Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

49ers-Cowboys: Kyle Shanahan brings up old rivalry to give players a spark

Jan 16, 2022 at 8:59 PM--

Most of the players on the current San Francisco 49ers roster are too young to remember when their team had a heated and historic rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys, but 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan made sure they were aware of it before the two teams faced off in the Wild Card playoff round on Sunday.

The 49ers and Cowboys met seven times in the postseason over the course of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, with one of those meetings (the 1981 NFC Championship Game) featuring the most memorable play in 49ers history (Dwight Clark's game-winning touchdown catch to help send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl). The rivalry peaked in the 90s, when the teams met in the NFC Championship game for three consecutive seasons, with the winner of each game going on to win the Super Bowl. The Cowboys won the 1992 and 1993 NFC Championship games, while the 49ers came out on top in 1994. The rivalry featured some of the NFL's most legendary players along the way, including Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Charles Haley.

But over the past two decades the rivalry went somewhat quiet. Sunday's Wild Card game marked the first time the teams met in the playoffs since the 1994 season, and several of the players in the game hadn't been born yet when the 49ers and Cowboys last played with so much on the line.

Despite that, Shanahan used that history to give his players a little bit more fire heading into Sunday's game.

"I tapped into it with our team a little bit just to kind of show them and also to pump them up," Shanahan said after the 49ers defeated the Cowboys 23-17 on Sunday.

The rivalry means a lot to Shanahan, who watched from the sidelines while his father Mike was the 49ers' offensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994. Shanahan said he decided to watch film of the 1994 game on Thursday night when he couldn't sleep, then shared it with his players on the following day.

"It was real cool to watch that and watch the one-on-ones by Michael Irvin and Deion," Shanahan said. "I remember being on the sidelines there. I was always trying to find myself but the HD wasn't good enough for me to find it. But I ended up showing some of the guys on Friday."

While Shanahan's players weren't too knowledgeable of the rivalry, they are certainly well aware of the legends who were involved. Shanahan made it clear to his players that they had a chance to etch their names in team history, just like the legends of old did in 1994.

"it's just kind of cool because you think back to those days and those are my heroes," Shanahan said. "They became my heroes by watching those games, like most people from our generation. I just tried to remind our guys that Deion and Michael, they were 25 then. They're just like you guys. And showing them plays of Ricky Watters. These guys become everyone's heroes because of what you do in the playoffs, not what you do in the season.

"I don't think our guys totally know the rivalry; they've got an idea now, but they knew the moment. And they were ready for it."

Sunday's win gave this year's 49ers team their chance to leave a positive mark in the history of the rivalry. They now have a bigger appreciation for what the game meant to the franchise, and what they have the opportunity to do from here.

"It just makes you really respect," tight end George Kittle said Sunday. "It makes you want to play at a high level. We stand on the shoulders of legends. We really do. One thing I learned in college is you always want to leave your jersey in a better place. There's so many 49ers players that left the jersey in a better place, and that's what we're trying to do—just trying to play at a high level and win games that matter."

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