Candlestick Park is at its best in the fall. In the daylight it’s bathed in brilliant sunshine. After sunset, specific elements are summoned. The temperature drops and a damp, swirling wind arrives, sweeping off the bay, carrying with it chilly dew that serves the needs of any football novice, purist, or legend.
In January of 1982, a sage coach, a cool quarterback, and a rookie secondary took the field at Candlestick and beat the mighty Dallas Cowboys—beginning the Forty Niners period of unlikely dominance. Ten years later the favor was returned by a young Cowboys team who were, at the time naive to their place in history.
James Washington, a former Cowboys safety, once told me that when the Cowboys made their way into Candlestick for the ’92 NFL title game, they really had no grasp of the magnitude of the moment. “We didn’t know any better,” said Washington. “So we played a perfect game.” The Cowboys’ reign, which began in the damp chill of Candlestick led to a white hot rivalry with the Niners that was revisited several times before fizzling out in ‘97.
There are other rivalries of course, all rich with history and subtext. The Steelers and Browns annual Turnpike dual is the league’s most ancient custom.
The one in New Orleans and Atlanta is born of proximity and is sustained by as much. It began in 1965 as the league expanded its reach to the South; the yearly meetings were dubbed the "Battle for Southern Supremacy."
The relationship between the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders is deep and lasting. And like so many things Raiders-related, it was borne of Al Davis’ competitive blood, which ran deep as the Tigres and Euphrates rivers.
In 1960, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was the only one who could have brokered the deal that led to the AFL’s merger with the NFL. In fact, Al Davis, then the commissioner of the AFL, didn’t even have knowledge of the deal until the day before it was signed. This ensured decades-worth of contention between Davis and the Chiefs owner.
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There have been other momentary rivalries—burning hot, brief, and intense like brushfires. Jacksonville and Denver enjoyed a fiery dalliance in the late 90’s. For a time, Eddie George and Ray Lewis headlined a heavyweight duel as the Titans and the Ravens got down with the AFC Central hanging in the balance.
There are many others, like the Bears-Packers and Bears-Lions, and Browns-Bengals, all of which are bolstered by memory and spite.
But the ones I enjoy most are those rivalries forged not by proximity, or division, or a single event. They’re founded on a specific circumstance and renewed at random times in history. Games between the Forty Niners and the Giants are meaningful because when they play there’s something at stake.
They’ve met eight times in the playoffs and twice they’ve met to determine a trip to the Super Bowl. And there have been significance occurrences—the Jerry Rice deep route, the Jim Burt hit, the Roger Craig fumble. Last January, the title game was the starting point of a renewed rivalry—one that re-energized the Forty Niners franchise. Like everyone else, I was looking forward to the next installment.
How fitting that the week began with indignation and ignorance. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said that Niners defensive end Justin Smith holds offensive linemen in order to execute stunts and line twists. Gilbride said that Smith “gets away with murder.” But the best part of this episode was Smith’s rejoinder which included, “I don’t even know who he (Gilbride) is.”
Candlestick in the fall is a great place to renew acquaintances.
In case we had forgotten that the Giants were the reigning world champs, we were reminded yesterday. The Giants played the very best game that any team has played this season. This isn’t a complete surprise. The Giants do that sometimes, albeit in January and not in October. Around this time, we’re usually knee deep in that stupid conversation about where Eli Manning’s mid-season struggles place him among the elite quarterbacks in history. Today, there is no conversation. Manning was splendid.
There were some other renewed acquaintances of significance, particularly that between Niners cornerback Carlos Rodgers and Giants receiver Victor Cruz. When last they met, Cruz got the better of it. So there was much anticipation about this meeting. After yesterday we know that Cruz is the best slot receiver in the league.
I’ll temper that last comment by stating that the slot receiver is among the easiest positions to dominate. A very quick guy with a lot of room to run is almost impossible to defend on a regular basis.
Most receivers employ the option route. If the defender is lined up outside, the receiver runs inside. If the defender is lined up inside, the receiver runs outside. Yesterday, the Niners used a bracket coverage—with the slot corner forming a wall on the inside and the cornerback forming one outside. But Cruz still beat it.
Cruz’s touchdown catch in the second quarter was simply a monument to quickness. Cruz came in motion, bolted up field, and with a quick jab step towards the corner, he froze Rodgers, then with one-step acceleration he was well behind safety, Dante Whitner who had been sucked into the vacuum of the play action fake. The whole thing took a second.
In the third quarter, there was another past remembrance. Down by 20 points, the Niners finally decided to take a shot down the field. Alex Smith found Randy Moss, in the middle. That singular lanky gallop took Moss right past Giants corner Prince Amukamara on a deep post route. Moss came down with a fifty-five yard reception.
Then the excitement was over.
The Forty Niners were strangely uninspired. Jim Harbaugh seemed to briefly forget that it was Alex Smith who played well enough to lead his team to the brink of a title last year. Colin Kaepernick’s random quarterback assignments didn’t seem to serve any real purpose. And while a Harbaugh team isn’t always schematically perfect, it’s always intense. This one wasn’t.
Suddenly the NFC West is the most contentious division in football, meaning the Niners’ brief reign could very well end this year. The NFC East isn’t much easier, making the Giants road to the post season just as treacherous, but their resolve—and their quarterback play will more than likely give them a place to play in January.
The same may not be said for the Forty Niners. It’s early, though. I’m still hoping to see these two teams play again in January. Of course it would be just as good in the Meadowlands, but Candlestick just seems… right.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter @ AlanGrant_NFL