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In their own words … Great NFL rivalries

10/31/2007 - NFL

Washington Redskins Hall of Fame wide receiver Charley Taylor could only sit back and laugh when he heard about the New England Patriots' recent spying scandal. He was, after all, part of the Redskins-Dallas Cowboys rivalry of the 1970s.

"This stuff has been going on for years," Taylor said.

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Taylor was referring to the gamesmanship between then-coaches George Allen of the Redskins and Tom Landry of the Cowboys. They constantly tried to one-up each other -- like New York Jets coach Eric Mangini and Patriots coach Bill Belichick have done the past two seasons. Landry rented certain floors of a motel overlooking the Cowboys ' practice facility to prevent Redskins "spies" from watching practice the week before the two teams played. Redskins players changed jersey numbers in practice before playing the Cowboys.

When the Indianapolis Colts play the Patriots this weekend, there inevitably will be questions about gamesmanship. Did the Patriots purposefully leave their field uncovered in the week before the 2004 AFC divisional playoffs to expose it to the elements to slow down the Colts' high-powered offense? Did the Colts turn up the heat in the RCA Dome in the second half of last year's AFC championship to wear out an already-exhausted Pats defense?

Gamesmanship aside, rivalry games are what many players look forward to from the start of training camp. They are the games players circle when the schedule first comes out. Said former San Francisco 49ers defensive back Eric Davis about the 49ers' rivalry with the Cowboys in the 1990s: "That is why you play. You want to match up against the best."

To gain insight into heated matchups, ESPN.com interviewed players from three great rivalries: the Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, the Cowboys-Redskins of the 1970s and the Cowboys-49ers of the 1990s.

Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers rivalry of the 1990s


Former Cowboys defensive coordinator and head coach Dave Campo:

"When we played the 49ers in the 1992 NFC championship game, I am not sure anyone really expected us to be there. The Cowboys kind of came out of nowhere. That was the game [Cowboys coach] Jimmy Johnson guaranteed a win. When Jimmy made that statement, we did not know if we could beat them, as a lot of people felt the 49ers had the more talented team. We had a chance because of defensive backs Larry Brown and Kevin Smith. Our scheme was very simple. It required a lot of single-cornerback coverage, so our defensive backs needed to be able to bump and run with the 49ers' receivers.

"We might not have been able to get away with some of the stuff today because the officials worry about contact a lot more. You were able to keep your hands on the receiver down the field, so you knew when the receivers would make their breaks. It was huge for us to throw off the timing of [49ers quarterback] Steve Young and make him throw to a running back or tight end instead of a receiver. Their running back, Ricky Watters, though, was really good. He was fast, tough and could catch the ball out of the backfield. He was a really good receiver. He was the type of running back you really look for in a West Coast attack. When we finally lost to the 49ers in the 1994 NFC championship, they swung a long pass to him on their way a 21-0 lead.

"One of the things you always worried about with the 49ers was preventing the big play. I can remember one time we played them in the regular season and we did something a little different, scheme wise, and [49ers wide receiver] Jerry Rice beat us for a 70-yard touchdown on a slant route. Playing against the 49ers back then is a lot like playing the Indianapolis Colts today. You know what they are going to do, but you have to stop them. The 49ers -- like the Colts -- did a good job of running a reverse or an unusual play to keep you on our toes. "

Former 49ers defensive back Eric Davis:

"I have a lot of fond memories of those days. The rivalry got so intense with the Cowboys that after losing two straight NFC championship games in 1992 and 1993, we brought in a bunch of guys and pretty much put together an all-star team just to beat the Cowboys in 1994. We needed to win the 1994 NFC Championship Game for our organization. I will always say that we had the better team in 1992, but some bad bounces prevented us from going to the Super Bowl that year.

"The Cowboys' 1993 team was the best team I ever competed against at any level. When we played them in the NFC championship in Dallas, it was like body blows. We just kept taking shots and taking shots, and before you knew it, Dallas would be on the 2-yard line. That team was a machine; they had one of the best offensive lines ever assembled, excellent receivers and an explosive running game. We knew that Troy [Aikman] was one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks, and you knew [wide receiver] Michael [Irvin] was going to move the chains. If you didn't knock the ball down, Michael was going to catch it. Troy was also really good at putting the ball in tight spots. He did not give you much of an opportunity to knock the ball down because he was so accurate.

"During training camp, we would always find the Cowboys on our schedule and would say, 'We should be 8-0 and they should be 7-1,' by the time we play them. We didn't want to give any other team a chance. That was the game everyone pointed to because we knew it would determine home field in the playoffs. That showed the ultimate respect I had for those guys, because I didn't think anyone was going to beat them and they probably did not think anyone was going to beat us."

Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins rivalry of the 1970s

Charley Taylor:

"My whole attitude towards Dallas -- like a lot of my Redskins teammates -- was different, because I was from Dallas and so I had to play well in front of Mom and Dad. You wanted to beat Dallas. I can remember having trash thrown on my parents' front lawn before playing the Cowboys. Everybody was really into these games, from the owner on down to the trainer. There was a lot of gamesmanship in the rivalry.

"I remember [former Cowboys president] Tex Schramm making a rule at one of the owners' meetings that a player could not come back once he was on injured reserve. I got hurt in the preseason and was placed on injured reserve. I could have come back and played that season, but because of the rule, I had to miss the whole season. George Allen and Tom Landry were very superstitious of one another. When we would practice, Allen would have us wear different jersey numbers. I would switch my jersey with one of the linebackers. Allen also had an ex-police officer as a security guard to chase away any 'spies.' We had so much security, though, that I could not imagine anybody sneaking into the place.

