert put Montana in if the game got away from Young. Even though Young was the NFL’s MVP, he still had the legend looking over his shoulder.

Troy Aikman outplayed him and made several signature throws to Alvin Harper while Young threw 2 4th quarter interceptions. What if Guy McIntyre doesn’t false start on the game’s 3rd play negating Jerry Rice’s 63 yard TD from Young?? It would have changed the complexion of  the game. However Troy Aikman had gone 24 of 34 for 322 yards and 2TDs. Emmitt Smith controlled the clock with 114 yds rushing and 59 yds receiving. They took the measure of San Fran and became the league’s signature team with their Super Bowl XXVII championship.

Going into 1993 the 49ers had traded away Joe Montana making it Young’s team. This added pressure from the fans but their real battle was catching Dallas who was now an established champion. They were brash and played with an in your face bravado that took the 49ers aback. In the locker room following the ’92 Championship, Jimmy Johnson’s boast “How ’bout them Cowboys!?!” reverberated in the CBS cameras & throughout Candlestick Park. It haunted the organization as they set their sights on dethroning the loud, brash Cowboys.

Once they qualified for the NFC Championship rematch in Dallas, it was time to right the ship. Dallas had beat them 26-17 in the regular season to add to their confidence. Then Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson dropped a bombshell.  He called a Dallas radio station and declared “We will win the game and you can put it in 3 inch headline!” Now they were calling San Fran out and how would they respond??

Called out and humiliated like an after school fight in 6th grade, the 38-21 loss in the ’93 NFC Championship was worse than it looked. Dallas was up 28-7 in the 2nd quarter and was sitting on the ball with 3:27 to go. The defense, which had struggled all year, was completely exposed. The gap was widening and the team needed to make drastic changes if they were going to compete with the younger Cowboys.

Michael Irvin had emerged as one of the best wide outs in the NFL. Emmitt Smith had the last 2 rushing titles and had his 3rd straight 100 yard rushing game against the 49ers. Troy Aikman had yet to throw an interception in 2 NFC Championship games. Alvin Harper was becoming a serious 49er killer as he emerged with the highest yard per catch average in postseason history. Most of it due to huge plays against San Fran.

Carmen Policy and the 49ers brass moved into swift action. Back then the team that lost the conference championship coached the Pro Bowl squad. Free agency had come to the NFL the year before and they used this as a recruiting trip. They signed future Hall of Famers Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent, Deion Sanders off the NFC Pro Bowl squad. Then stole Ken Norton Jr from the Cowboys and DE Charles Mann all fom the ’93 Pro Bowl.

Floyd and Watters celebrate touchdown during their 44-15 demolition of Chicago in the '94 playoffs.

Floyd and Watters celebrate touchdown during their 44-15 demolition of Chicago in the ’94 playoffs.

“If you can come in and give us the defense, we have an offense that can dethrone the Cowboys and get to the Super Bowl.” They also knew they needed a new approach psychologically and embraced a more brash, in your face street tough mentality. Embraced was the outgoing personalities of Ricky Watters, Deion Sanders, and rookie FB William Floyd. Gone was the laced up corporate attitude of the team on the field. This group showed its emotions on the field, celebrated with end zone dancing and Deion highstepping downfield after interceptions. The only thing that made the 49ers recognizable were their helmets. Thanks to the NFL commemorating their 75th season, the Niners elected to play most of the season in their “throwback” uniforms of the 1950s. The 49ers were reborn in 1994.

It worked as the 49ers blew through the regular season 13-3 and scored a team record 505 points. Steve Young was league MVP and Sanders was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. They retooled and had specific match ups ready as they eyed the defending champion Cowboys. They beat them during the season 21-14 to earn the right to homefield advantage for the ’94 NFC Championship. If the Cowboys were going to 3peat, they had to go through the last team that had that same chance just 4 years before.

The vanquished became the victors with their 38-28 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys in the ’94 NFC Championship Game. Super Bowl XXIX was an anticlimactic 49-26 win over the San Diego Chargers. Steve Young liberated himself from the ghost of Joe Montana. For 3 straight years these two teams pushed each other to heights they would not have achieved without each other. However the final shot was fired by the 49ers.

