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."