NFL dynasties—while rare—seem to perpetuate the league, and to several different magnitudes.
The Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers are all teams that have seen decade-long runs of success, and while they are all prodigious in their own right, some have undoubtedly been more successful than others.
For the relevance of this piece, we will identify the correlation between some of the NFL’s best-ever dynasties and the present-day San Francisco 49ers.
Here is some criteria to keep in mind:
Consistency: Great single-season performances occur often—but can you remain atop the league, year in and year out?
Rings: It’s no secret that dynasties are ultimately measured by championships. To be considered among the best, you must capture the Lombardi.
Foundation: It goes without saying that personnel and coaching are essential components, but, more than that, a dynasty must be able to endure change.
On the Field: This is where it all comes together. A true dynasty can win in any fashion—whether it’s a thrilling comeback victory or a dominating performance.
Moreover, one final note that must be isolated from the rest is that a quarterback is critical, and, more often than not, the head coach–quarterback combination is a fundamental component to a long-lasting powerhouse. A few prime examples of this type of combination are as follows:
Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers (1959-1967)
Mike Shanahan and John Elway, Denver Broncos (1995-1998)
Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers (1979-1988)
Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys (1989-1993)*
Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers (1970-1983)
*Aikman won another Super Bowl in 1996 with head coach Barry Switzer
Without further adieu, here is how the current San Francisco 49ers squad measures up:
First and foremost, there must be a stable structure at the base of any successful organization. The front office, coaching staff and ownership must be in sync, and power must be evenly distributed.
An unstable organization can prevent itself from lifting off, no matter how talented of a roster it may have. For instance, while Al Davis was a legendary owner of the Raiders, the way he dealt with players like Marcus Allen handicapped the full potential of the team.
The San Francisco 49ers have established a family environment throughout the organization, from owner Jed York to head coach Jim Harbaugh. Together they have cultivated a winning atmosphere that embeds the apt frame of mind that their players need to emulate.
The staff that Harbaugh hired—whether they’re positional coaches, coordinators or trainers—is full of extraordinary communicators and educators.
Beyond the environment, though, the foundation of a dynasty must exhibit proficiency from the front office. Fortunately, the 49ers also have three astute engineers in the boiler room that make up their personnel department.
49ers general manager Trent Baalke, director of player personnel Tom Gamble and chief operating officer Paraag Marathe are a dexterous trio. When it comes to evaluating talent, setting a value and squeezing their players under the cap, they are unmatched.
With their collaborative efforts, they have been able to ensure that San Francisco continues to optimize their budget. Between their scouting department and contract architect, Marathe, the Niners have fostered a stacked roster with multiple All-Pros and Pro Bowlers.
When observing some of the most prominent dynasties in league history, it becomes clear that they were all fully-functioning and complete ball clubs. There was talent throughout the roster, and these teams did not just one or two all-time greats.
In terms of ability, the 1970’s Steelers, 1980’s 49ers and 1990’s Cowboys, all had multiple All-Pros on their rosters, year after year.
These were organizations with talent-laden rosters, and they could win on offense and defense.
For the second year in a row, the 49ers have led the NFL with the most Pro Bowl selections. In 2012, San Francisco had nine starters and eight alternates selected to represent the NFC in Hawaii. Overall, this included all four linebackers, two offensive playmakers, three defensive backs and the entire offensive line.
The Niners also have a number of top-tier special teamers, with guys like safetry C.J. Spillman and punter Andy Lee. The core of this team is convincing, and on top of that, the majority of them are still in the early part of their careers.
Much like these previous dynasties, the 49ers have the filled-out roster and the youth to perform for the next decade. They have depth, multiple leaders, league-best positional players and cohesiveness at all three phases on the field.
There is no denying that San Francisco possesses one of the more stacked rosters in the NFL.
And looking back at NFL history, an offensive trifecta would typically emerge in these rich lineups. The Broncos had Elway, Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe; the Niners had Montana, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice; the Steelers had Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann; and the Cowboys had Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
Combined with a tenacious rushing attack, the current 49ers may have something similar to these teams in Colin Kaepernick, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.
On the Field: “We Get Fresher Under Pressure”
In Super Bowl XLVII, the 49ers were five yards away from completing the most historic comeback that the league has ever seen.
Before then, they had significant and clutch wins against two powerhouses in 2012—New England and Atlanta. A dynasty must be able to overcome circumstance and triumph in the face of adversity, and they proved that they could do so.
49ers All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis confirmed as much at Super Bowl media day:
The turning point for me in understanding what we have - anyone can pat you on the back, laugh with you, cut up with you when things are going good. It's when you go through those hard times, when you're in the heat of battle and things aren't going so well that you really find out a true man's character. Last year we were playing against the Eagles and the Eagles jumped out on us big time. We went into the locker room down 17 points. I've been part of a locker room whether it's players or coaches where guys are pointing the finger at one another. Guys are mad and saying this and that.
For some reason, that locker room, the coaches and the players came in and we were all like, ‘We've got ourselves in this. We have to get ourselves out.' Coach Harbaugh was like, ‘They said it wasn't going to be easy, but we don't like easy. We got ourselves down we have to fight out of it.' Our defensive coordinator, Coach (Vic) Fangio came in. He had every reason to go crazy on us. He said, ‘Guys you know what we got to do. Just calm down. Settle down and let's go play.' I just remember sitting back and watching him and being like, ‘Wow.' Whether we lost that game or won that game, to me, just to have that was amazing. Fortunately, we were able to go out there and win that game. Which put in more perspective the kind of leadership we have within our head coach and other coaches.
