49ers had plenty of swagger before Sanders arrived
In his one sparkling season with the 49ers in 1994, Deion Sanders was a fantastic cornerback who always could be counted on for color and a good quote off the field. He’s still working on that characteristic today, but for someone that was there at the time, Sanders just has to be called on his recent comments regarding a certain intangible he brought to San Francisco’s last championship team.
In fact – since Neon Deion has recently brought up the subject himself – I have to question if Sanders really even performed the one on-field task that he claims he was hired to do when the 49ers signed Sanders to their roster as a free agent on September 15 of that year.
Sanders, who went on to earn NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors with the 49ers during that 1994 season, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this summer. Sanders certainly deserves the honor. He is one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history, bar none.
But I have to laugh at his usual self-serving blabber recently while Sanders was being interviewed for a feature that will appear in the Hall of Fame program.
In the prime of his career – after finally reaching free agency after several seasons with the downtrodden Atlanta Falcons – Sanders became a virtual gun for hire who became the lockdown cornerback that put both the 49ers and Cowboys over the top during their Super Bowl seasons of 1994 and 1995.
Sanders, in the recent interview, allowed that he was signed by both teams each of those years to help combat the other team’s great wide receiver and win a Super Bowl. We can’t argue with that. Sanders locked down great receivers, good receivers and mediocre receivers each week during those two seasons, and the 49ers and Cowboys each got a Super Bowl championship out of the deal.
Sanders hit the field with the 49ers several games into the 1994 season, and he made a big difference defensively for a prolific-scoring team, often taking away virtually half the field when opponents attempted to pass. Sanders’ presence made Eric Davis even better opposite him, and they combined that year to give the 49ers one of the top sets of cornerbacks in the league.
But Sanders went a little too far when he suggested there was another reason he was hired by the 49ers.
“When the 49ers signed me, they had all the talent in the world,” Sanders said in the interview. “But what they didn’t have was attitude. I was the missing piece for that. I guess the kids today would call it ‘swagger,’ and that’s what I gave them.”
Uh, Deion, you didn’t give those 1994 49ers swagger. They already had it.
Sanders seems to forget the 49ers had guys on that team such as Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters, William Floyd, Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton Jr. and Merton Hanks, just to name a few characters. Those guys had swagger. Lots of it.
In fact, as ostentatious as Sanders was, he wasn’t even the top “swagger” guy on the team. That was certainly Watters, who never could shut up in the locker room while telling everybody how good he was.
Sanders went on about the ’tude dimension: “Then, in '95, the Cowboys, who knew they had to beat the 49ers, were thinking, like, 'OK, what element can we take away from them?'” Sanders said. “So they took me and my attitude, and it hurt the 49ers and helped get the Cowboys a Super Bowl. I gave them both that extra intangible thing they needed."
Wrong again, Deion. It may have helped the Cowboys, but it didn’t hurt the 49ers.
In fact, it didn’t hurt the 49ers much on the field, either, when the two teams met in one of the most consequential games of the 1995 regular season, a battle between teams that had met in the NFC Championship game each of the previous three seasons.
The Cowboys were huge favorites when they met the reeling 49ers in that Nov. 12 game at Texas Stadium. The Niners, defending Super Bowl champions, had just lost consecutive games to NFC West division rivals New Orleans and Carolina and, worse yet, were without Young, their All-Pro quarterback, who was injured.
With a 5-3 record, the 49ers already were two games behind Dallas in the battle for playoff positioning that had become so important for the two NFL heavyweights. Everybody thought this would be the game when the Cowboys would take back NFC supremacy from their top rivals.
But on the game’s second play from scrimmage, backup quarterback Elvis Grbac hit Rice on a quick slant over the middle, and Jerry took it to the house, some 70 yards up the gut of the Dallas defense for a touchdown, with Sanders and the rest of the Cowboys’ secondary chasing him from behind.
That set the tone for a shocking 38-20 upset that began a six-game winning streak that put the 49ers back on top in the NFC playoff pecking order.
If Sanders’ job – as he said – was to take away Rice from the San Francisco attack, he didn’t do a very good job of it. Rice registered five receptions for 161 yards to go along with the early TD.
In fact, if his duty – as Sanders stated – was to take away the Cowboys’ top receiver when he was a 49er, he failed at that on the game’s biggest stage when the two teams met in the 1994 NFC title game, when Michael Irvin, Dallas’ top receiver, scorched the 49ers for 12 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns, with Sanders covering him as much as anybody.
The 49ers won that game 38-28 and went on to win the franchise’s last Super Bowl title because they were a great team with great players who knew how to win.
Sanders, of course, was one of them, even if he couldn’t stop Dallas’ top wideout when it counted.
But we just can’t let Deion get away with saying the ’94 Niners didn’t have championship demeanor and “swagger” before he arrived.
That team had plenty of ’tude, with or without him.