Recently, San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. sent a rocking chair to the home of his finest defensive end, Fred Dean.
Dean, 32, is perhaps the most feared pass rusher in professional football and recorded 17 1/2 quarterback sacks last year. But because nearly 20 members of the 49ers had their contracts upgraded or renegotiated in the offseason, Dean wanted his redone, too.
Dean asked for the equivalent of $800,000 for this season, according to his agent. The 49ers, who have Dean under contract for $250,000 this year and $275,000 in his option year of 1985, said no, offering a reported $925,000 for two years. No compromise reached, Dean is a holdout, fishing near his home in San Diego while his teammates prepare to play the Redskins here Monday night.
Despite that problem, the 49ers still are considered one of the finest teams in the National Football Conference, a Super Bowl contender with a potent offense that very nearly rallied to beat the Redskins in the NFC championship game last season.
But the 49ers are paying for their success. Accord hasn't been reached, Dean's agent said, because Dean has seen that there's still gold in them thar 49er hills: quarterback Joe Montana recently received a six-year $6.9 million contract and is now known to teammates as "Steve Austin." Montana said, "(Receiver) Freddie Solomon even calls my girlfriend Jamie."
Cornerback Ronnie Lott recently was a contract holdout, threatening to go to the U.S. Football League, but returned to a four-year, $2.2 million deal. He's called "Lott-a-money" by teammates. Lott said, "Some guys ask me for loans, too. That's the standard personal hazing. They've been doing all that stuff since I held out for a few days the first time (in 1981)."
Wide receiver Dwight Clark, who like Montana had two years (one an option year) remaining on his contract, received a reported three-year, $1.6 million deal. Linebacker Todd Shell, the top draft pick from Brigham Young (chosen 24th overall), received a four-year, $1.9 million contract that staggered several veterans.
Salaries of the 49ers began to read like phone numbers. The genesis might have been in 1982 when veteran guard Randy Cross threatened a holdout, then received a three-year, $1 million contract.
Today, Cross laughed and said, "At the time (of his renegotiation), people around here made a big deal out of it, but I haven't heard a whole lot about my contract this year."
So Dean considered it all and said he would sit at home and watch football on TV, unless he received a new contract. His agent, David Perrine, said today, "Fred's ready to hang up the cleats." Perrine also said, "I think if the club had not been redoing other players' contracts, maybe (renegotiation) wouldn't have occurred to Fred."
The 49ers filed a grievance against Dean, who countered with a lawsuit against the 49ers. And DeBartolo sent the rocking chair and a stern message to Dean. "If it were up to me," DeBartolo has been quoted as saying, "I'd keep him tied up in court until he's 50 years old and then see how much he's worth as a pass rusher."
Many an angry NFL executive's finger has been pointed this-a-way, accusing the 49ers of blowing the league salary structure to smithereens. "I think there is a strain of truth in some of that," said Bill Walsh, the coach and general manager. "Of course, it makes it more simple to blame one culprit for everyone's own mistakes."
Three 49ers left for the USFL in the offseason: linebackers Bobby Leopold and Willie Harper and defensive lineman Pete Kugler. Now, players like cornerback Eric Wright, who had his salary doubled over the next two years in the offseason, say, "If I have the year this season that I think I'll have, I'll try to renegotiate again next year."
Lott, Clark and Montana said the team asked them to renegotiate, not vice versa. "I'm sure there is some resentment on the team, but I would hope that it wouldn't tear us apart. What do (other players) expect us to do, turn it down?" Montana said.
"We got caught at a stage of development where a lot of players' contracts were running out at the same time," Walsh said. He said that signing Montana, Clark and Lott was crucial to the team's future.
"We lost three players to the USFL through devious means," Walsh said. "They signed without us knowing it. We did have a salary boom here, but I wouldn't say we're the only team that has. There's a real hard line taken by some players throughout the league. I don't think all of them will reap the results they think. Some will come up empty-handed. Dean may be one of them -- at the expense of the 49ers' success and of his career."
Only three seasons ago, the 49ers won the Super Bowl, defeating Cincinnati and sending fault-line shivers down San Francisco's spine. "It was like a destiny thing where everything we did went right," said Clark, who made The Catch that beat Dallas in that 1981 NFC title game.
The 49ers were led by a young and aggressive secondary that became known as "Dwight Hicks and the Hot Licks," a group that infused enthusiasm to a corps of victory-starved veterans.
Said Cross, who had been through the lean years with San Francisco in the mid-1970s: "It was like we were 16-year-old kids and our dad gave us a Corvette. All we expected was another beat-up Volkswagen."
Since then, though, the roster changes have been as great as the changes in Walsh's chameleon offense. Only 23 players remain from the Super Bowl victory, though 17 were starters.
In the strike season of 1982, the 49ers fell to 3-6. They led all nine games at halftime, then faded. The team acquired track star Renaldo Nehemiah and plucked tight end Russ Francis from retirement and other players didn't know how to react to these two football anomalies.
Communications seemed to break down between players and coach, between coach and the press that once called him "Genius." The team cut tight end Charle Young, one of the leaders. Middle linebacker Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds grew one step slower.
It was especially tough for Nehemiah, the former University of Maryland star who holds the world record in the 110-meter hurdles. "Our egos clashed," he said of 1982.
Nehemiah has caught 25 passes in two years. He says he has learned to become more aggressive, that he now is accepted among teammates and that he is not worried that his three-year contract is about to expire with no new one in sight.
"I guess I'm figuring a few good games under my belt by midseason will give me more (bargaining) power," said Nehemiah, who has gained 15 pounds, to 184, since arriving here. "I don't feel the 49ers would give up on me. And I've been too successful in my sports career to think about defeat."