Young and Rice celebrate in Super Bowl XXIX.

Young and Rice celebrate in Super Bowl XXIX.

Jerry Jones had become obsessed with overtaking the 49ers who themselves made practical business decisions. They didn’t match Ricky Watters free agent contract with Philadelphia, which was a mistake, and they had to enter a bidding war for Deion Sanders. In ’94 they signed him to $1.1 million for one year where other teams were offering 4 years $17 million. Coming off a Super Bowl triumph and his 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year it was time to cash in. San Francisco baited jones and he took it and overspent for Deion at a cost of $35 million.

This crippled Dallas who wouldn’t be a player in free agency the rest of the decade. The Cowboys had all their money tied to Aikman, Smith, Irvin, and Sanders. The 49ers had freed themselves of the Dallas stranglehold and would go on to be an elite team the rest of the decade. They just didn’t see a new foe emerging in Mike Holmgren’s Green Bay Packers.

However there was the 1995 season where the 49ers were more in the spirit of the pre ’94 group. At midseason they took on the revenge minded Cowboys in Texas Stadium. The Cowboys were 8-1, healthy and ready to show with Deion Sanders in tow, they had overtaken San Fran. Going into the game they were missing QB Steve Young, FB William Floyd and staggered into the game with a 5-4 record. Perfect timing for the Cowboys to provide the knock out blow. Nobody believed the 49ers had a chance…

After being upset by the Packers in the 1995 NFC Divisional Playoffs 21-17, they began a new rivalry chapter with them. As for Dallas, they did win Super Bowl XXX to make it 4 wins in 4 years between these two organizations. New teams would emerge before the decade concluded. Most notable was Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos. Shanahan was San Francisco’s Offensive Coordinator during the heat of the 49er v Cowboys rivalry.

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SUPER BOWL XXIV CHAMPION 1989 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Want to hear something interesting?  Going into Super Bowl XXIV, the Denver Broncos were the ONLY team in the NFL the 49ers hadn’t defeated during the 1980s.  So in the last game of the decade…what happened??  Yikes 55-10 in a Super Bowl!!!  Joe Montana and company could have scored 80 if they wanted to…As crisp as the 49ers played, what did their practices look like??  Damn!

49.24The craziest thing was when Terry Bradshaw skirmished with John Elway that week about how Elway had been coddled…etc (remember Terry was roughed up by press and such as a young player) and after a back and forth, they sit down to talk about Super Bowl XXIV in a round table discussion and Bradshaw blurted out “I just don’t see Denver having a chance. This sucker could be as bad as 55-3!” Much to the chagrin of CBS brass trying to drum up interest for a game the press was touting as a blowout. Why 55? Eight tds, and a missed p.a.t.s? Only 3 for the Broncos?

If Bill Romanowski hadn’t faceguarded (form of pass interference) Orson Mobley in the endzone to give the Broncos 1st and goal at the 1, Terry Bradshaw would have NAILED IT!! The Broncos needed 4 plays to score from their touhdown also…Terry Bradshaw is a dummy? Not on this prediction! Final score 55-10.

49.24aHas there been a better or more dominant run in a single postseason?? In dispatching the Vikings 41-13, Montana carved up the #1 defense that ranked 1st in sacks with 71.  Joe was 17 of 24 for 241 yds and 4 touchdowns. In the NFC Championship, they faced their NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had been the scourge of the playoffs with their “Eagle Defense” with 2 D Linemen and 5 Linebackers.

No one could figure out Los Angeles hybrid defense as they befuddled Randall Cunningham’s Eagles and Phil Simms Giants. Well… Montana shredded them going 26 of 30 for 262 yds and 2 scores. Thanks to Craig, Rice, Taylor, and Rathman, San Francisco set a post season record with 29 first downs in a 30-3 slaughter. Don’t forget they split their games with them in the regular season. San Fran taught them the difference between post season and regular season play.

