Part One:The 49er Crystal Ball reveals many questions. 09/22/01 8:00 AM
If ever there was a reason for you to believe or contemplate the very near future of the San Francisco 49erís, this is the year to do just that. We enter a new dimension as we cleanse ourselves of the old and greatly anticipate the rebirth of youth on both sides of the line in the 49er rotation. With this and so many other questions from finding new owners to building a new stadium and making the playoffs.
When I say new owners you say to yourself who? How about former veteran quarterback Steve Young and tight end Brent Jones. Sounds funny does it not? Well both of them have expressed great interest in purchasing a NFL franchise, their personnel favorite of course being their team the 49erís.
USA Today learned of the news when it heard that a group led by Steve Young and Brent Jones and backed by investors from Northern Californiaís high-tech Silicon Valley has made their intentions public to the NFLís main office.
The natural assumption one would make is that Young and Jones are secretly trying to convince the present owners of the 49erís the DeBartoloís to sell. Both Young and Jones are now TV sports analysts and are very famous for their personnel sacrifices in making this team a champion caliber team for many years.
New team owner Denise DeBartolo-York has maintained that though that there is no intention of selling, she won a lengthy battle for control from her brother Eddie DeBartolo in controlling rights to the 49erís after he resigned those rights to fight a battle in court regarding illegal gambling.
Teams that are seemingly going to be up for sale are the Atlanta Falcons, although not announced publicly, others include the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Minnesota Vikings also could possibly be moved to fill the void in Los Angeles, where no NFL team has played since the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams left in 1995. Los Angeles lost its bid for a 2002 expansion team when the NFL chose Houston in 1999.
49erís Head Coach Steve Mariucci announced that he was not at all surprised after hearing about Steve Young and Brent Jones attempting to become owners in the NFL. ďBrent and Steve are very intelligent guys who are very capable of putting a group together,Ē he said. ďAs you know, itís not easy to own a team. They would have to go through the process.Ē
Both Brent Jones and Steve Young were roommates during their years with the 49erís, and thatís when the two began to discuss the possibility of getting into the ownership business. However the average going price of an NFL franchise is about $400 million, and Young and Jones believe they have enough backing of a group of investors with deep enough pockets to make their dream a reality.
ďItís always been a dream of ours,Ē said Young, who retired last season and recently signed on to serve as an analyst for ESPN. ďWe used to stay up at night talking about it.Ē
Young the former 49er quarterback will expand his duties with the ESPN network and will work on the pre-game show every week. Young appeared periodically on Countdown last season, and he joined Chris Berman in ABCíS studio for the playoffs.
Young has been well documented as to the fact that he would love to attempt a pro football comeback, actually ignoring medical advice and putting back on the pads and helmet one more time. There was even talk of Young going where ever Jerry Rice landed so that they could once again hook up and show the NFL who was still the best connection in quarterback to receiver statistics.
But he chose to go into the broadcasting booth to savor some kind of taste of football, realizing that he is a family man now, his priorities suddenly became more real to him. Young said he believes the ideal way to convey his passion for football is to huddle with fellow studio analysts Tom Jackson and Sterling Sharpe. Young concedes that the itch to play remains, but he has resisted scratching it.
ďYou tend to want to continue your art, your craft. Itís natural for someone to think that way,Ē Young said during a conference call with reporters. ďFootball is my place of expertise. Itís what I really know. If you canít play it, maybe this is the next best thing.Ē ďI didnít retire and think, OK, Iíll be broadcaster the rest of my life,Ē Young said. ďItís kind of unfolding; I donít really have a plan.Ē
I for one am skeptical as to Young and Jones actually owning a team, let alone the 49erís can you imagine? I believe it would be an infraction on some of the players, and that their ideals would interfere with coaching decisions. The compromise would certainly have to be felt there, I would find it very difficult for veterans such as Young and Jones to stay off the sidelines and not get too overly involved.
Not saying both would not be great owners they both bring all the fundamentals as far as knowledge and instinctive experience to the table. They would be literal experts on and off the field and would be present at everything they do. But there is a fine line on too much involvement.
What Young and Jones are doing now is a definite success story for all of professional football, and that is being able to discuss and provide analystís for week to week games as they unfold. With both being in the broadcast booth Jones being with CBS the last four years they both are satisfying their appetites to some extent, and the fans that adore them.
I know that whenever I watch a game I am always excited to see either Jones or Young appear once again on the television set, it is their images that constantly remind me about the glory years of time gone past. And it helps remind me that it does really take time to develop that kind of chemistry and teamwork to make that happen again.
I go on record as being a true fan and supporter of both these great athletes and what they have accomplished in their careers as 49erís. To them we owe a great debt of gratitude and reverence for what they achieved throughout their careers. It was these two men that ignited a passion inside myself to continue to be faithful to the cause, and know that the 49erís would always be an elite team.
