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.

Just four players who started that game for the 49ers -- wide receiver J.J. Stokes, offensive linemen Derrick Deese and Ray Brown and defensive tackle Bryant Young -- are still starting, although Owens was a heavily used third receiver back then.

The Packers have only 10 regulars from 1998 that are still starting -- Favre, wide receiver Antonio Freeman, fullback William Henderson, guard Marco Rivera, defensive tackles Santana Dotson and Gilbert Brown, defensive end Vonnie Holliday, linebacker Bernardo Harris, safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Tyrone Williams. And of those, Brown was out of football for a year before rejoining the Packers this season.

The first thing Walsh and Wolf did was rid themselves of dead salary cap weight. There were painful personnel decisions to make, in many cases with players who had helped the franchises win NFL titles.

This was a brutally extensive job for Walsh. He dumped 11 sometime starters after the 1998 season, five more after 1999 and four more last off-season. The most painful cuts came two years ago, when Young was nudged into retirement and defensive stalwarts Tim McDonald and Lee Woodall were jettisoned, and last season, when wide receiver Jerry Rice and linebacker Ken Norton Jr. were casualties.

Getting those huge contracts off the books left the 49ers with $21 million in dead cap money this season and another hefty chunk next year. After that, however, they should be in great shape with cap money to spend and a young, talented team on the field.

In Green Bay, Wolf continued his long-standing policy of trying to re-sign his own players, but only within reason. End-of-the-line veterans such as Reggie White and Robert Brooks weren't asked back. Younger veterans such as offensive linemen Adam Timmerman and Ross Verba went elsewhere for bigger money than the Packers were willing to pay.

Still, the Packers ran into a salary cap wall after last season, a wall they scaled by getting veterans LeRoy Butler, Dorsey Levens, Frank Winters, Earl Dotson and Santana Dotson to accept pay cuts. Now, the Packers have a young team and a comfortable cap situation.

The second thing Walsh and Wolf did was milk the draft to resupply the talent that was lost to age, injury and the cap. Both men had exceptional drafts in 2000, landing classes that put their teams back on track sooner than expected.

Walsh, who had a history of trading down in the draft, stockpiling picks and then using them wisely, did that again in the 2000 draft. He kept trading down and ended up with seven of the top 108 picks. Six of the seven -- cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, linebackers Julian Peterson and Jeff Ulbrich, defensive end John Engelberger and safety John Keith -- became starters, although Keith's career was sidetracked by injury. Those players have become the backbone of a defense that has improved to 13th this year after being ranked 28th and 29th the previous two years. And it's getting better all the time. The 49ers have posted three shutouts in their last six games.

Walsh's 2001 draft yielded one more defensive starter -- end Andre Carter, the No. 1 pick -- and oft-used substitutes in linebacker Jamie Winborn, halfback Kevan Barlow and nickel back Rashad Holman.

Wolf also struck it rich in the 2000 draft, using his NFL-high 13 picks to land instant starters in tight end Bubba Franks, offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher and outside linebacker Na'il Diggs. Among several other contributors from that draft is Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who led the Packers with 13½ sacks this season.

The final element of the success Walsh and Wolf enjoyed was luck.

Walsh is responsible for uncovering quarterback Jeff Garcia, who earned his experience by playing four seasons in the Canadian Football League and was signed by the 49ers to be Young's backup. Three years later, Garcia will be going to his second Pro Bowl and is drawing favorable comparisons to Young and Joe Montana. The 49ers, who couldn't pay halfback Charlie Garner and lost him to the Raiders, got another break when Garrison Hearst returned after two missed seasons and five ankle operations to once again become a 1,000-yard rusher.

As for Wolf, he fleeced his old compatriot, Mike Holmgren, by trading cornerback Fred Vinson, who was damaged goods, for halfback Ahman Green. Green, who had fumbled his way into Holmgren's doghouse in Seattle, gained almost 2,000 yards from scrimmage for the Packers this season and has given Favre the complementary running threat he's needed since injuries caught up to Levens.

Upon their exits, both Walsh and Wolf left behind solid organizations so that the success might continue.

Mariucci's coaching job this season was overshadowed by those of Chicago's Dick Jauron and New England's Bill Belichick, but he battled through the constant distractions created by Owens to double the team's victory total from 2000. In fact, after going 2-19 from early in the 1999 season to late in the 2000 season, the 49ers have won 16 of their last 22 games. Terry Donahue, who replaced Walsh as general manager, is a budding personnel whiz.

Wolf, after the disastrous hiring of Ray Rhodes in 1999, cut his losses and hired Sherman the following year. The Packers have gone 16-4 under Sherman since Dec. 1 of last season. Sherman inherited Wolf's general manager's duties after the draft and brought in Mark Hatley as his top personnel man. Hatley was responsible for putting together the Bears team that went 13-3 this season.

Clearly, these are two men, and two franchices, that know how to win. However, not even Mariucci thought the 49ers would be this good, this soon.

"To say that we expected to be a 12-4 team, that might have been a little bit of a stretch," he said.

He could have been speaking for both teams.

Bucs' different frame of mindThere is only one thing to say about the Eagles' 17-13, come-from-behind victory over the Bucs last Sunday night.

Not bad for a preseason game.

There were big plays, late scores and an improbable rally in the teams' regular-season finale. Too bad it was meaningless.

That's because the teams were already scheduled to turn around and meet again this weekend in a wild-card playoff game at Philadelphia. One thing is certain, there were no secrets revealed last week.

For the Eagles, quarterback Donovan McNabb started, handed off twice and went to the bench. Seven Eagles starters were on the inactive list, not even dressed.

For the Bucs, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and halfback Warrick Dunn didn't play and quarterback Brad Johnson went only one series. The Bucs used nine of 11 starters on defense, but they played less than three minutes and never returned.

As much as it had the feel of a preseason game, however, Sunday's game might not be so meaningless after all. In fact, it might be just what the Bucs needed.

You see, last year they closed their season with a hugely disappointing road loss to the Packers in overtime, a loss that cost them home-field advantage and a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The following week they traveled to Philadelphia for a wild-card game and performed dismally in a 20-3 loss.

This year, the Bucs will show up in an entirely different frame of mind. They won five of their six games prior to the "preseason" loss and they will be well-rested after what essentially was a bye week.

"We have something to prove to ourselves," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We went up there and got embarrassed last year."

It's not likely they'll be embarrassed like that again.

Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal writes an NFC column every week for ESPN.com.