In that game, the 49ers overcame a 20-point deficit in the second half to defeat the Eagles.
As previously mentioned, a truly historic organization can win in any form or fashion, either by blowout or through a fourth quarter comeback. Teams with this capability are well coached, they believe in one another and they will fight until the very end.
They emit a particular aura on the field that helps ensure that they are never out of any game. There have been several occasions where San Francisco’s dynasty has responded to hardship in larger-than-life fashion.
These were two defining moments for Hall of Fame quarterbacks that held the reigns of one of the greatest dynasties in sports. And whether it was Joe Montana’s never-wincing comeback or Steve Young’s fourth quarter miracle, these 49ers’ QBs knew how to win close games.
And let’s not forget, they also had the supporting cast to make it happen.
This year, NFL fans may have witnessed the birth of a dynasty and the end of another. In December, San Francisco went on the road to face Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at Foxboro.
Needless to say, a chess match ensued:
The 49ers went from a dominating performance over the Patriots to being faced with a potentially crippling loss. But when push came to shove, San Francisco never flinched. They received a huge boost from their special teams followed by the game-sealing connection from Kaepernick to Crabtree.
They exemplified dynastic traits in this thrilling Week 15 victory.
This game was another leap forward in San Francisco's establishment of their identity. They projected toughness, resiliency and adaptability, which are all necessary traits for a team that wins consistently.
The quarterback position is the cornerstone to any dynasty. Even successful teams that failed to bring home the gold had premier passers. For instance, Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills and Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers were both quarterbacks who won consistently but could not be triumphant in the big game.
The fact of the matter is that the 49ers current signal-caller Colin Kaepernick has star power and there is no getting around it. He is a born leader, and pending unforeseen circumstances, Kaepernick will be the franchise quarterback for quite some time.
And as mentioned before, it is often the quarterback–head coach dynamic that ensures wins in the long run. For the 49ers it began in 1979, when Eddie DeBartolo Jr. named Bill Walsh as head coach.
In his first order of business, Walsh drafted Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana in the third round of the ’79 NFL Draft. Montana appeared in all 16 games of his rookie season, but only threw 23 passes as a backup to Steve DeBerg. In their second year together, though, Walsh named Montana the starter midway through the season, and the rest is history.
Fast forward to January 2011: owner Jed York names Jim Harbaugh as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. And, though initially thrilled with the roster, Harbaugh’s first order of business was finding a franchise quarterback.
Kaepernick was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He would backup Alex Smith in his rookie year and saw very little time on the field. Then, midway through this past season, Harbaugh named Kaepernick the starter, and San Francisco made their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1994.
Joe Montana went on KNBR the week before Super Bowl XLVII and talked about Kaepernick’s arm:
Obviously he can throw the ball with the best of them. It's hard to judge with guys in this kind of a system. Because of his running ability, there's a difference in how guys get open. Who's going to let Vernon Davis open as many times as he was? Not just open – wide open. But a lot of that comes from his ability to run the ball, and the defenses fear of him to be able to run the ball. So, you get guys that are going to squeeze open a little more. But that's the style of offense they run. He fits in to what they're doing and he's throwing the ball well. When he's had to throw the ball in tight situations, he's been able to do it on those occasions. You can't question how well he's playing.
Colin Kaepernick is what makes the dynasty talk possible because this was never really a possibility with Alex Smith. The dynasty question becomes even more relevant with San Francisco because of the Harbaugh-Kaepernick combo.
Like the great duos before them, Harbaugh and Kaepernick are highly capable in their own right—but together they can achieve history.
The Niners have all of the components of a new-era dynasty.
The coaching staff in San Francisco is one of the NFL’s most elite units. In his first season, Jim Harbaugh was named NFL Coach of the Year, and his hand-selected coordinators from Stanford have formed a tremendous supporting cast.
The recently developed metaphysical relationship between the coaches and personnel execs has been rhythmic. In the past two seasons, the have acquired and developed names like Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller, LaMichael James, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner.
They have taken great strides as an organization in a short period of time, and they appear to still be ascending.
Now, with this recent phenomenon at quarterback, they can reach dynasty status. With his anticipated growth and the continued forward progress of this team, the Niners are on the brink of something special.
But they have to win consistently. They already have two NFC Championship berths (1-1) and a Super Bowl appearance in the last two seasons, but more must be accomplished.
Kaepernick, Harbaugh and the rest of this team will be measured by championships. The 49ers have to return a sixth Lombardi trophy, or more, to the Bay Area to be considered a full-fledged dynasty.
When NFL fans talk about dynasties, Jim Kelly’s Bills are not the first team to come to mind, even though they went to four straight Super Bowls (1990-1993). When you finish 0-4 in those games, the true caliber of the team will always remain in question.
The Greatest Show on Turf went to two Super Bowls in three years (1-1), but people hardly ever refer to the St. Louis Rams as a dynasty.
The bottom line is: San Francisco has to win titles for dynasty consideration. If they are not competing for a Super Bowl every year, then they will just be another "very good team."
But while monitoring this team’s progress, the telltale sign will be the evolution of Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick. The potential is there for them to have a profound impact on this league. These past two years in San Francisco have been very transitional, but when this train finally gets a full head of steam, there may be no derailing it.