To that I say we are and continue to be, even with so may new faces and changes that have taken place, I still hold that same cross to my chest and I am proud that I call myself a 49er fan. I have complete faith that even after two losing seasons, (1999-2000) we continue to make strides in overall improvement and my confidence in Steve Mariucci remains unshaken.
What about a new stadium? What has happened to our plans in building a new one?
These are questions that have surfaced many times over the last few years. As Candlestick better known as 3-Com continues to erode and fall down all around us each and every day. It is like Mother Nature is trying to convince us, that it is time to start the rebuilding process structurally along with rebuilding personnel. A new stadium is long over-due and all of the community and fans all the way around the globe need to come together and proclaim this.
In one true headlight of what the stadium is like letís look back on a Saturday night in pre-season when the 49erís hosted the Seattle Seahawks. The wind was howling and making every punt return an adventure for both the 49erís and Seattle Seahawks. At the same time, the box seats still featured those charming potholes created by missing chunks of concrete. The turf was holding together fine, but when the November rains hit, itís a lock that the gooey bayside muck will be back.
One fact is very prevalent and that is it needs to be replaced or moved somewhere else, it is long overdue, and every year that goes by more will fall to the wayside. Fans will start believing that this is not a well-financed team and that it has lost the winning edge it has instituted from itís very beginnings. In order for us to manufacture a winning image we must first start with a state of the art new stadium both almost in this present day of age go hand in hand now.
As the breeze blew during warm-ups, one disdainful 49erís front office man whose name will not be mentioned shook his head and said: ďAnd theyíre going to build a new stadium right here, in the same spot.Ē
There are three views in which we can honestly look at this prospect, one of course is the optimistic view that yes we will rebuild a new stadium right on the same sight. The pessimistic view is the fact that a new stadium will ever be built. And the realistic view is that a stadium will eventually be built somewhere, sometime; but not necessarily at the Candlestick site.
There has been one man that has been put in charge of making something if not anything happen with this pressing question. 49erís President/CEO Peter Harris, he has verbally promised to all that a new stadium will take place. He has been the unsung force of the teamís post-Eddie DeBartolo regime.
Because owners John York and Denise DeBartolo York till live in Ohio, Harris has become the teamís first line of defense for most front-office issues. However he has acknowledged no other issue is more commanding and has required more time of his attention then this stadium project.
ďI can tell you Iím spending more than 50 percent of my time on it,Ē Harris said. ďAnd that we hope to have something to announce sooner rather than later.Ē But the pressing question is this why have we not heard anything about this deal?
ďWe donít want to say anything until we have it all together,Ē said Harris, explaining that if one detail leaks out without the whole package being firmed up, people would likely pounce on that detail and find flaws with it. To say there was never a plan for a new stadium is false, even under the Eddie DeBartolo regime a plan was in the making.
Years ago a plan that was approved by San Francisco voters when Eddie was running the team, included a shopping mall and modest financial support by the city. But when Eddie left, the plan was dissolved. Harris has been forced to not only remodel, but reconstruct and renegotiate the deal. Whatever he and the city come with, no question will bear little resemblance to the original package.
One has to bear in mind the true logistics there is to manufacturing a real concrete deal involving the city of San Francisco, even though there has not been a overwhelming cry from fans for a new stadium, financially and economically it all makes sense.
More to the point that the years grind on and Candlestick corrodes and decomposes the charm of those jammed concourses and odd restroom smells fade quickly. And since millions would have to be spent maintaining 3-Com regardless, it makes sense to apply those millions to a new home.
My take on this negotiate a realistic deal with the city and letís make it happen, some are calling for the Olympic games to somehow come in and transform all this into a benefit package for the 49erís. Remember how the Atlanta Braves obtained their new stadium when the Olympic games were slated for Atlanta. Some are calling for the 2012 Olympic Games to be played in San Francisco hoping that a new stadium would be in the works if chosen.
I say we cannot wait till 2012, I like Peter Harrisís proposition in having one up and functioning by 2005 if not sooner. This would be a great shot in the arm to this franchise should we strike an effective and reasonable deal. This would inspire not only fans but also the team as a whole proving that the community is serious about their well being.
What about Head Coach Steve Mariucci should he have more power? Why did we not make him the general manager/head coach like others are doing? There are many good answers to this and let me explain.
Not every Head Coach has the ability to run both the team and the front office at the same time; first of all it is most daunting to be a head coach in the NFL. You are instantly under intense pressure and scrutiny from almost every angle, you are so observed it is not at all unconceivable that cameraís are not erected in their own personnel rest rooms.
Former New York Jets and New England Head Coach Bill Parcells once said if he were expected to prepare the meal, he should be allowed to shop for the groceries. So do not look now, but the checkout lanes are jammed with guys wearing whistles around their necks.