"They had many talented defensive backfields and some Hall of Fame defensive backs. They played a physical style meant to throw you off your game. My thing was I knew I was going to get hit, so I told my quarterback, 'Just throw me the ball.' When you walked into Texas Stadium, you were booed from the moment you walked on the field to the time you left. I use to work out with those guys [Cowboys players] during the offseason. We were friends except on Sunday."

Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett:

"Every time we played Washington, it was very intense rivalry. We were not allowed to leave our playbooks in our cars during practice. We had a motel overlooking our practice facility, and we had scouts walking through every room of the motel just to make sure nobody was stealing our signals. One time, our scouts confiscated the video of a 70-year-old woman because they thought she might have been a spy. With rivalries like that, it was a fun time for football fans. Everybody was getting into it in our organization, including the equipment manager.

"Washington had one of the best defensive lines in the league. I don't know what it was with Tom Landry, whether he thought the other teams were just not as smart as him or they did not watch film or what. In our playbook, we could run a play from several different formations. But against Washington, we would run the same play from the same formation, and sometimes we would have success and sometimes we did not have success. It was fun playing against those guys because they knew what we were going to run and we knew what they were going to run, so it was just smash-mouth football. As a running back, you really look forward to that. It was like backyard brawl. When we came to Washington, Cowboys fans greeted us at the hotel, but once we got to RFK Stadium, it felt like all those Cowboys fans disappeared."

Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry of the 1970s

Raiders Hall of Fame center Jim Otto:

"How can one forget the Immaculate Reception game? That was the game that really started the Steelers' dynasty. I remember the night before the game, they beat up a couple of our players in the street. I remember the Immaculate Reception [Franco Harris' game-winning ricochet TD catch in the 1972 AFC divisional playoffs]. I was looking for a place to hide, because if the call had gone the other way, somebody would have definitely gotten hurt. The fans were so feverish at the point. It was the only time in football that I thought there was going to be a problem and I wanted no part of it. "

"The Immaculate Reception game is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are other times we would beat the Steelers to keep them out of the playoffs. It was a great matchup between us and the Steelers. If you take a look at the Steelers' defensive roster and our offensive team, you would find a lot of Hall of Famers. Going up against [Hall of Fame defensive tackle] Joe Greene was a challenge each time I played him.

"The games between us and the Steelers were very physical. Our defensive backs used to go after Steelers wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth a lot. ... Football can be a very physical game sometimes -- it is not like baseball. Hits can be questionable, but you have to go back and line up for the next play."

Former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell:

"They were clearly our biggest competition. We needed to get by the Raiders in order to make it to the Super Bowl almost every year. They were a great team. They had all the talent both on offense and on defense. We had a lot of respect for those guys. We certainly were never overconfident when we played the Raiders because they always had really good teams. I did not see the Immaculate Reception, because when I saw the ball deflected back, I thought our season was over. I hung my head, heard the crowd roar -- all of a sudden I saw [Steelers running back] Franco [Harris] is running down the field for a touchdown. It was a pretty astounding play.

"Chuck Noll would preach to us not to be overly aggressive and keep ourselves under control. You had to use your brain more than your body. I can remember when we lost to them in the 1976 AFC Championship Game. They did a pretty good job of fooling us with their offensive game plan. That might have been our best team, as we pitched five shutouts [the Steelers were trying to become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls] and we were voted team of the decade. The Raiders [in the week before the game] said in the newspaper they couldn't run the ball against the Steelers. When we played them earlier in the year, we stuffed the run in the first half and they threw a lot in the second half, so we were pretty convinced they were going to pass the ball every down. They came out running, and we were playing pass defense. At halftime, we adjusted to the run, and they started throwing the ball every down. "

San Francisco 49ers-New York Giants the 1980s, early '90s

Former New York Giants RB Ottis Anderson on playing the 49ers.

"(Former Giants head coach) Bill Parcells came to us the Thursday before the 1990 NFC Championship Game between the Giants and 49ers and said, "I don't know about you, but I have a suitcase full of clothes. I am packing for one week. We are going to leave New Jersey on Friday for San Francisco and after we beat the 49ers, we are going straight to Tampa Bay (where the Super Bowl was)." He showed us his suitcase full of clothes, and that was all the motivation we needed. We knew we had to pack for a whole week instead of a couple days.

"When we got out to San Francisco for the game, everybody was talking about the 49ers becoming the first team in NFL history to win three straight Super Bowls, and that just gave us additional motivation. The 49ers had shipped a lot of their video equipment to Tampa and the city had already banners saying Bills/49ers Super Bowl. It (the NFC Championship) was a late game and when a lot of people went to bed, the 49ers were running out the clock, so they thought the 49ers were going to the Super Bowl. Nobody expected (49ers RB) Roger Craig to fumble the ball. When we got to our hotel (in Tampa Bay) early the next morning, nobody knew who we were. They all thought we were 49ers."

Former San Francisco 49ers OL Randy Cross on playing Giants:

"You need to remember that up until the early 1980s, both teams were not very good. In 1981, we beat the Giants in the playoffs, won the Super Bowl, and that was sort of the first go-round. After that, it become an annual thing. If we weren't meeting them in the regular season then we would be meeting them in the playoffs. Those were the days of smash-mouth football. A lot of people talk about the contrast of styles, but I think that was more for the media than the participants. The media would say it was the unstoppable force of the Giants against the great 49ers offense. That ignored two things ---one, how well we ran the ball and two, how good our defense was.

"When you played the Giants, you knew you were going to be sore the next day...As a guard, I had to take on (Giants LB) Harry Carson, which was an instant headache or (LB) Carl Banks or (LB) Lawrence Taylor. It was almost like naming your favorite cavity. The rivalry really does not bring back scintillating memories. "

William Bendetson covers pro football for ESPN.com.