NEW ORLEANS — There ought to be a rule. No one who has even rooted for the Detroit Lions should be allowed to walk among the San Francisco 49ers. It’s too depressing.
Talk about the ultimate sports franchise. Here is a team that gushes with talent, I mean it overflows. And they’re so . . . happy! They are paid well. They are treated like men. They even talk fondly of their owner, as if he is a good friend whom they’d have over for a barbecue.
Pardon me while I drool.
“I don’t want to say this is the best franchise in the NFL,” says tight end Jamie Williams, who was chastised for his dreadlocked hair with the Houston Oilers but, like other castoffs, has found a home in San Francisco,
“but when we walk off the field after a game, other players tap me and say,
‘Yo, man, put in a good word for me with your owner, OK?’ “
If there is one question about Super Bowl XXIV it is not who will win. That is a given. The question is this: How can the San Francisco 49ers, year after year, keep dancing in the clouds while other franchises barely get their shoes tied?
The answer, I have learned, is an enviable stew of respect, talent and money. The answer is Bill Walsh, the former coach, and Ed DeBartolo Jr., the generous owner. The answer is a system in which players come and go but assistant coaches stay for 10 years. The answer is attitude. Hey. How many teams employ Harry Edwards, the noted sociologist, as a counselor? That’s right. He has an office in the 49ers’ $11-million practice facility, not far from the racquetball courts and indoor pool.
Harry Edwards? Passed-over players found home
“The real key to the 49ers,” says Jerry Rice, who ought to know, “is that they keep coming up with the players.” Indeed. But you might be surprised where those players come from. Example: Joe Montana. He’s a brilliant quarterback, the best of the decade, some say the best ever. Except, you may recall, every other team in football passed on the guy. He was the 27th pick of the third round of the 1979 draft. The Lions, who could have had Montana that round, instead picked Bo Robinson from West Virginia. Does anyone know where he is?
The 49ers built a system around Montana, and he became one of many lower-round picks to reach stardom in San Francisco. Running back Roger Craig was a second-round pick. So was Keena Turner, the star linebacker. Tom Rathman, a third-rounder, led all running backs in catches this season. John Taylor, another third-rounder, caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXIII.
Michael Carter, nose tackle? Fifth round. Don Griffin, cornerback? Sixth round. Who says you need a barrel of first- rounders to build a team? That’s just what losing teams tell you. The 49ers’ starting defense Sunday will have just one first-round pick (Ronnie Lott). This, by the way, is the same defense that allowed one touchdown in the playoffs this year.
What does this mean? It means the 49ers’ scouts are doing their homework. They rarely trade. They don’t have to. And just look who they scraped off the free-agent heap: Matt Millen, the nasty linebacker who once starred with the Raiders; Jim Burt, the heroic nose tackle with the New York Giants in the 1987 Super Bowl; Mike Sherrard, the receiver whom Dallas drafted No. 1 in 1986, then gave up on after a string of injuries.
All three have been revitalized in 49ers uniforms. Millen is a starter. Sherrard could succeed Rice as the premier receiver. Other teams could have had them; the 49ers got them.
“The reason people want to play here,” Millen says, “is that the owner is willing to spend money to win.”
God, this is painful. Let us count the ways
OK. Let’s give credit where it is due. 1) DeBartolo. He foots the largest payroll in the NFL (around $19 million). But unlike George Steinbrenner, who throws good money after bad players, DeBartolo pays only the guys his staff says are the right guys. And he keeps them happy. This is an owner who last year asked for the names of every player’s wife or girlfriend, then sent each one a $500 gift certificate to Neiman Marcus. Cost him nearly $30,000. I’m sure Bill Ford thought of that. He just forgot, right?
2) Walsh. The man was ahead of his time on offense and had a great eye for talent as it fit into his system — the same system George Seifert now operates. Can you believe that fewer than half-a-dozen players remain from the 1982 Super Bowl winners? The 49ers have completely rebuilt. And they won two Super Bowls in the process.
3) Attitude. From the front office — which works with local universities to encourage players to get their college degrees — to the players, who seem so grateful they bust their butts to stay here, the chemistry on this team is correct. It is an old-fashioned team and a sterling corporation rolled into one. The result: three Super Bowls in the ’80s, and most likely a fourth on Sunday.
I watch these guys, then I think of the Lions’ front office, which acts as if money ruins everything.
“Aren’t you spoiled?” I ask Pete Kugler, the nose tackle who says he will retire after Sunday.
“We are,” he says, grinning, “but we put out.”
I’m so depressed.