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BLUEPRINT FOR A CHAMPION With a fiscal juggling act, club president Carmen Policy helped rebuild the 49ers

A couple of hours after the San Francisco 49ers had throttled the
Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game, Niner president Carmen
Policy raised his voice to proclaim a different sort of victory. All
season long, Policy had been absorbing broadsides from various NFL
team executives -- few of whom wished to be identified -- about how
he had circumvented the league salary cap by hiding money. Policy had
mortgaged the 49ers' future in order to beat Dallas, his critics
declared, and the Niners' house would crumble when the bills came
''I just wish,'' Policy said through semiclenched teeth, ''that
all the people who have questioned us would take the time to actually
seek out the truth. Call the league and see what we've done. Look at
our contracts. We * haven't mortgaged our future. We worked within
the confines of the cap without wrecking our future, and we won.''
The salary cap, $34.6 million per team in 1994, was instituted by
the NFL to keep free-spending teams like the Washington Redskins and
the 49ers from cornering the market on the best players in the new
era of free agency. San Francisco, with an annual payroll of more
than $40 million for each of the three years before the cap went into
effect in December 1993, was faced with a serious problem: how to
improve to Dallas's level while cutting salaries.
Well, the 49ers did it, conquering one of the finest teams of our
time and doing it in no small part because of the fiscal skill and
negotiating savvy of Policy. In the NFL of the '90s, a skillful
cap-master in the front office is every bit as vital to a team's
success as the coach on the field or the scouts who beat the bushes
for talent. And Policy, 51, a veteran of two decades as a trial
lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, before Niner owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
brought him west as club president in 1991, is the best in the
business. ''My talent,'' says Policy, ''is problem solving. I think I
may have a unique ability to overcome -- or at least to try to
overcome -- what might be perceived as insurmountable problems.''
Even before the 49ers had lost their second straight NFC
Championship Game to Dallas a year ago, the Niner brain trust had
determined that substantial defensive improvements were in order.
With the salary cap on the horizon, Policy would have to persuade
DeBartolo to lay out substantial sums immediately because players
signed after Dec. 23, 1993, would count toward '94 and beyond;
players signed during '93 would have large chunks of their contracts
assigned to that year's capless budget.
Policy flew to Youngstown to sell DeBartolo on his plan. He
targeted nine key players -- including tackles Harris Barton and
Steve Wallace, tight end Brent Jones, wideout John Taylor and safety
Merton Hanks -- and told the owner, If we spend $11 million in
up-front money on these guys now, we'll lessen our cap hit and we'll
be able to sign every key player who is scheduled to become a free
agent in '94 and '95. DeBartolo agreed, and the stalwarts were
signed. The 49ers now have every key veteran in place until at least
the end of the '96 season. ''That enabled us to be the hunter in free
agency,'' Policy says, ''and not the hunted.''
The 49ers were now free to pick and choose a couple of defensive
free agents with the few dollars they had left under the cap. In
came linebackers Ken Norton Jr. from Dallas and Gary Plummer from the
San Diego Chargers. As gravy to those deals, Norton helped his new
team by offering the 49ers scouting tips on the Cowboys before the
title game, and Plummer chipped in some observations on the Chargers
before the Super Bowl win.
The 49ers' best move of the off-season, though, was picking up
defensive tackle Bryant Young with the seventh pick in the first
round of the '94 draft. Young, teamed with fellow tackle Dana
Stubblefield, would give the 49ers the best tandem of young,
run-stuffing interior defensive linemen in the NFL.
But wait a minute: How did the Niners, who had made it to the
previous NFC title game, secure such a high draft choice? Give Policy
credit here, too -- with an assist from Joe Montana. When the 49ers
bowed to Montana's request to be traded in April 1993, they had two
serious offers for him, from the Arizona Cardinals and the Kansas
City Chiefs. Montana wanted to go to Kansas City because the Chiefs
were a far better team, yet the Cards' offer was more attractive than
that of the Chiefs (Kansas City wanted to deal only a third- round
pick for Montana). Policy held firm until the Chiefs finally offered
their first-round pick of the '93 draft for Montana (together with
Niner safety David Whitmore and San Francisco's third-round choice).
