Deion vs. Dallas
The 49ers' charter flight was somewhere over northern Texas last January on the way home from San Francisco's lopsided loss to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game, and the sting just wouldn't go away. "If you're not a part of this team, you wouldn't understand how hurt we were," says safety Tim McDonald, then in his first year with the 49ers after enduring six losing seasons with the Cardinals. "I had never felt that way before. It was like I'd lost my best friend."
On the plane McDonald sought out quarterback Steve Young. "What do we need to do to win the Super Bowl next year?" asked McDonald.
The answer may be just what San Francisco has done: get better while cutting the payroll by $12 million. Last week's signing of cornerback Deion Sanders completed a frenzy of free-agent signings by the Niners that proved that the salary cap does not necessarily prevent a team from improving itself.
On Sunday, three days after coming to terms with the 49ers, Sanders played the corner on 28 snaps and shut out his man in San Francisco's 34-19 win over the Rams. The former Falcon took his place on the roster among four other former Pro Bowl defensive players who have joined the Niners since the end of last season—defensive ends Charles Mann and Richard Dent and linebackers Rickey Jackson and Ken Norton—as well as a respected cornerback, Toi Cook, and linebacker Gary Plummer.
As a result the 49er defense of '94 is significantly better than the unit that the Cowboys pushed all over the field in Dallas last winter. The Niners' acquisition of Sanders was a major upset, and when he signed a one-year, $1.134 million contract, sour grapes were on the tongues of competing executives all over the league. They asked: How could the 49ers juggle the cap to tit in yet another star? Clearly, some executives felt that the Niners had cheated. "It's a slap in the face to us to hear the insinuations," says Niner president Carmen Policy.
In fact, while the Niners followed the letter of the cap rules, their manipulations have league officials worried that if other clubs were to follow the 49ers' example and take advantage of loopholes, the cap would lose its effectiveness. Here's how the Niners did it: Policy restructured the contracts of McDonald, Norton and Plummer—none of which are guaranteed—by taking a portion of their salaries away from this season, extending each of their multiyear contracts by an additional year and giving each a restructuring bonus. For example, McDonald, who originally had a five-year deal, was to make $1.9 million this year. He agreed to have that reduced to $1.1 million for this year with an $800,000 bonus. Under NFL cap rules, signing bonuses are prorated over the life of a player's contract, so McDonald's bonus is now counted in five equal installments of $160,000 from 1994 to '98, the new final year of his contract. Before the restructuring, McDonald's cap number for this year was $2.35 million. Now it's $1.71 million. That's a cap savings of $640,000. By adding smaller savings from the Norton and the Plummer restructurings achieved in similar ways, San Francisco came up with the cash to squeeze Sanders in.
The Niners can now go about the business of trying to win their division and then dethrone Dallas. Of course, with the 49ers reeling from injuries, beating the Cowboys may still be the impossible dream. Since January 1993, Dallas has gone 3-0 against the 49ers, and San Francisco will need more than Sanders to make up that ground. In head-to-head meetings with Dallas's All-Pro wideout, Michael Irvin, over the past five years, Sanders has surrendered 23 catches for 394 yards and two touchdowns.
For the 49ers, the question is whether, with all these new players, they'll jell by playoff time. The current wisdom around the league is that a big influx of free agents can harm a team as much as it can help it, because football players need to learn to play together before they can win. Only 10 of the Niners' 22 starters on Sunday started in last season's NFC Championship Game.
"While the 49ers are building chemistry and getting over their injuries, they might lose the home field advantage along the way," former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson says. "And in my opinion, they can't afford to lose home field."
Sanders was a bit apprehensive in the days before Sunday's game. "I have to prove myself all over again," he said. "I've been voted All-Pro, but I have to show the guys on this team that this is going to work, that I can help them get to the Super Bowl. The basic attraction here is the chance to get to the Super Bowl. If I ever gel to play in that game, they're going to have to put seatbelts on the seats, because I'm gonna light it up."
The flamboyant, bejeweled Sanders wants to be on America's biggest sporting stage. Yet he also senses the importance of not talking too much and not strutting too much, because the 49ers are a conservative, low-key bunch of guys.
Sanders had little direct impact on Sunday's game, but the Rams knew he was there. Almost every time he lined up at right corner in the Niners' nickel defense, the L.A. Ram quarterback—Chris Miller, then Chris Chandler—would fade back and not even look in his direction, ignoring the receiver on that side, Flipper Anderson or Isaac Bruce. They were blanketed by Sanders, who defended against two passes, had none caught on him and had one pass-interference penalty called on him when back judge Scott Steenson threw a flag on him for hand-checking Anderson too aggressively.
In the fourth quarter Sanders and his one-time adversary Jerry Rice playfully got in each other's faces after Rice was stopped a yard short of the end zone by a Todd Lyght tackle. "Damn, Prime!" Rice said to Sanders as he walked off the field. Said Sanders to Rice, "Hey, if that had been me, you definitely would have scored. You'd have run right over me."
