Oates: 49ers, Pack survive cap hell

The last time Green Bay and San Francisco showed up on anyone's playoff radar screen, the 49ers' Terrell Owens was leaping over four Packers in the end zone to haul in a game-winning touchdown pass from Steve Young with three seconds to play.

That was 36 months ago and, although nobody realized it at the time, it was the start of a postseason sabbatical for two of the NFL's dominant teams of the 1990s. The 49ers lost to the Falcons the next week and neither they nor the Packers have been in a playoff game since.

After only two playoff-free seasons, however, both teams are back in a big way. When they play Sunday at Lambeau Field, it will be the first time two 12-4 teams meet in a wild-card playoff game.

The journeys that both teams took -- more like forced marches, actually -- in the intervening three years were different only by degrees. Both teams took steps backward in order to move forward. However, if the 49ers went through salary cap hell, then the Packers went through salary cap heck.

Now that both have emerged as NFC contenders again, the parallels are striking. It turns out they weren't retreating, they were just reloading.

"It's a special game," fifth-year 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said of the resumption of a playoff matchup that took place annually from 1995 to '98. "The Packers-49ers game has become quite a rivalry. We both took a couple years off to reload, but we're back and it's going to be a heck of a game."

How the Packers and 49ers reloaded so quickly should serve as a primer for the NFL's salary cap era. Not that it should surprise anyone.

The teams that will meet Sunday are the last great works of art by two of the NFL's top architects of the last 20 years. The Packers' Ron Wolf and the 49ers' Bill Walsh both relinquished their general manager posts after April's draft, but not before each had turned over a playoff-caliber team to his successor.

Wolf and Walsh retooled their teams with remarkably similar plans that involved a deep understanding of the salary cap, shrewd drafting and a bit of luck. Both teams rid themselves of aging, expensive stars and replaced them with younger, cheaper talent acquired mainly through the draft. The only real surprise is that they did it so quickly.

"When you have two icons like those men, for anybody not to assume that they had a great influence on both places would be a mistake," second-year Packers coach Mike Sherman said.

Walsh had to tear down the 49ers and start from scratch due to the crushing weight the 49ers' previous free-spending ways put on the salary cap. But after the team compiled a 10-22 record in 1999 and 2000, Walsh's five-year plan accelerated into a three-year plan. No one, not even the 49ers, expected to go 12-4 this year.

Wolf had managed the cap more effectively than the 49ers did in the mid-1990s, so he didn't have to purge his entire roster. However, he did have to rebuild so he could put a competitive team on the field while quarterback Brett Favre was still in his prime. The Packers went 17-15 in 1999 and 2000, then won 12 games under Sherman this year.

How extensive have the makeovers been since that playoff game at 3Com Park on Jan. 3, 1999? Only 14 of the 44 starters from three years ago will start the game today.

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