Updated: Jan 16
The San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys have sustained one of the greatest rivalries in NFL history. But this is not a rivalry which dominated a single era within the confines of sport. This is a rivalry which has moved with a constant stream of change throughout American history. Together, these teams drove each other toward greatness and helped heal their wounded cities.
The rivalry began in 1960, the year the Dallas Cowboys were born. They weren’t very good that year, going 0-11-1 and losing to the 49ers 26-14 on November 20th. Unbeknownst to both organizations, they would become inconceivably intertwined in the coming years. Neither team was a contender in the beginning of the decade but they were building for the future.
That decade was a decade of change which would forever change America. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. In a highly controversial decision, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle elected to have the games played that weekend. Two days after the assassination in their city, the Cowboys traveled to Cleveland where they were booed mercilessly by more than 55,000 spectators. In that instant, the Cowboys were no longer just a struggling expansion team, they were a pariah in the NFL. Opposing fans booed them not only for their stance as the enemy opponent; they represented the city where the President of the United States was murdered. The Cowboys lost that game 27-17 and would finish the season 4-10. Meanwhile, the 49ers struggled through a 2-12 season.
While the Cowboys were putting the pieces together for a championship team, the 49ers were preparing quarterback John Brodie to lead their team to victory. Both teams added great depth along their defensive lines and added talent at quarterback and wide receiver. However, a piece was missing from the 49ers side. They hired Cowboys assistant Dick Nolan in 1969 and he brought with him the Cowboys defensive blue print. All of a sudden, what once was just a regular opponent suddenly became much more personal. Dallas coach Tom Landry had taught Nolan the finer points of his revolutionary Flex Defense and he felt betrayed.
After years of futility, the Cowboys made the postseason for the first time in 1966, losing to the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game. They lost to the Packers the following year in the legendary Ice Bowl and could not get past the Browns in the first round of the playoffs in the two subsequent years that followed the Ice Bowl. The Cowboys were becoming increasingly frustrated with each passing year. In 1970, it seemed like they finally had a team that could reach the Super Bowl. With Craig Morton under center, the Cowboys reached the inaugural NFC Championship Game; standing in their way was the San Francisco 49ers.
The First War
Contrary to the devastation Dallas had felt just a few years earlier, San Francisco was the epicenter of the Summer of Love in 1967. Located near the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, Kezar Stadium was in the middle of a sexual revolution and rampant drug use. The hippy culture felt at home in San Francisco as people felt free to experiment in the wonders of the changing times.
Kezar Stadium could not have asked for a better collection of talent to finish its time as the 49er’s home. The Cowboys featured a terrifying defensive line featuring the likes of Jethro Pugh and Bob Lilly. The 49ers defensive line was the catalyst of their defense with Charlie Krueger leading the charge while linebacker Dave Wilcox was a tackling machine.
The whole game was a chess match, with both defenses refusing to give ground. After a 3-3 tie to end the first half, the third quarter was much different with Dallas scoring two touchdowns and San Francisco scoring one. Neither team scored in the fourth quarter and Dallas had its first NFC Championship victory. The Cowboys would end up losing to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V. The 49ers were left to lick their wounds and pack up their bags as they left for Candlestick Park at the conclusion of the game.
Both the Cowboys and the 49ers were greatly determined to win the Super Bowl after both of their seasons ended in such heartbreak. Dallas began the season in the midst of a major quarterback controversy between Morton and his talented backup Roger Staubach. It got to the point where Landry alternated between the two quarterbacks on every play in a loss to the Bears.
In Week Six, the Cowboys moved into their new home, Texas Stadium. The 65,675 seat stadium was the crown jewel of NFL real estate and mirrored the Cowboy’s growing wealth as much as the city of Dallas. People were starting to look at Dallas in a positive light. Instead of seeing it simply as the city where John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it was represented by the Dallas Cowboys, soon to be known as “America’s Team”.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were adjusting to the windy, AstroTurf-laden quagmire that was Candlestick Park. Attendance was decent with 45,000 fans packed into the stadium by the Bay every game. After a home opening loss to the Rams on October 10th, the 49ers lost just twice more at home for the remainder of the regular season. However, they couldn’t overtake the Cowboys for the top seed in the playoffs as Roger Staubach took command of the starting quarterback spot.
