Thursday, January 24, 2008

How the 49ers won 5 Super Bowls in 14 years

I don't think the Free Agency/Salary Cap Era (FA/SC) really makes it more difficult for great teams to maintain dominance. You will sometimes hear "conventional wisdom" that before the FA/SC, great teams were able to hoard their talented players because there was no salary cap and no free agency. This isn't entirely true: the San Francisco 49ers, for example, won five Super Bowls between 1981 and 1994 not because they hoarded the same players, but because they consistently drafted well and added talent to maintain their dominance.

The 49ers won the Super Bowl for the 1981 season. They won the Super Bowl again for the 1984 season. Look at who they drafted between those championships. In the 1982, 1983, and 1984 drafts, they drafted starters on the 1984 championship team like Bubba Paris (T), Roger Craig (RB), and Riki Ellison (LB). They won the Super Bowl for the 1988 season with starters like '83 draft pick Jesse Sapolu (G), '84 draft pick Guy McIntyre (G), '85 draft pick Jerry Rice (WR), '86 draft pick Tom Rathman (FB), '86 draft pick Charles Haley (DE), '86 draft pick Steve Wallace (T), '86 draft pick John Taylor (WR), '86 draft pick Tim McKyer (CB), '86 draft pick Kevin Fagan (DE), '86 draft pick Don Griffin (CB), '87 draft pick Harris Barton (T), and '86 draft pick Larry Roberts (DE). So after winning a championship in the '84 season, the 49ers won another championship in 1988 with 10 starters that they drafted AFTER 1984 (including 8 Super Bowl starters from the 1986 draft--arguably the most successful draft ever). The 49ers won again in 1989 with a similar nucleus. It took a few years, but in 1994 they won again with more new players like CB Eric Davis ('90), Ricky Watters ('91), Merton Hanks ('91), Dana Stubblefield ('93), Bryant Young ('94), William Floyd ('94), and Lee Woodall ('94).

This isn't even a comprehensive, thorough list: I briefly matched Super Bowl starting lineups with the 49ers' Draft History. But this brief look should show clearly that the 49ers didn't merely hoard their talent to win all those Super Bowls. They consistently added talented players in order to maintain dominance, even before the FA/SC era.

Consider this: 1981 championship team and the 1989 championship team shared just two starters (Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott). In a matter of nine seasons, these two championship squads turned over 20 of 22 starters.

Did the 49ers benefit from lack of salary cap and lack of risk of losing players to free agency? Perhaps. But considering they won four championships in nine years by replacing 20 of 22 starters, I doubt they merely hoarded their talented players. The 1994 team played in the FA/SC era, and added key free agents like Deion Sanders and Ken Norton, Jr., so if you'd like, you can even leave them out of the discussion. But between 1981 and 1989, the 49ers maintained long-term success very similarly to how teams maintain long-term success in the FA/SC era: they consistently added quality players to the roster to replace players who either left the team or saw their skills diminish.


  1. Anonymous2:51 AM

    Good analysis and insight. It would be interesting to look at the Patriots and how they did it. This year their great improvement came through free agency, but I don't think anyone can challenge the fact that the Patriots draft extremely well also. Seymour, Willfork, Brady, their offensive lineman, Ben Watson, Maroney, Kevin Faulk, etc.

    Good teams in the Free Agency period seem to be some of the best drafting teams also. Last year the Colts were almost entirely built upon draft picks (Freeney, Manning, Wayne, Harrison, Addai, Clark, Utech, etc. etc. etc.)

    It would be interesting to do a full analysis of teams in the free agency period who built consistent winners (i.e. consistent playoff appearances with moderate to substantial playoff success) and how they built that team.

  2. I think we'd find they mostly built through the draft (with key supplements from FA and trade). When I look at the Patriots in particular, I find FA/SC has not prevented them from keeping their quality draft picks, and that FA/SC has helped them because it's yet another source to add quality talent.

  3. By the way, next up will be analysis of why the 90s Cowboy dynasty lasted just four seasons: basically, I think they failed to do what the 80s 49ers did in the draft.

  4. 5 Super Bowls in 14 years?


    Try winning just one game for 5 straight years and keep your coach. THEN, I'll be impressed

  5. Anonymous11:31 PM

    Credible's comments only exemplifies how ridiculous he is.

    You sound and look like a fool...well, the pic says it all...Dude, you are frickin' joke!

    The 49ers are the only 6x World Championship NFL team to not lose a SB...Dallas, Pitt...they did. It is the only fact that separates them from the other two dynasties.

    Not only that, we had two Hall of Fame QBs during that run of 14 years as one of our highlights of that era. Our organization was respected and we earned it. The article doesn't mention ANYTHING about now. Get a clue!

    Give credit to where credit is due, Mr. Credible. What a mockary of the word!

    Credible...what a JOKE!!!

  6. Hey Anonymous, you are correct.. More Credible is a complete dumbass and his response shows his ignorance of the history of the game. However, you may look even worse. If you call someone out like that... Then you'd had better get your facts right.. The 49ers are the only FIVE (5) time SuperBowl winners not to lose one. Not 6.. We have 5 Lombardi Trophies, got it... 49ers 5-0, Cowboys 5-3, and Steelers 5-1... Now if that 6x was a typo my apologies.. If not.. Gotta get your facts straight before calling peeps out...

  7. wow this brief history on how 49ers won 5 Super Bowls in 14 years was really interesting and informative, there were some aspects that I did not know about

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