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Article Title: Salary Cap Mayhem
Article Date: March 17th 2004
By Sydney

Reflecting back on General Manager Terry Donahue’s “hardest decision” he’s ever had to make in releasing three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia, you have to continue to wonder exactly where this team is headed. Blaming all the salary cap horrors of old on the prior regime under then President Carmen Policy and former Vice President Dwight Clark, you have to stop and wonder what the new regime did when they assumed power afterwards and put us in this predicament now.

It is obvious that bad decisions were made again on the new regime in signing players to cap unfriendly contracts. Instead we ignored the future as did the old regime and we plotted a course to win now rather than later. Players thought to be star studs in the making turned out to succumb to career ending injuries or never performed up to our standards nor to their own at that.

The San Francisco 49ers then had to endure one inconsistent season after another barely keeping our collective heads above water in the salary cap nightmare that played a big part in our inability to reach the Super Bowl. Former General Manager and soon to be ex-consultant Bill Walsh resurrected the team in 1999 and brought it back to become a competitive force again in the NFL. But the meddling ways of Owner Dr. John York and the increased influence of next in line general manager Terry Donahue signaled changes that were to take place in the new dimension of the front office.

Bill Walsh stepped down as general manager and assumed a lighter role in the consultant position, to elevate Terry Donahue the man he brought in to run the team in his ideological image, and to make it the organization it had once been under former owner Eddie DeBartolo in that it was the organization any player would want to play for in the NFL.

Today players and even assistant coaches shy away from the San Francisco 49ers because of the politics that have taken place within the organization. A tainted image that still carries over with the firing of former head coach Steve Mariucci. We as fans have been left on the sidelines and to contemplate where this organization is headed next under a owner that cares little about establishing a new stadium and dictates his wallet in ways that make you wonder if we aren’t turning into an Arizona Cardinals minor league club.

But again we have to swallow so much and hold on to faith. Faith is the only true ally that we have in believing that all will be well. I was astonished to see the club release Jeff Garcia even when they were just contemplating it I was astonished. I have been a true fan of this athlete since he stepped out on the field after Steve Young was knocked out unconscious.

“I have great respect for Jeff Garcia, for the kind of person he is, how he’s laid it on the line for this team,” Donahue said. “But I have an obligation to ownership, to our coaches, to everyone in this building and to our fans to put us in the best possible position for the future.”

Jeff Garcia’s release saved the team $1.7 million against this year’s salary cap since he had a cap figure of approximately $12 million. Clearing the budget has become the team’s priority number one as Terry Donahue has said it. Getting healthy by 2005 is a goal where we want to be and getting there comes at a cost in terms of letting some high profile veteran players go.

Jeff Garcia follows veteran images in Derrick Deese, Garrison Hearst and Ron Stone right out the door. Others that have left include Sean Moran, Jason Webster, Terrell Owens and Tai Streets. The list continues to grow larger and the additions smaller because we are in a situation that rivals the 1999 purge of big name contracts to get under the league’s mandated salary cap.

In all we inherit Jeff Garcia’s base salary contract upon his release of $10 million against us this season, including a team payout of $28 million in “dead money” player contracts that have left our position this year as a contender in grave jeopardy. This major financial purge and overhaul so to speak will have a great impact on what we are able to field as a competitive element on the field in 2004. But the brighter side of the coin is what we will be able to afford in 2005 and 2006.

“With all the changing dynamics at the 49ers, Jeff felt it was time for a new challenge,” Steve Baker his agent said. “He’s in the best shape of his career and he’s focused on having another Pro Bowl season. I believe Jeff will have some very good options.”

The release came just as Jeff Garcia was about to receive a roster mandated bonus of $500,000. His release also meant that his $10.3 million salary will count against this season’s cap but on the brighter side of the coin he’ll be completely off the financial liability books after this season.

“We predict next year (2005) that we will be $4 million or so under the cap,” Donahue said. “And the year after that, we’ll be about $14 million under. So we see that this decision will help us keep future stars like Andre Carter, for example.”

Looking at how the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers have made it the San Francisco 49ers want to establish an identity similar to both those franchises. Fielding a team that does not revolve around high profile names but around what is known as “team unity” and working towards a common goal as a group rather than about being “me” as your focused priority.

The New England Patriots have become Super Bowl Champions twice in just a three-year span and seem poised to strike again on a team that is very salary cap healthy because of the decisions that team management has made. Coaching also plays a major role in what a team will do as you can see from Patriots head coach Bill Belechick and what he brings to the collective table of professional football.

He has begun his own family tree so to speak in the role that Bill Walsh had done while paving the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers. Now all clubs in the NFL want to model their images in the mold of what the New England Patriots have accomplished. They have established a winning formula that all teams want to get their hands on, with a low profile talented quarterback and a defense that shows you so many options because of the talent pool it has that your head is spinning from side to side wondering where and who is coming next.