The 49ers traveled to Dallas for the NFC Championship Game with a look of determination in their eyes. Both teams were ready to exorcise their playoff demons and a low scoring game commenced. The Cowboys prevailed in Texas Stadium 14-3 and would go on to defeat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. Once again, the 49ers were left to lick their wounds and prepare for the grind of another long season in the midst of a never ending championship chase.
The 1972 season was not kind to the Dallas Cowboys. Staubach was hurt for much of the season and Craig Morton started in his stead. The team struggled to maintain a decent win streak the entire year and they even lost to the 49ers at Texas Stadium by three touchdowns. They finished the season one win behind Washington in the Division standings and entered the playoffs as a wild card.
Once again, the Cowboys traveled to San Francisco to battle the 49ers in the Divisional Round. The 49ers led 28-16 with less than two minutes to play and were feeling confident that they would finally get past their post season tormentors. Rogers Staubach had something to say about that and led the Cowboys on a rollicking two touchdown drives as time expired to stun San Francisco 30-28. Candlestick Park was absolutely quiet as they witnessed their nemesis jumping and rolling around their field.
Dallas would go on to lose to Washington in the NFC Championship the next week. The 49ers would begin a slide into futility rarely seen in the modern era. However, not all was lost for the Bay Area. In 1976, two men would meet in a garage and birth an idea that would put the Bay Area on the map and revolutionize the world. Apple was born.
One Great Battle
The Dallas Cowboys were far from finished winning championships. Bolstered by a legendary Draft class in 1975 which featured defensive lineman Randy White, the Cowboys reached the Super Bowl that year but lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After they drafted running back Tony Dorsett second overall in 1977, they beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl that year and cemented their status as America’s Team the following year after again losing to the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers weren’t as fortunate and failed to make the playoffs the rest of the decade. While business in the region was improving significantly, dark rumblings began to occur in the City by the Bay. Jim Jones of the People’s Temple brought more than 900 of his followers to Guyana where he successfully convinced them to commit suicide in November of 1978. This tragedy struck San Francisco hard as he had many connections within the city. Ten days later, Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated. Within those ten days, San Francisco shed its image as being simply unusual, it was delving into the darker aspects of life. The city and the team were in utter turmoil with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, Apple was doing wonders in the tech industry and by 1977 introduced the world to the Apple II, the one of the world’s first highly successful mass-produced microcomputer products. Combined with a floppy disk which was later included as an extension, the Apple II made the company a huge success. Their success continued and they went public on December 12, 1980. With an IPO of $22 per share, this initial public offering instantly made a number of Apple employees millionaires and launched Silicon Valley ahead of the curve.
Shortly after the conclusion of a disastrous 1978 season, 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo hired Bill Walsh to be his coach. Walsh had worked wonders wherever he had gone and had become known as an offensive guru. The turnaround took a couple of years but by 1981 the 49ers were ready for a run at the Super Bowl. Standing in their way was the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team. The 49ers buried the Cowboys in their first meeting, putting up 45 points against one of the NFL’s most legendary defenses. No longer were people thinking of San Francisco as a city of great tragedy, they were admiring the beautiful complexities of the 49er’s West Coast Offense.
After finishing the regular season with the NFL’s best record, the 49ers met the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game for a third time. In one of the NFL’s greatest games, neither team was willing to give way to defeat. 49ers quarterback Joe Montana threw three interceptions and the team fumbled an additional three times but amazingly they had a chance to win at the end of the game. The team had battled the flu the previous week and before their final drive, one of their players vomited in the middle of the huddle.
Facing history, a terrific defense and their own illness, the 49ers set out on that final drive to defeat their nemesis. Backed up against their own 11-yard line, the 49ers elected to run for most of their final drive. Eventually they were in the red zone with a little less than a minute to win the game. Montana rolled to his right and threw high up into the air. Most figured that he was throwing the ball away but receiver Dwight Clark came out of nowhere and caught the game winning touchdown. After one final stop, the 49ers finally defeated the Dallas Cowboys and won the Super Bowl two weeks later. Dallas began a slow fall from grace. “The Catch” instantly became a part of NFL lore, at once bringing the 49ers into the upper echelon of professional organizations and deflating the great Cowboys teams of the 1970’s.
