At the crossroads of a great rivalry

Steve Young remembers the game like it was yesterday – if by "yesterday" we mean in a previous life.

Eleven years ago this Sunday, in what proved to be the last act of the marquee rivalry of the 1990s, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys by a 17-10 score. The two teams had met nine times previously during the decade, including in three consecutive NFC championship games from 1992 to 1994, and Young can recall vivid details from most of those clashes.

The '97 game, however, might as well have occurred in an alternate universe – or, in keeping with the era, an "X-Files" episode.

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"What happened again?" Young asked over the phone Thursday when I brought up his last game against America's Team. "Did we win? Did Troy play?"

Yes, for the record, Troy Aikman did play. And he, not Young, was the future Hall of Fame quarterback who, having suffered a concussion the previous week, complained of headaches after the game.


Have we seen the end of classic Manning vs. Brady duels?

(Getty Images/Andy Lyons)

The reason I bring up this understandably forgettable showdown between the Niners, who went on to host that year's NFC Championship game, and the Cowboys, who fell under .500 for the first time in seven years and ultimately slipped to 6-10 in Barry Switzer's final season, is because I'm wondering whether Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts will go down as a similarly deflating rivalry-killer.


I hope that's not the case – the 10 battles between the franchises since Tom Brady became the Pats' starting quarterback in 2001 have provided some of this decade's most dramatic moments, and in Brady and Peyton Manning it has featured the two most accomplished quarterbacks of an era. Though Brady's season-ending knee injury has the 5-2 Patriots in an unusually vulnerable position and Indy (3-4), in the wake of Manning's offseason knee surgeries, is hopelessly out of rhythm, this could be but a temporary ebb in this classic competition between two elite franchises.

On the other hand, with the Colts struggling to reach the postseason as head coach Tony Dungy contemplates retirement, and with the Patriots getting older at some key positions as they pray for Brady's smooth and successful recovery from reconstructive knee surgery, we shouldn't take anything for granted.

That's how quickly things change in a transient league in which injuries, free agency and increasingly impatient owners have conspired to chip away at continuity. If recent history has shown us that half of the league's playoff participants are flushed out and replaced by upstarts in a given year, why should the Pats (five consecutive playoff berths and six out of seven, with four Super Bowl appearances and three championships) and Colts (six consecutive playoff appearances and eight out of nine, with one Super Bowl triumph) be immune to the sudden dropoff?

That they've stayed relevant throughout the otherwise scrambled decade is a testament to both organizations. Until this year, we hadn't even considered the possibility that either the Dungy/Manning-era Colts or Bill Belichick/Brady-era Patriots could be vulnerable, whereas the other 30 teams had the presumed stability of ping-pong balls in a lottery hopper.


Those other 30 teams, in truth, have been behaving predictably; it's the other two who have been the anomalies.

Look at it this way: Each spring, when you see a New England-Indy matchup on the schedule, it is conferred instant and unquestioned must-see status. What other interdivisional clashes have consistently inspired anything close to that kind of anticipatory excitement? Well, let's see, there's … and … oh, and … wait, I'll think of one … I've got it … 49ers-Cowboys.

Oops – that matchup stopped mattering more than a decade ago.

For what it's worth, the man who quarterbacked the Niners in some of the most indelible showdowns of the '90s believes that the Pats and Colts aren't done providing gripping head-to-head highlights.


"The way I see the NFL in this era of free agency, there are no more dominant teams, but there are dominant organizations," Young said. "Because there are so many franchises that don't understand free agency yet – who don't have strong definitions of who they are – teams and owners that do get it, like the Colts and Patriots, are going to be in the upper echelon of the league for the foreseeable future, plus or minus years like this one.

"Now, part of it is they have the two top quarterbacks in the league, and obviously if they're not there or playing hurt, it's going to have an effect. My theory is that Peyton's playing really hurt, which would explain a lot about why the Colts are struggling. But eventually he and Tom will be back at the level we're accustomed to seeing, and then it will be business as usual."

I understand what Young is saying, but I also remember that many of us conveyed similarly sunny sentiments even as he and Aikman began showing their vulnerabilities in the latter part of the '90s. Repeated concussions ended up forcing both into relatively early retirements – Young played his final game early in the '99 season, while Aikman called it quits after the following campaign.

Long before that, Young's perspective had changed. As charged as the Dallas-San Francisco rivalry had become in the first half of the '90s, with the teams combining to win four consecutive Super Bowls from 1992 to 1995, Young could already feel it fading by the time the Cowboys came to Candlestick for that '97 clash.


