You are tempted, ever so slightly, to say it to let the word roll out, syllable by syllable.
Seems like a perfect fit with the San Francisco 49ers, right? Sunday they will be playing for an unprecedented fifth Super Bowl title, all in a span of 14 years. The NFL hasn’t seen a streak like that since the Green Bay Packers almost three decades ago.
But is it truly a dynasty? The Packers won five championships in seven seasons, including Super Bowls I and II. The Pittsburgh Steelers bagged four in a six-year span in the 1970s. The Cleveland Browns made it to 10 straight title games - four in the old All-America Conference - and won seven. To some, the Niners’ stretch of success is relative.
Perhaps it’s all in the definition.
“Are they a dynasty? In the truest sense, no,” said Matt Millen, the former 49ers and Raiders linebacker. “But in a general sense, yes. Since 1980, they’ve come closest. Even in their down years, the 49ers were considered Super Bowl contenders.”
Maybe, given such recent changes as free agency and the salary cap, that’s good enough. Maybe a dynasty - at least in the language of the NFL is simply being consistently good, consistently in contention.
Consider, for instance, that the 49ers, excluding the players’ strike of ‘82, have qualified for the playoffs 12 times in the past 13 seasons - and won four Super Bowls in that time. The Dallas Cowboys, by contrast, have been in the postseason eight times in the same period.
The Niners also demonstrated an ability to adjust to such hurdles as the cap. In fact, they benefited by it, signing players such as Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson and Ken Norton to improve their defense.
“The Packers won five titles with basically the same players,” said Steve Sabol, curator of NFL Films and a longtime observer of the game. “To me, that’s what makes the 49ers so unique. The players come and go, but here they are back again. They’ve had plenty of turnover since the early ‘80s, yet they’ve never really had a lean year. When you look at that, they’re probably the greatest dynasty of all time.
“I’m not saying the greatest team. To me, the ‘78 Steelers would beat them. I mean continued success, where the parts change but the wheels keep on rolling.”
You’ll get arguments, of course. Lots of them.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a dynasty,” Sid Gillman, the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame coach, said. “It’s crazy. There will never be such a thing anymore, not when you’ve got 28 teams playing. The Cowboys won two Super Bowls in a row, and everybody shoots for them. Clubs get knocked off, they get injuries, there’s free agency to deal with - so many extenuating circumstances.
“Where are you going to get all the talent it takes to create a dynasty? It’s impossible.”
Said Otto Graham, the one-time Browns quarterback: “In my day, I don’t think we knew what a dynasty was. But if they called the championship games we played in the ‘Super Bowl,’ we would have been in them 10 straight years.”
The game, however, has changed greatly. There are more teams and better-conditioned players, plus far more pressure to win and closer media scrutiny. None of that existed 30 years ago.
“When I played, there were only 12 teams,” said Ray Nitschke, the Packers’ Hall of Fame linebacker who played on five title teams in the 1960s. “No question, it’s tougher to win now because of all the teams and the players’ skills. But where the 49ers have done remarkably well is free agency.
“We had a lot of talent in Green Bay, but it was a matter of getting a guy to put it together - and that was Vince Lombardi. We had the talent and the coach.”
Coaching is a common thread among great teams, say those who played on them. For the Packers, it was Lombardi. For the Browns, Paul Brown. For the Steelers, Chuck Noll. For the Niners, Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
“We had strong leadership under Lombardi,” Nitschke said. “He never let up.”
Jack Ham, the former Steelers linebacker, said: “We had great players, but the key was Noll. He was able to pull us all together and get us to set aside our individual goals. There are a lot of teams out there with outstanding talent, but why is one a champion and the others are not? You’d better have a damn good coach, or you’re not going to win.”
Tom Landry, who coached the Cowboys to five Super Bowl appearances in nine seasons from 1970 to 1978, said Walsh’s system remains a primary reason the Niners have been one of the league’s most formidable offensive teams over the years.
