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Part Two:The 49er Crystal Ball sheds light on the future. 09/29/01 8:00 AM
No one can dispute that the San Francisco 49erís have improved and grown from their 1999 fall from glory, the Bill Walsh era is over and the new Donahue era has begun. We live in a time where rebuilding is a common word instead of a voodoo one not too long ago.

It was perceived that the 49erís would always sustain itself with great talent and excellent coaching, that all ended with the age of the salary cap, a mechanism designed by the NFL to make all teams equal and competitive.

We are forced to accept the realities of this age and do the best we can to achieve greatness and future stability so that we can once again be a contender for championship status. This is what this organization has always been about and will continue to be under the best management and coaching money can afford.

Our horrible debacle with our salary cap has been immensely trimmed due to the genius of former general manager Bill Walsh, Terry Donahue will continue that course until every dollar is accounted for and sanctioned for future talent.

Walsh was not able to build a dynasty the second time around like he did 20 years ago, but in only three off-seasons he managed to put the teamís financial house in order and re-stock the roster with eager, young, talented faces. This is his message re-stock the club with youth and develop them into elite status.

Aging superstars of yesterday like Jerry Rice and Ken Norton were released, these were the final steps in a three-year purge during which the team junked itís long-standing, win-now philosophy, which by the way originally came from Bill Walsh, and decided to build for the future.

There is one man that must step up and be accounted for in regards to the release of Jerry Rice; he is familiar with this as he fulfilled that promise when called upon before. That is J.J. Stokes the 49erís first round draft choice in 1995. Stokes has never been able to fully ease his way into the starting lineup; he has struggled over and over with this feat. His catches over the last three years have dropped from 63 to 34 to 30.

Stokes is a big physical receiver who can make plays after the catch, but all too often he has disappeared. Should he falter this season emerging deep threat Tai Streets could easily earn the spot opposite Terrell Owens the teamís best all-around athlete.

The 49er running game is in jeopardy after the release of Pro Bowl running back Charlie Garner, this has been strength of this team for many years. The most pressing question continues to radiate as who will carry the load?

Veteran Garrison Hearst continues to comeback from an extenuating rehabilitation with his injured ankle, he looked average in pre-season and yet again in both his appearances in the first two weeks of regular season. The rust is definitely still there as was a concussion in week two; he suffered against St. Louis.

Rookie running back Kevan Barlow may be the man to fill the void when called upon he has delivered, his power style running and blasting up the middle for yardage gives us some semblance of a rushing attack to be weary of. Second-year guys, Jonas Lewis and Paul Smith stand at the waiting. Fullbacks Fred Beasley and Terry Jackson also offer a balance that can be tapped when called upon.

Someone out of this bunch has to step up and replace Pro Bowler Charlie Garners 1,789 all-purpose yards from last season. So far Barlow has the upper hand in my opinion, not to say that Hearst cannot make that transition I pray he still can. But even if the 49erís decide to continue to use the running back by committee method, they still should be able to generate a respectable rushing attack considering the talent and diversity of all these players.

We also must look at winning more close games, last season we won big or we lost big, but there were four games that were close that we should have won. Most notably the overtime loss to the Raiders in Week Six that could have in hind sight helped turn around the season. A week later, the 49erís went to Green Bay and lost by three points after terrible pass-interference calls in the end zones.

Head Coach Steve Mariucci even admits that the team could have been (4-3) at this point and really poised at a playoff run. Instead, the 49erís finished (6-10). ďIf we had just won one of those close games last year, thatís huge for a young team,Ē Mariucci said. ďWe were (0-4). And weíve got to win half of them.Ē Another key to their success is the fact they need to win more games sooner right out of the gate, like they did with Atlanta.

Jose Cortez kicked a 24-yard field goal with 10:56 left in overtime as the 49erís rallied to beat the Atlanta Falcons 16-13 in the first Sunday of the season. This game featured the limited debut of Falcon quarterback Michael Vick and the return of 49er running back Garrison Hearst.

What was equally impressive was the 49er receiving corps. Which generated yardage with their talented fingers and legwork after the catch. Terrell Owens, J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets all turned short receptions into long gains late in the game, each leading to scores for the 49erís.

