49ers try to avoid half-baked turnover

July 23, 1991|By Vito Stellino

Nineteen years ago, Joe Thomas created a firestorm of controversy when he fired Don McCafferty as coach of the Baltimore Colts five games into the 1972 season and ordered the benching of quarterback John Unitas.

The benching of Unitas and his exile to the San Diego Chargers after the season -- one of 13 trades Thomas made in 1973 that tore apart an old team that had won the Super Bowl two years earlier -- obscured the fact that as a new general manager, Thomas quickly rebuilt the Colts into a team that made the playoffs for three straight years from 1975-77.

Even now, almost two decades later and more than eight years after his death, Thomas is remembered more in Baltimore for benching Unitas than rebuilding the team into a playoff contender.

It's a wrenching experience when a team decides a star player no longer fits in -- even though the player thinks he can still do it.

This season, it's the San Francisco 49ers' turn to make a big change. The club put defensive back Ronnie Lott and running back Roger Craig on the Plan B list in February, and they signed with the Los Angeles Raiders.

The 49ers, the team of the 1980s, are trying to do what the team of the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers, and the team of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers, couldn't do: stay on top for a second decade.

It's a delicate balancing act, to phase out old veterans at the proper time: not letting them hang on too long and yet not getting rid of them too soon.

Because Lott and Craig were among the 49ers' four high-profile players (Joe Montana and Jerry Rice are the other two), the decisions haven't been popular among the fans in San Francisco.

Even so, George Young, the general manager of the Giants, who was the player personnel director of the Colts in 1972, said he thinks the 49ers are doing the right thing.

"I think they're making good, gutsy moves," Young said. "They've shown a lot of intestinal fortitude. You've got to put the legends in the Hall of Fame and move on. This isn't like college, where the players move on every four years. The name on the back of the jersey may be the same, but the man in the jersey isn't the same."

Actually, the 49ers have been diligent in bringing in young players. Last year's team only had five players left from their first Super Bowl team in 1981 -- Montana, Lott, Keena Turner, Mike Wilson and Eric Wright.

When Lott left and they didn't offer contracts to Turner, Wilson and Wright, Montana was left as the only player on the team with four Super Bowl rings.

But the departures of Lott and Craig have been the most controversial, and it hasn't helped that Craig was outspoken in his criticism of the 49ers.

"If I had stayed in San Francisco, there would have been a sour taste in my mouth, after being put on Plan B and being asked to take a pay cut," Craig said. "There was poor communication. . . . Asking me to cut my salary in half was like asking me to cut my heart in half. I felt it was personal, because there was no way they didn't have the money to keep me."

The 49ers were quick to point out that they didn't ship out either player. They left on their own when they weren't protected.

"I don't think the decision to leave players unprotected is saying you don't want to have them on the club," coach George Seifert said.

Young noted the Giants have left Ottis Anderson unprotected for three straight years, but he's back in training camp.

Some observers say the 49ers aren't unhappy that Lott and Craig left.

"Neither of those guys can play anymore," said Randy Cross, a former teammate. "I honestly don't know what [Raiders owners] Al Davis is thinking of.

"Ronnie will be lucky to play 12 games and 65 percent of the plays in them. In the last few years, he's had to play deeper and guess more. That puts a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks."

Matt Millen, who left the 49ers for the Washington Redskins because he wanted to be closer to his Pennsylvania home, said the Craig and Lott situations are different.

"Roger left for the wrong reasons. Roger left because he was pampered . . . and he got his feelings hurt [by being on Plan B]," Millen said. "Ronnie left because it was time to move on."

Good football decisions still can hurt a team if the damage to morale is too great.

Ernie Accorsi, the executive vice president/football operations for the Cleveland Browns who was the publicity director for the Colts during the bloodletting of 1972, said it's always difficult when a player doesn't want to retire.

"There are bad feelings, and it affects the rest of the team because the guys have friends and are looked up to," he said.

Accorsi said much depends on how the 49ers perform in the next year or two.

"If they slip, there'll be more of an uproar," he said.

On the other hand, keeping the veterans past their prime isn't an answer, either.

The Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in a six-year span in the 1970s with virtually the same nucleus, collapsed in the 1980s when the team grew old all at once.

Even though Young was the target of much criticism last week when he cut veteran tight end Mark Bavaro, he still thinks there is compassion in the business.

"This isn't a cold business," Young said. "It isn't as cold as real business. We keep people in our business when they're no longer producing."

The 49ers may face an even more traumatic situation in the near future. Montana is 35 and coming back from a broken hand. The 49ers kept Steve Young around as his backup by giving him a contract for more than $2 million a year. That's an indication they expect him to play fairly soon even though Montana shows no signs of wanting to retire.

How long do they stick with him if he starts showing signs of slowing down?

For the 49ers, the controversies may be just beginning.

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