For 49ers, only NFC championship will do


SAN FRANCISCO -- They'd better win. For Steve Young's sake. For George Seifert's. And for the sake of all those free agents they squeezed under the salary cap, too.

The San Francisco 49ers risked their future for one game, this game, no excuses, no tomorrows. And now, judgment day is upon them.

"How the 49ers Beat the Salary Cap" -- that was the headline in last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine. It will mean nothing, unless tomorrow's headline reads, "49ers beat Cowboys."

The 49ers are the NFL's perfect children -- the smartest, the coolest, the most athletic. And, as their front-office parents would tell you, perfect children can do no wrong.

They'd better win, all right -- at home, with Young peaking, and Emmitt Smith hobbling. They'd better win, because owner Eddie DeBartolo and Co. planned for nothing else.

The Cowboys are trying to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls, and they're an afterthought in this game, eight-point underdogs.

All of the pressure is on the 49ers. They spent an entire year building toward this moment. And if today is a disaster, they might spend years trying to recover from it.

Would Young? San Francisco would forget his two MVP awards and four straight passing titles -- and never forgive his three straight losses to Dallas in NFC title games.

Would Seifert? He might be the first coach in history fired with an 82-24 record. It sounds crazy, but someone must be held responsible. Perfect children don't fail.

Would the franchise? No team in sports is so cavalier about its future. The 49ers' philosophy is win now, worry later. The amazing thing is, they get away with it.

This season, they put together the best team money can buy. That they did it under a salary cap is testament to their genius.

All those incentive clauses, deferred payments and prorated signing bonuses will count against the cap eventually, but the 49ers will worry about it when they get there.

Some in the NFL believe they're gambling that the next collective-bargaining agreement won't even include a cap. That's certainly a novel approach, seeing as how every pro sport wants one.

Whatever, the 49ers renegotiated contracts that deferred payments until after the current agreement expires in 1999. Dallas owner Jerry Jones, for one, thinks they've mortgaged the future.

Perhaps, but no one thought the 49ers would cut their payroll from $58.6 million to the $34.6 million cap without major consequences, and look what happened.

"Even though the Cowboys have won two straight, they're the nouveau riche," New York Giants assistant GM Ernie Accorsi said. "Everyone looks at the Niners like they're the Yankees.

"It's going to catch up with 'em. They've drafted late, and when the quarterback [Young] and receiver [Jerry Rice] go, they're not going to plug in the same kind of players.

"But it's almost like that [Boston] Celtic continuity. It overcomes personnel. The front office makes all the right moves. The coach succeeded in replacing a legend -- and that never happens.

"They've got confidence in their system. That's almost more important than the players at this point. They've built this aura."

It started with Bill Walsh. The system he devised was so strong, it can absorb major shocks -- a new coach, a new quarterback, six new starters on defense this season -- with little or no drop-off.

The 49ers do everything right, whether it's paying top dollar for coaches, sending players' families on Hawaiian vacations or signing their top skill people to long-term contracts.

Heck, for all the talk of free agents, they landed four starters in last year's draft -- defensive tackle Bryant Young, fullback William Floyd, linebacker Lee Woodall and kicker Doug Brien.

That's as many starters as they selected in the 1988 to '92 drafts combined. The 49ers annually must contend with poor draft position. But now, they're overcoming that obstacle, as well.

Defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. The 49ers thought Bryant Young deserved the award this season. Those were their past two No. 1 picks.

They want the best, they expect the best -- and those who can no longer contribute are pushed aside. Ask Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, even Joe Montana. New perfect children are born every day.

Today, Young must prove a worthy successor to Montana, and Seifert a worthy successor to Walsh. Judgment day is upon them, and the front office planned for everything.

Everything, that is, but defeat.

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