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 their sodden Santa Clara headquarters to practice in dry Tempe, Ariz., for the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys. "The only thing that could have been better was thunder."
The NFL's Most Valuable Player is so cheery these days he could be the advance man for Barney and Friends. He is a sieve. All bad vibes and negative thoughts just flow through him as breezes pass through a screen door. After the 49ers whupped the world champion Cowboys 38-28 on Sunday, 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 have haunted Young because he isn't Joe Montana and he has yet to win the Big One. Though the Super Bowl and the San Diego Chargers lie 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. "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 third straight season 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 are 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 last 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 have the Cowboys become the impetus for the 49ers to build the most complete team in the NFL. The Niners jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter of Sunday's game, the result of three Dallas turnovers. But even without those errors San Francisco is probably the superior team on almost every level. "Hey, we're a lot better than those guys, talentwise," said 49er linebacker Rickey Jackson after the game. "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 this championship game to scary proportions. "If we lose," said 49er president Carmen Policy, "we die."
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. Earlier in the season Switzer had pondered the subtleties of the pro game and his role in it. "It's just a chess game," he said. "I play chess. My roommate in college, Billy Gilbow, taught me how to play. He was taught by a priest, who used to play him every weekend—until Billy got too good and beat the priest."
In the game against San Francisco, Switzer may have shown his own weakness at moving the pieces by failing to carefully manage the clock or his team's 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. 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."