The earth moved, roadways collapsed, flames filled the evening sky—and the San Francisco 49ers calmly went about their business, impervious to the chaos. The October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rattled the Bay Area, yet the 49ers never skipped a beat, much less a day of practice. The team went 14-2 in that regular season, then outscored three playoff opponents by a combined 126-26 to take home its fourth Super Bowl crown of the decade. Throughout much of the '90s, while other NFL powers crashed and burned, the Niners remained a pillar of stability and strength.
Remember them fondly. On Sunday, 10 years to the day after the Loma Prieta quake, the many cracks in the 49ers' foundation became painfully obvious to the 68,151 fans at 3Com Park. San Francisco's 31-29 loss to the talent-poor Carolina Panthers and their coach, George Seifert, the man who guided the Niners to their '89 and '94 Super Bowl triumphs, dropped the home team to 3-3 and served its proudest player a harsh helping of mortality. "People say we're not the team we used to be, and I agree with that," says wideout Jerry Rice. "But we've got players with a lot of pride, and if there's a way to rise to the occasion, we'll find it."
Perhaps, but the first-class franchise that former coach Bill Walsh and former owner Eddie DeBartolo built is more likely headed for a fall. In the past three seasons the organization has endured a nasty DeBartolo family feud, a front-office overhaul, a coaching change and a rash of career-threatening injuries to star players. What may turn out to be the knockout blow came during a Sept. 27 road victory over the Arizona Cardinals, when quarterback Steve Young, after being hit by Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams and colliding with 49ers tackle Dave Fiore, slumped unconscious to the Sun Devil Stadium grass.
Barring a stunning turn of events, that Monday-night nap will serve as the final snapshot of Young's spectacular 15-year career. Young, 38, has experienced post-concussion symptoms, and team officials expect him to retire soon. If he does not, says one 49ers executive, "we'll make the decision for him. If we put him back out there and he got hit in the head again, we couldn't live with ourselves."
Young's isn't the only head that aches inside the Niners' castle. Consider coach Steve Mariucci, who, upon being hired to replace Seifert following the 1996 season, assumed he was sliding into the sweetest gig in sports. Sure, and running Pakistan is a plum job. Since Mariucci's arrival, every other key decision-maker on the team, including DeBartolo and his former friend and club president, Carmen Policy, has departed. Also, four franchise-caliber players have suffered serious injuries: Young, Rice, defensive tackle Bryant Young and halfback Garrison Hearst.
The energetic, upbeat Mariucci has handled it all with aplomb. His record is 30-12, and before Sunday, San Francisco's only home defeat during his tenure had come against Green Bay in the 1997 NFC Championship Game. But when Young went down just before halftime against Arizona, Mariucci must have wished he were back in Berkeley, trying to coax a winning season out of Cal. "The locker room cleared out just before the third quarter started, and Steve and I were left alone in the training room," Mariucci recalled last Friday. "He was all revved up, saying, 'Put me in. I'm all right!' I looked him in the eye and said, 'Steve, I love you too much to put you back in.' Then he took a towel and pushed his face into it as he made this horrible groan."
Mariucci stopped to collect himself. He was teary-eyed. "I remember when Carmen offered me the job," he continued. "He said, 'Steve, you're in for the ride of your life.' Boy, he wasn't kidding."
If anyone can relate to the speed bumps in Mariucci's path it's Seifert, who ran up the highest winning percentage in league history after succeeding Walsh in 1989. Though he was nudged out of San Francisco seven years later, he remains a fan of both the Niners (his hometown team) and Mariucci. When asked on Friday to account for San Francisco's unprecedented staying power, the cerebral Seifert, who was an assistant to Walsh from '79 to '88, invoked an analogy offered by his wife, Linda, who compares the franchise to sourdough bread. "She suggests that they have the starter dough," the coach said. "The nucleus was there in the beginning—Bill, Eddie, John McVay, Carmen, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott—and even though they've constantly mixed in new people, there have always been enough of the original leaders to see that the tradition is passed on."
Just as Seifert inherited a mess when he took the Panthers' job last January, Walsh, who became the Niners' general manager the same month, and McVay, who returned as director of football operations, faced onerous cleanup chores as a result of the future-be-damned philosophy of the DeBartolo-Policy regime. The Niners were $28 million over the salary cap, and they had no '99 second-round draft pick thanks to the disastrous 1998 trade for washout offensive tackle Jamie Brown. There had been other dubious decisions, too, including the drafting of defensive end Israel Ifeanyi as the top pick in '96 and the first-round selection in '97 of quarterback Jim Drucken-miller. Both have since left.
Walsh, who had been hired as a consultant by the Niners in '97 to help identify a successor to Young, had recommended drafting Jake Plummer, but he was overruled by Policy, and Plummer went to Arizona in the second round. Walsh's shrewdest acquisition this past off-season was mobile quarterback Jeff Garcia, a Canadian Football League standout who drew interest from virtually no other NFL team. Garcia completed just 22 of 45 passes against the Panthers, but he moved the offense consistently for the third consecutive week, and he'll get a long audition as the air-it-out apparent to Montana and Young.