MIAMI -- At the start of the season, when Deion Sanders spurned a better offer from New Orleans to sign with the San Francisco 49ers, Saints owner Tom Benson thundered, "What kind of a Mickey Mouse organization do we have out there?"
The NFL now has the answer.
It has one that's going to play in the Super Bowl tomorrow.
One of the reasons the 49ers were able to do it is the creative way they were able to handle the salary cap -- in part using their winning reputation to lure players like Sanders for below their market value.
They were able to slash about $18 million from their payroll to get under the $34.6 million salary cap and still bring in such players as Sanders, Gary Plummer, Rickey Jackson, Toi Cook, Ken Norton Jr. and Richard Dent.
"I still don't know how we stayed competitive and trimmed the payroll," owner Eddie DeBartolo said. "That's not like taking a penknife to a budget. It's like taking a machete to a budget."
DeBartolo scoffs at suggestions that the 49ers mortgaged their future.
"We didn't sell our soul to the devil," he said. "We didn't sell the franchise down the river."
DeBartolo also said he has patched up the rift with Benson.
"Tom's a good man," he said. "I think he was just a little frustrated. Our relationship is fine. He's been a friend and we've done some business things over the years."
Being in the 49ers' division and going 3-11 against them in the past 14 meetings could contribute to that frustration.
It didn't help that when the 49ers beat the Saints, 24-13, at Candlestick Park in September, they couldn't resist gloating. They put Mickey Mouse hats in the owners' box and played the Mickey Mouse Club theme song when Deion Sanders wrapped up the victory by run ning 58 yards for a touchdown with an intercepted pass.
The Saints weren't the only team grumbling about the 49ers; they were just more vocal than most.
"I don't know that I want to call it professional jealousy," said Carmen Policy, DeBartolo's top aide. "I might call it professional frustration."
Actually, what the 49ers really did isn't as complicated as it appears to be.
To start with, before the salary cap went into effect on Dec. 23, 1993, they locked up most of the key players on their offense with contracts that counted for the 1993 season and weren't included in this year's cap figure.
Once the 49ers got their offense set, they decided to go out and a buy a defense.
The Cowboys had shredded them two years in a row in the NFC title game. No matter how many touchdown passes Steve Young threw to Jerry Rice, the 49ers knew they couldn't make it to the Super Bowl if they couldn't stop the Cowboys' offense.
The problem was finding the money to do it and stay under the cap.
That's where the creative accounting came into play. They restructured some contracts and turned base salary figures that counted for 1994 into signing bonuses that could be prorated in future years. And Rice gave up $170,000 in bonus money to help them stay under the cap when they signed Sanders.
Creative accounting can only go so far, though.
The real key for the 49ers was their ability to persuade players to come to play for them for less money than other teams were offering.
That's because players knew the 49ers offered a chance for veterans to get a Super Bowl ring, and they have a reputation for being a class organization. "I think I've always treated players like they were part of the family," DeBartolo said.
Besides paying the players well, the 49ers are noted for giving their players extra perks that they appreciate.
Safety Tim McDonald, who left the Arizona Cardinals for the 49ers a year ago, remembers his first road trip with the team.
"I thought somebody messed up," he said. "I got to my room, and there was only one bed. I thought I was in the wrong room. I thought every team had roommates on the road. I told the security guard there was a mistake."
Giving the players their own rooms on the road is a small thing, but it's one of the reasons players want to work for the 49ers.
Charles Mann, a former Redskin, pointed out how the team reacted when his father-in-law died recently.
"They were there immediately to get my plane reservations," Mann said. "I couldn't think straight, I was concerned about my wife. [They offered] to pick my daughter up at school, the guy handed me my tickets and parked my car. Those things may not mean a lot to somebody, but I needed them and they came through."
The 49ers' reputation for being so concerned about their players makes it easier for them to sign players for below-market value.
Sanders -- who turned down a four-year, $17 million offer from the Saints and signed for $1.134 million with the 49ers -- is the most notable example.
There are others.
Two former Saints, Jackson and Cook, signed for the $162,000 minimum with bonus clauses that could pay them up to $1 million, depending on playing time.
Jackson got the playing time and will make the $1 million. Cook is a reserve who said he'll probably make a "couple of hundred thousand" in bonus money, but he has no regrets about the move.
Cook said, "It's not like we took $162,000 to go play for the Rams or $162,000 go play for Cincinnati. We took it to be involved in one of the best organizations in sports. I think that says something for our intelligence."