As for Super Bowl XXIV, Montana had his best ever game when it counted most. It almost seemed like a choreographed fight scene from a movie. Every move was countered perfectly. No matter what defense the Broncos were in Montana had an answer. The 1989 Denver Broncos were ranked 3rd in defense and had given up the fewest points in the NFL. Montana was 22 of 29 for 297 yards and 5 touchdowns and sat most of the 4th quarter.

super-bowl-logo-1989The perfect game Bill Walsh had Montana strive for from the quarterback position he watched in a booth next to Eddie DeBartolo. George Seifert was the coach who witnessed it up close as the Head Coach. He riddled the #1 and #3 ranked defenses with 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was a coronation, not just the 49ers becoming team of the ’80s, but Montana unseasting Johnny Unitas as the NFL’s greatest ever quarterback.

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SUPER BOWL XIX CHAMPIONS 1984 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

On January 20, 1985 in Super Bowl XIX, Joe Montana bested Dan Marino in Stanford Stadium 38-16, or rather the 49ers over the Dolphins.  We had been told the aerial circus came to town with Dan Marino and his 48 TDs during the regular season, and 57 when you add the playoff stats to his totals.  Remember the hype of how it should be a shootout??  A can’t miss aerial show!!  The Marks Brothers: Duper and Clayton!  Mark Clayton had set the record with 18 receiving touchdowns as the Dolphins scored a record 70 touchdowns in 1984.  A young strapping quarterback with a rocket arm at the height of his power. Who could stop them??

xixringEnter the 1984 San Francisco 49ers.  A team motivated by the ’83 NFC Championship debacle against the Washington Redskins in a 24-21 loss. A game marred by a controversial pass interference and defensive holding call that prolonged the final drive where the Redskins milked the clock and made their game winning kick.  This thwarted one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the NFL where the highest scoring team ever (83 Redskins: 541 points), jumped to a 21-0 lead and were about to easily advance to Super Bowl XVIII.

Yet the secondary of Eric Wright, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, and Carlton Williamson shut down the explosive Redskins after that allowing Joe Montana to bring his team back.

In a frantic 4th quarter Joe Montana, who had been shut down all game long, went white hot and completed 3TDs in the quarter to tie the game at 21. The 49ers had all the momentum, their sideline was going nuts and RFK Stadium, home of the famous “We Want Dallas” chant, was so quiet you could hear vendors selling popcorn.

super-bowl-logo-1984Then a questionable pass interference call against Eric Wright going up the sideline, where incidental contact at best would have been a more accurate call.  A few plays later Ronnie Lott was called for defensive holding…which was the first time I ever saw someone get called for holding with his arms down to his side!!  All that could be talked about in the Niner’s locker room after the ’83 Championship was the frustration that the officiating decided the game and not the players.  So they were on a mission to win it all in 1984.

The 49ers became the first team to go through the season 15-1 in the regular season.  How strong was this team?  The only loss during the campaign was a 20-17 loss to Pittsburgh who made it to the AFC Championship that season.  Fair to say Pittsburgh was strong?  Thought so… Well led by their secondary which placed ALL 4 members in the Pro Bowl.  This team was definitely prepared to take on the pass-happy Dolphins who defeated the Steelers to meet them in Super Bowl XIX.

George Seifert put the defense in a 4-1-6 defense and Fred Dean, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, and Duane Board (2 sacks) produced the pass rush that got to Marino by first smothering his receivers.  Many of these Dime defense principles Bill Belichick used with the Giants in stopping the 1990 Bills in Super Bowl XXV and for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.  George Seifert didn’t get enough credit for coming up with a defense that produced upsets against high powered offenses in future Super Bowls.

19 joeOne of the most demoralizing things that a defense can do is intercept a team in the endzone negating a long drive which the 49ers did twice in both the 3rd and 4th quarters of Super Bowl XIX.  This was a signature game for one of the best secondaries ever.  They were built specifically to take on an explosive passing attack and nearly took out two of the greatest offenses of all time. The refs interfered with one in 1983 but they wouldn’t be denied in Palo Alto.

However with Joe Montana throwing for a then record 331 yards and most yards rushing for a QB in a Super Bowl with 59 yards the defense was overshadowed.  Roger Craig scored 3 touchdowns in the game.  The “other” offense set another record with 537 total yards in the contest.

Wow…Dan Marino was only in his second year…he’d return to the Super Bowl in the near future…right?

