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Rough Beginnings for San Francisco's Receiving Corps. 10/26/01 9:00 PM
If ever there was a season where the 49er wide receivers were more on the spot, this is the season it is. With a running back by committee in action and veteran tight end Greg Clark out again with injury, the spotlight for instant offensive production falls upon the receivers to produce almost immediately.

Terrell Owens is the superstar in this offense mostly due to the fact that veteran running back Garrison Hearst is just now finding his groove of old, and that both J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets continue to take their lead from Owens game breaking playmaking skills.
Owens has made both friends and enemies in his tenure as a 49er, he has also made outstanding receiving records already, taking his place in the footsteps of the greatest receiver of all time Jerry Rice. The responsibilities that have fallen on his shoulders are indeed immense, but he has taken a liking to all of them, and is prepared for the challenges ahead.

With each and every passing game that I have observed I have come away with a new found gratitude and outright satisfaction that Terrell Owens is the best replacement for the departed Jerry Rice. He grows and matures almost daily, his awareness of where he is and how to gain yardage after the catch astound me, he is big, raw, powerful and full of confidence in his abilities. He may just be the best receiver in this league today in my opinion.

Back in training camp on August 1, 2001 Terrell Owens suffered a scare that sent chills right through the 49er coaching staff and front office. Owens in a pass play in training went down with an ankle injury. He was being covered by cornerback Anthony Parker, who intercepted a Jeff Garcia pass. Parker and Owens became tangled in the play and both went down, and only Parker got up.

Owens was removed from the field on a cart, but later, to his relief Coach Steve Mariucci was happy to report that his star receiver suffered no more than a sprained left ankle. “He was kind of hurting and angry when he was lying on the field but he was all smiles in the training room,” Mariucci said. “He said, ‘It’s not that bad. I’ll be out there (today).’ We’ll see.”

The relationship between Mariucci and Owens has been one of closeness and fondness to being controversial and loathing. Both Coach and player have had some differences that were seriously highlighted in light of last season’s action in Texas Stadium last season.

Certainly everyone can relate to how important it is for a coach and his star playmaker to have a personal commitment to each other in both good times and bad. It is closely observed and mimicked by others on the entire team. It is the very relationship that defines the conduct of how rookie players develop and take their next step.

The rocky relationship that transpired after the famous Texas Stadium incident has lasted to well over a year now. The birth of this friction happened last September. 24th, in the fourth game of the 2000 season. Owens histrionics at midfield after scoring touchdowns so enraged the Dallas Cowboys that 49er’s Head Coach Steve Mariucci felt compelled to levy disciplinary action.

Owens sprinted after each touchdown in that game to the Dallas star in the middle of the field, and on the first try lifted his arms to the heavens peering through the opening a top Texas Stadium. He was in his mind celebrating the taste of victory for his team and himself against the hated rival being the Dallas Cowboys. Some Cowboy players hit him from behind the second time he tried in defiance of his illustrious and blatant act looked at as vulgar downing of a proud franchise in America’s star team.

“We’ve come to grips with that,” Mariucci said one week about his relationship with Owens. “We’re good. We have to be.” But are they really? That is still being evaluated even today as we continue to play towards halftime of the 2001 season.

“That is real nasty,” Jerry Rice said recently. Rice watched the festering relationship up close last season. “Somehow they have to come to a mutual agreement. Wars between the head coach and a player can cause friction. It needs to be nipped in the bud.”

Mariucci following the infamous act by Owens felt he had to flex his authority by suspending Owens for a week, forcing him to be expelled from the teams facilities and participation in the next game. He was also fined for that one-week suspension his pay in the sum of $24,294. Which Owens later appealed.

Owens despite his bruised ego and emotional upheaval went on to have a career season, capped by a historic performance on Dec. 17th, when he set an NFL record for receptions in a game with 20.

