There’s only one thing missing from the hottest ongoing rivalry in the NFL between the 49ers and Seahawks:
Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field is sure to provide a nice first chapter. Whether it vaults the series toward a status rivaling what the 49ers had with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990s remains to be seen, but it’s a start.
“Rivalries are born when you beat me and I beat you when it matters,” former 49ers cornerback and radio broadcast analyst Eric Davis said. “This is the first year they’re actually fighting for something.”
NFL rivalries are transient in nature. Those based on geography fluctuate in terms of intensity if it becomes too one-sided. The best ones feature teams with championship aspirations at the top of their game along with compelling storylines.
In that regard, 49ers-Seahawks has earned national attention for the teams’ physical style of play, colorful rosters with star power and an attitude and charismatic coaches whose beef with one another dates back to their Pac-10 college days.
“I think right now, Seattle-San Francisco is the best rivalry in football,” said Fox Sports analyst Troy Aikman, who was at the center of the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry. “It has been now for the last couple of years, there are a lot of reasons for that.”
In the all-time series, the 49ers and Seahawks are tied 15-15, with Seattle having an 8-4 record at CenturyLink Field. Seattle didn’t move into the NFC West until 2002.
With the omnipresent personalities of Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll turning both teams into title contenders, the stakes got higher last season and it is already to the point where former 49ers exec Carmen Policy said “There has not been a fervor attached to a rivalry for the 49ers since we had our monumental games against the Dallas Cowboys.”
With the 49ers in the NFC West and the Cowboys in the East, that rivalry has gone through stages — mainly because they typically are scheduled to play each other just once every three seasons. The 49ers hold a 14-11-1 advantage in the regular-season with Dallas having a 5-2 edge in the playoffs.
Dallas beat the 49ers following the 1970 and 1971 seasons for NFC championships, with the 49ers prevailing, 28-27, in 1982 when Dwight Clark plucked Joe Montana’s pass from the heavens for “The Catch.”
From the 1992 through 1994 seasons, the two teams met with the Super Bowl on the line, with the Cowboys winning 30-20 at Candlestick Park and 38-21 at Texas Stadium before the 49ers finally prevailed 38-28 at Candlestick.
Fox studio analyst Jimmy Johnson was the Cowboys coach in the 1992 and 1993 seasons before resigning and giving way to Barry Switzer. He felt beating the 49ers in the 1992 game made the end result against Buffalo in the Super Bowl — a 52-17 win — a fait accompli.
“When we beat San Francisco, I was 100 percent confident we would win the Super Bowl because we felt we beat the best team in the league in the 49ers,” Johnson said this week.
The Cowboys’ threesome of Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin all ended up in the Hall of Fame. So did 49ers quarterback Steve Young, wide receiver Jerry Rice as well as Deion Sanders, who signed with the 49ers for a Super Bowl championship following the 1994 season then did the same with Dallas in 1995.
San Francisco rush end Charles Haley, a 49er from 1986 to 1991, was traded to Dallas in 1992 just as the rivalry hit its peak.
“There were so many incredible, amazing players,” former 49ers running back Ricky Watters said. “That has to be one of the great rivalries of all time.”
The 49ers had championship moments against the New York Giants and Chicago Bears but, according to Policy, nothing reached a fever pitch like the Cowboys games.
“They always felt they had to make amends for ‘The Catch,’ and when Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson had Troy Aikman lighting up the scoreboard, it became perfectly clear who was our true nemesis,” he said. “The salary cap came on board in the early ‘90s and we knew our team was in jeopardy of being torn apart by restructuring.
“We knew the window was closing, and the only real obstacle standing in our way was the Dallas Cowboys.”
With the Cowboys’ offense in mind, the 49ers loaded up in free agency before the 1994 season, signing Sanders as well as linebackers Ken Norton (who had won two rings with Dallas), Gary Plummer and Rickey Jackson.
Policy also felt the cultural divide between the two cities played a big role in shaping the rivalry. He points out that the San Francisco-Seattle rivalry won’t ever be able to recreate that.
As teams, however, the 49ers and Cowboys had a healthy respect for each other.
“Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, those were great guys — it was hard to hate ‘em,” Watters said. “We would go as hard as we could and shake hands at the end.”
Policy, who counts Aikman and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as friends, said he isn’t sure the same reciprocal respect exists between the 49ers and Seahawks.
“I’m not sure that the rivalry and the 49ers will allow for positive, strong personal relationships,” Policy said. “So in that regard, it might be even more intense and take on another level.”