Don’t take any chances for granted, there are no guarantees that you’ll get back…

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Roger Craig Should Be In The Hall of Fame

When you think back to Bill Walsh’s great 49er teams, who are the first players you think of?? Right there with the Joe Montanas, the Jerry Rices, and Ronnie Lotts it only takes a fraction of a second to think of Roger Craig. His high knee running style brought a physicality to the San Francisco offense that was seen as a finesse group up until his arrival. In fact he came to San Francisco as a fullback when they drafted him from Nebraska before the 1983 season.

Roger Craig was the battering ram of the San Francisco offense of the 1980s.

Roger Craig was the battering ram of the San Francisco offense.

In college he had been primarily a blocking back in the Cornhuskers wishbone offense. Normally he paved the way for Jarvis Redwine and then Mike Rozier. Yet when Bill Walsh decided to revamp San Francisco’s dismal backfield after a 3-6 season in 1982, he drafted Craig in the second round.

Although the 49ers had won it all in 1981, it had become apparent Bill Ring, Amos Lawrence, Walt Easley, and Earl Cooper just wasn’t cutting it in the backfield. To raise the stakes in the NFC for 1983, Craig and newly acquired Wendell Tyler would form a more potent backfield.

After posting the worst yards per carry average (3.4) and yardage (742) in 1982, the new backfield duo of Craig and Tyler turned that around completely. The much improved ground game of 1983 ranked 8th with 2,257 yards rushing and a gaudy 4.4 yard average. Ironically just ahead of the Los Angeles Rams, who had traded Tyler to San Francisco so they could draft Eric Dickerson.

You had to give the nod to Craig who ran for 783 yards a team leading 8 TDs, while catching 42 passes for 427 yards and another 4 scores. This more dynamic backfield, along with Joe Montana, powered San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game. A 24-21 loss to the Washington Redskins was shrouded in controversy, thanks to some questionable calls, yet Walsh had the backfield he envisioned. Craig had reinvented himself from a collegiate player who rarely touched the football to a dual threat pro.

The 1984 49ers were a juggernaut becoming the first team to go 15-1 during the regular season. Everyone of the 49 man roster played their role so no one had outstanding stats. However once the 49ers moved past the New York Giants and Chicago Bears during the playoffs, the stage was set for a coming out party in Super Bowl XIX. With all eyes on Joe Montana’s possible second Super Bowl trophy and the electrifying record setting Dan Marino, Craig’s name didn’t even make the marquee.

Roger Craig graces the cover of Sports Illustrated  after his record breaking performance in Super Bowl XIX.

Roger Craig graces the cover of Sports Illustrated after his record breaking performance in Super Bowl XIX.

It was his 1985 that set Craig apart as he amassed his 1,000/ 1,000 yard seasons both rushing and receiving. The first player in league history to do so. Some 27 years later, only Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk shares that accomplishment when he did it in 1999. How dominating was his performance?? Well his 1,050 yards rushing doesn’t jump out at you until you realize he only ran 214 times for a whopping 4.9 yards per carry. The league average is always around 4.0.

Oh by the way, he led the NFL in receiving that year with 92, which set a record for running backs, that amassed 1,016 more yards. His 15 total touchdowns was second to Joe Morris and was 1 better than NFL MVP Marcus Allen. In fact many pundits, including our CEO believes Craig should have been the MVP in 1985 with that dominating performance.

Now buoy his 1985 record setting season not culminating with the league MVP, on the backdrop of a Super Bowl record 3 TDs yet not winning that MVP and you’ll see where we’re going in a minute. Don’t forget he did this on a 10-6 San Francisco team that was a defending champion with Jerry Rice being a rookie that didn’t have 1,000 yards receiving and only 3 touchdowns. Craig quite simply fueled that offense.

Once the 49ers won Super Bowl XIX, they were forced to retool and become a bigger physical team. In 1985, the Chicago Bears emerged with one of the most imposing defenses in NFL history. The Giants followed suit with an overwhelming defense that featured 4 linebackers in the 250 lbs category. When Bill Walsh and his 49ers were dominated 49-3 in the 1986 NFC Divisional Playoffs by the Giants something had to be done.

