Some team is always trying to steal something from the San Francisco 49ers.
If it's not the West Coast offense, then it's their coaches, such as Ray Rhodes of the Philadelphia Eagles or Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos. Or their players (see Ricky Watters in Philadelphia).
Now it's how to work around the league's $37.1 million salary cap and still win a Super Bowl.
No one did it better than the 49ers a year ago. They were able to slash about $18 million from their payroll to get under the salary cap and sign players such as Deion Sanders, Gary Plummer, Rickey Jackson, Toi Cook, Ken Norton and Richard Dent way below their market value on the way to an unprecedented fifth title.
The rest of the league took notice.
"It's called the mercenary attitude," said Bill Tobin, director of football operations for the Indianapolis Colts. "It's the new wave, part of the the future-is-now mode. Players get what they can now and move on to other teams. Poor teams can get better quickly, but good teams also get worse."
But not that quickly.
The Dallas Cowboys and 49ers still are the favorites, and the most crucial date is Nov. 12, when San Francisco goes to Dallas, with the winner probably getting home-field advantage in the NFC title game Jan. 14.
"I think Dallas and the 49ers are the favorites, but they have moved back to the pack a little. There are some other teams that will contend," said Floyd Reese, the Houston Oilers' general manager.
"Personally, I think the draft is still the way to build a team, but the 49ers certainly opened up some interesting theories."
Ten years ago, most GMs would have agreed that the draft was the answer. Then came the salary cap, which went into effect Dec. 23, 1993.
"The 49ers didn't want to wait four years to rebuild," said Ernie Accorsi, assistant general manager for the New York Giants. "They went into that off-season knowing they were only four or five players away from beating the Dallas Cowboys and winning a Super Bowl, and they got them."
"They put their skin on the wall and worried about the future later," he added. "The bottom line is that we're not in the business to win 11 games a year, but championships. And we're supposed to win them now."
The quick-fix approach made for an interesting off-season.
Running back/kick returner David Meggett left the New York Giants for the New England Patriots. Multipurpose back Herschel Walker departed Philadelphia for the Giants. Former Atlanta wide receiver Andre Rison is now in Cleveland, and Cowboys defensive end Jim Jeffcoat headed north to the Buffalo Bills.
Ray Donaldson, James Washington, Stanley Richard, Darryl Talley and Bryce Paup were among others who found new homes. You need rosters and a map to chart all the moves.
The biggest gambler on the free-agent market was Miami, which spent more than $11 million in signing bonuses to bring in tight end Eric Green, receivers Gary Clark, Randal Hill and Ricky Sanders and defensive linemen Steve Emtman and Trace Armstrong.
The moves could put Miami in the class with Dallas and San Francisco, and almost certainly ahead of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New England and Oakland in the AFC. The 49ers have the best offense, Dallas has the best defense and Miami has the most depth.
Or the signings could backfire on the Dolphins. Sanders and Clark might be past their prime, Emtman has a history of knee injuries and Green one of substance-abuse and discipline problems.
"It's a chance you take," said Reese. "Do you have two or three superstars on a team and surround them with average players, or do you have a lot of good players and surround them with below-average players? And when are players past their prime? There are more avenues now than ever to explore."
The draft is one. The 49ers and Cowboys have been two of the best drafting teams in the past decade, and they still are surviving on some of their picks. The 49ers recently have selected some outstanding young talent in defensive linemen Byrant Young, Dana Stubblefield and fullback William Floyd. They also took receiver J. J. Stokes with the 10th pick this year and signed Alfred Williams as a pass rusher to push Jackson. Williams turned down $2.5 million from Cincinnati to take $250,000 plus incentives from the 49ers.
But even with stellar drafts, there's still a high player turnover rate. The 49ers lost Watters, running back Dexter Carter, defensive tackle Rhett Hall and safety Dana Hall from a year ago, in addition to Rhodes (defensive coordinator) and Shanahan (offensive coordinator).
But with quarterback Steve Young and Jerry Rice, the only real problem is at running back, where Derek Loville, Ricky Ervins and Adam Walker will battle for the starting position.
"We've had more change following this Super Bowl than we've ever had," said 49ers coach George Seifert. "It's not something you just get used to overnight."
The Cowboys are still adjusting. Three years ago, Dallas was the deepest team in pro football. A near dynasty has been torn apart.
Startering center Mark Stepnoski (Oilers), Washington (Redskins), wide receiver Alvin Harper (Buccaneers) and Jeffcoat were free agents who rolled out this off-season. Norton, a linebacker, and offensive linemen Kevin Gogan and John Gesek left the year before.
Dallas' biggest problem will be protecting quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith. Offensive tackle Erik Williams has come back more quickly than expected from last season's knee injury, but his effectiveness still is a question. Guard Nate Newton and tackle Mark Tuinei are aging, and Donaldson, who will replace Stepnoski at center, is 37.
"It was easy to sit here a couple of years ago, surrounded by so much talent, and think we were going to be a great team for a long, long time," said Aikman. "But the game has totally changed on us, and it has changed us."
Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson said: "In this era of free agency, who knows if you will ever see a dynasty again? Free-agency has forced us to handle rookies like they are still in college."
Since the maximum contract is for four years, more teams are keeping most of their draft picks. The Cowboys kept 10 this season.
"Before, you had five or six years to develop players," said Peterson. "Now you have four, and if you're fortunate, they start the final two years. By the end of the fourth year, the great players are seeking the highest offer elsewhere."
"Scouting has to be as efficient as ever because you don't want to become a training ground for other teams," said Peterson. "It's all a game inside a game."
The next great sweepstakes is for Sanders. The free-agent cornerback, now playing baseball for the San Francisco Giants, is being lured by the Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Eagles and Dolphins, along with the 49ers.
Sanders was last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the 49ers.
"When I was with the Bears, we built that Super Bowl team through the draft and modeled ourselves after the old Steelers, Cowboys and 49ers before us," said Tobin. "I thought that was a better way. It developed tradition, and we had players like Dan Hampton and Walter Payton, players who the fans could identify with.
"Now we're into a new wave, trying to find a shortcut to the championship."