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Super Bowl 47: San Francisco 49ers look to build on DeBartolo's dynasty

For more than three decades, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the weakest NFL franchises. Then five Super Bowl titles in a 14-year span established them as a powerhouse.

Legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.
Legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.

In 1977, the San Francisco 49ers became yet another property among the vast holdings of the DeBartolo family from the US state of Ohio. As owners and developers of shopping malls, racetracks, office buildings and other sports franchises, the DeBartolos could match bank accounts with the wealthiest Americans.

Officially, the NFL team was purchased by Edward Jr, at the precocious age of 30. The media portrayed the acquisition as a rich kid being presented an expensive toy.

In their inglorious history dating to 1946, the 49ers had won three play-off games, never experiencing a league championship game, and Mr D, as Edward Jr became known, decided more mediocrity was not part of his plan for the club.

He cycled through three coaches during the first two seasons, which produced just seven wins. The next hire was Bill Walsh, soft-spoken and erudite, regarded as somewhat of an intellectual in a profession populated by gruff, hard men.

A sample sound bite, spoken in a professorial tone, that he shared with the San Francisco Chronicle: "If I have any talent, it's in the artistic end of football. The variation of movement of 11 players and the orchestration of that facet of football is beautiful to me."

As an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals, in the 1970s, Walsh had broken free from the belief that ball control could be exercised only with a rushing attack.

Walsh crafted an approach involving quick passes to receivers running mostly short, often unpredictable routes. Five yards here, eight yards there - bigger gains than the typical running play, and almost as safe.

It was labelled the West Coast offence, a precursor to the aerial show that is pervasive today.

At the same time, DeBartolo appointed John McVay to oversee football operations. Before his first NFL draft, McVay contacted an acquaintance at Notre Dame for a recommendation on a quarterback who played at the university, a quarterback whose arm strength was deemed subpar and who was still available when the 49ers selected Joe Montana with the 82nd pick.

Montana's brains and leadership more than made up for his modest arm strength, and he was a perfect fit for the system Walsh had installed.

By his third pro year, second as a starter, Montana had delivered San Francisco to their first Super Bowl. The finishing touch en route was a play so dramatic that, more than three decades later, it is identified simply as The Catch.

Trailing Dallas by six points with less than a minute on the clock, a back-pedalling Montana eluded three Cowboys and flung a laser toward the back of the end zone in the vicinity of Dwight Clark. The ball seemed too high for retrieval until the tall Clark soared and snagged it with his fingertips for the winning touchdown.

In contrast to the supposed finesse offence, the 49ers defence was rough-and-tumble, as might be expected with a linebacker, Jack Reynolds, nicknamed "Hacksaw". One eventual Hall of Famer, the rookie safety Ronnie Lott, later famously had the tip of one finger amputated so he would not have to miss any games while waiting for it to heal. A future Hall of Famer, Fred Dean, was himself a pioneer of sorts as an undersized end with freakish athleticism who became a pass-rush specialist.

That season, a weekly prime time soap opera launched a successful nine-year run on American television. It was called Dynasty. Football fans now might assume it was a precursor to contemporary reality shows, chronicling the 49ers and their boldly unorthodox ways that included an oft-changing roster, especially lively practices and risk-taking with the draft. (Rampant second-guessing was invited in 1985 with the first-round selection from an obscure college. Jerry Rice is now considered the greatest pass catcher in NFL history.)

As the farewell episode of Dynasty was airing, in 1989, the 49ers were in the midst of their fourth title season. They had won a Super Bowl with ease, 38-16 over Miami, and twice in tight circumstances - 26-21 and 20-16 over Walsh's former team, the Bengals.

Walsh had moved on that year, handing off to George Seifert. But the 49ers system was firmly in place. They mauled Denver 55-10.

With a win (49-26 over San Diego) nearly as emphatic five seasons later, San Francisco became the only multiple Super Bowl champion without a loss. A victory Sunday against Baltimore would be their sixth, equalling Pittsburgh for the most Super Bowl wins.