These were teams the 49ers had beaten on their way to the ’84 championship, now they had taken the game to a new level of brute force. In reinventing the offense from a size perspective, it was Craig who was switched from fullback to halfback to allow for the insertion of Tom Rathman at fullback. The entire offensive line was overhauled.

You have to keep in mind the average career for a runner in pro football is less than 4 years. Yet here Craig was making the switch in year 5 to a position that called for him to be quicker. This at a time where he should have been slowing down from a physical standpoint. Yet he, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana spearheaded one of history’s most accomplished runs. From 1987-1990 the 49ers went 51-12 in the regular season, winning back to back Super Bowls in ’88 & ’89 and were the prohibitive favorites to win it all in 1987 as well as 1990. They finished #1 in offense in ’87 and ’89 and #2 in ’88 and ’90. In each year they made it to at least the divisional round of the playoffs and 3 straight NFC Championship Games as they were trying to threepeat.

Playing in only 12 games due to the ’87 strike, Craig ran for 815 yards which projects out to 1,086 over a full season. The 13-2 Niners were poised to become the greatest team of the modern era yet were upset by the Vikings in the playoffs. They were #1 in both offense and defense yet proved fallible in the playoff loss. Craig went on to his greatest performance in the 1988 campaign. In rushing for a career high and club record 1,502 yards, he also caught 76 passes for an additional 534  yards for his second season with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. More important, he powered San Francisco to another Super Bowl championship with a win over Cincinnati in the XXIII’d edition.

Roger Craig was a hard nosed runner.

Roger Craig was a hard nosed runner.

Yet go back to 1988 being his second season with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Keep in mind this was no sleek, make ’em miss halfback. He brought a punishing style to his position where he bludgeoned the opposition. As you’re reading this you can picture his high knee running style like when he trampled through the Rams on his most famous run in 1988.

Yet did you know that Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, and Barry Sanders only had 2 different seasons amassing 2,000 yards from scrimmage also?? Did you also know that Marcus Allen and Adrian Peterson have only had one?? Only Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk, Ladainian Tomlinson, and Eric Dickerson had more. What do all of these runners have in common?? Peterson and Tomlinson will be in the Hall of Fame and all the others are in. Roger Craig is right there with them.

Now going into the Hall of Fame is based on impact on the game. By the time we bring up the 1989 team that won Super Bowl XXIV, Craig was a driving force behind the team of the decade. Again he was a 1,000 yard rusher as the team won their fourth Super Bowl and Roger had his 3rd ring. When he left the game in 1993, his 566 career receptions was #1 among running backs all time and still remains 7th.

He is in the linear line of great NFL running backs when it comes to catching the football and is a part of the game’s evolution. He took the mantle from Chuck Foreman and propelled it forward. Since then, only a handful of every down running backs have provided that type of versatility. Now everyone has a receiving running back who comes in on 3rd downs where Roger was in every play.

It was Craig’s play that allowed a young Jerry Rice to flourish as teams concentrated their efforts to stop him. If Craig’s move to halfback in 1987 hadn’t panned out, what would have been the legacy of Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense”?? It was the run from 1987-1990 that made the offense spread it’s wings throughout the National Football League. During this time is when it proved it could take on the big bad Chicago Bears defense (see 41-0 1987 Monday Night shutout) and 28-3 NFC Championship win in Soldier Field in ’88. Then you add the rivalry with the New York Giants.

From Mike Holmgren to Denny Green to Mike White to Jon Gruden (who was the piss-boy on the 1990 SF coaching staff) and George Seifert succeeding Bill Walsh. They all could attribute their Head Coaching jobs to some extent to Craig’s performance along with Montana and Rice. Yet the foundation of that offense running and receiving along with goal line and short yardage was #33.

By the way, when did Roger Craig set the Super Bowl record for becoming the first running back to have a 100 yard receiving game?? You guessed it… Super Bowl XXIII against Cincinnati and not his record setting performance against Miami. Now had he won the Super Bowl XIX MVP, or the 1985 NFL MVP, would that have propelled him to winning the NFL MVP in 1988?? Give it some thought.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you…Roger Craig