"It's a terrible thing to do, and I'd hate to have been [former coach] Bill Walsh or to be [general manager] John McVay," says DeBartolo. "But you've got to turn your team over. You've got to stay young. And we haven't let this team grow old."
The Niners are only the 19th-youngest team in the NFL—their 47 players average 27.02 years—but their 22 starters are younger than those of the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints, Redskins and Los Angeles Rams. With the exception of Montana, the first-team offense has no one left from the '81 championship team. Yet the 49ers still have one of the most dangerous attacks in the game.
Among the starters on defense, only Lott remains from the '81 team; still, San Francisco has the league's fourth-rated defense. "Youth has always had its place here," says Keena Turner, a 10-year vet who now splits time at outside linebacker with Bill Romanowski. "It's not like a Pittsburgh Steeler team that was the same for eight or 10 years."
Now the 49ers are 3-0 with only five away games left. One of Walsh's enduring lessons was how to win on the road, and the Niners haven't forgotten it: They are 17-2 for their last 19 road games, with the two losses coming by a point each. Since '81, they have been a .650 home team and a .770 road team (page 82).
Talent, conditioning and attitude have obviously contributed to San Francisco's prowess on the road, but so has the way they travel, which is absolutely luxurious. The team usually flies on widebody jets; most players have two or three seats to themselves to stretch out. Each player receives the equivalent of three first-class meals on cross-country flights. Once on the ground, about 30 of the 45 active players get single rooms; some other NFL teams double up every player. "There is a certain specialness to how we travel," says Seifert, who was the Niners' defensive coordinator before he took over for Walsh. "It's conducive to winning."
Can San Francisco continue playing like this all year? "A minitradition has been established," said Seifert on Saturday. "We have to follow. It's what's expected of us."
"We're starting to remind me of 1984," said safety Jeff Fuller after Sunday's game, recalling the championship season in which the 49ers finished 18-1. "Every game we go into, I can't imagine us losing."