Using that Chief draft pick plus a combination of others over the
next two drafts, the 49ers obtained their defensive middle for years
to come -- Young and Stubblefield. Had Policy not held out for the
Chiefs' first pick, the Niners would probably never have gotten
Young, who was certain to be someone's top-10 pick. He was voted this
season's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The '94 draft also produced fullback William Floyd, the 28th
overall pick, who became a starter at midseason and rushed for four
touchdowns in the 49ers' two playoff wins, including a rookie-record
three against the Chicago Bears.
With the draft completed, Policy and the Niners focused on
obtaining players who would throw Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman off
his game and signed Richard Dent and Rickey Jackson, a couple of
veteran pass rushers with a season or two left.
Policy certainly benefits from the fact that players will often
make sacrifices in order to play for the 49ers. Jackson and
nickelback Toi Cook, for instance, signed with San Francisco for the
NFL minimum of $162,000 this season, spurning contracts from other
teams that would have paid them much more. Yet keeping any roster
together today requires shrewd business and football acumen. Policy
knows how far he can push a player before pulling the trigger on a
deal, and he knows that no NFL executive can afford to make
sentimental financial decisions -- for example, overpaying players in
deference to their past performances.
He also knows when he can call upon a player's emotional
attachment to the 49ers. San Francisco was snug against the cap in
September and could not afford to field a practice squad. Policy went
to wide receiver Jerry Rice and explained in detail the club's
finances so that Rice might appreciate the bind his team was in. Rice
handed over his $175,000 package of incentives, which covered about
60% of the necessary tab, and after running back Ricky Watters and
safety Tim McDonald chipped in another $90,000, the 49ers had their
practice squad -- including two young receivers who served to lessen
the practice wear and tear on Rice.
But Policy's masterstroke was yet to come: the wooing of Deion
Sanders. A free agent after five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons,
Sanders had long-term offers worth at least $3 million a year from
the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints, but he gave every
indication of wanting to join the 49ers. Policy kept telling
Sanders's agent, Eugene Parker, that the 49ers would not offer more
than a one-year, below-market contract. On Labor Day weekend, Policy
knew that Sanders would be in San Francisco to see a pal of his, rap
star Hammer. DeBartolo was scheduled to be in town for an NFL
function kicking off the league's 75th season. Policy called Parker
and suggested that he and Sanders show up at the event. They did and
caused quite a stir when they arrived.
''Who's that?'' DeBartolo said.
''It's Deion Sanders,'' Policy replied, ''and he must be here to
see you.''
DeBartolo and Sanders took an hour-long walk. When they returned,
DeBartolo said to Policy, ''I want him. Find a way to sign him.''
Policy got Sanders and Parker to accept the one-year deal, then
rewrote the contracts of three other San Francisco players, extending
each one by a year to postpone the cap liability. And Sanders was a
Some fancy dealing, to be sure, but does it not sound as if those
critics are on the mark when they accuse Policy of sacrificing
tomorrow for today? The 49ers have so much money tied up in deferred
contracts, whisper rival general | managers, that a spate of injuries
will ruin them for the future. And what about all that incentive
money the Niners owed to veterans when the team went all the way?
Policy has a ready answer for all of his detractors. Leaning
forward in his chair at a football-shaped table in the Niners'
conference room, he pushes an NFL salary sheet across the table, with
this number written at the bottom: $1,597,236. That is the amount,
says Policy, that the 49ers had to pay players in incentive money
after the Super Bowl win. Furthermore, the 49ers finished smack in
the middle of the league this season in total deferred payments.
That's hardly mortgaging the future.
Now that he has done so well in stabilizing the 49ers for the next
few years, Policy could well begin to hear his phone ring. You see,
he's available -- probably the only NFL club chief working without a
contract, a circumstance he recently revealed to SI. You could make a
killing, he was told. You could run somebody's front office for big
''No, thanks,'' he says. ''I like our style. Eddie demands
victories and won't accept anything less, and I like that competitive
aspect of the job. I want to be in a place that demands
championship-caliber excellence.''
The club is already plotting commando raids on the salary cap for
next season. ''If people in the NFL were mad at us this season, wait
till next year,'' says Plummer. He's right. The 49ers will try to
persuade Sanders to take less money than he could get on the open
market and sign a long-term contract with San Francisco. Policy's
mind is already working overtime on this legal brief.
''When we signed Deion,'' he says, ''we weren't ready to make a
commitment. Now we're ready to give him a ring. We're ready to walk
down the aisle with him.'' As much as the rest of the league hopes
that won't happen, it wouldn't be wise to bet against the 49ers and
Policy on this one.
Or on anything.