The fact of the matter is, is that more team owners are giving their coaches more say over personnel. Since last season ended, four teams, Arizona, Cleveland, Green Bay and Washington changed their structure to give their head coaches more authority. Last year, New England and Pittsburgh switched.
In order to get the best coaches; team owners have had to give up a commodity more precious than money, power. Washington owner Dan Snyder, for instance, had to promise heíd stop playing fantasy football in order to lure Marty Schottenheimer back into coaching.
In still other cases, head coaches who stayed with their teams have been rewarded with authority. Green Bay Packers President Bob Harlan was so impressed with Mike Sherman that when General Manager Ron Wolf decided to retire, Harlan didnít want to bring in someone over Sherman who might clash with him.
No one can say that the chemistry between former General Manager Bill Walsh and Head Coach Steve Mariucci has been all peaches and cream. Because they have come head to head, even though Walsh handpicked Mariucci as being the best candidate for the job after the departure of George Seifert.
Since then they have ironed out those differences and their relationship is very strong, respect is given as it is earned and Walsh earned that with his ringing endorsements about the way Mariucci was carrying the team, even in hard times and rebuilding.
ďEvery head coach if asked and were honest about it, would prefer to call his won shots,Ē Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said. ďAfter gathering information, you get to make the decision. There arenít layers of decision-makers to go through for the final decision. There is no potential finger pointing after the fact, saying ĎI didnít like that player.íĒ
There comes a question as to self-evaluation being a critical component to team success, and there is a growing feeling that no man in an organization is better suited to evaluate his talent than the head coach, who has the most intimate contact with his team. I would have to agree with this philosophy, however with the 49erís it is much different.
Bill Walsh in my opinion was and still is the very best head coach in professional football; he also is probably one of the top five best general managers in his tenure. He chose as his successor none other than the most successful college head coach in football history Terry Donahue out of UCLA, a position he held for 20 years. This to me says so much to the direction and guidance of this franchise; talent abounds everywhere you turn.
Steve Mariucci also a very successful college coach has made some outstanding decisions, and he is getting more say in personnel issues, as he should be. It is most critical that his participation and voice is heard and listened to by Donahue Company. I am thankful for having his leadership and his experience as he has been tested from coming in a winner to seeing the downfall of a dynasty in the making.
No team wins because of structure. Teams might lose because of structure, or lack of it. Bottom line is teams win because they have the right people in the right places. The coach-driven concept and the general manager-driven concept both can work, but there are more potential pitfalls with the coach-driven concept.
We cannot expect just any coach to be able to run a franchise that would be like expecting Britney Spears to perform a Wagnerian opera. There is a limit to everyoneís range in the scope of things.
Among those that have failed to thrive with dual responsibilities include Bill Belichick in Cleveland, Buddy Ryan in Arizona, Mike Ditka in New Orleans and Ray Rhodes in Philadelphia. Just being a head coach is one heck of an undertaking many legs have buckled from the pressure alone.
ďHaving a coach whoís doing player personnel decisions and scouting is overwhelming,Ē Chargers President Dean Spanos says. ďJimmy Johnson did a magnificent job, but he admits he burned out. Look at Bobby Ross in Detroit. Itís overwhelming for one person to do all those things and do a good job at it.Ē
So here is some sound reasoning why San Francisco chooses the general manager theory, it makes incredible sense to have these off set each other, however we must not forget that it is imperative that both the head coach and general manager are more than just compatible.
They must be open to each other totally and share the duties associated with each other to some, limited extent. Trust is essential almost in the same mold as a real marriage so to say that one will take care of the other for better or worst.
Without a general manager in charge of personnel, the head coach doesnít have a counterweight to balance his urge to win now. A head coachís approach in Year three of his program might be very different from his approach in Year one because heís motivated more by survival instincts.
ďTeams that are driven by general managers tend to make similar decisions year in and year out,Ē Buccaneers General Manager Rich McKay says. ďIt doesnít mean you wonít make mistakes, but you will have a plan, a method and the ability to learn from mistakes. Itís a little harder to do that with coach-driven teams. It takes an exceptional guy; like a Mike Shanahan, a Bill Parcells, a Jimmy Johnson, who is able to set up an organizational philosophy and make it work.Ē
I believe in the general manager concept and that there should be division between the two, a head coach has enough to contend with in putting a quality and reliable team on the field every single week in the season. However I am one for expanding the head coaches realm of authority and say in front office matters. Head Coaches need say in personnel matters, they need a voice that will carry significant weight in the system.
General Managers at the same time need to open the communication lines right open for this to happen. And they must give unlimited support to their head coaches on a constant basis in all aspects of the business; Development is key to further knowledge and sharing that with one another enhances both in the long run.