The San Francisco 49ers could almost be there considering if Tim Rattay can become as dynamic as a Tom Brady and if the 49er defense which we have concentrated on almost every single draft can rise up and suffocate even the best offense the NFL has to throw against us.

These are huge agenda’s when you think about them but not out of our reach if we can become financially leaner and healthier in being able to put us in a position to acquire new talent and of course train the one’s drafted into super studs out on the field with base minimum salaries. Coaching is key in this area and we have yet to see if Dennis Erickson’s staff has the ability to field a team that is truly awesome.

width=150 height=200> This year will be his first year with a full staff in his image. This will be the Dennis Erickson season we as 49er fans have all anticipated no more excuses will be tolerated after reaching the edge of the postseason in 2001 –2002 only to fall flat on our faces. We all need to feel that our team is headed in the right direction; it is our faith and our will as fans to want that.

Jeff Garcia’s idol as a player was Joe Montana and he’ll tell you that even today. He knew from day one when he stepped into Steve Young’s shoes that he would carry the new monkey on his back. San Francisco 49er fans have a deep tradition of fielding great quarterbacks that have led this team to glory. Jeff Garcia hand picked by Bill Walsh was to be that player and he performed admirably but not enough to get us to the big game once again.

“In some ways, he feels tremendous loyalty to his teammates. He had fulfilled a lifelong dream in being the quarterback of the 49ers,” said his agent Steve Baker. “On the other side, it became increasingly clear in the past couple of weeks that it was time to go in a new direction.”

Jeff Garcia at his best rivaled those of his famous predecessors, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Jeff Garcia set a 49ers record by throwing for 4,278 yards in 2000. He later joined Montana and Young as the only 49ers to pass for at least 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

Tim Rattay, who turned 27 on March 15, has only three starts since being drafted in the seventh round out of Louisiana Tech in 2000. Last season, he completed 73 of 118 passes for 856 yards and seven touchdowns and two interceptions. The excitement from Tim to his family is very contagious and he looks forward to the big challenges ahead. He did perform admirably in my opinion lat year while Jeff Garcia was out on the sidelines nursing injuries.

He performed at such a level that it turned management and coaching staff heads into believing that he was ready to assume the starting role sometime down the road. The prospect of seeing Tim out on the filed this season excites and worries me all at the same time as I contemplate like so many of you at how he’ll manage the game when he’s the real center of attention now.

I think we’ll all be surprised because Tim shows enormous calmness while out on the field and tremendous accuracy that I even think was sharper than Jeff Garcia’s. Ability to make plays while under pressure is yet to be seen, but we have seen him throw the ball out of bounds when he should when pressure is unbearable. Smart decisions have already been made and seen by many of us on his part and yes he will suffer lapses and lumps as the 2004 season gets underway but it will be fun to see.

“You can’t get better than that, can you?” Jim Rattay, the quarterback’s father and high school coach, said by phone. “There is no lineage in the NFL like that. But Tim is a levelheaded kid. He’s ready.”

Tim also fits Dennis Erickson’s profile of a quarterback to the letter so to speak as this accurate pocket passer will be able to throw strikes down the field as desired in Erickson’s offensive scheme. However it is yet to be seen what he’ll have to throw to in the form of wide receivers considering both our No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers have bolted via free agency and are now with rival teams.

Brandon Lloyd and Cedrick Wilson show great promise but are they really ready to assume these roles? Experience on the field cannot be replaced but it can be learned and that is the root of its origin. However the learning process can be a painful one based upon the individual’s ability to grow rapidly, we could see many situations that we will wish we still had a Terrell Owens or a Tai Streets to throw to.

The up and coming draft will certainly be the place to start rebuilding our receiver corps. And will be addressed early in the draft and most likely several times. The needs in San Francisco are many including reshaping an offensive line that has seen the departures of Derrick Deese and Ron Stone. Finding someone to shore the line up competently will be a daunting task in all itself, with a quarterback that requires stout protection because of his lack of mobility.

“When you lose stars, you don’t worry about it,” Donahue said. “You create new stars.” “This will now become Tim’s team,” General Manager Terry Donahue said.

When you look at the picture like General Manager Terry Donahue is, you’ll see where we sit in proximity to our opponents in our own division. Just after the March 3rd free agency starts the 49ers entered being $2.5 million under the cap but it’s rivals in the Seattle Seahawks, St Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals were at least $8 million under the cap.

“We are at a competitive disadvantage in that situation,” said Donahue, adding that “As painful as this is, it is absolutely the right long-term strategy and vision for the 49ers.”

Just last August Tim Rattay signed a three-year, $4.8 million contract extension, before he went 2-1 as a starter while Garcia was injured last season. He was a record-setting quarterback while he was with Louisiana Tech, but threw just three passes in his first two seasons while with San Francisco.

