Once upon a time, in mythical football seasons far far away, the San Francisco 49ers fielded championship teams. "Teams," plural. Teams that won five Super Bowls during the eighties and the nineties. Teams that in most years of those halcyon decades, contended even when they did not win the championship. Back then, the scribes of yore dubbed the 49ers a "dynasty," and wrote that, lo, those same Niners had set a new template for dynastic football.
This new template for sustained championship contention included 1) ownership willing and able to spend money 2) a personnel department capable of identifying and securing talent 3) a coaching staff that could maximize that talent, and 4) an elite quarterback. Successful football requires strong coaching and talent evaluation during any era, but, during the late-twentieth century NFL, the emphasis on moneyed ownership and elite-level quarterbacking became even more pronounced. Receiver-friendly changes to the NFL rules and creative masterminds such as Sid Gilman and Don Coryell revolutionized the passing game, thus elevating even more the importance of the quarterback position. Meanwhile, the gradual rise of the NFL players union and the advent of free agency put increasing pressure on the owners' pocketbooks.
Most of the owners liked the new passing game; exciting to most younger fans, faster-paced than the old three-yards-and-a cloud-of-dust running game, and, above all, photogenic, it insured high TV ratings and network dollars. But more than a few of the older NFL owners, and fans, looked askance at the brash young upstart owner of the 49ers, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. Some accused him of spendthrift ways, and of "buying championships." Eventually, aided by the missteps of Mr. DeBartolo himself, they ran him out of the league.
However, regarding the ample spending, locally owned, small-market teams such as the Green Bay Packers made a cogent point. How could they hope to compete with the stockpiles of talent the richest teams could afford? In 1994, not so coincidently the last season the 49ers won a Super Bowl, the NFL instituted the salary cap. Shortly thereafter, 49ers executive John McVay (NFL executive of the year, 1989) pronounced the "new template for dynasties" dead. Henceforth, he said, the window for sustained NFL championship success would tighten, with teams on multi-year cycles of ascension, decline, then rebuilding. This assessment made sense, and held true for the duration of the nineties as powerhouses such as the Cowboys, Bills, and, indeed, Niners, seemed to follow McVay's cycle. Then, along came the New England Patriots.
During the decade of the oughts, with the arrival of Bill Belichick in 2000 and subsequent installation of Tom Brady as starting QB, the Patriots contended every year, and won three Super Bowls. This run of success continues to date, with the Patriots having won the AFC East ten times, with two second-place finishes, in the last twelve years. Add to that the appearance in two additional Super Bowls that they did not win. Instead of McVay's old term, "rebuild," the operative term applied to the Patriots became "reload."
Today, many pro football watchers compare the current 49ers to those Patriots. We'll have to check back in ten years and see. Meanwhile, another dominant team from the oughts, less noted because they failed to win a Super Bowl, may provide us with further instruction about the 49ers' possible future. From 2000 – 2010 the Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC East six times, placed second thrice, and had only one losing season. How did they succeed? Similar to the Patriots, they implemented the four components of the old Bill Walsh/John McVay 49er template, plus two more components: 1) they actively worked the draft with the salary cap in mind, especially mid and late-round picks, and 2) they adroitly managed said salary cap.
How did the silver-and-green run of excellence end? First, their quarterback, the underrated Donovan McNabb, one of the earliest of today's run/pass QB's, got hurt and then traded. Second, perhaps partially because of frustration fuelled by the lack of a Super Bowl victory, the Eagles skewed their salary-cap priorities toward big-name, high-impact stars (i.e. Terrell Owens, Jevon Kearse, Asante Samuel, Michael Vick, Nnamdi Asomugha) and away from the meat-and-potatoes players with whom coach Andy Reid relates so well. And third, as can happen with any system, the Eagles, to augment the usual aging and attrition of any roster, simply had a run of bad luck. This included ill-timed injuries and draft choices that did not pan out.
The margin between success and failure in the hyper-competitive NFL is thinner than a placekicker's kneepad. I greatly admire the ownership, management, coaching, and quarterback (the four elements of the old 49er template) of those years-of-the-oughts Eagle teams, but even their hard work and dedication could not forever stave off decline. In other words, a team may do everything right, and still fall back into the old decline-and-rebuilding cycle, like the current Eagles.
Frankly, those who today compare the 49ers to the Patriots make an apt point. But I would also include the Eagles in the comparison. Like both of those teams, the 49ers seem to have the four Walsh/McVay components in place. Like both those teams, especially last year, the 49ers aggressively worked the draft and supplemented the roster with some veteran talent. Unlike the Patriots, the current 49ers have yet to win a Super Bowl. Like the Eagles in their decline, last year's Niners' draft may yet prove to be luckless, or at least lackluster. Like the Eagles in their decline, the veteran talent added last year by Mr. Baalke and company hit once (Mario Manningham) missed once (Brandon Jacobs) and in any case (Moss, Davis) occupied roster spots that contributed zilch to special teams. In addition, veteran talent added in previous seasons (Ginn, Jr., Akers) contributed to the fall-off in special teams. This same David Akers, of course, kicked for Philadelphia during their great run.
Also like the Eagles in their decline, injuries pinged the Niners last year, not only among the first-year players, but among veteran contributors: Parys Haralson, not there to spell the outside pass-rushers; Manningham and Kyle Williams, arguably the second and third best wide receivers, unavailable for the playoffs; Kendall Hunter, who may or may not have fumbled in the Super Bowl, as did his replacement. Additionally, Gore, (Aldon) Smith, Akers, and others took the field with injuries that hampered their play. Justin Smith played the second half of the season and playoffs with one functional arm.
Similar to the Patriots and Eagles of old, the 49ers appear set for a possible run of sustained NFL excellence. We will know this only in retrospect. In the meantime, the team must maintain the components of the old 49ers' way, while also managing new ones: salary capology and personnel maximization. These last two components in contemporary football intricately link. For instance, the draft no longer functions merely to stockpile talent, but rather works in close conjunction with the salary cap. Let us lump the two new components together and call the combination "roster flexibility." Let us enjoy watching the 49ers as they attempt to master roster flexibility, despite the fact that favorites may go and incoming prospects may disappoint. The contemporary NFL compels teams to work this way, engaging risk to defray decline.
The old 49ers' way, while still relevant, must necessarily give way to a new generation that grapples with fresh problems and, like the prospectors of yore, stakes its own updated claim to untapped veins of football ore.