1994 champion 49ers, loaded with free agents, explain how Rams can win it all – Los Angeles Times

SANTA CLARA — 

There’s no mistaking the message from the Rams. Clearly, they believe the Lombardi Trophy is within reach.

That was the resounding message the last two weeks when they bolstered their roster with two superstars — pass rusher Von Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — with the idea those players, such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, will help distance them from the field. The addition of Beckham, nicknamed OBJ, was especially timely with the Rams losing receiver Robert Woods on Friday to a season-ending knee injury.

But there’s a big difference between collecting all-stars and getting the most out of them, something the Philadelphia Eagles learned in 2011 when they assembled the so-called Dream Team yet finished 8-8.

The 1994 San Francisco 49ers were different. A year after the start of NFL free agency, they used salary-cap creativity and a buy-now-pay-later strategy to assemble a constellation of stars, mostly on defense, that included Ken Norton Jr., Richard Dent, Charles Mann, Gary Plummer and the most coveted prize, future Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, who would earn defensive player of the year honors. The 49ers parlayed that plan into a fifth Super Bowl victory.

“We had come to the realization that this was a team destined to win now, but we were missing a couple pieces,” recalled Carmen Policy, former 49ers president. “So we had to deal with a proposition: Do we push all our chips into the middle of the table and do whatever we have to do and get those extra pieces to overcome this burgeoning dynasty called Dallas? The decision was yes.”

Rams coach Sean McVay, whose 7-2 team plays the 49ers on Monday night, paid close attention to that San Francisco team even though he was only in elementary school at the time. He turned 9 a week before those 49ers routed the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl 49-26.

Why was he so interested in those 49ers? His grandfather, John McVay, was director of football operations for those star-studded 49ers.

“That was probably really the first great 49ers team that I was old enough, even though I was only 8 years old then, to process how special that was,” McVay said. “And so, they were in the same division as the Falcons when I lived in Atlanta, coincidentally. I was a huge Deion Sanders fan. I remember going when they played the Falcons. He had a pick-six.”

To get an idea of what made those 49ers click, how they effectively blended in players who had done so well with other teams, the Los Angeles Times spoke to members of that San Francisco team: quarterback Steve Young, tight end Brent Jones, guard Derrick Deese and defensive tackle Bryant Young. They unfurled a blueprint for how these Rams, the 2021 Dream Team, might best turn a Super Bowl dream into reality.

From left,  Brent Jones, William Floyd, Steve Young and Merton Hanks celebrate after Super Bowl XXIX.

From left, Brent Jones, William Floyd, Steve Young and Merton Hanks celebrate after defeating after defeating the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.

(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

“It’s absolutely reminiscent of the 1994 Niners and to a lesser extent last year’s Tampa Bay Bucs,” Jones said. “If OBJ gets serious, gets his head in the playbook and integrates himself into the offense, and they stay healthy, I don’t think anybody else can match up with these guys.”

Locker room leadership

Steve Young: “First of all, you want a locker room that self-polices. You don’t need a coach. You don’t need some outsider to come and litigate disputes. Everything gets handled inside. You have alphas in the group, and it’s not just one. You have four, five, even seven alphas that have figured out how to work together. They recognize that working together is way better than me being the only alpha in the room.

“It’s fourth quarter and we’re down and it’s raining and everybody’s cold, and anybody who’s going to show a sign of weakness or make some stupid mistake or stupid penalty … great governance brings great performance, and that’s not from the coach.

“You think a coach is going to come in and make some speech and that’s how you’re going to play great football? It’s all from the locker room and from that self-policing moral authority from the locker room from that handful or two handfuls of alphas who have figured out how to work together. When you have it, it’s freaking powerful. And you can smell it.

“I can watch a team warm up now on Monday nights and just watching them and I’m like, ‘These guys got nothing.’ I don’t care who they are or how many stars they have. If they don’t have it, they don’t have it.”

Bryant Young: “What makes it work is the structure with the staff and the locker room. You have to have the right people and a strong locker room. That’s a definite recipe for success. When you bring somebody in who might need a little bit of coaching in terms of, ‘This is the way we do it.’ Back then, we were one of those teams that was able to handle that.

“Our D-line room alone had Charles Mann, Richard Dent, Rickey Jackson, Tim Harris. You look at Ken Norton and Gary Plummer and Deion Sanders on the back end, and it was like, wow, how did they make that happen?”

Deese: “At that time, the Niners were the organization that everyone was trying to get to. When you came to the Niners, it wasn’t about making it to the playoffs or getting to the NFC championship game. It was about winning a championship. You could go 13-3 and lose in the second round of the playoffs and they’d tell you it was a failed season. That was the demand that happened as soon as you stepped into that locker room.”

Dichotomy of Deion Sanders

There were two sides to Sanders, and not just that he was an NFL and Major League Baseball star. He was “Prime Time” and “Neon Deion” in public, but the 49ers discovered he had a very different personality in the locker room.