But even as late as May of this year Owens remained hostile as he remembered what had happened, just one season ago. He continued to acknowledge that Mariucci bowed to public pressure as both the league and media applauded him for his actions levied against his star receiver.

“It made me have a different outlook on the coaches and organization,” Owens said in May, saving his harshest words for Mariucci. “I felt he treated me unfairly. I’ll never see him the same. He really hurt me. I’ll never forget it.”

Pretty harsh words for a star receiver to say about his coach, I have been on record as saying that I believe his actions were out of line also. I stand on that but I also felt the fine was unwarranted as a suspension was enough of embarrassment in itself or at least the fine was too heavy in my opinion.

Many fans alike are still divided on this situation and how it was ultimately handled; it even forced the NFL to impose new regulations on how athletes are supposed to celebrate. Believing Owens was a paradox to draw from they set even stricter rules on how an athlete is supposed to conduct themselves following a touchdown.

Within that same time Owens did continue to serve his team, even restructuring his contract to save salary cap room for the team. He is signed through 2006 (with the opportunity to void his contract after 2003). We hope that he chooses to stay.

“I’ll go out and play hard, and play like I want to be here,” he said. “I do want to be here. I’m under contract. I have no choice. I don’t want to be a distraction. But it does hurt; I’m not going to lie.”

I can sympathize with Owens and understand where he is coming from, he honestly believes he should have been supported by all his teammates and especially the front office as this saga unfolded. He still contains he meant nothing from the celebration to degrade the Cowboys. But dancing and lifting one’s arms in symbolic victory on the coveted Dallas emblem in the center of their field is another matter.

I believe the context of his suspension was warranted regarding the fact that the second attempt to the center of Texas Stadium should have never happened considering how the first one generated a negative reaction. Owens was caught up in the fervor for opposing fans to recognize that the 49er’s were for real even in a questionable season because of their rebuilding. He also in my opinion enjoyed the personal jubilation of making those touchdowns, which is all good but it was in the context of where he celebrated that was the core of this disputed act.

Owens and Mariucci have both come to the table of counseling and personal recognition of each other’s personality since that day, and continue to make progress on how their bond will grow over time. Mariucci is a player’s coach and doing what he did had to be the defining moment of his coaching career. He had to make an unpopular decision and stick with it, knowing full well the ramifications it would create. Justice though had to be served and he did that with his actions.

Both since then have reached a settlement over his fine, and Owens therefore has dropped his appeal. The fine was reduced and a hearing, which would have reopened the wound, was avoided. Both continue to have one-on-one communication and express optimism about their roles with one another.

“We’re important to each other,” Mariucci said. “We do have a good rapport. Much better than after the incident. We’ve had good discussions, not about what happened but about where do we go from here.”

Terrell Owens seemed satisfied with the settlement also and seems willing to carry on as his duties as a 49er, but he still has some deep-rooted reservations about the future. He has not totally gone through the re-trusting stage with his coach but feelings seem to be on the mend. And I hope as all of you do that it continues to be towards that trend.

“We cleared things up.” Owens said one afternoon after practice. “My feelings are a lot of things have changed. I’ve gotten past it, but it makes me think that the football business is more about business than about people caring about people.”

“I see him differently,” Owens said of Mariucci. “I know we have to coexist, so I just let it go and play football. But probably my feelings will never change.” Owens continues to struggle internally with this complex issue in his head even up to today. He was a product of a difficult and anti-social childhood; He is clearly troubled by criticism and his status last season as a NFL problem child.

This incident has marked him undoubtedly for life, but he must get past it and help lead this 49er team, which he has proven time and time again thus far. He accepts his responsibility and the fact that he is human and makes mistakes. He also has done what he can do in establishing himself as a leader on this team, although it has been most difficult.

The sunset on Jerry Rice’s career with San Francisco after 16 years came like a whirlwind and emptied a lot of past acknowledgements and practices the 49er coaching staff felt it needed to do to appease the great receiver.

