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And Aikman, being patient, waiting until he had the defensive backs playing man coverage and crowding up before he unleashed the rockets, worked an offense that ran 46 plays to the Niners' 22 in the first half. At intermission, though, he had only a 16-10 lead. Each team had scored a cheap touchdown, but every other advance was honestly attained, two high-powered offenses marching up and down the field. The game had only one punt before halftime, by San Francisco.
The lead changed hands twice in the third quarter. San Francisco led 17-16 after a five-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Young throwing a 12-yard strike to tight end Brent Jones. Dallas answered with Irvin's touchdown catch. Then, at 23-17, the game turned for keeps.
Early in the fourth quarter Young brought the Niners from their own 17 to third-and-goal on the Dallas six. The call was a shoot route to Jerry Rice, sprinting to the sideline, with Young rolling to his right, an awkward move for a lefthander. A bit of the pregame hype had involved the personal duel between Rice and Irvin—star wars at the wideout level—but on this day it was no contest. Rice was a nonfactor. Through three quarters he had caught only two passes for 25 yards. He would add five more catches, but they would come in the last four minutes with the Cowboys ahead by nine points and giving up the underneath stuff. Now, down close to the goal line, Rice was the man, on a route Young said afterward "should have been called to the left...we didn't practice it going to the right side."
"So why didn't you get out of the play and go to something else?" he was asked.
"Couldn't," he said. "The whole formation was set up that way."
Rolling to his right, Young caught his foot on the turf and slipped. His pass sailed high over Rice's head. On fourth down, holder Klaus Wilmsmeyer fumbled the snap on a field goal attempt. The Cowboys recovered the ball and drove for the field goal that put the game away.
That march began with a weird play. Aikman threw deep to Harper down the left side, near the Niner bench. The pass was incomplete, but side judge Mike Carey, who was trailing the play, went down. Someone on the 49er sideline had bumped him. The team was penalized 15 yards. "Never in my life have I seen that happen," said NFL director of officiating Jerry Seeman, who was at the game.
It was a bitter day for Young, who has had more than his share of them. He put up some good numbers—24 for 33, 267 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions—but seven of the completions came when the Niners were down by nine. And that incompletion to Rice near the goal line was disastrous.
For Aikman, young, talented and on a roll, bitterness may yet come. Yes, it's another contract thing. Aikman's salary is the 31st-highest among NFL quarterbacks. Imagine. He's still working under his original six-year, $11.2 million deal, with one more year to go after this one. It is a contract his agent, Leigh Steinberg, says that he never would have signed had Cowboy owner Jerry Jones not promised to renegotiate it if Aikman accomplished something impressive—like winning a Super Bowl. Now, says Jones, the contract will be examined in December, "when I'll have a better feel for the lay of the land around the league, the TV contract, the salary cap, the whole situation."
"I've taken what they paid me and never said a word," Aikman says. "I'm not going to start now. But December? When we're in the hard part of the season? It's a funny time to start looking at a contract."