Young lunges for a TD in the '94 NFC title game win over Dallas.


(Getty Image/John Mabanglo)

Yes, Dallas still had stars like Aikman, Emmitt Smith (who left early in that game with a groin strain) and Michael Irvin, and the Cowboys were still ostensibly in contention for a seventh consecutive postseason berth. But the Niners, having been knocked out of the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers in the previous two seasons, viewed the defending Super Bowl champs and their young quarterback, Brett Favre, as the true obstacle to winning a sixth title.

"We had moved on and turned our attention to the Packers," Young recalled. "That's who had done us in the previous years, and we felt we had to beat them to get where we needed to go."

Young was right – the 49ers lost the '97 title game to Green Bay, which went on to lose to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII.


The next time the 49ers and Cowboys played, in September of 2000, neither team was a contender. San Francisco, en route to a 6-10 season, scored a 41-24 triumph over a Dallas squad that would finish 5-11. The only thing memorable about that game was that Terrell Owens celebrated a pair of touchdowns by dancing on the star in the middle of the Texas Stadium turf, provoking a physical reaction from Cowboys safety George Teague and the everlasting scorn of the team's fan base.

Well, maybe not everlasting.

Chalk up T.O.'s Lone Star Revival as yet another reminder that presumed certainties in the NFL are fleeting. And whatever twists the future holds for Manning, Brady and the franchises they've helped vault to prominence, be sure to enjoy Sunday's version of Colts-Patriots Light and savor every last drop of drama it might produce.

"You'll see, this matchup's not gonna fade," Young assured me. "Organizations do come and go, but this won't be a last hurrah."


One last stat: Going into the '08 season Young was the NFL's all-time leader in career passer rating, with Manning (second) and Brady (fourth) also in the top five.

I hope his accuracy hasn't betrayed him.


The Packers will play their best game of the season and take the Titans down to the wire before losing, instilling hope for the second half. … DeAngelo Hall will take one to the house against his old team, but it won't be enough to carry the Raiders to victory over the Falcons. … Within six months after becoming coach of Argentina's national team, Diego Maradona will either get really, really skinny or really fat.



Minneapolis, where I can see if either the Vikings or the Texans – two teams for which I had high hopes before the season but who are struggling with 3-4 records – might have a playoff run in them after all. I'm also bracing myself for that annoying horn sound, over and over, depending on how prolifically the home team performs.


1. In addition to guaranteeing that the Bengals will win at least two games this season, T.J. Houshmandzadeh boldly predicted that Plaxico Burress will attend at least two Monday treatment sessions by the end of '08.

2. Hoping to capitalize on the publicity surrounding John Daly's latest no-fault misfortune, Hooters Air announced it was resuming operations, with the long-driving golfer serving as chief purser and Bucs coach Jon Gruden as a flight attendant. First stop: Arnold Palmerville.


3. In what is being characterized internally as an effort to "prove to the public that we are committed to perpetuating our legacy," the Lions will make a run at former Pistons star Isiah Thomas to fill the vacant team president position.


Steve Kerr won five NBA championships as a player, but when it comes to celebrity prognostication, he is not proud. "I hung on for dear life with the Jets [over Kansas City]," he says. "That was lucky as hell." Still, a win is a win, and the Suns general manager survived to make a third pick. Says Kerr: "I'll take Jacksonville [over Cincinnati]. When it doubt, go with the biggest spread!"


It was a London orgy befitting of the Stones back in the day – only this was an orgy of fantasy points, and my buddy Malibu's satisfaction was undermined by his beloved Chargers' defeat to the Saints at Wembley Stadium. Still, with Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson, Deuce McAllister and Antonio Gates (among others) scoring big, Malibu's Hand of Doom racked up a week-best 164 points as it improved to 5-3 by more than doubling its opponent, Team 420. The bad news? "Dude," Malibu says, "like, my entire team is on a bye this week." Conveniently, Hand of Doom is playing his league's only undefeated team, You Are a Jerk (Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Warner, Steven Jackson, Anquan Boldin, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress, Chris Cooley). Rather than subject some of his precious Chargers (or Saints) to the waiver wire, Malibu is basically tanking the week. He's playing Antonio Gates at tight end (and accepting the zero points) and going with a makeshift lineup that includes backs Kevin Faulk and Tim Hightower and receivers Steve Breaston and (on my recommendation) Greg Camarillo, a shifty Dolphins wideout going up against the Broncos' secondary. Speaking of the Broncos, Malibu is ignoring my plea to start rookie Ryan Torain, who makes his long-awaited debut on Sunday.

