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PRO FOOTBALL ’94 / Season Previews : NFC : Title Will Be Decided Between 49ers, Cowboys

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before buying Ken Norton Jr., Richard Dent, Rickey Jackson and the hopes of Northern California, the president of the San Francisco 49ers bought some signs.

Carmen Policy knew his quiet organization would be dizzied by sweeping off-season changes.

He knew if he was going to reshape a team that could defeat the Dallas Cowboys after consecutive NFC championship game losses, he would step on some toes.

So he bought these signs, hanging one copy in his office, one in his vice president’s office, even one in the weight room:

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Don’t Take It Personal.

One problem.

He forgot to hang a sign in Dallas.

And guess who is taking it personal?

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“You tell the 49ers not to be bringing that . . . on the field,” Cowboy guard Nate Newton said. “They can talk all they want about how they’ve gotten better, but they best not bring that half-cocked junk out there against us, because we don’t want to hear it.”

Receiver Michael Irvin added: “How do I respond to all the changes on the 49ers? I say, ‘So? So? So?’ ”

In keeping with the NFL’s 75th-anniversary theme, the NFC will be dominated this season by that ageless institution known as the grudge match.

The only things that distinguish the 49ers and Cowboys from the Frankford Yellow Jackets and Pottsville Maroons are facemasks and teeth.

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The Cowboys, with a new coach who hasn’t walked the sidelines in this decade, are attempting to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls.

“We think about that every time we step on the field,” Irvin said. “We have a chance to be part of one of those NFL films where they are talking about the greatest teams ever.”

The 49ers, with potentially eight new starters--including Pro Bowl defenders Norton, Dent and Jackson--are trying to end their longest Super Bowl drought in nearly 15 years.

They haven’t played in the big one since after the 1989 season, their longest slump since they made their first Super Bowl appearance after the 1981 season. They reached the NFC championship game in three of the last four years, only to lose to the New York Giants once and to the Cowboys twice.

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“We should have gone to the Super Bowl at least once, if not twice, during that time,” Policy said. “You bet there is a sense of urgency. The Cowboys provided us with a sense of vengeance.”

It is a fight for history versus a fight for reputation.

Upstarts versus traditionalists.

A blond quarterback named Troy Aikman who owns movie credits . . . versus a dark-haired quarterback named Steve Young who doesn’t own a comb.

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A wide receiver named Irvin who has dreamed of being like Jerry Rice versus . . . well, Jerry Rice, who will become the league’s all-time touchdown leader with his third score this season.

A young, fast, cocky defense versus a defense old enough to know better.

A clash as basic as blue versus red.

“We feel like Dallas, as the best team the last two years, is the team we must beat to get over the edge,” 49er tackle Steve Wallace said.

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And the 49ers believe that if there was ever a time to dethrone the Cowboys, it is now. . . with Jimmy Johnson gone as coach, Norv Turner gone as offensive coordinator and middle linebacker Norton having been stolen away by the 49ers.

“We have no idea whether the Cowboys have been disrupted down there or not,” Policy said. “But do we respect Jimmy Johnson? Absolutely. Is Norv Turner a great coach? Yes. Were some of their players who signed with other teams a factor? Yes.”

For the next 17 weeks, their paths will cross only once, on Nov. 13 in San Francisco, in what promises to be the regular season’s most important game.

They could--and should--meet one more time in a third consecutive NFC championship showdown on Jan. 15, 1995.

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There are only three other NFC teams capable of getting underfoot and breaking up this classic rematch, but all have their problems:

ONE REGGIE SHORT

Our first of many meaningless awards this season goes to the Green Bay Packers, voted Most Likely to Succeed in Beating the Cowboys or 49ers, but Only If Aikman or Young Suffers a Pregame Fall in the Shower.

The Packers thought they would be good enough after adding Steve McMichael and Sean Jones to an impressive defense led by slimmed-down Reggie White.

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But they also thought Reggie Cobb, signed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, could still run the ball. For some reason, he can’t, averaging fewer than three yards a carry during an exhibition season in which he needed to show more.