And behind Tim there stands the talented Ken Dorsey and Brandon Doman, but neither has appeared in an NFL game. Although inexperienced these two will be fresh new stars that will mature rather quickly in my opinion. I am very high on Ken Dorsey as being one of the best winning quarterbacks in college history while with the Miami Hurricanes.

In pre-season games last year he showed great signs of brilliance and I look forward to seeing more of the same, in that Brandon Doman looked as competitive as well but just not at the expected same high level as Dorsey.

In order for San Francisco to come within salary cap compliance they again reworked players contracts. In those that were reworked they included Safety Tony Parrish, Defensive End Andre Carter, Defensive Tackle Bryant Young, Linebacker Derek Smith, Center Jeremy Newberry, Fullback Fred Beasley and Right Tackle Scott Gragg.

What really does Dennis Erickson think about all this after taking over as head coach for the 49ers in 2003? Where does he really stand on the issues with the team? Surprisingly he was rather dumb founded about the whole thing, believing the franchise was in better financial shape than originally thought. Now he’s seen his team decimated from within as owner Dr. John York mandates releases to secure his wallet for another day down the road.

“I’d love to have kept Jeff. He’s a great competitor,” added Erickson, whose team went 7-9 last year. ‘I would have loved to have another year with him. He’ll play another two or three years in this league and be successful. I’ve always been a fan of his and always will be.”

The relationship between Jeff and Dennis was better than most of us originally thought, as you’d want to believe that Erickson’s new offensive philosophies clashed somewhat with Jeff Garcia’s type of football abilities. Offensive Coordinator Greg Knapp was the only barrier that kept Jeff in line with staying largely with more traditional West Coast offensive terminologies.

Of course all head coaches have to tote the line of optimism about the team as anyone and Dennis Erickson is no exception. Despite all the purging on the roster he maintains that the San Francisco 49ers will be a competitive team out on the field in 2004. However is Dennis Erickson a Steve Mariucci in that Steve went through a similar purge in 1999 when the team was suffocating under the weight of the mandated salary cap?

It is yet to be seen I guess as all of us are in the dark on this prospect. Dennis Erickson will have to coach better than all of his collective years this season to overcome the losses this team has suffered bottom line in my opinion.

“I like what I see in Tim. He is very smart, understands the game of football, and has a good arm. He does a lot of things that I like to do with the football,” Erickson said. ‘How good is he going to be? I don’t know. We are going to have to coach him up and find out. But I like Tim and think that he has a chance.”

Again Rattay will play behind a revamped offensive line that will feature two new starters this season, in left tackle Kwame Harris and right guard Kyle Kosier. The one bright side to this of course is that both saw extensive playing time last season. In fact Kosier played 90% of the offensive snaps last year started 12 games, including seven at left guard and three at right guard.

Both will have key roles on the line in terms of pass protection for Tim and generating the famous 49er running game, as we are well known for with Kevan Barlow behind the line as the new-featured running back. Offensively we will see many changes and many adaptations because of the purge on the line and in the wide receiving element. Learning curves seem to be the order in 2004 as rookies will play key roles and seasoning from last season will continue.

“When you lose players, there are changes. But I feel that we have a nucleus of players coming back,” Erickson said. “With the draft and some of the things that can happen over the next three or four months, there are some things that can happen. There are some things that can happen in June. We just have to evaluate where we are at and try to make the right moves to help this team to compete.”

Still many a 49er fan questions the integrity of the organization starting at the owner and working your way down the line. Price increases on tickets for a stadium that is falling apart and forcing fans to witness a holocaust of maybe going 1-15 like the Carolina Panthers did a short time ago is not out of the question.

Some comments after Jeff Garcia’s release were incredible to read from local people in the Bay Area. It really hit home with a lot of fans and questioned the team’s management making decisions with intensity. Not all fans I can assure you feel this is the doom and gloom some are predicting, some even embrace the notion that we are finally coming to terms with our past sins to be better tomorrow.

“It seems like they are getting rid of all the good ones,” said San Leandro resident Richard Marques. “It’s a shame when you look at what the 49ers were and what they are today.”

“I think they are better off without him,” said Rodney Nixon, who was having a drink at Lefty O’ Doul’s bar after work. “Even when everybody loved him, I felt he didn’t have what it takes to win. He couldn’t spot the long man. He’s got happy feet.”

Jeff Garcia is now a Cleveland Brown as everyone knows. I wish him the very best because I still believe in him. So do Bill Walsh even to this day and so many others. He will be competitive again and he will be a positive influence in Cleveland under head coach Butch Davis. I will continue to write about Jeff as the off-season continues and we will continue to remember what it is he did for this franchise.

I will always be a supporter of him and have an authentic Jeff Garcia signed framed jersey in my bedroom from the last year in the 49ers training camp in Stockton, California. His signature also adorns the helmet I took that year and I witnessed the class and tact this athlete has with all his fans. He may have not won a Super Bowl as a 49er but he did win many of our hearts including mine.