Tuesday, July 9
Quite simply, you have to be in it to win it

By Greg Garber

Sixteen years ago, in the midst of the New York Giants' run to Super Bowl XXI, Bill Belichick stepped out of his home away from home, the film room adjacent to the team's locker room, and ran down a passing scribe.

"Come here," the Giants' defensive coordinator said with a sense of urgency. "You've got to see this."

Belichick clicked on the projector and the image of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice appeared. It was a deceptively simple pick play, with a few wrinkles Belichick hadn't seen before. He ran it, back and forth, seven times.

Bill Walsh
Winning wasn't everything to Bill Walsh. It was simply a product of contending.
"Even if we know it's coming, we can't stop that play," Belichick said, marveling at the 49ers' mechanics. "If Montana gets rid of the ball, it's a catch every time. That's why Bill Walsh is the best in the business."

It was a nod from one technician to another -- two of the very best on opposing sides of the ball.

"That is a wonderful story," Walsh said last week. "Thanks for passing that along. It's things like that that make you think it was almost worth it."

Almost worth it? The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the most dominant teams in sport for the past two decades and Walsh, who is still listed as a consultant, is the chief reason. The 49ers won all five of the Super Bowls in which they appeared and it's possible they are destined for another in the near future.

Over the past 21 seasons, under the coaching guidance of Walsh, George Seifert and, now, Steve Mariucci, the 49ers have had only three losing seasons: the disjointed 1982 strike year that yielded a 3-6 record and a pair of predictable post-salary cap marks of 4-12 and 6-10 under Mariucci. It is this level of consistency, Walsh argued, that merits dynasty consideration.

"If you're going to use the term dynasty, I don't think it's necessarily winning the championship," Walsh said. "That's part of it, of course. But, to me, the biggest thing is vying for the championship at the highest levels of your sport. In the case of our organization, we usually felt we were one of the handful of teams that was seriously contending for the Super Bowl. When you win it -- and we certainly won more than our share -- people look at that team as a dynasty."

Under that definition, the Dallas Cowboys qualify as a dynasty. Under Tom Landry -- "possibly the greatest coach ever," according to Walsh -- the Cowboys produced an astonishing 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966-85. Dallas won only two Super Bowls in that time, while the Steelers (four), Raiders (three), Packers, Dolphins and 49ers (each with two) surpassed or equaled that accomplishment. Still, for quality and quantity, no one in the NFL was the equal of the Cowboys. Those 20 seasons constitute the third-longest such streak in professional sports history. Only the Yankees, who authored 39 straight winning seasons from 1926-64 and the Canadiens (32 straight, from 1952-83) did it better.

Which brings us to the Atlanta Braves, who are again in first place as we speak. The Braves, who rode extraordinary pitching from Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, won five National League pennants between 1991 and 1999. But there was only one World Series victory, in 1995. Were the Braves -- are the Braves -- a dynasty?

"I would say so," Walsh said. "To reach the summit, you have to be operating from a high base camp every single year."

Pushing the premise to the limit, we give you the Buffalo Bills, who reached four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-93, but never won the ultimate game.

"That will never be equaled," said then-Bills general manager Bill Polian, now the Indianapolis Colts' president.

Back in the spring of 1988, when Pat Riley was busy goading his Lakers squad toward another title, he used the long lens of history to motivate his players.

"In `The Color of Money,' Paul Newman is this old pro pool player trying to teach Tom Cruise, the young, talented and very arrogant pool player, all the tricks," Riley explained. "But Cruise is too good for him. In exasperation, Newman finally says to him, `You don't know the difference between excellent pool and pool excellence.' That's what's happened in this league. Anybody can have one great season. Just because you get yourselves together on year doesn't mean you're great. What excellence is, is sustained excellence.

"The only thing I care about right now is for us to become the greatest basketball team that ever played."

* * * * *

1) The hard-line, old-school, cold-war approach: "A dynasty is winning it and then having the ability to sustain it, to continue winning. That's the name of the game, to win. Second? That's bulls---," says Red Auerbach, whose Celtics won eight straight NBA titles from 1958-66.

2) The moderate, down-the-middle approach: Consistency is the hallmark of sports' greatest teams, says Bill Walsh, the architect of four Super Bowl championships with the San Francisco 49ers.

3) Glasnost: Everyone is a winner: "Establishing dominance over a period of time, regardless of who does it, is a tremendous accomplishment," says John Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 NCAA titles.

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