SANTA CLARA, CALIF. -- Less than two minutes were left and the San Francisco 49ers were trailing the New Orleans Saints by two points Monday night. Jamie Williams, a tight end who came to the 49ers a year ago as a Plan B signee, stood on the sideline and found himself caught up in the strangest feeling. In St. Louis and Houston, where he had played earlier in his career, you hoped you'd come from behind in the final two minutes to win. "The other night in New Orleans, the emotions were very different than any sideline I had been on in that situation," he said. "There was disbelief. Guys couldn't accept the fact that we were on the brink of losing."
Williams was right in using the word brink, because the 49ers came back to win. Yawn. Don't they always? Well, maybe not always, but most of the time since 1981. Al Davis, or somebody connected with the Raiders, coined the phrase, "Commitment to Excellence." The 49ers have gone one better; they've got the Commitment to Win.
"We're almost afraid to give up on a game or to be the slightest bit unprepared for a game because they're all prepared and they all expect to win," said Williams. "They operate a lot on fear here. The fear of losing. It's some kind of motivator."
Commitment in the '80s and now the '90s starts with spending. The Raiders spend. The Redskins spend. They aren't even close to the 49ers. The first question asked isn't: "How much is the guy going to cost us?" It's: "Can he help us win?"
The 49ers, as the Washington Redskins will be reminded Sunday afternoon in Candlestick Park, have the greatest quarterback ever in Joe Montana. But if having Steve Young around in the backup role at a cost of $1.1 million a year might help the 49ers win, they spend it. The 49ers have probably the best safety of this generation in Ronnie Lott. But when Dave Waymer, who plays the same position, was available for $1.8 million for three years, the 49ers grabbed him.
When Michael Carter, their Pro Bowl nose tackle, was injured, the 49ers didn't goof around; they signed former Pro Bowl nose tackle Jim Burt. Just in case that wasn't enough, they're paying Fred Smerlas, another former Pro Bowler, $700,000 this year. He's a nose tackle too.
The man behind these purchases is Edward DeBartolo Jr., the club owner. Yes, the 49ers began winning because the greatest quarterback ever arrived at about the same time as Bill Walsh, the best coach since Vince Lombardi. Walsh, however, is gone and the 49ers keep winning. If Montana didn't play a down Sunday, the 49ers would still be the best team in the league because of Young. The 49ers have done it over a decade -- four Super Bowls since 1981 -- because they spend the money to put the best players on the field, then they spend more to keep the best players in the league the happiest players in the league.
When a San Francisco player is injured on the road, DeBartolo sends his private jet to take the player home. When Jeff Fuller severed nerves in his neck, causing the former safety to have no movement in his right arm, DeBartolo told Fuller he'd be paid $100,000 a year the rest of his life. After last year's Super Bowl, all the 49ers and their wives were flown to Hawaii for vacations. All expenses paid, of course. That was after each wife received, from DeBartolo, a $500 Neiman-Marcus gift certificate for Christmas. Mike Holmgren could be head coach of the Jets right now, but DeBartolo paid him nearly $400,000 to remain as offensive coordinator.
Of course, this kind of spending in the NFL -- where salaries are significantly lower than in the NBA and Major League Baseball -- causes other football owners to whine. Competing owners, and we use that phrase very loosely, said DeBartolo has been operating with an unfair advantage because he violated rules by transferring ownership of the 49ers to the DeBartolo Corp. in 1986, allowing the corporation to write off 49ers business losses as tax deductions.
For that, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recently fined DeBartolo $500,000 for failing to approve the transfer with the league. Funny thing is, DeBartolo was spending hand over fist before the transfer in 1986. Every owner in the NFL will tell you how much he wants to win, but many of them are paying lip service. The Bears made their 1990 first-round draft pick based largely on whether the player could be immediately signed to a contract. DeBartolo isn't spending Steinbrenner-style, haphazardly, irresponsibly or against the advice of the people he pays to scout football talent.
"I don't think anybody should be in sports if they don't want to win," DeBartolo told The National. "Why would you be involved in an enterprise that is so highly competitive and not want to win. That's absolutely ludicrous. . . . "
Sensing that commitment, there's nothing Lott can say when Waymer is brought in to challenge him for a job. "I'm sure Joe could ask, 'Why do we have to bring in Steve Young?' but he doesn't," Lott said. "These moves enhance the organization, not to mention your performance."
Lott, as many people do, points to the fact that three essentially different teams -- four, if you count the fact that Walsh wasn't here in '89 -- have won those four Super Bowls. The Steelers, who won four in six years in the '70s, were basically the same team. "Creative moves and harsh decisions," Lott said. "Everybody wants to keep the good old boys around, but here they'll do something that might be unfavorable to the players, the media or the fans to keep winning. That might mean your job. But how can you fault the organization, when spending the money and making those moves has put us where we've been for all this time?"