NFC backs bonded only by talent NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME


TEMPE, Ariz. -- The common threads are few. Ricky Watters has a tattoo of a panther on his right shoulder; Emmitt Smith has a fraternity symbol on an arm. Each wears an earring. Each plays running back. Each catches a lot of passes out of the backfield. Each plays for a winner. And they were born a month apart in 1969.

Likeness ends there in this comparison of marquee backs in Sunday's NFC championship game.

The 49ers' Watters is lanky and lean; the Cowboys' Smith is squat and powerful. Three-time rushing champion Smith is known as a 100-yard back; Watters hasn't topped 105 all season. Watters is brash and swaggering; Smith tends to let legs talk. The Cowboys' offense revolves around Smith; in San Francisco, Watters is just another accessory. Watters needs a ,, hole for yardage; Smith needs a thin gap.

Smith has starred at every level; Watters never blossomed at Notre Dame. Smith rushed for 1,484 yards this season with a long run of 46 yards, Watters 877 with a long of 23. Smith always carries the ball in his left hand and doesn't fumble. Watters? He's clearly more flamboyant.

Watters has been referred to as immature but lovable and good-hearted. Headlines now proclaim Watters is "showing signs of maturity."

Now he's like offspring to his coach.

"He's like my extra kid," the 49ers' George Seifert said. Just another one to take care of, another to mold.

Seifert, for one, has a different take on the Cowboy with the famous hamstring.

"Emmitt Smith is in a class all his own," he said. "He's all heart. He can be inspirational just watching him, even though you're opposing him."

What Seifert and others see is a back who is quick and fast, who possesses superb leg strength and balance and vision and instinctive moves. Durability, too. He finished last season's finale against the New York Giants with a separated shoulder.

What Watters gives San Francisco's scary passing game is another potent option. He ranked third in the NFC in total yards from scrimmage with 1,596, behind Barry Sanders and Smith. Watters gained 719 of those on receptions, more than double Smith's receiving yardage.

That's the difference in Watters' role this season compared to his first two seasons. He has rushed for between 877 and 1,013 yards each season, but his reception total has increased from 43 and 31 in 1992-93 to 66 this season.

"Ricky's a positive force," 49ers center Jesse Sapolu said. "He thrives on emotion. Sometimes that's mistaken for immaturity. But I'd rather have a guy with emotion than someone who walks in with his lunch, does his job and goes home."

So far, the Cowboys have found a way to limit Watters to below 70 yards rushing in each of their four meetings the past three seasons.

By comparison, Smith has rushed for 78, 88, 92 and 114 yards against the Niners. Plus, he had 13 catches in the past two NFC title games.

"The Cowboys' records I had aren't the only ones Emmitt will break," Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett said. "He'll break a lot in the NFL. He's a very physical and compact player, a powerful runner who breaks tackles. I like not only his natural ability but his mental fortitude."

Speaking of mental, Watters has admitted a bent to get a little "crazy." A Cowboys' fan who idolized Dorsett from childhood, Watters didn't make friends quickly during his first year with the 49ers. He spent that year on injured reserve and bragging to teammates "that I could play."

He turned off teammates that year because he was loud, flashy and arrogant. He drove a Mercedes with the vanity plate RICK 32. His self-promotion -- "Nobody can stop me," he'd say -- irritated veterans. After a while he felt like an outcast, moped around and gained 20 pounds.

But performance the next season changed perceptions. As a rookie, he rushed for 1,013 yards (4.9 average). The year before, no 49er rushed for more than 561 yards. With him, the team's rushing total improved from 1,861 to 2,315 in one year. And the record improved from 10-6 and no playoffs to 15-3 and the NFC championship game.

Watters developed his grit growing up in Harrisburg, Pa. As an early teen, he'd play football and basketball on sandlots against guys five to 10 years older, guys named Bam ("he was a thumper"), Fat Kenny, Turk and Pooh. To them, Watters was a runt called Skinny Rick or Young Buck.

"They were tough and would rough me up," Watters has said. "They always made me cry. But I wouldn't give up. I had to prove myself."

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