LOS ANGELES -- Seeing as how 48-point title game losses tend to get your attention, the Los Angeles Raiders took a deep breath and perhaps a giant step forward yesterday when they signed free-agent safety Ronnie Lott, who gave the San Francisco 49ers the best years of his life and, more courageously, the tip of his left pinky.
Lott was the heart of the 49ers' secondary for 10 seasons, during which time he was named to the Pro Bowl nine times while helping his team to four Super Bowl championships. But he was left unprotected as a Plan B free agent because of his age, 31, two aching knees that forced him to miss the last four regular-season games of 1990, and a toll-taking decade of ferocious hits.
Lott was willing to return to his former team at a reduced salary, an incongruous thought for a future Hall of Famer, but San Francisco was not willing to commit to Lott beyond next season.
So, up stepped the Raiders, who pried Lott away from the 49ers and the competing Minnesota Vikings with the promise of a two-year deal reportedly worth about $2.2 million.
The money isn't guaranteed, but neither is Lott, who arrives in Los Angeles carrying either the key to paradise or some considerable baggage.
To prove his knees were fine, Lott elected to play in last month's Pro Bowl when rest seemed the more sensible option. The 49ers exposed him to Plan B two days earlier, so Lott was looking for a tryout.
"I think that was the main reason I had to play in the Pro Bowl," Lott said. "I think a lot of people at that time had some disbeliefs that my knees were less than 100 percent. But I think by the hit I made in the Pro Bowl, things I did in the game, I wanted to show people I could still play this game."
The Raiders, of course, have honed a reputation for squeezing fruitful seasons from the discards of others. They used Plan B in 1988 to rescue nose tackle Bob Golic from the Cleveland Browns, then returned to the market last year and lured All-Pro guard Max Montoya away from his Mexican restaurant and the Bengals in Cincinnati. Both moves proved instrumental in raising the team from a mid-decade malaise.
Lott already is talking about playing beyond the length of his contract.
"You never know," he said. "I'm going to play for as long as I can."
Lott is a calculated gamble. If he's anywhere near the player he once was, this is grand larceny that doesn't require the Raiders to relinquish players or draft picks. If he's through, the Raiders are looking at a marquee mistake the magnitude of the Los Angeles Rams and Curt Warner.
The Raiders aren't claiming to have the Lott of yesteryear.
"You can't do the things you did at 20 years old when you're 30," coach Art Shell said. "I don't know how much speed he's lost. I don't see as much speed lost as a lot of other people are saying."
The Raiders are, however, planning to move Lott from free to strong safety, which will afford him less open-field roaming and more hitting.
Paired with head-on Eddie Anderson in the secondary, he will be daring opposing receivers to run routes over the middle.
Shell coached the American Football Conference squad in the Pro Bowl and made an up-close inspection of Lott.
"We came away satisfied that his knees were not a big problem, that he could still play the game, and still help the team," he said.
Lott does not leave the 49ers without misgivings or memories.
"It was a difficult decision because you don't play the game for money," he said. "It's difficult when you have relationships you've created with coaching staff, and relationships created with players."
Lott had dinner last Thursday night with San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana. Montana told Lott to do what's best for him.
Lott said he understands the 49ers' reasons for leaving him unprotected.
"I think they did the right thing," he said. "By no means was I surprised by their moves or upset by their moves. They've been a first-class organization, and will continue to be a first-class organization."