If football dynasties are supposed to be dead, why are the San Francisco 49ers being measured as the greatest team in NFL history?
In this era of parity in the NFL, how did the defending Super Bowl champions get so far ahead of the rest of the league?
Ask those questions and these answers keep coming up:
Dallas used to be viewed as the NFL's model franchise. The way the computerized Cowboys drafted, acted, looked and played was the envy of the rest of the league. Dallas became America's Team.
Now it's the 49ers.
Championship level teams don't seem to endure long these days in the NFL, but if San Francisco defeats the Denver Broncos here Sunday, it will be the Niners' fourth Super Bowl championship in the last nine years.
Since 1981, the 49ers have won 72.6 percent of their games (98-37-1). Their winning percentage is an impressive .728 if you throw in the Niners' 12-4 post-season mark the last nine years.
One of the four All American Football Conference franchises to join the NFL in 1950 -- Cleveland, the old Baltimore Colts and the New York Yankees were the others -- the 49ers were one of the NFL's most exciting teams in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s with "name" players such as Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry, Leo Nomellini, John Brodie and Gene Washington.
Despite some of the most recognizable names in football, the Niners won no championships. They did reach the NFC championship game twice, losing both times to Dallas, in 1970 and 1971, but by the end of the decade, the franchise was in turmoil, sinking to 2-14 in 1978.
By then the team had been purchased by the DeBartolo family of Youngstown, Ohio. Edward DeBartolo Sr. had made his fortune after World War II developing, building and managing shopping malls. Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was only 32 when he became president of the 49ers in 1977.
The franchise floundered for two years before young DeBartolo hired Bill Walsh as coach and general manager. Three years later, San Francisco was in the Super Bowl.
Walsh, who gave up his coaching duties after last year's Super Bowl and then left the organization for the television broadcasting booth, created the framework for the 49ers' success on the field.
"Bill molded this thing," said Norb Hecker, a former NFL player and assistant coach who serves as the senior administrator for the 49ers' coaching staff.
Walsh built such a durable foundation that his replacement, George Seifert, was able to step in and keep things humming.
Walsh believes that the coaching change actually benefited the team and kept it from going stale after last year's Super Bowl victory. "The 49ers are probably better off with him as coach than they would have been had I stayed," Walsh said.
Yet, it was DeBartolo's willingness to spend money and add his own touch as much as anything else that is responsible for the Niners' success.
Niners go first class
"We have a terrific owner," says Hecker. "Everything is first class. If there is anything we need or want to help us win, he does not hesitate."
Reliable sources say the 49ers lost $400,000 in 1988 despite winning the Super Bowl. That is small change to the DeBartolos, who are said to be worth around $1 billion.
San Francisco's player payroll was the NFL's highest in 1989, more than $19 million. That's up more than $4 million from 1988.
A high payroll, of course, often is a product of success, not the cause of it. There are these other manifestations of DeBartolo's willingness to go first class:
The 49ers have eight full-time scouts, one of the NFL's largest and best-paid full-time staffs. San Francisco does not belong to a scouting combine.
Two years ago, San Francisco made an offer to New England linebacker Andre Tippett for $900,000 a year. The Patriots were forced to match it or lose Tippett.
In 1988, the 49ers dedicated the $12 million Marie DeBartolo Sports Center in Santa Clara, Calif. It is named in the memory of Eddie DeBartolo's mother. The facility houses the team's offices and training facilities. It has two regulation grass practice fields as well as a full-sized artificial surface field. The two-story building houses offices, meeting rooms, locker rooms, a weight room, a 30- by 40-foot hydrotherapy pool as well as a sizable media work room and a 120-seat auditorium.
In 1987, when there was the prospect of an NFL Players Association strike and the possibility that NFL teams would field replacement teams, Walsh received authorization from DeBartolo to bring an additional 40 players into training camp.
San Francisco went out and signed six players during the Plan B signing period last year. Three of the signees are on the 49ers roster. One is on injured reserve. Conversely, the Niners, presumably the most talented team in the NFL, lost only two players to free agency.
