Monday, January 18, 1993

DALLAS COMES FULL CIRCLE
VS. SAN FRANCISCO

By Jim Thomas
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Eleven years later, it's come full circle. Move over San Francisco, the National Football League's team of the '80s. Make way for the Dallas Cowboys. Are they the NFL's team of the '90s?

"You got to take your hat off to the 49ers, they've got a lot of class," Dallas defensive tackle Tony Casillas said. "But it's time to change the guard, so to speak."

In a week full of talk about "The Mud," and "The Catch," there was only "The Cowboys" on Sunday -- young, aggressive and newly crowned National Football Conference champions. They won Sunday 30-20 over the 49ers in the NFC title game at Candlestick Park.

Eleven seasons ago, San Francisco began its ascent with a 28-27 comeback victory over Dallas on what came to be called , "The Catch," the now-famous touchdown pass from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark with 51 seconds to play. The 49ers went on to win four Super Bowl titles in the '80s. The Cowboys, who dominated the NFL in the '70s, wouldn't be heard from again.

Until now, that is. Behind the arm of quarterback Troy Aikman, the legs of running back Emmitt Smith and the resourcefulness of coach Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys (15-3) have a date with the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl - on Jan. 31 in Pasadena, Calif.

Aikman, who had yet to start a playoff game before this season, threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns. Smith, rushed for 114 and scored two touchdowns. Johnson did the rest with some gutsy play-calling down the stretch.

"Ohhh!," a gleeful Johnson yelled as he entered his postgame news conference. "How 'bout them Cowboys! It really was a fantastic effort, and not just today and not just this week. It was a fantastic effort for our guys starting back about four years ago when we felt that we were at rock bottom."

But four years after finishing 1-15, the Cowboys are among the NFL's elite.

"I know every organization in the league works hard," Johnson said. "I know people around the country, they work hard, but I would never, ever imagine anybody working as hard as the group we have."

The 49ers (15-3), who entered the postseason with the league's best record, are out of work for the rest of this season thanks to a turnover-plagued afternoon.

Were it not for four big mistakes - two lost fumbles and two penalties - the 49ers might have been considerably better off at halftime than tied 10-10.

On the third play of the game, quarterback Steve Young threw deep to Jerry Rice, apparently for a 63-yard touchdown play. But it was called back because of a holding penalty against left guard Guy McIntyre.

Dallas was forced to punt on its first possession, but Dixon Edwards jarred the ball loose from 49ers return man Alan Grant with Dallas' Daryl Johnston recovering on the San Francisco 22. Aikman passed 21 yards to Michael Irvin on the next play, and the Cowboys were poised to take the lead.

But in three tries from the 1, the Cowboys lost 2 yards and settled for a 20-yard field goal by Lin Elliott with 8 minutes 20 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.

Unfazed, the 49ers set up shop on the Dallas 48 after a 50-yard kickoff return by Mark Logan. Moving with precision, be it via the run or pass, the 49ers moved 48 yards for a Young touchdown - on a 1-yard quarterback sneak - for a 7-3 lead.

The Cowboys got another scoring chance when Ricky Watters fumbled in the secondary and Kevin Smith recovered. They took over on the San Francisco 39 and scored seven plays later on Smith's 4-yard run with 5:05 left in the half.

The Cowboys would have had to settle for a field goal were it not for mistake No. 4: a defensive holding call on Pierce Holt on a third-and-goal play in which Aikman threw incomplete to Irvin in the end zone.

After driving 65 yards, the 49ers tied the game 10-10 on a 28-yard field goal by Mike Cofer with 1:19 left in the half. Dallas moved all the way to the 49ers' 25 just before the half, but Elliott's 43-yard field goal attempt was wide right with 4 seconds left in the half.

Dallas, which led the NFL in time of possession in the regular season, had the ball for all but 4 minutes in the third quarter. The Cowboys drove 78 yards with the half-opening kickoff for the go-ahead TD. Almost half the yardage came on a 37-yard pass play from Aikman to Alvin Harper. The ball was underthrown, but Harper outleaped defender Eric Davis for a first down on the 49ers' 7.

Smith carried to the 4 and then Johnston scored on a 3-yard run with 10:45 left in the third quarter.

San Francisco countered with another field goal by Cofer, closing its deficit to 17-13 with 6:25 left in the quarter. But Dallas responded with a monster 80-yard drive that consumed the rest of the third quarter and spilled over into the fourth.

Dallas converted four times on third down in the drive, including a 16-yard TD pass from Aikman to Smith with 12:25 left in the game. Elliott's extra point gave Dallas a 24-13 lead and sent the 49ers into the no-huddle.

But Young threw the first of two interceptions and the Cowboys were poised to go in for the kill. But instead of kicking a field goal, Johnson went for it on a fourth and 1 from the 49ers' 7. But Smith was stopped for no gain, and the 49ers promptly marched 93 yards for a touchdown, on a 5-yard pass from Young to Rice making it 24-20.

"If we lose the game I'm the goat, but I'm not the goat," a beaming Johnson said in reference to that fourth-down gamble.

With 4:22 to play after Rice's TD catch, it seemed prudent for the Cowboys to sit on the ball.

Instead Aikman threw a deep slant to Harper, who turned it into a 70-yard gain to the San Francisco 6. Three plays later, the Cowboys were back in the end zone on a 6-yard pass from Aikman to Kelvin Martin with 3:43 left.

There would be no comeback. The 'Boys are back.