"Three-peat," said Roger Craig, came to him in a moment of inspiration along the sidelines at the Super Bowl last January. If you think the slogan bequeathed by the Los Angeles Lakers of a couple NBA seasons back has a questionable tone to it, you're not alone.
"It is kind of an ugly word," admitted Brent Jones, the San Francisco 49ers tight end. "But it's exciting to think about. . . . There's always going to be talk about what teams are the best. To win three in a row, I think we'd kind of close the book on that one."
The 49ers spent the offseason thinking about their place in history, about the possibility of becoming the first team to win three straight Super Bowls, the first to win five overall and the second in six decades to win three straight NFL titles, but something apparently got lost in the process.
They spent the summer looking more like the Denver Broncos, the team they beat, 55-10, last January. For the first time since 1983, they had a losing record in exhibition games (1-3) and, what's more, they deserved it. They were lifeless.
In Monday night's season opener in New Orleans, problems continued. The revamped offensive line gave up six sacks, and Joe Montana said: "I didn't play worth a damn." But the 49ers nevertheless won, 13-12, on Mike Cofer's 38-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining, after the New Orleans offense gave them four opportunities in the final 5 1/2 minutes.
San Francisco seemed immune to problems in the recent past. Now, the 49ers are like the NFL's mortal teams -- suffering through holdouts, injuries, personnel misjudgments and a few unhappy players.
After the final exhibition game, a 30-10 blowout loss to Seattle at Candlestick Park, Coach George Seifert sounded an unusually harsh note, saying: "We've said this is a players' team. It's about to become my team."
Seifert never said exactly what he meant, but he seemed unusually nervous last week as he awaited the start of the season.
"How long do the great teams hang in there?" Seifert asked. "To keep that thing going, it's so damn tough. It makes you very anxious, yet it motivates you. Sure, I have my doubts."
There has been much reason for anxiety since Super Bowl XXIV.
Four starting linemen -- two on offense and two on defense -- held out through the first month of training camp and played only in the final exhibition game. Two of the four, offensive linemen Guy McIntyre and Jesse Sapolu, were trying to renegotiate 1990 contracts, but eventually were forced to settle for contract extensions, instead, with no raise for this year.
The offensive line looked to be the biggest problem when Montana got so beaten up that he missed several practices and the final exhibition game with a bruised passing arm. Right tackle Harris Barton, the 49ers' best pass protector, spent most of training camp working at center and now is at right guard. There is not a single experienced backup lineman on the roster.
The defensive line is in worse shape. Injuries to Michael Carter, Larry Roberts, Pierce Holt and rookie Dennis Brown left the 49ers so thin that Pete Kugler, who was working as an accountant in Denver, was called out of retirement less than a week before the opening game.
So what happened? In the season opener, the defense played well, holding New Orleans without a touchdown. The offensive line repeatedly broke down.
Also, Keith Henderson, the top backup running back, is on the injured reserve list, leaving the 49ers thin behind Craig and Tom Rathman.
Known for taking care of their players, the 49ers' fabled "family" approach took a beating during the offseason. Linebacker Keena Turner and cornerback Eric Wright, two of the five players who were on all four Super Bowl teams, plus linebacker Riki Ellison, were asked to take cuts in their base salaries.
Turner and Wright eventually agreed, but Ellison signed with the Los Angeles Raiders. The incident caused safety Ronnie Lott to skip a day of minicamp. Lott, nearing the end of a career in which he has been in the Pro Bowl eight times, seemed affected by the team's treatment of his friends, but had one of his greatest games in the opener. He intercepted two passes and forced a fumble with a jarring hit.
Holt, the 49ers' best defensive lineman last year, also has been in something of a funk this summer. He missed the first week of training camp in what the team said was a contract matter, although he denied it. Normally pleasant and easygoing off the field, Holt has seemed sullen ever since, and a back problem he suffered late in training camp didn't help his mood.
The 49ers advertised their first-round draft choice, little Dexter Carter, as the second coming of the Giants' Dave Meggett, oblivious to the fact that New York got Meggett a lot more cheaply, in the fifth round. When Carter showed up for training camp, he promised he'd "look like Superman," but the actual result has been something closer to Jimmy Olsen.
Cornerback Tim McKyer, an outspoken player off the field, was traded to Miami during the draft because the 49ers thought he was more trouble than he was worth.
Seifert, the ultimate one-game-at-a-time coach, was hoping the 49ers could come into the season and pick up where they left off in January. But there still is time.
"It's not last year," Lott said. "You can't capture what you had last year. Everybody wants to capture the memories. Kodak tries to do that, and they're about as close as it gets. Whatever happens this year, whatever we go through, all the joys and all the sadness, it's going to be totally different than any year that I've been here. It's just that way."