If the 49ers want to become serious playoff contenders again, they’d do well to study the teams in the Super Bowl. For different reasons, they illustrate how organizations build champions.
With the Green Bay Packers, it was a combination of good decisions and courageous ones.
The first decision was to hire Mike McCarthy as coach. Packers general manager Ted Thompson liked the work McCarthy had done in helping develop top quarterbacks, including Brett Favre during a stint as the Packers’ QB coach, and made a good decision.
The Packers got lucky with the draft in 2005, when Aaron Rodgers fell to them at No. 24 in the first round. Rodgers had to sit for a couple of years as Favre went through his will-he-or-won’t-he routine in the offseason before returning.
Finally, Thompson thought it was time to move on. When the drama queen said in the spring of 2008 that he would retire, Thompson took him at his word and said Rodgers would be the quarterback. Favre changed his mind later, but Thompson didn’t, trading Favre to the New York Jets.
Replacing an icon isn’t easy, but Rodgers had the self-confidence to do the job. He’s improved each year and has been sensational in the postseason this year. Packers fans don’t miss Favre.
The Steelers have done it differently — differently, in fact, than any other team in the league.
One word describes the Steelers: stability. The Rooney family has owned the franchise from its beginning in 1933, and coaching the Steelers has become almost a lifetime job. Since 1969, they have had only three head coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and now, Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers’ championship teams in the Super Bowl era have been built around defense. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the "Steel Curtain" defense carried him in the first two of four Super Bowls the Steelers won in six years in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
It is the same with this team. Ben Roethlisberger is an outstanding quarterback, but it is the defense which carries the team. The offense didn’t score a point in the second half of the AFC Championship, but the Steelers still won. Even more telling: When Roethlisberger had to sit out the first four games of the season because of a sexual assault charge brought (then dropped) by a college student, the Steelers didn’t miss a beat.
While the Packers and Steelers have shown two different ways to build a Super Bowl team, the 49ers have presented a primer on how not to do it, with bad coaches and a front office with more computer geeks than football people.
That may change. Trent Baalke is a hard worker who seems to have a good grip on his new job as general manager. Jim Harbaugh was a winner at Stanford and a breath of fresh air as head coach.
What the 49ers don’t have, though, is the stable ownership of the Steelers. Jed York is intelligent, but he’s young and inexperienced. If he stays out of the way, there’s hope. If not ... well, 49ers fans won’t get any closer to the Super Bowl than their TV sets.