49ers vs. Cowboys: How the mighty have fallen

Saturday, September 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING, Texas (AP) _ How the mighty have fallen.

The memories stirred up when Dallas and San Francisco play are of six NFC championship games, including Dwight Clark's leaping catch in January 1982 that sent the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. Five of those games preceded Super Bowl titles for the two teams, three for the Cowboys and two for San Francisco.

The Cowboys and 49ers _ who play Sunday for the first time in three years _ have played in a combined 13 Super Bowls. San Francisco has won an NFL-record 16 division titles, just one more than Dallas' 15.

In the reality of a new decade, however, the 49ers (0-3) are far removed from their championship glory in the age of free agency and the salary cap.

Dallas (1-2) could be headed down the same road. The Cowboys have an aging roster and millions of dollars tied up in salaries for guys not even around _ about $11.2 million of this year's $62.3 million salary cap is going to 64 retired, injured or otherwise absent players.

``I came into the league with a team that was worst in the NFL, and to be a part of rebuilding something, only to see the system take it away from you was a little frustrating,'' Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman said.

``It's going to be a long time before you see the likes of the teams that we had in the '90s, or the 'Niners in the '80s or the Steelers in the '70s. It's just a different time.''

Aikman, who missed the last two games because of his ninth concussion, sustained in the Sept. 3 season opener, returns as the Dallas starter Sunday, when the Cowboys and 49ers play six years after their last of their great postseason battles.

Dallas was 1-15 in 1989, Aikman's rookie season and a year when San Francisco won its second straight Super Bowl during a stretch of nine straight postseason appearances.

By 1992, the Cowboys were playing in the first of three straight NFC title games against the 49ers. The winner each time went on to win the Super Bowl, Dallas after the 1992 and 1993 seasons, and San Francisco in 1994 in its last Super Bowl.

The Cowboys won another Super Bowl in 1995, but are 1-3 in the postseason since, including losses in the NFC wild-card game each of the past two seasons.

``The best thing I could possibly say about the salary cap, we missed the playoffs just one year in the decade of the 1990s. Even though 8-8 is not what we were looking for, we did make the playoffs at 8-8,'' Cowboys coach Dave Campo said.

``We've been able to maintain a competitive football team year-in and year-out. Can we continue to do that? That's something that's a challenge.''

San Francisco was in the NFC title game in 1997 and won the NFC wild-card game two years ago. But with an ever-changing roster the past two seasons, the team has lost 14 of 15 games.

``We have lost 30 players both of the last two seasons, and replaced them primarily with youngsters,'' 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. ``We have the challenge of building that back into a championship-caliber team. We're going to go through some ups and downs, and I suppose mostly downs lately.

``It's going to take a year or two to dig out of it, but we don't regret all of the success.''

No two teams seem to have felt the effects of free agency and the salary cap as much as San Francisco and Dallas.

``Those two cities are the ones that are feeling some effects of having had great football teams and being dismantled tremendously,'' Mariucci said.

Meanwhile, one of the great rivalries of the past has been turned into a matchup of mediocre teams.

``It was probably one of the best rivalries of the game,'' said 49ers linebacker Winfred Tubbs, a Texas native who still lives in the Dallas suburb of Plano. ``I hated the 'Niners. Growing up in Dallas, I used to bleed silver and blue. But I'm not looking at it as a rivalry game anymore.

``We've got to get a win. That's all the game means to us.''