The Greatest of Wars
After the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1981, they continued their dominance into the rest of the decade, winning three more Super Bowls and reaching the postseason in every year but two for the decade. Along the way, they drafted some of the era’s greatest players including Roger Craig, Charles Haley and Jerry Rice.
After losing to Washington in the NFC Championship in 1982, the Cowboys slowly crumbled into near extinction. By 1986 they began to regularly miss the playoffs. During this time, the Cowboys were sold twice, first from founder Clint Murchison Jr. to Bum Bright. The second sale of the Cowboys was from Bum Bright to Jerry Jones, an Arkansas oil man whose life ambition was to own a professional sports franchise.
He hired his old college teammate Jimmy Johnson to replace Tom Landry as the Cowboys head coach. Despite the sorry state of the franchise, it was a highly controversial decision. They were losing $1 million a month when Jones bought the team, some of which had been foreclosed on by the government.
The Cowboys mirrored the city of Dallas, which had fallen into disrepair. The savings and loan crisis of the the 1980’s had hammered businesses in Dallas. The increased interest and inflation rates had doomed the thrift industry which relied heavily on mortgage payments with interest. When people couldn’t afford the increased interest rates, the S&L and real estate industries were bound for a reckoning. The worst year was 1988 when more than 40% of the nation’s S&L failures were located in Texas. The good times the city had enjoyed the decade before were no more and people were scrambling to scrounge what little savings they had left.
In his first year at the helm, Johnson traded running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for players and draft picks attached to each of those players. As a result, the Cowboys went 1-15 in 1989, the same year that the 49ers won their fourth Super Bowl. At that point, Bill Walsh had retired and George Seifert had taken his place. Johnson didn’t keep any of those players who he had traded for and built his team through the Draft. He drafted Emmitt Smith in 1990 and built an offensive line through the later rounds of the Draft. Quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin and Smith revived the Cowboys and brought them to the playoffs in 1991.
After losing to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game in 1990, the 49ers were forced to switch from Joe Montana to Steve Young due to Montana’s nagging elbow injury. The 1991 season was a rough one for Young but eventually he figured out how to be great within the system and the team surged late in the year. Though they missed the playoffs in 1991, the 49ers 10-6 record was encouraging for the future. The 49ers traded an enigmatic Charles Haley to the Cowboys before the following season, setting up the greatest war between the teams. San Francisco went 14-2 in 1992 and Steve Young was voted the NFL’s MVP. Standing in their way of a fifth Lombardi Trophy was the Dallas Cowboys.
The 49ers had chances early in the game to pull away from Dallas but penalties and too many field goals kept them from truly taking advantage of opportunities. The Cowboys kept on fighting and eventually Alvin Harper caught a game breaking pass from Aikman and the Cowboys ultimately prevailed 30-20. They would beat the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl two weeks later 52-17 and the 49ers were left to lick their wounds.
The 1993 season was frustrating for the 49ers. They struggled to keep a good win streak but they still managed to finish the year 10-6. Emmitt Smith was named the NFL’s MVP and the Cowboys earned home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Dallas was coming alive again with real estate and other businesses breathing new life. With the team winning again, the city’s energy was at an all time high.
Before the 1993 NFC Championship Game at Texas Stadium, Jimmy Johnson called the local newspaper and told them to write in three inch headlines “We will win the ballgame”. This statement infuriated the 49ers and they were out of sync before they even stepped on the field. Even Jerry Rice, usually the image of professionalism, was flagged for fighting before the game even began. Not surprisingly, the 49ers lost to the Cowboys 38-21; but not before they knocked out Troy Aikman with a concussion. While the game was winding down, Eddie DeBartolo was already planning for the next year. One thing was clear; he did not want to lose to the Cowboys again.
