NEW ORLEANS -- The great and enduring myth about the San Francisco 49ers -- and their dynasty of the '80s and '90s -- will be on full display yet again in another Super Bowl.
The myth: The 49ers were, and are, all about offense.
The reality: Offense entertains, fans love it. But defense wins championships. Sometimes, cliches are cliches for a reason -- they are true.
This year's 49ers team is but the latest example. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the versatile read-option standout and surprising replacement for veteran Alex Smith, has been the dominant story line. But even as the quarterback position and the offense itself evolved, it was a staunch and stingy defense that made the 49ers a feared opponent each week.
"Our entire team is having a great season, but the defense has been good for several years and this year it has been outstanding," said inside linebacker Patrick Willis. "We know this franchise has a great history of defense. We know we must live up to that to take our place among the great teams in 49ers history."
For the 49ers, the longest-lingering memory centers around the 1981 season, when they ended decades of futility by winning the Super Bowl behind a young quarterback named Joe Montana.
Montana was on the cover of Time and Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.
But that San Francisco team was a middle-of-the-pack team on offense, ranking 13th in the NFL. The defense, led by three rookie defensive backs including Ronnie Lott, and a pair of veterans acquired the same year, Fred Dean and Jack Reynolds, ranked second in the league. At one point, the 49ers won four consecutive games in which they never scored more than two touchdowns.
In the Super Bowl, Montana was selected as the MVP. But the game was won by a goal line stand late in the third quarter when the Cincinnati Bengals couldn't reach the San Francisco end zone in four plays starting from the 3-yard line, the last three from the 1-yard line.
Three years later, en route to a second Super Bowl victory in which the 49ers alternated nine defensive linemen against Dan Marino, and sent all four of their starting defensive backs to the Pro Bowl, the myth still persisted. During that season, Marino had thrown 48 touchdown passes, a record that endured well more than two decades. Against the 49ers, Marino produced only one touchdown.
No less an authority than Lott, by now well into his Hall of Fame career, told an interviewer that season that he understood the ethos of the 49ers well -- that the defense was an afterthought in most people's minds. He even picked out an out-of-shape sportswriter and said the 49ers could plug that fellow in at quarterback and it still would be all about the offense.
Yet, fact is that, at times during their salad days, the 49ers maintained as many as 10 defensive linemen on their roster. During the 1981-94 stretch, which encompassed the five Super Bowl winners, the 49ers used their first draft pick on a defensive player in 9 of 14 years, including five times on a defensive lineman.
San Francisco's third Super Bowl title remembered for Montana engineering a last-ditch drive and throwing a touchdown pass to John Taylor for the winning points. But that 49ers' comeback would not have been possible if it weren't for a defense that held Cincinnati without a touchdown in the game.
Perhaps this is just a coincidence but, the last time the 49ers were in the playoffs prior to 2011 was in 2002. Starting in 2003, their next four first-round draft choices all were offensive players, and the team's record during those four years was 20-44. Talk about emphasis misplaced. The climb back to respectability did not begin in earnest until 2007, when linebacker Willis was the team's first pick. Willis has been selected to the Pro Bowl each year of his career.
In the 2012 season, Willis was just one of six 49ers' defensive starters who were voted to the Pro Bowl. They had to skip the Pro Bowl game, of course, because it conflicts with the Super Bowl preparations, but it's nonetheless a clear sign of where the team's strength is.
Linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive tackle Justin Smith, linebacker NaVorro Bowman and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner also were chosen for the NFC Pro Bowl team. Once again, the 49ers defense was ahead of the offense, with the defense ranked No. 3 in the league and the offense ranked No. 11, based on yards gained. The 49ers were 11th in the NFL in scoring but No. 2, behind only Seattle, in allowing the fewest points.
San Francisco's defensive heritage is significant approaching the Super Bowl because the team with the reputation for great defense is the 49ers' opponent, Baltimore. But the Ravens were 17th in total defense and 11th in points allowed, and actually their offense ranked ahead of their defense in both categories.
The game still must be played, of course, but as you think about it . . . just remember that the truth about the strength of these teams bears little resemblance to the popular (mis)conceptions about them.
Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.