The "let sleeping dogs lie" school of sports psychology suggests
that athletes and coaches should never openly denigrate the
competition. Some hapless defensive back is called for pass
interference three times in the second half? He looked a little
confused out there. A team finishes 8-8 for the fourth straight
year? They're having a tough time getting over the hump. But
make no mistake: Behind closed doors, league personnel love to
laugh at their opponents' shortcomings.

And so it is now with the San Francisco 49ers. Yes, the 49ers
will win their 13th division title in 16 years this season. But
San Francisco is no longer the unassailably excellent team to
which its fans have grown accustomed. The organization's
much-trumpeted way of doing business has taken a lot of hits in
the last 12 months. And the rest of the league is enjoying the
prospect of the haughty Niners' getting their comeuppance.

To their detractors' glee, the 49ers appear to have stumbled
over their own arrogance. By making only a halfhearted attempt
to re-sign free-agent running back Ricky Watters after the 1994
season, San Francisco found itself high and dry when fullback
William Floyd destroyed his right knee last October. Floyd, who
had 585 combined yards rushing and receiving in eight games, was
replaced in the lineup by Derek Loville, a fifth-year back who
had started just one game in his pro career. Although Loville
led the Niners in rushing (he was also second on the team in
receiving yards), the team gained less than 100 yards rushing in
eight of its last 10 games, forcing its quarterbacks to throw 40
or more passes in nine of them. In 1995, San Francisco attempted
a team-record 644 passes but gained an anemic 3.6 rushing yards
per carry.

"It's very difficult to succeed in the long run without a
running game," says offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. "But
you can win games, a lot of them, without one." Unsure of
Floyd's availability for the '96 season--only the most
optimistic predict that he will return by September--San
Francisco signed Giants running back Rodney Hampton to a
generous six-year, $16.45 million offer sheet in March. The
Niners were shocked when New York matched their terms for
Hampton's services. (Perhaps they should count their blessings:
Hampton has never been a great runner on grass, and he's an old
27.) Betraying its desperation and once again demonstrating its
affinity for well-rested backs, San Francisco then inked former
Jet Johnny Johnson to a two-year, $3 million contract. (Johnson
sat out the entire 1995 season.) Team president Carmen Policy
had questioned the back's desire to play football after
unsuccessfully wooing Johnson last year. Any port in a storm.

The same panicky desperation might have been behind the decision
to sign Atlanta defensive end Chris Doleman to a five-year deal
with the richest signing bonus, $3.4 million, in team history.
Granted, the 49ers' self-esteem took a beating when, after
Rickey Jackson retired, Chargers standout Leslie O'Neal turned
up his nose at the Bay Area and went to St. Louis. But Chris
Doleman? The Falcons were only too happy to see the 34-year-old
lineman go. Yes, Doleman had nine sacks last season, but he
plowed through Panthers rookie tackle Blake Brockermeyer for 3
1/2 sacks in the season opener. In his last 11 games, Doleman
had just 2 1/2 sacks.

Perhaps the clearest indication that all is not right with the
Niners is the team's admission that it must begin to take
special teams play seriously. "Up until now, here it's always
been that if the special teams don't screw it up, we'll win with
offense and defense," says coach George Seifert. "Now it's
tougher to have a dominant team. There is more of a balance and
there are more close games, so everything has to be held
accountable." San Francisco ranked in the bottom third in five
of six special teams categories in 1995. Special teams coach
Alan Lowery was fired after the season, and the 49ers added
George Stewart, who in seven pro seasons has coached highly
regarded special teams units in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

But all is not lost: There is always that peerless Steve
Young-to-Jerry Rice combination, and the league's stingiest
defense has five Pro Bowl players returning. Still, the bloom is
off the rose. For the first time in many years, the 49ers have
more questions than they do answers.

--Stephen Thomas

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN COVER [REGIONAL] On a Mission Steve Young and the 49ers aim to reclaim the title COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The 49ers' revamped rushing attack will take the pressure to pass off Young. [Steve Young]

BY THE NUMBERS

1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)

Rushing Passing Total

OFFENSE 92.4 (23) 288.0 (1) 380.4 (2)
DEFENSE 66.3 (1) 208.6 (11) 274.9 (1)

The Best, by George

Of the 58 men who have coached at least 100 NFL regular-season
games, George Seifert is better than everyone else--including
his storied predecessor in San Francisco, Bill Walsh--in two
important categories.

Best Winning Percentage

Record* Pct.

George Seifert, 1989-present 86-26-0 .768
John Madden, 1969-78 103-32-7 .759
Vince Lombardi, 1959-67, '69 96-34-6 .738
George Allen, 1966-77 116-47-5 .712
Blanton Collier, 1963-70 76-34-2 .691

Highest Scoring Average

Games Pts. Avg.

George Seifert, 1989-present 112 3,054 27.27
Blanton Collier, 1963-70 112 2,889 25.79
Vince Lombardi, 1959-67, '69 136 3,387 24.90
Don Coryell, 1973-86 195 4,782 24.52
Bill Walsh, 1979-88 152 3,714 24.43

*Before 1972, ties were not calculated into winning percentage

PLAYER TO WATCH

Last spring receiver J.J. Stokes wanted to work out with Jerry
Rice and Rice's longtime personal trainer, Raymond Farris, but
Stokes's class schedule at UCLA got in the way. The team's 1995
first-round pick spent this off-season matching Rice drill for
drill. "Those two know that they are a key for the 49ers'
getting back to the Super Bowl," says Farris of his conditioning
charges. Last year Stokes, who missed four games with a broken
right hand, had 38 receptions. In team history, only Gene
Washington and Rice himself caught more passes in their rookie
seasons.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

Head coach: George Seifert

Offense

QB Steve Young 447 att. 299 comp. 66.9% 3,200 yds. 20 TDs 11
int. 92.3 rtg.

RB Johnny Johnson*[**] 240 att. 931 yds. 3 TDs
FB William Floyd 64 att. 237 yds. 2 TDs
TE Brent Jones 60 rec. 595 yds. 3 TDs
WR Jerry Rice 122 rec. 1,848 yds. 15 TDs
WR J.J. Stokes 38 rec. 517 yds. 4 TDs
WR Nate Singleton 8 rec. 108 yds. 1 TD
LT Kirk Scrafford 6'6" 275 lbs.
LG Ray Brown[**] 6'5" 312 lbs.
C Jesse Sapolu 6'4" 278 lbs.
RG Rod Milstead 6'2" 290 lbs.
RT Harris Barton 6'4" 286 lbs.
PK Jeff Wilkins 27/29 XPs 12/13 FGs

Defense

LE Roy Barker[**] 3 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT Bryant Young 6 sacks 2 fum. rec.
RT Dana Stubblefield 4 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RE Chris Doleman[**] 9 sacks 2 fum. rec.
OLB Lee Woodall 3 sacks 2 int.
MLB Ken Norton 1 sack 3 int.
OLB Gary Plummer 1 sack 0 int.
CB Tyronne Drakeford 5 int. 1 sack
SS Tim McDonald 4 int. 0 sacks
FS Merton Hanks 5 int. 0 sacks
CB Marquez Pope 1 int. 0 sacks
P Tommy Thompson 57 punts 40.6 avg.
PR Dexter Carter 30 ret. 10.3 avg.
KR Dexter Carter 56 ret. 21.9 avg.

[**]New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
* 1994 statistics

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)