The Dallas Cowboys era of dominance in the 1970s officially came to an end on January 10, 1982 in the NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park.
The Dallas Cowboys earned the unsolicited label of America’s Team during a highly successful run of five Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s. Losing three of those games and winning two, only the Pittsburgh Steelers fared better during the decade.
In the 1980s, things would be different, perhaps the main reason being that Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach would no longer be lining up under center or out of the shotgun.
This was particularly cruel for me seeing as how I couldn’t be bothered with pro football during the 70s due to my early addiction to anything and everything Star Wars and also because of my new skill of flipping the scoreboard of Space Invaders on my new Atari video game console – yes, there were video games before Playstation and Xbox.
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Ever since a fateful weekend in early January of 1982, I’m always taken back to the NFC Championship game between the Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers come conference championship weekend in the NFL. That happens to be this weekend, in case you were somehow unaware due to your new skill at ripping apart the undead in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 or maybe your new infatuation with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
The 1981 NFL regular season marked only my second year following the Cowboys. I don’t remember exactly why I started watching football, but having grown up in Dallas-Ft.Worth, I figure it was only a matter of time before the gravitational pull of the blue star pulled me in. Or maybe I had finally gotten bored with Atari and also with Star Wars toys while waiting for the obvious coming sequel to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Keep in mind that the year before, I had just gotten into the Cowboys, who were still among the league’s best teams and one whose expectations were up in the stratosphere. Barely understanding the intense rivalries brought forth by the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, I was rather blindsided by the 1981 NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium almost exactly one year before.
Clear was the fact that quarterback Danny White, the replacement for Staubach, was a pretty good quarterback who could get the Cowboys where everyone expected them to go. I had watched his heroic rally against the Atlanta Falcons the week prior to the loss to the Eagles, which ended up the first time I ever saw my grandparents erupt in joy over a TV show.
Having said that, 1982 was supposed to be different, except it wasn’t.
Few remember that the Cowboys actually played the 49ers twice during the ’81 regular season, the first meeting also having taken place at Candlestick Park. This was the first game that I have clear recollection of during my sophomore season as a Cowboys fan.
Having no memory of the fact that the Cowboys had blown out the 49ers the year before at Texas Stadium by a score of 59-14, I never gave the rematch a year later a second thought. However, what unfolded on that clear, sunny afternoon in northern California would leave a definite imprint on me while also serving as a dark omen for the near future.
All I remember about this game is lots of turnovers and lots of San Francisco touchdowns. The 45-14 pasting by the young, upstart 49ers seemed like it was half fluke, half end of the world. I had never watched such a lopsided affair with the Cowboys coming up on the losing end, period – I obviously hadn’t seen enough.
When the NFC Championship game arrived that year, it seemed like the Cowboys were poised to play a better game against the top-seeded 49ers, who had earned home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. There was no overconfidence on my part and this was easily the first game I anticipated for days with plenty of anxiety.
Let’s just say that this game really, really hurt a lot of people. Unlike the previous meeting that season, the playoff rematch was a close game, with Dallas actually creating turnovers and also taking a halftime lead of 17-14. It really seemed that after taking a late 27-21 lead that the Cowboys had solved the puzzle that was 49ers head coach Bill Walsh‘s ‘West Coast’ offense. Dallas head coach Tom Landry really was a genius, after all, at least in the eyes of this then-10-year-old that evening.
Then came that final San Francisco drive that seemed to never end, that is until Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone for one of the most historic touchdowns in NFL history, even if it wasn’t known as such until years later. The sudden 28-27 score, eventually the final, was a wind-sucking gut-punch unlike anything I’d seen before.
Many forget that White still had under a minute and a timeout remaining to get the Cowboys in field goal range, a possibility that just about happened. His deep completion to receiver Drew Pearson across the middle was likely a touchdown – or at least field goal range for kicker Rafael Septien – but was stopped by a fingertip tackle by cornerback Eric Wright on the collar of Pearson’s jersey. Pearson had just crossed midfield on that play, the first of the drive.
As little as a fingernail wrote history on that Sunday, not just for White and the Cowboys, but also for the entire NFL. White fumbled on the next play and San Francisco went on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI at the Pontiac Silverdome near Detroit.
While the 49ers became royalty that season, as their red and gold colors suggest, the Cowboys would begin a long, slow decline throughout the 1980s that saw few big victories and a growing number of big losses, like the 44-0 beat-down by the eventual world champion Chicago Bears some three years later – at home, mind you.
Not until Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys in early 1989 was the stage set for America’s Team to experience a dominant rebirth that was arguably better than the 70s era, even if Jones demolished it almost as quickly as it began.
It goes without saying that the 1993 NFC Championship game at Candlestick between the same two teams was a most poetic changing of the guard again, except this time the roles would be reversed. The Cowboys were the young upstarts loaded with Pro Bowl and future Hall of Fame talent that just didn’t care about who the 49ers were or what that aging franchise had accomplished.
So, rejoice this weekend over events of years past. If you haven’t revisited these moments, which include the 37-year anniversary of tight end Jackie Smith‘s drop in the end zone against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII, go back and do so. If you weren’t born yet, go back and watch these 70’s and/or 90s era teams in all of their glory. After all, there’s no guarantee that in today’s watered down and average NFL that the kind of success once experienced by this historic franchise will ever happen again.