“Bill brought it in back in 1980, when they beat us with the big catch,” Landry said, “and his system has stayed intact all through the ‘80s. The thing that kept them from dominating more is that their defense was not as strong as it is now. But Bill’s (offensive) system has kept them consistent.”
The willingness of owner Eddie DeBartolo and team president Carmen Policy to pursue and sign players apparently is another reason the 49ers have stayed on top.
“If you’re looking at dynasties as far as organizations go,” Sabol said, “then they might be the greatest of all time. The focus every year is to win the Super Bowl - not just to make the playoffs or improve or get to another level.”
“The 49ers have always made a commitment to doing whatever it takes to win,” Millen said. “I recognize that because Al Davis did the same thing with the Raiders. The 49ers do a better job than anybody in the league. They prove every year they’re willing to go and get the players.”
That clearly has translated into success. Sanders, for instance, turned down a lucrative offer from the New Orleans Saints to sign with the 49ers, believing they were his ticket to the Super Bowl. He was right.
“Why would Deion Sanders leave a $17 million offer (from the Saints) to play for $1 million?” asked Sid Luckman, the former Chicago Bears quarterback who took his team to four NFL crowns between 1940 and ‘46. “Because he wanted to be there. Richard Dent said he’s never been happier. They picked up that spirit.”
“What Carmen did with this team is a model for what other teams will do in the future,” Bob St. Clair, the 49ers Hall of Fame tackle, said. “He went out and picked up the players he needed. The players in the freeagent market looked at that and said, ‘If there was ever a chance to go to the Super Bowl, this is it.’ All of a sudden, the 49ers had a Super Bowl contender right there.”
Sustaining success, though, isn’t so easy. No team has won three Super Bowls in a row. Only the Packers, who won the NFL title in ‘65 before taking the first two Super Bowls, have won three consecutive league championships. The 49ers won in ‘88 and ‘89 but lost to the New York Giants in the 1990 conference final.
The reason: It’s difficult.
“Probably because of the physical part of it,” Millen said. “So much involves injuries, not just skill. It’s not like hitting a baseball, or being able to throw a baseball fast. It’s a specific skill, like catching the football, but then you’ve still got to beat the guy in front of you. The game is always changing. When the 49ers tried to repeat for the third straight year, the Giants just got better.”
Said Ham: “No. 1 is injuries. We tried to win our third Super Bowl without Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, and it was that much more difficult. Plus, teams are gunning for you from the start. They got pumped up to play us.”
Bottom line, dynasties are created by players.
“Great teams are defined by great players,” Millen said. “When you think of the Steelers, you think of Bradshaw, Harris and the Steel Curtain. With the Cowboys, it’s Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt Smith. The 49ers were Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, and now they’re Steve Young and Jerry Rice.”
But will the 49ers of the ‘80s and ‘90s ever be revered like the Packers of the ‘60s? That’s open to debate.
“I don’t think so,” said Vince Lombardi, the son of the former Green Bay coach. “Times are different. Most of those guys didn’t play for the money; they played because they wanted to be there. It was easy to motivate them. The Packers operated in a small community, they hung around together, there was lots of trust and respect. Today’s players are going in all different directions. They all have different agendas. Yet clearly, the Cowboys and 49ers are pretty close to that.”
But if we are talking about dynasties, it all depends on how you define it.”You’ve got to win,” Millen said. “If you just win your division every year, is that dominant? No. The Buffalo Bills played in four straight Super Bowls. Were they a dynasty? No. I don’t think you can say you’re a dominant team if you don’t win.”Still, you can’t help but think about
it, say it. Dynasty. The word sounds so apt, so right for the 49ers, especially if they beat the Chargers.
But does it really fit?
“It’s hard to define,” Gillman said. “If you win four Super Bowls these days, you’re a genius. But I don’t think you can say that. A dynasty is when you beat everybody every year. There’s not enough talent to create one. I don’t think it’ll ever be done.”
MEMO: A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “Fast company.”
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