The date has been circled on my calendar for a while now: Nov. 10 at the Park formerly known as Candlestick. Niners vs. Cowboys. It's become a fall-winter classic better than all others. The winner, presumably, would take the lead in the race for home field for the NFC playoffs.
The date may not mean much. It may turn out to be an afterthought, a backseat game to affairs involving the Vikings, the Colts, the Panthers--I said the Panthers!!!--or lest we forget, the Redskins. Times are different. You can't hang your hat on Niners vs. Cowboys anymore. In fact, we may come to find out that you can't hang your hat on the Niners or Cowboys. Sunday officially stamped this as a season of transition. If I had to rank the top 10 teams in the league, neither Dallas nor the Niners would be in the top six. The Cowboys wouldn't be in the top 10. Sunday's losses by the Niners, Cowboys and champions-in-waiting Packers underscored that there's really no telling who's going to provide this season's titillation.
It won't be the Cowboys. Now, unlike other folk who like to start up Bandwagons and get on the good side of the locals, I love the Cowboys to be great, even if I don't love the Cowboys. It's in the national interest. But it's not going to happen this season. The Cowboys, when they've started 1-3, have never made the playoffs--in fact, hardly anybody makes the playoffs starting 1-3. This notion in Dallas that everything will be fine once Michael Irvin comes back is nonsense. Jay Novacek has been nearly as important as Irvin to the Dallas passing game (especially as far as Troy Aikman's health and sense of security are concerned), and the tight end may miss the entire season with an injured back. And by the time Irvin comes back Oct. 13, the Cowboys will have lost at Philadelphia to drop to 1-4. The Cowboys couldn't beat Buffalo without Jim Kelly Sunday, and couldn't beat Indianapolis at home with 17 Colts injured. Barry Switzer, along for the ride last season, isn't going to come up with any wrinkles because it's likely he doesn't have any. And don't forget, the Cowboys (after going 1-4) still have to play at Miami, at San Francisco, at Washington and at home against the Redskins and Packers.
The Niners' problems may be even harder to fix. They have no offensive line and no big-time running back. When Ricky Watters left, he took San Francisco's Super Bowl hopes with him. Watters ran all over the Falcons for 121 yards Sunday; the Niners ran 13 times for a total of 48 yards. They were not in a drive, for the whole game. No line, no running game, no soup for you! The Niners make critical deals better than anybody, and they'll need another one to become championship-caliber again.
Of course, it was the descent of the Niners and Cowboys that had everybody declaring the Packers the next NFC champs. Minnesota's victory at home over the Packers doesn't change that, but it'll be interesting to watch the Packers when they're involved in close games, instead of those blowouts they can manufacture in almost no time. The Vikings did show what smaller, faster and quicker players can do against Green Bay's offensive line. And the Pack's 5-22 record on artificial turf during the Mike Holmgren era is going to have to improve, considering Green Bay has games remaining at Seattle, Dallas, St. Louis and Detroit. Keeping Brett Favre focused and away from expounding on how much he should be paid in a new contract and what beverages he should be allowed to consume would also help. Favre said late last week he's proven he deserves a huge new contract. Does he? For what, not being able to get to the Super Bowl every year? Favre is close, but it's not such a lock he can't mess the whole thing up if he doesn't watch it. He and the Pack haven't won enough close games or games against really good teams to start taking anything for granted.
The teams that seem to be getting every ounce out of their personnel are the Panthers, Vikings, Chiefs and Eagles. Dennis Green has been so embattled in Minnesota, we might have forgotten how good a coach he can be until the Vikings beat Green Bay. I'm tempted to put the Redskins in that group, but they've got to beat a playoff team first because the Rams, Giants and Bears (a combined 3-8) don't scare anybody.
In fact, the most disappointing team in the league this season isn't the Giants. Nor is it the Jets. It's the Chicago Bears in a cakewalk. Dave Wannstedt christened the season by pronouncing he had "all the pieces" to contend for a Super Bowl. Instead, the Bears have proven to be not particularly smart, totally uninspired (which you'd have to blame on the coach), not particularly talented (which you'd have to blame on the man with final say in personnel matters, also the coach) and a general embarrassment. They're off to their worst start since 1983 and Ditkaphiles like me are ready to hand Wannstedt a blindfold and cigarette. The Bears stink. After getting blown out by Wayne Fontes and the Lions Sunday, Wannstedt's postgame remarks started, "Well, uh, as, uh, uh, I told the team. . . ."