The NFL's mystery team is finally ready to begin its regular season.
And what is this mystery team? None other than the San Francisco 49ers, winners of five Super Bowls in the last 15 seasons, 4-1 this year and still a question mark to a lot of people, including themselves."It was kind of good to get this game behind us because we know what we have ahead of us next week," Elvis Grbac said after he threw three touchdown passes in a ho-hum 28-11 win in St. Louis on Sunday that had the look and feel of an exhibition - third-stringers played the final quarter for the 49ers.
Next week, the 49ers go to Lambeau Field for a Monday night extravaganza against the Green Bay Packers that is this season's first game of real note. San Francisco will be in an unusual position - an underdog to a team that a third of the way through the 1996 season is clearly the NFL's best.
Despite their record, the 49ers still don't have that aura they lost on their own soggy home turf last Jan. 6 when the Packers beat them 27-17 to advance to the NFC championship game.
This season, the Niners' four wins have been over the Rams (twice), the Falcons and the Saints, who have a combined record of 2-14. In their loss at Carolina, they looked dreadful.
During those first five games, the 49ers had some of the same problems of archrival Dallas, most obviously an aging and banged-up offensive line. It still includes Harris Barton (three Super Bowl rings), Jesse Sapolu (four) and Steve Wallace (three), who was brought back after being released by the Niners and cut by Philadelphia, in hopes of adding more stability.
They also have a mini-controversy at quarterback, where Steve Young says the right things about resting his pulled groin muscle, but is itching to get back. "Sure, I don't want to sit out," he said after Sunday's game. "But I don't want to get back in for a half, hurt it again, and then miss three more games."
That's compounded by the politics of the situation.
Young will be 35 on Thursday, Grbac is 26 and a free agent after this season. In the old days (like 1992), Grbac would have been groomed to replace Young. Now? Who knows?
"I'd like to stay here, but there's a lot of money out there for quarterbacks," said Grbac, who established himself last season when Young was hurt, most notably with a win in Dallas.
Meanwhile, no one who counts is saying whether Young or Grbac will start in Green Bay.
"We have plenty of time to decide that," coach George Seifert said Sunday.
"I know what my role is here right now," a diplomatic Grbac said.
And Young? "I'll just have to see how I feel," he said.
Jerry Rice, who had seven catches for 108 yards and a 31-yard TD catch, is looking forward to Monday night's matchup.
"We've been trying to get the little things right," Rice said.
"Now we've got to be ready. It's a hostile environment. It's Monday night football. Everyone will predict that Green Bay will win.
"I love it."
That's the mystery team.
It still loves those big games.