Torain was, in fact, the mystery player to whom I alluded to two weeks ago, and UC Santa Barbara women's hoops coach Lindsay Gottlieb is going to play him this week in her battle with The NoYokoRomo Tank (Matt Cassel, DeSean Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and, realistically, not a whole lot else). Still smarting from the butt-kicking she endured from undefeated Gotham City last week – and her prescient choice of J.T. O'Sullivan – Gottlieb remains optimistic that she can finesse Gaucho Madness (4-4) into the playoffs. This week she's playing Gus Frerotte (home vs. Texans) over Aaron Rodgers (at Titans) and hoping for Willie Parker's healthy return, as well as a boost from new pickup Ted Ginn Jr., on my recommendation. "I know he's playing the Broncos, and their pass defense is suspect," Gottlieb said. "But I think the real reason you want him is so you can link to that Cam Cameron draft day clip again." Gottlieb swears she's not offended that her real team, defending Big West champion UCSB, was picked to finish second in the conference's preseason media and coaches polls. But, she says, "my players are mad, and that makes me happy. I like being around a bunch of kids who hate being second."


Back in the mid-90s, after the late, great Bill Walsh had returned to the 49ers as an offensive consultant following his second stint as Stanford's coach, I paid a visit to 'The Genius' in the makeshift office he derisively called a "broom closet" at the team's training facility in Santa Clara, Calif. Before we talked football, I told him that something was troubling me: The organizational decision to change the Niners' uniform color from scarlet to cardinal (and, for a few years, replace the gold pants with white ones). Walsh lifted his eyes dramatically and made that face he always made when something exasperated him. "We had the finest, most beautiful uniforms in all of sports," he said, "and they had to go and mess it up. I don't understand it. I just don't."

The decision had been made with economics in mind – a new jersey equals a new source of revenue from fashion-conscious fans. There had also been an element of superstition. The 49ers had worn cardinal-and-white throwback jerseys (from 1955) in a '94 game and won, and Walsh's otherwise rational successor as coach, George Seifert, naturally believed this was primarily due to the uniform switch, rather than Steve Young or Jerry Rice or Deion Sanders or the rest of the team's excellent players and coaches. So the 49ers petitioned the league to continue wearing their "throwbacks" throughout that season, which ended with the team's fifth Super Bowl victory. In '96 a permanent switch was made to cardinal-colored jerseys that resembled those throwbacks, and it was at some point that fall Walsh and I had our conversation. Well, as grim as things were on Sunday at Candlestick Park, I'm happy to report that there was some promising news. Before the game, after I told general manager Scot McCloughan how excited I was to see the Niners in their classic uniforms (which are now the "throwbacks," just to make it more confusing), he told me a switch back to the cherry-red beauties was in the works. "That's where I think we're headed," he said. "It takes about two years to get the NFL to sign off on a [permanent] change, but the process has begun." Now, if only there were a way to bring back Walsh to give him the good news.


The proud players on the East Timor national soccer team, who just earned their nation's first-ever point by securing a 2-2 tie with Cambodia. And while we're talking soccer, another round of Courtney Jones shots is in order. The daughter of former 49ers tight end Brent Jones, who made her Gameface debut a few weeks ago, keeps killin' it for second-ranked North Carolina. With two goals and an assist in the Tar Heels' 5-1 win at No. 7 Virginia last Friday, the freshman now ranks second for UNC in goals and points on the season.


It was a "Golden Girl" reunion at Spieker Pool Thursday as unparalleled coach Teri McKeever's fifth-ranked Cal women's swim team scored a 137-119 Pac-10 dual meet victory over Washington, coached by former Golden Bears assistant extraordinaire Whitney Hite. The great Natalie Coughlin was on hand for the occasion, as was former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, whose wife, Cass, swam for McKeever at Fresno State in the early '90s. Cal's soccer program also had a big week, with star sophomore striker Alex Morgan being named to the U.S. roster for the under-20 World Cup in Chile (meaning that the 25th-ranked Bears won't have their leading scorer for the postseason) and former goalkeeping great Mary Harvey getting hired as chief operating officer for the newly formed Women's Professional Soccer league. Oh, and last Saturday at Memorial Stadium Cal waited until the fourth quarter to put it on the fight-song-stealing baby bears from the south, rolling to a 41-20 victory over UCLA to remain a half-game behind USC and Oregon in the race for the Pac-10 title. The Bears and Ducks do battle at Memorial on Saturday, and we hope for the Best.


