The San Francisco 49ers finished the 1998 season with an 11-5 record.
They finished one game behind the Atlanta Falcons, who won the NFC West behind the gigantic legs of Jamal Anderson and the arm of Chris Chandler.
They pulled off one of the most dramatic comebacks in NFL playoff history in the Wild Card round by beating Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers on a last-second touchdown pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens.
They lost the next game to those same Falcons in a game where the 49ers' leading rusher and offensive secret weapon Garrison Hearst shattered his ankle on the game's opening play.
It was an inauspicious ending to a dynasty that started with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, spanned over George Seifert and Young, and ended with Steve Mariucci standing dejected on the Georgia Dome sidelines, wondering what the future of his team would be after that dark day in Atlanta.
The next two years were as tortuously slow as they were breathtakingly fast. 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was banned from the NFL for his dealings in Lousiana casinos, and ownership of the team turned over to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, and her husband John York.
The Yorks (or, as they're affectionately referred to as here at Trevor's Corner, "the Yorkies"), brought Walsh back as general manager, guide, messiah, and hereby which-wayer of the franchise.
Walsh blew up the team.
Gone were Young, Hearst, Jerry Rice, Kevin Gogan, Chris Doleman, Roy Barker, Ken Norton, Gary Plummer, Lee Woodall, Merton Hanks, Tim McDonald, and anyone else associated with the team that, in '97, was potentially one Dorsey Levens fumble non-call away from a Super Bowl.
Brought in were Jeff Garcia, Charlie Garner, Lawrence Phillips (hey, nobody's perfect), Kevan Barlow, Tai Streets, Jeremy Newberry, Scott Gragg, Andre Carter, Julian Peterson, Jamie Winborn, Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, and Tony Parrish.
And now the 49ers find themselves again at the cusp of greatness again. The key players are in place, the fans say. Only a couple more moves will put us over the top, they cry. Throw around some bucks, bring in some talent, let's go win this thing.
And no sound emerges from 4949 Centennial Blvd. in Santa Clara.
Jed Weaver? Travis Kirksche?
Come ON, Niners! I mean, I'm not saying that this year's free agent crop was anything to write home about, but they've got to be able to do better than this!
Further examination of the facts leads me to believe that, well, maybe they couldn't do better than this.
The 49ers entered the offseason about $8 million over the salary cap, money that was lopped off the cap by releasing Dana Stubblefield (no huge loss there) and Dave Fiore (love him, but Eric Heitmann is younger and played exceptionally well for a rook last season), plus some contract re-structures.
After it was all said and done, the 49ers sat at about $3 mill under the cap. Signing Weaver and Kirksche (fine players for what they are, but certainly not world-beaters or even starting material) left them about $1.5 mill under, which is where they find themselves today.
Now, let's examine the top free agents from this offseason to date:
In my Offseason Preview article, I cited the following as areas of need for the 49ers: runningback, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and cornerback.
Assuming Kevan Barlow is firmly entrenched as the starter at RB next year, the 49ers only really needed a solid vet backup to change pace with Barlow. Of the available options, the most attractive backs that fit this description were Moe Williams of the Vikings, Shawn Bryson of the Bills, and Dorsey Levens of the Eagles. Williams re-upped with the Vikings, Bryson just signed with Detroit, and Levens went to the Giants to replace Ron Dayne (also known as The Easiest Job In Sports). This leaves the 49ers with very few solid options. James Allen? His limited production doesn't warrant the big bucks his agent is sure to be asking for. Reuben Droughns? Jim Finn? Please. Maybe the 49ers can bring back Terry Kirby for a 3rd go-round.
At wideout, the top player (David Boston, who signed with the Chargers) was an injury risk. The top restricted free agent (Laveranues Coles, who was overpaid by the Redskins), was out of the 49ers' market. And everyone else is just mediocre (Curtis Conway? Bobby Engram? Cut me a break).
The cornerback market was so thin, Dexter McCleon got a $5 mill per contract. Let's repeat that, slowly. DEXTER MCCLEON IS MAKING FIVE MILLION DOLLARS PER YEAR. This is one of those little facts of life that almost certainly makes NFL general managers' hair turn gray(er).
The lines featured players who were either too old (Hugh Douglas) to be worth the salaries they commanded, too expensive (Orlando Pace) for their production, considerable as it may be, or too overrated (Solomon Page) to garner anything more than a laugh.
No, this was a bear market, and the 49ers knew it. Rather than working out players who ultimately were going to wind up being heartbreakers, the 49ers' entire front office and scouting staff has been hard at work evaulating draft prospects. The team who enters the draft most prepared will do the best. Period. If you know more than your competitors, you will walk away with the best draft. It's a proven fact of NFL life.
The 49ers will walk into the draft at the end of this month having some very specific areas of need to fill, and the flexibility to take the best players on the board at those areas. This team is about to get significantly faster and more agressive (not to mention younger) on offense, and deeper on defense. And after the draft, whatever areas the 49ers don't fill will be addressed in post-June 1st free agency.
Yeah, it's boring. Yeah, it doesn't give hardcore 49ers fans much fat to chew. But it's the smart way to do it. It's the way to maintain longterm success. And after going through salary cap hell like the 49ers did after that fateful 1998 season, that goal is the one that is forefront on the minds of the entire organization.