Is it too early for optimism? Should the 49erís be thinking playoffs this year? This is yet another question that has hounded us after last season. Breaking down everything we did last season and going (6-10) is it reasonable to assume that we have a shot at the playoffs in 2001?
Several 49erís early last season talked about the playoffs, is that mot a preposterous when thinking back to where they were. For one they never made the playoffs, and they never were in contention once they lost their first three games and eight of their first ten.
Talking this season hopes abound but practicality is still on improvement over last season, there is some hope barring injury but this team still has miles of improvement to go before being a playoff team.
On July 25th, at the start of 49er training camp Mariucci had this to say: ďI see this team making the playoffs,Ē said Coach Steve Mariucci. ďItís going to take a lot of work, and were going to have to stay healthy.Ē
It is what he has observed that fuels this notion in his head, he has seen instant improvement from so many rookies last season, including linebacker Julian Peterson, cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, and defensive end John Engelberger, that is all substance. They are all coach able and dedicated to improving.
Other facts speak for themselves though as there is virtually no depth at any given position on this roster. These are the facts as we continue to struggle with salary cap issues and pay for players that are not in uniform; this is what saps our overall strength.
ďIím curious to find out how good we really are,Ē Mariucci said. ďItís a good, young team. Thatís what we are a good, young team.Ē
Mariucci has had his work cutout for him since suffering the disastrous season in 1999, going (4-12) for the season. The roster overhaul that took place was most apparent on defense, where the team started eight rookies during the season.
One can illustrate the constant improvement though as that season ended and 2000 came about, In their first six games, the defense surrendered 32.1 points and 412 total yards a game. In the final six games, they gave up averages of 16.5 points and 276.3 yards.
This season only two rookies are expected to play key roles on defense. Andre Carter and Jamie Winborn are penciled in as starters. Running Back Kevan Barlow could figure into the jumbled picture at this position, and tight end Eric Johnson may be used as a pass catching threat on third downs.
Five things will have to happen for us to have a chance. These are issues that are pressing and will have to be identified and worked on to carry out a resolution to us making the playoff picture or not. Some are common sense some are more complicated than we think; we must be able to come to terms with all of these to increase our stock.
1) Turn on the heat: The past two seasons the 49erís ranked 20th and 28th in the league in sacks per game. This must improve and hopefully with first round draft pick Andre Carter this will be made. Carter is not going to be eased into the lineup; he must step up and play like a veteran right away to have an effect.
We can forget about the inexperience and lack of depth at linebacker. For the most part, football games are lost on the edges. That means strong play from defensive ends and cornerbacks is a must.
And if a team constantly harasses quarterbacks, the jobs of the cornerbacks are much easier. Left defensive end John Engelberger should be better this season, and outside linebacker Julian Peterson should show double-digit sack totals after recording four as a rookie.
2) Get out of bounds: If quarterback Jeff Garcia continues to lower his head after taking off with the ball, in an attempt to get that extra yard he will do a disservice to all his teammates in the way of fatal injury.
He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season, Without him, the offense goes no where, he needs to duplicate or better those numbers this season. Garcia had adequate pass protection last year but relied upon his mobility to avoid sacks, in the process rushing 72 times for 414 yards. A slide here and a run out of bounds there will save not only his health but also the 49er season.
3) Replacing Garner: Charlie Garner was the complete running back last season and has been since Hearst went down two and a half years ago. Garner accounted for 3,553 yards from scrimmage with the 49erís. Those very yards will be critical to replace, as Hearst tries to regain his form and rookie Kevan Barlow gets going on his feet.
A combination of Hearst, Barlow, and Paul Smith will be needed to acquire these statistics; we will not be a winning team unless we establish a running game. This will be our greatest challenge.
4) J.J.Stokes needs to step into Jerry Riceís shoes and take off; he will be for the very first time the undisputed starter next to Terrell Owens. This is his seventh season in the league and should he not produce consistently he will not be back for an eighth in a 49er uniform.
Stokes in all aspects needs to catch at least 60 plus passes to be effective. He must solidify the No. 2 position at wide receiver; his production is most key given the uncertainty about the running game.
5) Find a Kicker: We must be able to find a kicker that resembles or is more consistent than former Wade Richey that will be hard to do. The 49er defense is not so imposing that they can spot a team an extra 5 or 10 yards in field position.
Jose Cortez seems to be making it happen, he was crucial in our win over Atlanta in Week One, however will he be able to hold up all season? This is what we must learn; he must be able to be consistent, as we will place many close games decided by his leg.
The future of the 49erís is bright and most promising these are but a few of the questions that present themselves as we take time to reflect. I will explore more of these questions in Part Two of this series, where we will touch more on the status of the team. Look at the youth movement on the team, where we rank in the division, learning as fans how to be patient and optimistic and dissecting our first win over Atlanta.