One of the plan B signees was wide receiver Mike Sherrard, who was not protected by Dallas. A former No. 1 pick, Sherrard had missed the 1987 and 1988 seasons when he twice suffered the same broken leg.
Not only were the Niners willing to gamble that Sherrard would return to health, they were willing to pay him $325,000 this season to find out. Indeed, Sherrard is back as an extra receiver. He was placed on the active roster for the playoffs and caught two passes in the victory over Minnesota in the divisional round.
The Niners always travel in a wide-body charter jet and arrive at the site of road games at least two days in advance, rather than the usual one day early that is customary with other teams.
A winning atmosphere
DeBartolo gives his team more than money. He has also created a family aura around the team. He is such good friends with some of his players, he has had to withdraw from some contract negotiations.
"The thing in our organization that makes us a winner is our owner," says Montana. "Mr D. has done everything possible to make it a winning atmosphere and, in turn, the guys try to show their respect for him."
It's not uncommon to see the entire 49er entourage dining together at league meetings.
"He treats the low guy on the pole exactly the same as everybody else. This is his family," Hecker said.
The 49ers stay focused on what is important to winning. That's one thing former Minnesota Vikings guard Terry Tausch noticed when he joined the team this season as a Plan B free agent.
"It's a great organization to work for. All they care about is winning," Tausch said. "Other teams just want to fill the stadium or have a .500 year or achieve individual statistical goals. Here they don't care if you win 6-3 or 30-0 as long as it comes up in the 'W' column.
"At Minnesota, when something went wrong, first there was finger-pointing and a lot of moaning and groaning before anything was done about it. Here they're positive as far as what they want to do from Day 1. I was shocked at how different it was. They just want to work things out."
Linebacker Matt Millen sees similarities between the 49ers and his old team, the Los Angeles Raiders.
"Players will always want to play for an organization that is committed to winning," Millen said. "Al Davis was that way. Eddie DeBartolo is that way."
The Buffalo Bills' rise to playoff status in 1988 was easy to explain: A lot of high draft picks because of successive 2-14 seasons in 1984 and '85 and a 4-12 year in 1986. San Francisco has been able to sustain success even though it has not picked a player early in the first round since 1981, when it selected safety Ronnie Lott.
There are only five first-round draft picks on the roster San Francisco will take into today's Super Bowl: Lott, wide receiver Jerrry Rice, offensive tackle Harris Barton, linebacker Keith DeLong and running back Terrence Flagler. Two of them, DeLong and Flagler, hardly play.
None of the five was taken in the first half of the first round. Rice was the highest pick. He was taken 16th in the 1985 draft.
Backup quarterback Steve Young was the first pick of the special NFL draft of USFL players held in 1984.
Indeed, for a team supposedly on the verge of winning a fourth Super Bowl in the same decade, the 49ers have perhaps only three certain Hall-of-Fame candidates -- Montana, Rice and Lott. The Packers of the '60s and the Steelers of the '70s have many more actual and potential Hall-of-Famers.
The 49ers are a testament to the efficiency of their drafting of players and selecting their roster. San Francisco seldom makes a mistake when it drafts and almost never makes a poor talent decision once a player is in the fold. An exception was linebacker Dave Grayson, who now starts for the Cleveland Browns. He was an eighth-round pick by the 49ers in 1987.
San Francisco thrives in the 3-4-5-6 rounds of the draft. In fact, the Niners do better in some rounds of some drafts than other teams do in entire drafts.
For example, San Francisco obtained starting fullback Tom Rathman, starting cornerback Tim McKyer and starting wide receiver John Taylor in the third round of the 1986 draft. Then, the Niners came back and picked up two more starters, linebacker Charles Haley and offensive tackle Steve Wallace, and backup defensive tackle Kevin Fagan in the fourth round that year.
That's five starters and one backup the team obtained in the third and fourth rounds of the 1986 draft!
Some gambles pay off
The Niners don't always play the percentages. They gamble now and then and usually win. They drafted defensive lineman Pierce Holt in the 1988 draft even though he was overage.