His departure from this organization after 16 brilliant years of service and outstanding performances, has created new opportunities the 49er’s felt pressured not to exploit because of the ramifications Rice could explode with. For someone like Jerry Rice he felt he needed to produce or define himself each and every day that he played. Even though he went on record the last two seasons and advocated that Owens and Stokes deserved more playing time. He continued to be unsatisfied with stepping back a few steps to allow that to really happen.

“If you have a great receiver, he needs to get his six catches and 100 yards,” Coach Steve Mariucci said. “The trick is when you have several weapons, how do you balance that?”

“Jerry was one who was very productive. You wouldn’t want to come away from a game; saying ‘He had two catches. What were we thinking?’ Now, what happened is that got extended into his later years, 15 and 16, and we still had his name on the game plan with a list of plays. We still felt we needed to get him the ball, out of respect, plus he could be productive.”

It was this very mentality of the 49er coaching staff that created agony for the other receivers on this team. The playing time for both J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets was severely limited with Rice’s presence, and his name continuing to be involved in multiple plays.

Out of all my respect foe Jerry Rice I am happy that he has continued his career, and that he chose the Oakland Raiders simply for the fact that he gets to remain in the Bay Area. I have admired and enjoyed Rice for so many years, and I am grateful to him for all his faithful service, he will always be the great one to me, and I am humbled by his mere presence.

However I must concede that it was time to part ways, if not just financially but for practical and developing reasons as well. It is time for Owens, Stokes and Streets to all contribute to the future glory of this proud franchise. It will be all upon their shoulders to learn how to make that happen.

Stokes for the very first time will move into the regular lineup on a regular basis for the first time in four years, when a knee injury virtually wiped out Rice’s 1997 season. He plays at split end, the position Owens played last season. This allows Owens, a Pro Bowl player with a last season team-leading 97 receptions and 13 touchdowns, to move to flanker, the spot Rice held down for the 49er’s for 16 years.

Coach Steve Mariucci said one day that moving Owens to flanker would help the 49er’s foil double-coverage schemes opposing defenses are expected to roll toward Owens. “You’ve got to be able to be non-predictable,” Mariucci said.
As flanker, Owens will line up a yard behind the line of scrimmage. That will give him some maneuvering room as he runs his pass routes. He also will be able to go into motion from the flanker position, allowing the 49er’s to change his position in the formation in hopes of creating a mismatch for the defense.

The day that Jerry Rice left and packed his belongings after 16 years, Terrell Owens helped him load 16 seasons worth of equipment and memorabilia into his Mercedes Benz. Shortly after that Rice produced the ball he was given after his final home game at 3-Com Park last season. It was in that last game that Owens established a NFL record with 20 receptions. Rice handed the ball to Owens.

Certainly you have to acknowledge the changing of the guard here, out with the old in with the new is a phrase we sometimes go to. But you cannot say that knowing Rice’s time was not yet up, he gave the ball to Owens to symbolize it was his now, he needed to step up and be the example, he needs to be this team’s new leader.

“The things I do will be under a microscope, so I’ll have to keep my nose clean and do things pro football players are supposed to do,” Owens said. “I’m in a situation where a lot of young guys on this team look up to me and what I do.”

One can go back to mid August and hear of the fight that ensued between left offensive tackle Derrick Deese and Terrell Owens, in training camp. Usually fights between player’s result from unhappiness over a block, over eager tackling or after-the-whistle shenanigans.

But one Wednesday, left tackle Derrick Deese and wide receiver Terrell Owens suddenly began brawling as they stood outside the huddle, watching team drills. Offensive line coach Pat Morris jumped into the fray to restrain the 6-foot-3, 289-pound tackle, who nearly leaped over Morris imposing frame in his zeal to take a swing at Owens. But guard Ray Brown was restraining Owens.

Neither player nor Steve Mariucci would make any comment, but one source said some joking exchanges between the two got out of hand, leading to the outburst. Teammates tried to downplay the incident, Ray Brown said tussles between offensive linemen are rare.

