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 conference.
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.