If you consider the San Francisco 49ers a dynasty—and I do—then it's time to look at the historical question of why dynasties end. The Packers, the dynasty of the 1930s, were supplanted by the younger and tougher Bears, who ruled until World War II put all dynasties on hold. The Browns towered over the '50s and early '60s. They declined just a bit, making room for the kings of the rest of that decade, the Pack. Green Bay was allowed to get old, which is what happened to the Steelers, the rulers of the '70s, and to the Cowboys, who maintained a standard of excellence from the mid-'60s through the mid-'80s.
Now we come to San Francisco. Dallas unseated the Niners for a couple of years, but they're back, ready to stake a claim on their second straight decade. "We've been through probably four transformations, without noticeably falling off," says quarterback Steve Young. "It's amazing for an organization to fight through something like that and forestall what could have been inevitable."
Says wideout Jerry Rice of his 49er bosses, "They do little things in smart ways. They drafted [wideout] J.J. Stokes to replace John Taylor, but they still kept John around, just in case. Now J.J.'s hurt with a broken hand, but they're not stuck. Seems like they always do the right thing."
Is there a risk of complacency? "It's inevitable, and, yes, I've seen moments," says coach George Seifert. "I want to react to it, but I don't want to overreact, either. Sometimes you just work your way through it."
"Complacency? With these guys? Are you kidding?" says Pete Carroll, the new defensive coordinator, who coached the Jets last year. "Do you know how many special characters there are on this roster, how many leaders? Rice, Young, [tight end] Brent Jones, [safety] Tim McDonald, [tackle] Harris Barton. I just saw [center] Bart Oates in the weight room, pumping iron two days after he'd torn ligaments in his elbow. These are special people."
The Niners are showing some age, but only on one side of the ball. Eight offensive starters are 30 or older, and Taylor has indeed lost a step, but you don't see senior citizens like Young, Rice, Jones and left guard Jesse Sapolu slowing down. The defense is young, with only three first-stringers who have reached 30. The best players are free safety Merton Hanks, 27, and tackles Bryant Young, 23, and Dana Stubblefield, 24.
Two seldom-used holdovers from last season, Derek Loville and Adam Walker, will carry the load at running back if William Floyd is not 100% when he returns from a knee injury this Sunday. But during the exhibition season the varsity offense didn't look much different from last year's machine. The new offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, had been out of football for three years. He prepared for the job by watching reels of what he calls installation tapes—"tapes of each coach installing the offense in practice, going back to the Bill Walsh days." What Trestman learned was: Don't mess with things, at least not right away.
Which should be good enough to keep the Niners near the top.
In the years when they were good, the New Orleans Saints ran the ball well, played stiff defense and tortured their fans with a passing game out of the Stone Age. Lately they've been mediocre; they can throw the ball, but they can't run or play tough defense. So what's it going to be, fellas? How are you going to challenge San Francisco with a defense that gave up almost 350 yards a game last year and that ranked third from last against the pass with an NFL-high (tied with the Broncos) 28 touchdowns surrendered through the air?
With speed, the Saints would respond, and with quickness, a new defensive scheme, new coaches and a handful of new players—although not as many as they need. Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Allen, a veteran of seven years with the Eagles, cost owner Tom Benson a bundle, but he'll draw the MDR assignment—Most Dangerous Receivers. In other words, he'll be on Jerry Rice wherever Rice lines up. Rufus Porter, a former Seahawk who once ranked among the league's most feared pass rushers, will man the strong outside linebacker spot, and No. 1 draft pick Mark Fields eventually will step in on the weak side. The team's best defensive player, Wayne Martin, a fine end the last few years, moves to tackle in the new 4-3 scheme.