Money alone cannot buy titles, but it provides a nice down-payment. DeBartolo's generosity - not just at the negotiating table - made for happy, appreciative employees.

Under Mr D's watch, the 49ers sometimes had the league's highest payroll. He renewed Montana's contract in 1984 for an average of more than US$1 million (Dh3.67m) per season, a massive deal for those days.

They were the first squad to fly on spacious charter jets to away games. Players received expensive watches as gifts. One Super Bowl team was rewarded with a week-long vacation in Hawaii, expenses paid. "He gave the players what they wanted, and they gave him what he needed," the former San Francisco defensive lineman Dwaine Board told Sports Illustrated.

A giving spirit was not confined to players. Their spouses who just gave birth could expect a bouquet of flowers the size of a nose tackle in the hospital room. At Christmas, the women received gift certificates from an upscale store.

DeBartolo's largesse went overboard at times. In 1987, he dangled bonuses of $10,000 in front of the 49ers for winning the NFC's West division, a breach of league rules. Mr D was assessed a five-figure fine. Players showed their gratitude in a manner unimaginable now, chipping in money to pay a multimillionaire's $50,000 penalty.

A decade later, the club was caught exceeding the NFL salary cap with contracts to core players, leading to a $900,000 fine.

The 1990s generated only one Super Bowl trophy, but excellence was sustained. With Siefert and the quarterback Steve Young leading the way, not a single season passed without at least 10 victories.

Coincidence or not, a fallow period began near the turn of the century when DeBartolo was undone by a scandal pertaining to riverboat casinos in Louisiana.

Suspended by the NFL for a year, he turned over ownership to his sister. As the penalty expired, the siblings were engaged in a bitter feud. She wrested permanent control of the team, and in 2003, the 49ers plunged into a swoon that resulted in eight consecutive losing records.

Then, in a scenario eerily similar to the launch of the dynasty, the 49ers fetched new coach Jim Harbaugh from the same Bay Area university programme, Stanford, that had employed Walsh. The team's young owner? Jed York, who was 29 then, a year younger than when Uncle Edward took over the team.

Harbaugh instilled toughness on defence and shaped a ground-orientated offence that was counter to the league norms. Looking back, he might have been protecting the limited quarterback Alex Smith until someone better came along.

Someone did. The midseason replacement Colin Kaepernick, a threat to run as well as pass, has so broadened the offence that San Francisco is widely expected to make it an even half-dozen rings against the Ravens.

The consensus includes DeBartolo, who told the Associated Press last week, "I don't think there's any question they're going to go and win the Super Bowl."

49ers' Super Bowl History

The 49ers are 5-0 in the Super Bowl. How they won each game:

XVI, 1981 season San Francisco 26, Cincinnati 21: The 49ers offence was unspectacular but efficient enough to amass four field goals. Several members of the defence, who generated five sacks and four turnovers while throttling the Bengals offence, would have been more deserving of the MVP award than its recipient, Joe Montana.

XIX, 1984 season San Francisco 38, Miami 16: Bill Walsh and Montana were the undisputed winners over Don Shula and Dan Marino of a classic match-up of coaches and quarterbacks. Montana threw for four touchdowns and Walsh’s five-man secondary stifled Marino, whose 50 passes produced one touchdown. The 49ers piled up 539 yards without a turnover.

XXIII, 1988 season San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16: Offensively, it was a dazzling duet, Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice. Each set yardage records for their position. Montana’s TD strike to John Taylor with a half-minute left, topping off a 92-yard drive, countered a Bengals TD three minutes earlier.

XXIV, 1989 season San Francisco 55, Denver 10: Unlike the previous year, the 49ers sucked out any suspense from this game early with a 27-3 half-time lead. Montana threw a record five touchdowns, three to Rice. The Broncos were outgained by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. John Elway was picked off twice and sacked six times.

XXIX, 1994 season San Francisco 49, San Diego 26: The highest-scoring Super Bowl was highlighted by Steve Young’s unprecedented six TD passes, Rice catching three and Ricky Watters two. The dynamic cornerback Deion Sanders helped keep the Chargers’ passing game quiet.

 

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