Whatever the cause, one thing must be made clear, and that is Terrell Owens being a dominating factor on this team in terms of leadership and being a role model. Obviously there is still much work to be done on this end.

But not all is lost remember Owens still has those hidden talents that surprise us all from time to time, is he ready though to step up to the plate and take over for Jerry Rice? We all hope so, and I believe he can as long as his nose stays clean and he strives to be that image all 49er fans have learned to adore.

“Jerry was invaluable to us in terms of leadership, experience, being a great player,” receiver’s coach George Stewart said. “Terrell is Terrell, Jerry is Jerry. All we’re asking of Terrell is to be Terrell Owens. (Rice’s departure) means Terrell Owens is the official leader of the receiving unit. Jerry’s done a great job preparing him to lead and Terrell has prepared himself for the last year.”

“A lot of people don’t know the things that he does. Sure, we all saw the touchdown celebration against Dallas and you see those things and he’s a bad guy, whatever people think. But a lot of things he does goes unnoticed.”

Owens does possess a heart of gold, although sometimes misguided or misdirected he tries hard each and every day and never forgets from where it is he came from. He has succeeded where so many athletes have failed and he remembers those people for he was just like them once.

One day, the 27-year-old Owens was chatting with rookie Jimmy Farris. The 23-year-old receiver from Montana, who was attending his first NFL camp, mentioned that the down time was the toughest: little opportunity to phone family and friends, just a dorm room, a playbook and no diversions.

It wasn’t long, though before Farris suddenly found himself with a new television, courtesy of Owens. The so-called bad guy had come through. Farris called it one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for him.

“It’s already tough being away from home and you’re trying to learn a lot,” said Owens, thinking back five years ago to when he was a somewhat obscure third-round draft choice from Tennessee-Chattanooga.

“You don’t have a phone; you don’t have a lot of money. I’ve been in a situation where I didn’t have and I needed and there wasn’t anybody to help me out. I’m in a situation where I can do that and I was more than happy to do it. I’ve been there before, where I wanted something or I needed something. It’s just something I did from my heart.”

This is what the character of Terrell Owens is all about, he may not be your everyday type of hero, he may slip up and make a mistake here and there, and that is to be expected. But he comes through for people when it counts the most, and that frankly is a sign of sound leadership.

Said Stewart: “He’s stepped up to the plate and understands, as our lead receiver, he has to do those things. It’s kind of like being a father sometimes. You really don’t know how to be a father until you are one. And I think with him, he has a chance to be the father of this group without stepping on someone’s toes. Jerry was a great leader, great for our football team, but, unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. Somebody has to step up and replace him. Terrell has done an outstanding job.”

Another receiver that looks to have a better future with this franchise is J.J, Stokes, it may be bit strong to say but for the last two years, he has been like a third-string quarterback on the sideline with clipboard in hand, and nowhere to go.

In 1999 he caught 34 passes and 30 in 2000, In the same year Stokes was catching a total of 64 passes, Owens was hauling in 157 and Jerry Rice grabbed 142. In a single game last season. Owens set a NFL record with 20 receptions, nearly one-third of Stokes two-season total.

But remember he was just the third stringer as a wide receiver, but did he make the most of his opportunities? That is a question that continues to be asked even now halfway through this regular season. He has 10 receptions for just over 100-yards.

The 27-year-old wide receiver still sees himself in a prominent role like he once held with the 49er’s in 1997 when Jerry Rice went down with a devastating knee injury. He has so much talent and ability yet he rarely sees it displayed when it is really counted on.

“I think he sees where the depth chart will allow him to be on the field every snap,” coach Steve Mariucci said. “When a guy has capabilities and is not on the field all the time, he can get discouraged. Now he sees he’s going to be playing and catching passes. That’s what he always hoped for. I fully expect J.J. to have his most productive year.”