Wassup 2008


Reading's momentum took a big hit over the past week. First, the Royals' perfect home campaign ended with a disappointing 0-0 tie against Queens Park Rangers last Saturday. Three days later, Reading fell 1-0 at Burnley despite dominating play. The draw with Rangers at Madejski Stadium was especially frustrating given the referee's decision not to call what seemed to be an obvious hand ball in the box that should've given the Royals a late penalty kick. Noting that Noel Hunt's cross struck the outstretched hand of defender Gavin Mahon, Reading manager Steve Coppell told the club's online TV station, Reading World, after the game, "I didn't really get a good view, but there was such a clamor from the crowd there must have been something in it. "I always say that if the arm is in an unnatural position and it hits the hand, it's a foul and a penalty. On this occasion it seems that Gavin Mahon had his hand up above his shoulder – in an unnatural position – but the ref's not given it and we're not moaning."

The controversy took me back to a day 2½-years ago when my daughter, then 9, was playing a hotly contested game in a tournament in Northern California. She was charging the goal when the keeper blasted a ball from reasonably close range that seemed destined to hit her square in the face. At the last second she raised her arm to protect herself and the ball struck her elbow and bounced back to the top of the box, where it was cleared by a defender. The opposing coach started badgering the ref for a hand ball, screaming, "Her arm was in an unnatural position!" My knowledge of the rule didn't keep me from wanting to yell back, "I'll show you an unnatural position," though I think all that actually came out of my mouth was an incredulous "What?" But I digress … The Royals, having slipped to fourth in the Football League Championship table, hit the road again for a big match against eighth-place Bristol City Saturday.


"I don't understand … if Mike Singletary said his formula was 'We go out and hit people in the mouth' wasn't that what Vernon Davis in fact did?"

Mountain View, Calif.

Ha, I think he meant to add "before the whistle."

"Nolan's grammar was actually intact: 'It is the responsibility of the head coach to build a foundation and an environment for success. In many areas we were [building such an environment], although it is winning that ultimately determines success.' Sure, the ellipsis buries the sense a little, but the syntax still implies it. Poor devil has enough problems as it is, doesn't he, without adding to them with an accusation of illiteracy?"

W. Salomon
San Antonio

You (like others) are actually arguing that Nolan's implication justifies that leap of faith? Please. He used the word "build" in the prior sentence, yet "building," a separate form of the verb, is somehow the unseen (and parenthetical) word that salvages the reference? Fine, I take it back: Nolan is a step ahead of us all, and his statement was genius.

"How can you rank Tampa and Green Bay over Dallas when they handily defeated Green Bay. And they beat Tampa Bay, while completely decimated with injuries. You must be Redskins fan because your rankings have no validity."

Eric Wood

I get this a lot, and if you're interested, this is what it reads like to me: "It really upsets me that you don't have as high an opinion as I do of the team I root for, and because my opinion is obviously accurate, the only thing I can conclude is that you are biased against that team. Thus, you must be a fan of my team's rival."

"I think you are right about the Winslow article. Staph can kill you, and when you can't go to work without worrying who is going to get it next – and seemingly nothing is being done – then a guy's got every right to speak up. Kellen Winslow wasn't being treated like a piece of meat … the whole damn team is; a locker room shouldn't infect and possibly kill you. Considering that more than half of these guys are an injury away from being broke and nearly unemployable, maybe the guy with the most to lose ought to do the talking for the rest of them? The guy is still a cocky idiot, but he has a point."

Arlington, Texas

Thanks for making yours. And now, a word from the other side …

"I think you and many others need to get your head out of your ass and stop … look around … it would take most eight years to make what he makes in one week … and if most would act or say some of the things … they would be in the bread line next week … if you work for me i make the rules and if you don't like it … find another job … there are good people out there and lord knows you can be replaced at any time … if you are going to write something like this you need to understand who reads your articles … I'm 16 and you are an idoit"

Jerry Tarr
Castlewood, Va.

Thanks for the feedback, Jerry. Unless your first job is that of a business-owner, I suspect that your perspective might change. You will also find that, though the boss makes the rules, many employees are protected contractually and/or by unions or other bargaining units – as well as, in some cases, federal and state employment laws – against certain workplace demands and hazards. I sincerely hope you will also learn that when attempting to insult someone's intelligence, it is more effective when you use proper spelling.

"Why do you always choose to kiss up to the players? Are you afraid one of them will bust your lip if you don't see it completely from their spoiled perspective? Whereas management guys in suits seldom get confrontational?"

