Gary Plummer, one of six new starters on the San Francisco 49ers’ defense, knows why he was brought here: to beat Dallas.
“We didn’t even have to play the regular season,” says the 34-year-old linebacker, who spent eight of his previous 10 pro seasons in San Diego.
“They’ve gotten this far without us the last two years. We’re here to help them take the extra step.”
The extra step is the Super Bowl, in which the winner of today’s game at waterlogged Candlestick Park will be a heavy favorite. The NFC team, after all, has won that game the last 10 seasons, Dallas the last two years and San Francisco three times during that span.
That makes this the de facto Super Bowl that everyone’s been anticipating all season.
In a season of parity stemming in part from a salary cap, San Francisco and Dallas were clearly the NFL’s two best teams. There are 20 Pro Bowlers between them - 11 Cowboys and nine 49ers. Nobody else has more than six.
The 49ers waltzed in the NFC West because president Carmen Policy managed to manipulate the cap to cut the payroll by more than $10 million and add a group of veteran free agents.
The Cowboys rumbled through the East with the young talent that won them two straight NFL titles, led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. They feel the same way about this game as the 49ers.
“All those other teams, they should have just packed up and gone home.” says Irvin, tongue only slightly in cheek.
But Dallas, seeking to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls, enters this game the underdog by a touchdown. It hasn’t been in that position since 1991, when Jimmy Johnson got the Cowboys to the playoffs twice after beginning his NFL coaching career 1-15.
Why is San Francisco favored?
Smith’s left hamstring, injured three weeks ago against New Orleans and reinjured last week in the 35-9 win over Green Bay. “I’m feeling good, it’s fine,” Smith said all week. But Barry Switzer, who succeeded Johnson after the egos of the coach and owner Jerry Jones proved too big to coexist, isn’t so sure.
“We won’t know until (today) how effective he’ll be,” Switzer said. “But he’s going to play and he will start.”
The home-field advantage enjoyed by the 49ers, courtesy of a 21-14 regular-season win at Candlestick, which since has been deluged by the downpours that have hit California the last two weeks. They were bad enough to make the 49ers’ practice fields unplayable and force them to travel to Tempe, Ariz., to train.
The absence of Johnson, a master motivator at his best in the playoffs. Last year he “guaranteed” a win two days before playing the 49ers to liven up what he thought was a dead team. “I’d say coach Switzer doesn’t talk to us as much as coach Johnson did,” says guard Nate Newton. “At least he doesn’t talk as loud.”
The overwhelming offense of the 49ers, whose 504 regular-season points were the fourth-best in NFL history.
Steve Young, finally out of the shadow of Joe Montana, set a record with a quarterback rating of 112.8 and had 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the regular season’s last 11 games, 10 of them wins.
“There was so much pressure put on Steve when Joe left that he’s only just found himself now,” says Jerry Rice, who has 139 career touchdowns after breaking Jim Brown’s all-time mark of 126 in the opening game.
There also are these things going San Francisco’s way:
Rice, who once complained that he lacked the same rapport with Young that he had with Montana, was the first player to get to Shaun Gayle of the Bears last Saturday after Gayle decked Young with a late hit in the end zone.
In six of their 17 games, including the 44-15 win over Chicago last week, the 49ers scored 40 or more points and went over 30 points in 10, all but one of them after they began 3-2.
But the key now is the defense, which failed San Francisco in the last two title games with the Cowboys, a 30-20 loss at Candlestick two seasons ago and a 38-21 defeat in Dallas last season.
Six players who will start today are new, including all three linebackers: Plummer, former Cowboy Ken Norton and rookie Lee Woodall. The others are veteran Rickey Jackson at defensive end; rookie Bryant Young at defensive tackle; and, most importantly, Deion Sanders at right corner.
Signed after the baseball season was declared dead, Sanders returned three interceptions for touchdowns and was named defensive player of the year. He also brought flamboyance to the previously staid 49ers. And that has carried over to young running backs Ricky Watters and William Floyd, who now strut, dance and talk trash.
More important, he’s totally changed the look of the 49ers’ secondary, allowing cornerback Merton Hanks to move to safety, where he’s become a Pro Bowler and notched two interceptions in the win over the Cowboys. Sanders also can take out the best receivers man to man, allowing double coverage elsewhere.
Defense has carried much of the load for Dallas, which finished 12-4 in the regular season. It’s a defense that gave up the least yardage and the third-fewest points in the NFL.
It is led by defensive end Charles Haley, who was traded by the 49ers in 1992 because of the disruptions he caused in the locker room.
Look for a lot of hitting in a game where the two teams mirror themselves at the offensive skill positions: Young vs. Aikman at quarterback; Rice and John Taylor vs. Irvin and Alvin Harper at wide receiver; San Francisco’s Brent Jones vs. Jay Novacek at tight end; and Watters and Floyd vs. Smith and Daryl Johnston at running back.
If Smith gets significant playing time, that is. If he doesn’t, he’ll be replaced by Blair Thomas.
“I hope he does play,” Jesse Sapolu, San Francisco’s left guard, says of Smith. “That’s how confident I am.”
That’s a fair expression of the 49ers’ feelings.
Said San Francisco’s Jackson: “I want Emmitt. I’m looking for Emmitt. I got something for Emmitt. The same thing Emmitt got the last time he’s going to get this time.”
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