If it seems like déjà vu all over again in the NFL, it’s because it is. Dallas and San Francisco are meeting again in the playoffs – with the winner possibly advancing to the Super Bowl.
Sound familiar? It should
That’s how it’s been, dating back to 1981 when Dwight Clark’s touchdown catch shocked the Cowboys in the conference championship game, sending San Francisco to its first Super Bowl. The rest you know. The 49ers won the first of five NFL titles between then and 1994, including four in nine seasons.
But when they didn’t? It was Dallas that always seemed to be in the way.
In three successive seasons (1992-94), the two met in conference championship games – with the winner each time winning the Super Bowl. Then, in 1995, the Cowboys returned the NFC title game for a fourth successive season, only this time minus the 49ers. Result: They went on to win their third Lombardi Trophy in four years.
Do the math: That’s eight Super Bowl triumphs for San Francisco and Dallas from 1981-95.
“That was usually the final barrier between you and another Super Bowl ring,” former 49ers’ tight end Brent Jones said of the Cowboys on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast.
Jones has what he called “a unique perspective” on the rivalry. He grew up in the Bay Area, was a sports star at San Jose’s Leland High School and became a standout tight end at Santa Clara University where he was a three-time All-Conference choice.
But here’s the clincher: He wasn’t a 49ers fan. He was a Cowboys’ die-hard. You heard me: Dallas. The reason? Simple: The Cowboys were good, and the 49ers were not.
“The 49ers last year of being respectable was that ’72 playoff game (vs. Dallas),” he said, “and then they went into the tank for the next seven or eight years (where) they were miserable. So being a Cowboys’ fan was kinda fun. It was enjoyable.
“All my friends were 49ers’ fans, and the 49ers stunk. In fact, so much so that my Mom got my little brother a 49ers’ jacket for Christmas back when (you could go) to the old Sears catalog for a 49ers’ jacket. You could only get your local team, the 49ers or Raiders, back in those days, and my brother opened it and kind of threw it down.
“A few days later, she made him wear it to school, and he cried. She couldn’t figure out why he cried, and he said, ‘Because the 49ers are losers.’ And that was true. They were. You didn’t want to be associated with a bad team in our family.
“They were horrible, they were losers, right up to the time Eddie (DeBartolo) bought the team, had a few good draft choices and, all of a sudden, brought in Bill Walsh. (Then) everything changed.”
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That’s when The Catch happened, and the universe shifted for Brent Jones.
“I was crushed when Dwight Clark made The Catch,” he said. “And, six years later, I was standing in the huddle with him … which was kind of a strange phenomenon. I wore number 84 because Doug Cosbie of the Cowboys was my hero … and went to Santa Clara, as well. Then, all of a sudden, once I was with the 49ers I was on the opposite side of the coin and grew to despise – on the field – the Dallas Cowboys.
“I had predicted that in my lifetime the 49ers would never win a Super Bowl, and when they beat the Cowboys that year (1981 season) I thought, ‘Holy crap, they’re going to actually do it.’ “It sounds weird, (but) it was a devastating loss for me. Of course, I had no ties to the Cowboys other than being my favorite team, but I took it personally.”
Jones didn’t join the 49ers until 1987 when they added him after he was released by Pittsburgh (he was the Steelers’ fifth-round draft choice in 1986), and the move changed his career. He became one of the NFL’s top tight ends — three times named All-Pro, four times a Pro Bowler, a three-time Super Bowl champion … and, eventually, a Cowboys’ hater.
“I think I did hate them on the field,” he said, “but I certainly respected them, which probably added to the hate …It was great playing them early in my career because they weren’t very good. So we used to slam them.
“But then, obviously, the fantastic trade they had with Herschel Walker and getting all the picks from the Vikings … to bringing in Jimmy Johnson, Emmitt (Smith) and Troy (Aikman and) Michael (Irvin). In all those matchups, quite honestly, I felt like we were playing a mirror image of our team. So there was always consternation when you played the Cowboys.
“I was 100 percent confident against every team that we played that we were going to come out on top. When we played the Cowboys, it was 50-50. You could play great. You could do well. But you knew that they had the horsepower to even overcome our best at times. “
San Francisco and Dallas met nine times during Jones’ 11-year career, with the 49ers holding a 6-3 advantage. However, Dallas was 2-1 in the playoffs when games mattered most.
“It was truly a fantastic era for the NFL,” Jones said, “for a rivalry that I remember going back to the old days when John Brodie played Roger Staubach in ’72. I grew up around the rivalry, and to be able to participate was spectacular. So it’s a real treat that these two are matching up this weekend.”