An obsession with overtaking the Dallas Cowboys helped carry San Francisco to its fifth Super Bowl title last season. This year, the act the 49ers are trying to top is their own.
"It's just as demanding, but the weight of what we face is really our own past," said Steve Young, who's going for a record fifth straight passing title. "There's no one else, no other team. It's just ourselves. We just have to go out and extend ourselves beyond who we were last year."The 49ers were a special team in 1994. Young set an NFL record for passing efficiency and won a second MVP award. Jerry Rice became the league's career touchdown leader and the team scored a club-record 505 points, fourth most in NFL history. Meanwhile, a collection of marquee free agents led by Deion Sanders turned San Francisco's defense into one of the league's top units.
The fortified 49ers denied Dallas an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl crown by defeating the Cowboys in the conference championship last January. The 49ers then beat San Diego 49-26 for a record fifth Super Bowl victory.
In bidding to repeat as league champions, the 49ers are taking a more businesslike approach. Young said the desperation that drove the team in 1994 has been replaced by a quiet resolve.
"I think it'll be more professional and more dedication than obsession," club president Carmen Policy said. "It'll be kind of like the Cowboys in '93. They won the Super Bowl in that magical year of '92 when many thought they should've come to Candlestick and gotten beat, and they didn't. In '93, they felt a commitment to purpose and that professional dedication.
"I'd like to see a duplicate. We win two, and then in '96 let's decide who's the team of the decade."
There are significant differences between the 49ers of 1995 and the 49ers of '94. Chief among them is whether free agent cornerback Sanders re-signs with San Francisco or opts to play elsewhere. Dallas is among the teams competing with the 49ers for Sanders' services.
"I don't think that we must have him," San Francisco coach George Seifert said. "But with the expectations and the things we have to do, you want to get all the talent you possibly can, whether it be Deion or any other player."
"We'd like to think that we're capable coaches. But we're all in this business long enough to realize the team that generally has the most talent and is put together best has the best opportunity to win this thing."
Ricky Watters, San Francisco's rushing leader the past three seasons, is among the talent the 49ers lost. Watters went to Philadelphia through free agency.
Both coordinators are newcomers. Marc Trestman replaces Mike Shanahan, who left to coach Denver after three years as San Francisco's offensive coordinator. Pete Carroll, fired as New York Jets coach at the end of last season, succeeded Ray Rhodes, who ascended from defensive coordinator to take the Philadelphia coaching job.
San Francisco also has 16 new players, including top draft pick J.J. Stokes. UCLA's career receiving leader, Stokes is expected to miss the first month of the season with a broken right hand.
"I think any time you have that type of change, there's a change in the chemistry of the team. All of that remains to be seen," added Seifert, a two-time Super Bowl winner as head coach who begins the season with an 84-24 career mark, the best winning percentage (.778) in league history.
"The frontline players, with the exception of Ricky Watters - and nobody knows what's going to develop with Deion - our team is intact from a year ago and I think we've helped ourselves with some of the fellows we've picked up," Seifert said.
The 49ers also must avoid a post-Super Bowl letdown.
"I think the thing we're guarding against us is complacency because of the success that we had last year," said guard Jesse Sapolu. "Everybody is saying we broke all kind of records and it's very dangerous when you come out thinking like that. We need to go out there and concentrate and prove to ourselves that when we're all focusing, that we can be in sync and be as good we were last year."