Added Stokes: “I just want to play. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and I wouldn’t say my talents were utilized a lot in the last two years. They kind of put me on the shelf. I’m excited and ready to go this year.”

He was drafted 10th overall out of UCLA in 1995, Stokes broke his right hand during his first training camp with the 49er’s, an injury that sidelined him for four games in his rookie year and limited him in several others. Stokes caught 38 passes that season and he caught 18 passes in the first six games of the 1996 season before he was sidelined for the year with a wrist injury.

His breakout year of productivity came calling when in 1997, Rice was sidelined almost the entire season with a serious knee injury, Stokes started all 16 games and caught 58 passes for 733 yards and four touchdowns. Stokes then caught 63 passes in 1998, but then came the end of Steve Young’s career, the end of what was the 49er dynasty and a new decline in Stokes productivity.

Owens still continued to make big numbers and Jerry Rice still commanded lots of playing time, meanwhile Stokes was certainly lost in the shuffle. Although Jeff Garcia came in and assumed command of the offense, he had to set and throw to his established targets as he was learning himself.

The time for Stokes to regain his 1997 form is now, but he seems out of touch in reaching it, we have to be concerned up until now as to how he will be a compliment to Owens, if he is not producing receptions and yardage on a consistent basis. I know I am concerned. And I want Stokes to succeed more than anyone because his time is due.

“I’m really excited about being able to have J.J. in there on an every-down basis because when I look at film from last year, he was coming in as a third receiver at times, as a fourth receiver at times,” Garcia said. “He really didn’t get as many opportunities to catch the balls the other guys on the field.”

“But every time you watched him, he was doing a great job of running routes, he was creating separation, he was getting open, just forming situations where if I would have been looking his way, he could have had some completions.”

This is the key to establishing a dominant passing attack, by having Stokes as a premier second option and giving Garcia another target to throw to in any given situation, that will be huge to this offense and it’s continued success. Stokes has to be the receiver that cools the heat that is applied to Owens, and he must create those situations on a constant basis.

Said Stokes: “(Garcia) built a comfort level with Jerry and Terrell Owens He knew where they were going to be, he knew what they were going to do. I’ve got to build that same comfort level with Jeff. It’s dependent on both of us. He has to want to do it and I, for sure, want to do it. I think there’ll be a comfort level with Jeff and myself this year, so I plan on seeing the ball a little more.”

Many in the organization continue to express confidence about Stokes, he has had a great off-season, and he is one of the few players that participated with Jerry Rice in his grueling workouts in the off-season. He seems to be very enthusiastic about this opportunity, I am hoping that his agenda as a target is frequented more and soon.

Tai Streets also looks to capitalize on missed opportunities as he still plays with a titanium rod in his leg after he suffered a broken right tibia on Dec. 17th against the Chicago Bears. And on top of that already this season suffered a sprained right hamstring in training camp.

He is expected to play a larger role this season, and already has made some spectacular catches thus far; he will pressure Stokes as long as his production falls behind other than what can be expected from him.

The tragedy of tight end Greg Clark continues to plague the 49er’s, he has had numerous health questions, recently trying to overcome surgeries to both his hamstrings, he had a bad calf last season and now he is sidelined yet once again. Second-year player Justin Swift and rookie Eric Johnson have been filling in for him with some mixed results.

None of these are accomplished blockers as was Greg Clark, both excel mostly as receivers, therefore Fred Beasley has been used more as has Terry Jackson as options.

Rookie Eric Johnson a seventh-round pick in the 2001 NFL draft the last pick by Bill Walsh seems to be improving though with each game, his blocking assignments have showed great progress, and he is becoming a viable threat out in the backfield as well.

The Receiving unit is a group of players evolving into it’s own, it will be up to Terrell Owens to keep this unit on course and focused, by his definition Stokes and Streets can take his lead. I have great expectations as already seen in games against Carolina and Atlanta that this can be accomplished. My head bows to you Terrell Owens you are the playmaker of this offense.