Steve Young: “He came in, pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, listen, Steve. I’ve got this big thing I do: I’m a marketing genius. But just ignore that, because I’m a tremendous teammate.’ I’m like, ‘Gotcha, bro.’ And he really was.

Deion Sanders leads the 49ers onto the field.

Deion Sanders leads the 49ers onto the field.

(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)

Jones: “Maybe a couple weeks into Deion’s time, you’d see him out at practice with what I’d call the ducklings. All the young DBs were sitting there and you can see him kind of pointing, highlighting, saying, `’Hey, if this guy goes in motion, we adjust this way …’ Showing them footwork, getting down in a stance, and I’m like, wow, he’s coaching these guys up. What better coach could there be?”

Bryant Young: “You get this persona that it’s all about him. But that’s the furthest thing from the truth when you understand who he is behind closed doors. Deion was an absolutely great teammate. He cared about everybody being on the same page. It mattered to him.”

Be like 2020 Buccaneers

The Rams are looking to do what Tampa Bay did last season, to win a Super Bowl on their home field. The Buccaneers did so after assembling an all-star cast, led by Tom Brady and including free agents Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and others.

Steve Young: “Look to Tampa. Tom came in and they brought in Gronk, they brought in Antonio Brown, they’ve got all these guys. Tom probably told them, ‘Look, we’re running our offense. There’s going to to be more footballs than you ever could imagine.’ Mike Evans originally when Gronk and Antonio Brown came in was like, ‘Wait. I’m the alpha. What are you talking about?’ But he didn’t show it, they just played ball. They ran the plays and trusted Tom was good enough. They get that ball out and now there’s balls flying for everybody. That’s exactly what’s going to happen with the Rams.”

Don’t be a diva

Jones: “I feel with OBJ there’s an Antonio Brown factor happening. Antonio got to the point where he was about to diva his way out of the league, kind of like his last shot. Let’s face it, OBJ is close to that. So Antonio got to the Bucs, a team with a strong veteran leadership, strong head coach personality. Tom took him under his wing and he just went back to focusing on football instead of everything else. That’s proven to be tremendously fruitful for Antonio and the Bucs.

“I feel like OBJ is going to get some of that same treatment. My guess is, and if people aren’t telling him they ought to be, ‘You’re about ready to diva yourself out of the league and no one’s going to touch you anymore. So this is your chance to be with a winner. You don’t have to carry the team. If you focus on football and not your own stats, you’re going to be fine — in fact, you’re going to be great in this offense.’ ”

Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. walks on the field during practice Saturday.

There are many opinions on how Odell Beckham Jr. might or might not fit in with the Rams.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Steve Young: “I think OBJ will appreciate that it’s not, ‘How do we get it to OBJ? What are the plays that get it to OBJ?’ That’s half the problem of the teams he’s been on. They’ve just been trying to feed him and it doesn’t work. Being on a great team, get open, balls are flying, you catch ‘em. Let’s go. I think he’ll be relieved. It’s a great spot for him.”

It’s Miller time

Deese: “With Von Miller on that line, you can’t double them all. When he got traded, I saw a lot of things from his interviews and he couldn’t have said it better. He said, ‘I want to free up guys and let Aaron Donald make his plays.’ I don’t even know if there’s been a pass rush where there have been three guys like this — Von, Aaron and Leonard Floyd — all healthy, and doing it the way they’re going to be able to do it. Looking at their secondary, man, this could be a phenomenal defense. Here’s a guy who comes in and says, ‘I don’t need to have this many rushes. I don’t need to play on this side or that side.’ That’s the way you have to be.”

Steve Young: Funny thing, I gained more confidence from the Rams from last week’s game. That was a dud. What I saw was that, what I call dog, in the defense that led the way back. Think about that second half. That defense was rallied in really an emotional way, like, ‘This is NOT going down this way.’

“It did go down that way. But you could see Matthew and that offense never capitulated. Even when they were really kind of out of it, Matthew was driving them down and it was like, ‘Yeah, we got torched. I don’t know how it happened.’ Matthew threw some stupid stuff. He had to feel like a complete goofball after the game because it was stuff that he’d never do twice. But I just saw a fight in them that I really liked.

“A lot of front-running teams are too cool for school. They get beat and it’s like whatever, I’m not going to own this one. I saw the Rams own it, and I think that’s probably a good sign.”

Jones: “I think that Sean McVay is very savvy. He’s going to figure out a way to get OBJ involved very early, keep him happy. You don’t want him to go into the third quarter of a game and have zero catches.

“Cooper Kupp is going to get his catches. He’s going to get his yards. You don’t have to worry about him. He’s going to do it no matter what. But now it even gives him a little more breathing room in terms of coverage. Because you get the ball to OBJ a couple times and all of a sudden people have to account for it.

“I know there’s one ball with the Rams, but with Sean calling plays, there’s going to be 40 times during a game that one ball’s coming out. That’s plenty for these guys.”

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.