Mike Walter was a defensive end in college who flunked a trial as an outside linebacker with Dallas. He made it as an inside linebacker with the 49ers.
Of course, Montana was a third-round pick in 1979, perhaps the greatest third-round pick in draft history.
San Francisco also has supplemented the drafts with high-priced, experienced veterans, such as Hacksaw Reynolds, Russ Francis, Gary "Big Hands" Johnson and Fred Dean, as well as Millen and former New York Giant Jim Burt, who are members of this Super Bowl team.
As for coaching personnel, there are no big names on the San Francisco staff -- no Ernie Stautners or Buddy Ryans. Most of the key assistants have been with the Niners through all four Super Bowl years.
Offensive coordinator Mike Holmgreen replaced Sam Wyche as quarterback coach in 1983. Offensive line coach Bobb McKitrick and defensive coordinator Bill McPherson came to the 49ers with Walsh's original staff in 1979.
This may be the deepest of the four 49er Super Bowl teams.
The Niners played most of the season without nose tackle Michael Carter, lost safety Jeff Fuller with a career-ending neck injury and are without starting inside backers Riki Ellison and Jim Fahnhorst. Imagine the Buffalo Bills without Fred Smerlas, Ray Bentley, Scott Radecic and Leonard Smith. The Niners lost comparable talents and never skipped a beat. They ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense.
"We went into training camp this year with the best group of players I have ever seen assembled for a football camp, with our veterans, our Plan B, our draft and our free agents," Hecker said. "I couldn't believe the talent we had.
"We have outstanding depth and it's young."
Talented personnel helps
When Bill Walsh put together his 1981 Super Bowl team, he had no running game. So Walsh devised a possession passing game that used the abilities of Montana, wide receivers Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon and tight end Earl Cooper, a former fullback, to control the ball.
Later of course, the 49ers improved their running attack to the point where opponents fear it almost as much as they fear Montana's passes to Rice and Taylor.
Roger Craig not only has rushed for 1,000 yards three times in his seven-year career, the durable back caught 92 passes during the 1985 season.
Walsh helped develop quarterbacks and passing attacks at Cincinnati and San Diego, and, with the bright and talented Montana, created a state-of-the-art short passing game in San Francisco.
Of course, it helps to have Montana, who seems to see the entire field and has the ability to quickly find the open receiver, depending on the coverage. He completed an incredible 70.2 percent of his passes and averaged 9.12 yards per attempt this season. The league average is only 55.8 percent.
Defensively, the 49ers have been innovative in their use of personnel, if not in tactics.
In 1984, when they won their second super Bowl, the 49ers rotated nine defensive linemen and used different sets of linebackers on first and second downs and got as many as 19 defensive players into regular roles. That was unheard of at the time.
This season 16 players played regularly on defense.
"I think the more you can do that, the better off you are, just from the standpoint of having everybody into the game more," says Seifert, who was defensive coordinator until this year. "In fact, you really are utilizing everybody's talents. For the most part the players respond to it."
Of course, Walsh, who acted as his own offensive coordinator, was known for his 15-to-25-play script of plays he would run at the start of a game.
"We're not smart enough to figure that out. I have to go one play at a time," says Denver coach Dan Reeves.
It not only helps to have the quarterback who some believe is the best to ever play in the NFL, but also a receiver in Rice who may be the best in NFL history as well.
Rice set a Super Bowl record with 215 yards on 11 receptions in last year's game. He caught a league-record 22 touchdown passes in 1987, in just 12 games, and had 1,570 receiving yards in 1986, the third highest total in league history.
Only 29, Rice caught 83 passes for 1,483 yards and 17 touchdowns during the 1989 season.
Do the 49ers work harder than other teams? Not necessarily, according to Tausch.
"During a week of preparation for a game, we don't go out and bang on each other as much as other teams do. I think in weeks 11 through 16 we're a lot fresher than a lot of teams because of that."
Nobody has the only formula for winning. What worked for Vince Lombardi in the '60s or Chuck Noll in the '70s didn't work in the '80s. For now, though, the 49er method of operation is the one other NFL teams have to look up to until the next dynasty comes along.