As he headed to the team bus late Sunday, Sanders was told that commissioner Paul Tagliabue was reportedly ready to investigate Sanders's signing to see if his contract violated the cap. Sanders laughed. "Tell him I'll fax it to him," he said. "Be happy to. What's his fax number in New York?"
Then he got serious. "There's nothing wrong with that contract. Everybody's trying to get inside my head because they don't believe I would have signed for so much less money. Would you please tell me what is wrong with a man doing something that makes him happy? I just want to be on a championship team."
With that, Sanders was gone. Behind him, Policy waited to board the bus. "I know we made the right decision," he said. "I know he's going to help us win." And even if they don't win, give the 49ers their due. They'll go down swinging.
A Sad Chapter
Largely overlooked amid the fun of Throwbacks Weekend, during which each team wore vintage uniforms in celebration of the NFL's 75th anniversary, is the fact that, while the league had as many as 13 black players—and one black player-coach, Fritz Pollard—on its rosters during its first decade, blacks were quietly banned from the league between 1934 and '45. On Sunday, Pittsburgh honored the three living players from the Steelers' first team, in 1933, one of whom was Ray Kemp, a two-way tackle who played his college ball at Duquesne. Kemp, now 86, is a black man who was cut before the '34 season when the NFL became lily-white.
In 1946 the Rams rebroke the color barrier by signing halfback Kenny Washington and end Woody Strode, both of whom had played football at UCLA with Jackie Robinson (that same fall the Browns, then in the All-American Football Conference, signed fullback Marion Motley and guard Bill Willis), but it would be another 17 years before the Redskins, the league's last holdout, traded for Bobby Mitchell, who became their first black.
Hopes for the Future
In the college drafts of the 1990s, 13 first-round picks have been used on quarterbacks, and so far only three—Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer—have shown any flashes of brilliance. NFL scouts expect as many as four quarterbacks to go in the first round of April's draft, especially if BYU's 6'4" junior John Walsh declares himself eligible. With the college season still in its infancy, here's how the two scouting services used by NFL teams have the top three seniors rated:
BLESTO (11 teams)
1. Steve McNair, 6'2", 218, Alcorn State
2. Rob Johnson, 6'4", 220, USC
3. Chad May, 6'2", 220, Kansas State
National Football Scouting (14 teams)
1. Eric Zeier, 6'1", 202, Georgia
Keep in mind that this is not an exact science; Zeier is seventh on the BLESTO list.
The NFL's 28 existing teams will soon vote on whether or not to give the two expansion teams that begin play next season an extra draft choice in the first round of next April's draft. The betting here is that the owners won't, rationalizing that the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars will be able to purchase enough high-quality free agents. That would be a bush move. Wayne Weaver, the Jacksonville owner, figures that, though he spent $215 million to enter this exclusive club, his fellow owners won't give his Jaguars a fighting chance to be competitive early. Sadly, he's right....
Hey, maybe this union thing isn't such a bad idea after all. Bronco quarterback John Elway, a vocal critic of the NFL Players Association during the 1987 players' strike, will be getting a check for $50,625 in his mailbox any day now. That represents one Sunday's pay for Elway in '87, plus interest, and it will be coming his way thanks to a legal victory for the NFLPA that stems from the strike, when the players returned after a three-week walkout only to be wrongly locked out by the owners....
The Dolphins finally have a defense against the run, keyed by 317-pound rookie defensive tackle Tim Bowens. None of the three feature backs whom the Dolphins have faced—Marion Butts of the Patriots, Reggie Cobb of the Packers or Johnny Johnson of the Jets—has rushed for more than 50 yards. Miami will contend for a Super Bowl berth if its defense continues to play at this level....
True, Brett Favre is off to a shaky start in Green Bay, but the Pack has rushed for only 94, 38 and 37 yards in its 1-2 start, and Favre's receivers dropped eight balls in Sunday's 13-7 loss to the Eagles. Even Sterling Sharpe had three drops in Philly....
Look at the Giants' schedule after their 3-0 start and it's hard to imagine them not going at least 7-6 the rest of the way and making the playoffs, which is a tribute to Dan Reeves's coaching, Dave Brown's quarterbacking and running back Dave Megget's multipurpose talents....
There is serious unrest in Houston over the Oilers' feeble offense. Says cornerback Cris Dishman, "We need to get someone else calling the plays. I feel like I'm playing against two teams—our offense and their offense." Houston owner Bud Adams says he will not make an in-season coaching change despite starting 0-3.
The End Zone
Jim McMahon was installed as the starting quarterback for the Cardinals in their Throwbacks Weekend game at Cleveland. Funny thing. Phoenix wore uniforms from the Cardinals' first year, 1920, when they were based in Chicago. The following year their quarterback was a fellow listed as Arnold McMahon. According to The NFL's Official Encyclopedic History of Pro Football, Arnold McMahon was really Arnold Horween, a Harvard graduate who played as McMahon, the book says, "to protect the social status of his family and the good name of his alma mater."
Sanders tossed a shutout at Ram receivers in his first game as a Niner.
Washington helped to end a shameful 12-year ban.
Bowens, who was tough on the Jets' rushers, also broke up this Boomer Esiason pass.