Noel Nauber
Valencia, Calif.

Once you start letting fear of a busted lip – or, for that matter, fear of any kind – influence your reporting, you're doing a disservice to journalism. Obsessing over the avoidance of confrontations? To me, that's truly scary.

"Wow! I can't believe it. You actually kind of defended an athlete … I can tell it is getting close to Christmas."


Greg, meet Noel. Noel, meet Greg …

"Just wanted to say I love the commentary, I am a Giants fan for years, and that Michael is Hot!"

New York

I seldom laugh aloud over an email – I suspect the term "LOL" is used inaccurately about 99 percent of the time – but this one did the trick (along with boosting my already prodigious ego).

"Hey Michael! I've enjoyed reading your columns for a long time now. I just felt I had to write in for the first time this week. The song 'area codes' altered for Brett Favre's continued 'INSIDER trading' has got me and all the boys in my office in Iraq rolling over the bombs laughing! Thanks for the great lyrics and continued excellence in your column. … I hope Terrell Suggs doesn't visit Iraq for a USO tour. He will have thousands of men in uniform from the wide base of Steelers Country surrounding him with more firepower than all of the Ravens/Browns quarterbacks dating to Vinny 'Intercept- aVerde.' Thanks again, and remember that 'you've got bro's' serving 7,000 miles away! **War veteran, 6 years army, current Intelligence contractor for the Dept. of Defense. MR. Jonathan Stewart Task Force 134 – Camp Bucca, Iraq"

Jonathan Stewart
Camp Bucca, Iraq

I sincerely appreciate the service of you and the other bros, and I pray for your safe and swift return. And if it makes you feel any better, I have nothing but love for the Steelers.

"Hey Mr. Silver. You might have Nostradamus powers in you. I was checking one of your first '32 questions' for Sept. 9 and checked the 49ers question: 'Is it possible both Bay Area coaches will be fired by midseason?' I don't know how you did it but you are a future teller. What a vision! Regards from my country. Keep up the good work."

Stan Higareda
León, Mexico

Thanks. I hope my next vision (concerning a certain event in my country this coming Tuesday) is as accurate.

"Did we call it this morning on Live Trippin' or what? Ron Rivera takes over for Ted Cottrell hours after we discussed it on your blog. Hmmm … I wonder if AJ Smith gets on the internet after all?"

Mr. Cynical
Burbank, Calif.

If he hasn't gotten hip to Live Trippin' yet (Tuesdays at 10 a.m. PT), he'd best take care of that.


In his NFL coaching debut last Sunday at Candlestick Park, Mike Singletary went back to his Chicago roots, banishing tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room and later letting his inner Monster of the Midway show. On Thursday, we learned that Singletary had gotten even more graphic at halftime, removing his pants to make the point that his 49ers were getting their derrieres kicked by the Seattle Seahawks. To many the total package makes Singletary a rock star, and I picture him feeling the nu metal as he wails Linkin Park's "Faint" to his open-mouthed players.

I am a little bit of craziness, a little bit of old school hard
Handful of complaints but I can't help the fact
That you blame it all on Mike Martz
I am what Mike Nolan was not, a coach that you will fear
But after a dumb personal foul, I'll hand you a towel
Say 'Get the hell out of here'
So I, dropped drawers watching you turn your back like you always do
Face away and pretend that I'm not
But I'll be here wearing red polka dots

You can't play the way you did before
Don't turn your back on me
I won't be ignored
Look away? My pants are on the floor
I turn my back to you
Like that metaphor?

I am, a little bit too secure, and you are incompetent
Cuz you don't understand I do have a plan
Sometimes I don't make sense
I have, never coached a team before, but I've never had a doubt
It's like no matter what I do I can't convince you what football is all about
So I, dropped trou watching you turn your back like it bothered you
You face away and stare down at your socks
But I'll be here standing tall in my jock

You can't play the way you did before
Don't turn your back on me
I won't be ignored
Look away? My pants are on the floor
I turn my back to you
Like that metaphor?

I'll whip it out now
If you don't listen to my verbal onslaught
Right now, hear me out now
You're gonna listen to me like it or not
Right now

You can't play the way you did before
Don't turn your back on me
I won't be ignored

You can't play the way you did before
Don't turn your back on me
I won't be ignored
Look away? My pants are on the floor
I turn my back to you
Like that metaphor?

Mike Ditka
He's got my back – oh well, I went overboard
Denise York
She'd better hire me
You'll never be bored