The Packers would win the weaker AFC, but can’t win the NFC without somebody to haul them downfield on 10-minute drives. Left to his own devices, quarterback Brett Favre’s drives last about 20 seconds.

THESE ARE THE GOOD OLD DAYS . . . THEY HOPE

The Minnesota Vikings say they have a quarterback who can lead them back to the big game for the first time in 18 years.

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Then why do they look like a modern dance company that has just hired John Travolta?

Their man is Warren Moon, and they are betting that his best years are not behind him. They are gamblers indeed.

Since the Super Bowl Era began in 1966, only one quarterback as old as Moon (37) has been the starter for a team that won a Super Bowl championship. And Moon is not quite Johnny Unitas.

At least, the Vikings can offer Moon a couple of things he never had with the Houston Oilers--a legitimate power runner in Terry Allen, who has recovered from knee surgery, and a consistently stingy defense.

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Sorry, but the Cowboys and the 49ers have each of those things, and more of them.

RANDALL’S LAST STAND

Having failed to trade perhaps the most entertaining quarterback of this generation, the Philadelphia Eagles are once more entrusting their hopes to Randall Cunningham.

Team officials are giving him one more season to prove he belongs. It would only be typical if he rewarded them with a Super Bowl. And then left town anyway.

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Cunningham has not only fully recovered from the broken leg that cost him the final 12 games last season, he is playing with so much enthusiasm, he is scaring people.

In training camp, he showed up wearing a T-shirt that read, “Dangerously Committed.” Then later he talked about winning games through . . . love?

“There’s, like, a thing going on--I don’t know if it’s an inner-city thing,” Cunningham told reporters. “It’s a saying, ‘Give me some love.’ It’s like saying, ‘Hey, I need you there with me.’

"(Running back) Herschel (Walker) walks into the huddle sometimes and says, ‘C’mon, I need a little love.’ And some of us, we, like, hold hands.”

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Cunningham admitted that, well, not every offensive player has agreed to hold hands. What a surprise.

Accompanying Cunningham in what is probably his last season with the Eagles is a revamped defense in which William Fuller, Bill Romanowski and Burt Grossman could perform close to the level of defectors Clyde Simmons and Seth Joyner, minus the constant contract distractions.

But they have no steady running back--no, Herschel doesn’t count anymore--and a killer schedule.

Oh well, at least they will be fun to watch, particularly on the new conversion plays, with Cunningham expected to lead the league in two-yard dives.

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And what of everybody we haven’t mentioned?

Let’s do this quick, so we can get back to watching our two championship game tapes of the Cowboys’ Alvin Harper scoring on long touchdown passes against confused 49er defensive backs.

In order of how everyone else will finish:

--The Arizona Cardinals are not going to learn Buddy Ryan’s defense until Week 10, and by then Buddy will already have done something to warrant a seven-week suspension.

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--The Chicago Bears don’t have anybody who can catch the ball, unless one of you USC boosters can convince Curtis Conway to start doing it.

--The New York Giants will suffer a late-season slide when it is discovered that quarterback Dave Brown, as suspected, has been playing under an assumed name. Unfortunately, his real name is not Phil Simms.

--The Atlanta Falcons can’t win without Deion Sanders, and we aren’t sure new quarterback Jeff George knows how to win with anybody.

--The Detroit Lions have the league’s second-most difficult schedule and a starting quarterback, Scott Mitchell, with more money than calluses.

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--The Rams won’t make the playoffs because, well, if we said they could, you would think us complete idiots. But they will win their final three games to go 7-9 as season-ticket sales in St. Louis soar.

--The Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently sidelined several players who were suffering from the chicken pox. Nobody has ever gone to the Super Bowl the same year they contracted the chicken pox. Same goes for the mumps.

--The New Orleans Saints, sensing that Coach Jim Mora is in trouble, will go into their traditional late-season slide by Week 4. We like Jim Everett to perform better in a new environment, but better can still mean average.

--The Washington Redskins, with a rookie coach named Norv and a rookie quarterback named Shuler, will plain stink. Opposing defensive linemen will be pounding Shuler’s brains into so much toffee, announcers will begin referring to their sacks as Heath Bars.

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* NFC OVERVIEW: Team-by-team look. C5


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