Heading into Sunday's nifty 49ers win over the St. Louis Rams, local TV stations showed plenty of nostalgia-inducing clips of Roger Craig high-stepping, Joe Montana hurling slant after slant to Jerry Rice, and Carlton Williamson or Ronnie Lott racing down the sidelines, white shoes a-blur, toward glory.
I remember the brisk winter Sundays at the end of a long week looking forward to an NFC West showdown between the 49ers and the Henry Ellard-Flipper Anderson-Jim Everett Rams. Even as an elementary school student, I knew those were good teams. But they had the misfortune of being in the same division as transcendent 49ers teams.
The term "rivalry" was used more than a bit this week to describe the 49ers-Rams clashes of the days of yore. But, looking at the results, it's hard to say a real rivalry ever existed.
First off, any semblance of a so-called rivalry dissipated when Georgia Frontiere yanked the Rams out of Orange County and plopped them into the Midwest. San Francisco and Los Angeles will always be sporting rivals. St. Louis is a city most locals probably have never visited. Beyond its well-known arch -- which offers a stunning view of East St. Louis, we're told -- San Franciscans probably couldn't identify one structure in the city. St. Louis has no relevance for us, and the feeling is likely mutual.
With no geographical rivalry to play off of, we're forced to examine the team's histories. And the definition of "rivalry" is stretched. Per the good folks at Merriam-Webster, rivals strive "to reach or obtain something that only one can possess" or strive for "competitive advantage." Between San Francisco's first super year, 1981, and the Rams' final year in California, 1994, the teams met 29 times in the regular season and playoffs. San Francisco won 22 of those contests.
The Niners winning 76 percent of the teams' matchups, in short, doesn't constitute a struggle for competitive advantage -- it is competitive advantage. What's more, almost without exception, whenever the games really mattered, the Walsh/Seifert 49ers prevailed. No year epitomizes this better than 1989.
A 49ers team some thought might run the table shockingly lost to Los Angeles in just Week 4, 13-12. But San Francisco beat the Rams the next time around, 30-27, in Week 14. Finally, in the the NFC Championship Game, with all the money on the table, the Niners won, 30-3. It wasn't even close (in fact, in the 1989 postseason, San Francisco outscored the competition by exactly 100 points, 126-26).
The tongue-in-cheek phrase may aging athletes use to explain their past achievements is "The older I get, the better I was." With the 49ers, however, it's all too accurate. Twenty years of perennial Super Bowl contention is a treat no fan base will ever again be likely to enjoy.
Hope you savored it, San Francisco.
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