While Dallas won the Super Bowl against the Bills, there was much speculation that they would sign free agent cornerback Deion Sanders. The 49ers beat the Cowboys to Sanders and signed him to a one year deal. Deion Sanders was just the beginning of a major offseason overhaul for the 49ers who signed a plethora of Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame players, many of whom to one year deals. They even signed Dallas linebacker Ken Norton Jr.
As a result of their offseason overhaul, the 49ers had one of the deepest defensive lines in the Super Bowl era; featuring the likes of Dana Stubblefield, Bryant Young, Richard Dent, Charles Mann, Rickey Jackson and Dennis Brown. It was becoming increasingly clear that the only teams who had a real shot at the Super Bowl in 1994 were the 49ers and Cowboys. Shortly after the Cowboys won the Super Bowl in 1993, Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson mutually decided to part ways. By the next day, Barry Switzer was hired to be the third head coach in Dallas Cowboys history. One of Switzer’s first Draft picks was offensive guard Larry Allen.
Meanwhile, Apple was facing hard times. After firing Steve Jobs in 1985 they began to see a decline in sales and in the stock market due to less than stellar creativity. However, not all was bad in Silicon Valley as Hewlett-Packard continued to be a driving force in the tech industry.
The 49ers began the 1994 season with a less than stellar 3-2 record but woke up in time for a regular season showdown with Dallas. The 49ers stayed ahead the entire game and won 21-14. They would go on to claim home field advantage throughout the playoffs and Steve Young was voted the NFL’s MVP for a second time.
The Cowboys entered Candlestick Park for the NFC Championship Game with the goal to be the first team to win three straight Super Bowls. The 49ers came into the NFC Championship Game with the goal of surpassing the Cowboys. Everyone knew that this game was the real Super Bowl. At that time, there were no real contenders in the AFC for the Super Bowl and most Super Bowls for more than a decade were blowouts. The 49ers struck early with defensive back Eric Davis intercepting Troy Aikman and taking it more than 40 yards for the touchdown. On Dallas’ next drive, the Cowboys fumbled and the 49ers scored a few plays later. The following drive was much the same and the 49ers scored a third touchdown just five minutes into the game. While Dallas fought back, the 49ers held on and won 38-28.
They would go on to win the Super Bowl over the Chargers, becoming the first team ever to win five Super Bowls.
Dallas was crushed after coming so close to winning three straight Super Bowls. Charles Haley was so distraught that he briefly retired. Haley returned to Dallas in time for the 1995 season and he had a new teammate, Deion Sanders. The Cowboys had signed Sanders to a massive seven year, $35 million deal in the offseason, putting a damper on the 49ers hopes for a repeat. While Dallas would win the Super Bowl the following year, their fifth, the 49ers had been upset by the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round and could not face Dallas in the NFC Championship Game for the fourth consecutive year. The greatest war in the rivalry was over and thus began the cold war.
The Cold War
Since winning their fifth Super Bowl, both the 49ers and the Cowboys have had opportunities to win a sixth but have failed every time. The Cowboys had the top seed in the playoffs in 2007 and 2016 but failed to get past the Divisional Round. The 49ers have been to multiple NFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls but have failed to take advantage of their opportunity.
Though the rivalry might not be what it once was, it has had its moments. In 2000, 49ers receiver Terrell Owens ran to the middle of the field and stood on the Star in Dallas twice after scoring touchdowns, getting hit hard after the second time.
It gave him much notoriety in Dallas, a city which he played for just a few years later. In 2011, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo suffered broken ribs against San Francisco and came back in the fourth quarter to lead a miraculous comeback victory.
Both regions are prospering too. Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and drove the company to greatness. With Apple’s success, the tech industry thrived and Silicon Valley grew. The Bay Area is now one of the most expensive areas in America to live and a major factor is due to a thriving tech industry. Dallas eventually recovered from the S&L crisis and its oil industry is still a driving force in the city.
When it is all said and done, this is not just a rivalry. It is a decades old feud which has grown with the increasingly changing times. At times, the rivalry has been the focus of the world and at times it has been nothing more than a simple mark on the NFL schedule. No matter how important the game is in any given year, history echo’s its voice in each game, waiting for the next great moment in one of the sport’s greatest rivalries.