Salary cap not slowing 49ers now but they could be hurting later

ON THE NFL

August 07, 1994|By VITO STELLINO

Salary cap?

What salary cap?

That seems to be the attitude of the San Francisco 49ers, who are operating this year as if it's business as usual.

Noted for their free-spending ways while winning four Super Bowls in the 1980s, the 49ers were supposed to be one of the teams hit hardest by the new $34.6 million salary cap.

Instead, it looks as if they're spending more than the rest of the teams.

"We've been accused by half the league already," owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. said last week. "Some are trying to find out how we're cheating."

It's not supposed to be possible to cheat under this system. Every dollar spent is tracked by the league.

The 49ers, though, are certainly creative. When Pro Bowl linebacker Rickey Jackson was released by the New Orleans Saints last week after he refused a $500,000 offer, the 49ers signed him.

They gave him the $162,000 minimum, but wrote in clauses that if he reached certain incentives and they win 11 games, he gets $500,000. If he reaches the incentives and they win 12 games, he gets $1 million.

The risk in all this is that the 49ers will have to count the money against their cap next year if Jackson hits the incentives this year. But the 49ers will worry about next year when it comes.

"I've said it before and will continue to say it," DeBartolo said. "We have the best organization in football. Teams that win and are [always] competitive have a certain aura about them. It helps the organizations such as ours to attract [top free agents]."

Of course, aura will get you only so far. Money is still what counts the most. The Washington Redskins learned that last year when they still had a Super Bowl aura but Reggie White spurned them for a better offer from the Green Bay Packers. A 4-12 disaster followed.

The 49ers, though, keep finding ways to come up with the money.

During the regular free-agent signing period, only 11 Pro Bowlers changed teams. The 49ers got three of them -- defensive lineman Richard Dent, linebacker Ken Norton and center Bart Oates. They added another valuable defensive player in linebacker Gary Plummer.

The 49ers are even talking about finding a way to sign Deion Sanders if there's a baseball strike, but that may be tough even for the 49ers' accountants to pull off.

One of their techniques is gambling their starters can stay healthy. They're not worried about depth, and they're not going to pay $900,000 or $1 million for a backup quarterback.

They dumped Steve Bono and they're spending $140,000 this season on second-year player Elvis Grbac. They're keeping their fingers crossed that Steve Young can stay healthy. Tom Rathman, Bill Romanowski and Guy McIntyre were among the others to depart.

All this could backfire if the 49ers get a couple of key injuries, but they're doing their best to stay on top despite the cap. Other teams will be watching closely to see if it works.

Going for three

With the Dallas Cowboys attempting to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls, there was a reminder last week of the potholes a team can hit on the way to that goal.

When the 49ers signed Roger Craig for one day so he could retire as a 49er, he talked about all the great times he had with the team.

"I was on three Super Bowl championship teams, and I was able to compete in 11 consecutive playoffs, but all of that doesn't compare to coming back to retire as a 49er. It's definitely a dream come true for me," he said.

Amid all that good cheer, it was inevitable that one subject came up -- his fumble in the 1990 NFC title game against the New York Giants when they were running out the clock with a 13-12 lead. The Giants recovered, Matt Bahr kicked a field goal and the 49ers were foiled in their bid for a third straight Super Bowl trip.

Craig mentioned he was still hurt that the play cost some of the younger 49ers a Super Bowl trip.

"It's one play," he quickly added. "One thousand other plays I had were outstanding."

But it took just one play to kill the team's shot at a third straight Super Bowl.

The team that had the chance before the 49ers was the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, who crushed the Baltimore Colts, 40-14, in their first-round playoff game that year.

During the game, Rocky Bleier injured his foot and then Joe Ehrmann fell on Franco Harris' ribs and bruised them. Neither played the next week in the 24-7 AFC title-game loss to the Oakland Raiders that ended the Steelers' Super Bowl run at two.

Even without Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys have to be favored to win it a third time. But they have to wonder if there's one play out there somewhere that will be destined to haunt them.

Setting goals

Jerome Bettis, the Los Angeles Rams' second-year running back, says he's going to become the third player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards this year.

He says that means if Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys plans to get a third straight rushing title, he's going to have to surpass 2,000 yards.

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