PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / pkitigaki@sacbee.com

Coach Jim Harbaugh made a bold move in turning his team over to 25-year-old Colin Kaepernick.

An old, familiar feeling about this 49ers team

Published: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1X
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 - 10:33 am

NEW ORLEANS – Seeing the image was like going back in time to 1982.

Sure, there was more gray in his temples, and there were more creases in his face. The fat, striped tie was gone, replaced by a black shirt and leather jacket.

But the smile, the body language and the setting – mostly the setting – were familiar: Eddie DeBartolo Jr., inside a 49ers locker room, surrounded by triumphant players in various states of undress, holding a glimmering trophy.

The scene took place in Atlanta on Jan. 20, and the ceremony marked the team's win in the NFC Championship Game. The memories of every long-time 49ers fan who watched DeBartolo hoist the first of five much more meaningful trophies on Jan. 24, 1982, must have come flooding back.

And they must have led to the question: Is this the verge of a new 49ers dynasty?

It's hard to avoid comparisons.

The 49ers again are led by a former Stanford coach with a penchant for grooming quarterbacks.

"They're intelligent and they're not afraid to do things differently," DeBartolo said of Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh.

The 49ers feature a quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who at 25 is the same age Joe Montana was when he was the MVP of Super Bowl XVI.

And the organization is run by a latter-day Eddie DeBartolo, his nephew Jed York, who so closely resembles his uncle from his brown eyes and three-piece suits to the way he passes out towels at the locker-room entrance after games.

York has made no secret he leans on his uncle for guidance and emulation.

"It's not some silver-bullet advice that he gives," York said. "It's just more of, 'Listen, do what's in your gut – trust yourself, don't worry about the negativity and the people that are attacking you and fans booing or this and that. Do what you think is best for this organization.' "

Team of the teens

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed on two things: dynasties are more difficult to achieve now than in the 1980s and 1990s, and the 49ers, more than any other franchise, are suited to be the team of the teens.

While many of the Baltimore Ravens' story lines last week revolved around the pending retirements of linebacker Ray Lewis, 37, center Matt Birk, 36, and perhaps safety Ed Reed, 34, no 49ers player is ready to leave the game – wide receiver Randy Moss, 35, having addressed that Tuesday. The average age of a 49ers starter: 26.

They also have most of their top players under long-term contracts.

Of the league-high nine players voted to the Pro Bowl this season, only one, safety Dashon Goldson, is not signed for 2013, and the 49ers could retain him with the franchise tag for the second season in a row. One star inside linebacker, Patrick Willis, is signed through 2016. The other, NaVorro Bowman, is locked in through 2018.

Announcer Tim Ryan agreed the 49ers are loaded for the future but said losing top assistants, especially offensive coordinator Greg Roman, is something that could derail any dynasty discussion.

"And that's going to happen," Ryan said. "Not this year, but at some point it's going to happen."

Still, Roman and others haven't been snapped up yet. In fact, the 49ers have lost only one assistant – 2011 quality control coach Bobby Engram – in the past two years, although there's still a chance others could depart after the Super Bowl.

If they do, Harbaugh has embraced the Walsh model for hiring assistants: Bring in hungry, young and ambitious coaches and don't worry if they're hired elsewhere. It just means San Francisco is a great place to further your career.

"I've always tried to hire coaches that had that ambition," Harbaugh said. "I like guys like that – that have those ambitions, those hopes, those dreams."

DeBartolo pointed out that it's more difficult now to fill holes on the roster because of retirement or injury. He took a spare-no-expenses approach to the team and brought in coveted free agents – including Hacksaw Reynolds, Tim McDonald and Deion Sanders – whenever the 49ers needed firepower.

Draft is key, too

With the salary cap limiting the ability to spend freely, the 49ers will have to replenish through the draft in coming years. But they're well-equipped in that regard as well, with 14 picks in the upcoming draft.

"I think you have to have a continually good draft," said Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys scouting director. "When you look at the nucleus of these teams that are winning, it's teams that have drafted well. And they have."

General manager Trent Baalke's 2011 draft, which landed starters Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and Bruce Miller, is particularly well regarded.

DeBartolo likened it not to the 1981 draft that preceded the team's first Super Bowl but to the 1986 draft – widely considered the franchise's best ever – that brought Charles Haley, John Taylor and Tom Rathman, among others, and sustained the team's success.

Comparing his first Super Bowl team to the current one, DeBartolo said: "I don't think that team is anywhere near as good as the one that's going to play (today)."

York refused to embrace talk of dynasties or comparisons to his uncle because, he said, his 49ers squads haven't won any Super Bowls yet.

But he acknowledged he and Uncle Eddie both love to win, and he admitted to being rather unpleasant – and animated – beginning the night before a game. That's why you'll never find the two in the same room together on game days, including today.

"That would not be a good thing," York said. "There's way too much nervous energy. The time continuum would explode."

DeBartolo, meanwhile, said it was fun being in the locker room again in Atlanta. But he said if the 49ers win today, he would not be on the podium to lift a sixth Lombardi Trophy. He said that honor will go to his sister, Denise, and his nephew.

"It's their time now," DeBartolo said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matthew Barrows



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