ďSome of those balls would have gone to Jerry, thatís for sure,Ē said Stokes, who had five catches. ďWe love Jerry, but now that heís gone, weíre allowed to make plays. Thatís all we ever wanted.Ē

The sentiments of all the chained receivers that were held back because of Riceís tenure with the team seemed to be of the same tone, their time had finally arrived and they all wanted to prove that they could carry the team without him.

The 49erís scored 13 straight points in the final minutes to win after struggling through the first three-quarters. Owens and Stokes each had 93 yards receiving, while Streets added 83 yards for the 49erís, who beat Atlanta at 3-Com Park for count it 10 straight times.

ďWe had some close games last year, and they didnít end like this,Ē 49erís Coach Steve Mariucci said. ďWe fell short every time, but we came on really strong with our passing game. Itís all keeping with being balanced and unpredictable. We want all our guys to make catches and contribute.Ē

The celebrations that ensued on the field in this game were breathtaking, here was the team I love coming out of a (6-10) season losing all their close games and finding redemption in a overtime win against a division foe. The moment was triumphant and full of joy as I celebrated an opening win by my beloved 49erís.

Jeff Garcia, who was 26-of-40 for 335 yards, once quickly found Tai Streets with a short pass that he turned into a 52-yard gain. Moments later, Cortez made his third easy field goal, then jumped into his teammates arms.

Garrison Hearst did not fare so well in his opener, not so that he wanted anyhow as exactly 32 months after he broke his left ankle on the first play of a playoff game against the Falcons, he returned as the starter in the 49er offense.

He was miles behind when remembering Charlie Garner, or even the Hearst we knew back in 1998, when he rushed for a career-best 1,570-yards. He was still solid and durable, rushing for 48 yards and catching four passes.

ďThatís one happy locker room,Ē said Coach Steve Mariucci, whose team was 0-4 in games decided down the stretch last year. ďWe had some close games last year and it didnít happen for us. We fell short every time. To win it in overtime, to win a close game, was huge, because we had been unable to do that. Maybe thatís a big step in the right direction.Ē

The winning kick brought a rush of relief and exuberance to the 49erís and their fans which resulted in a mob scene on the field, with safety Lance Schulters the first to give the kicker from El Salvador Jose Cortez a hug.

The young defense of the 49erís, ranked 29th last year and the target of criticism after a shoddy pre-season, helped make this win possible. The 49erís held down running back Jamal Anderson and the two-quarterback offense of veteran Chris Chandler and rookie Michael Vick, limiting Atlanta to 241-yards.

ďWe knew if we got back the ball for our offense, theyíd be able to make some plays,Ē said 49erís defensive tackle Bryant Young, who celebrated his reunion with Dana Stubblefield with two sacks. ďThatís what they did. Not being able to win those close games last year was a bad feeling. Sometimes you just need a little luck, and we made our luck today.Ē

This was quarterback Jeff Garciaís first fourth-quarter comeback. The 49erís scored 10 points to force the overtime. ďWe lost to those guys last year. Itís nice to end up on top this year,Ē said Garcia recalling a 36-28 loss in the opener in Atlanta last season. ďWe have to do better offensively, but I like the way the guys competed all game long and didnít give up.Ē

The game seemed almost hopeless until the fourth quarter as they had only a second quarter field goal by Cortez. ďYouíre standing on the sideline, and nothing seems to be going very well for you,Ē said Mariucci. ďYouíre reaching to find out what run can work, what pass protection to use. But it was enjoyable to snap out of that with a play here and a play there. I never saw anyone throw in the towel.Ē

So came the victory the 49erís savored, one of retribution from last season, we can all feel proud that this team gave it all, and never slowed down. I was proud of both the defense and offense as I thought there was chemistry on each side to make this victory happen.

Even though it was a game won on passing versus the running game, it further highlighted the fact that this receiving unit is equal to all the best in the league. The fact that the running game was but a diversion raises issues about this aspect of our offense again.

One has to look at the 49er defense as being the stopgap in being a winner this season. While in pre-season the offenses of rival teams such as San Diego, Seattle and Denver ran rough shot all over our defense raising alarms that we still have not found a viable solution here yet. Even though we played respectively in Week One against Atlanta we still have room for tremendous improvement.

With four new starters again on defense (five until Julian Peterson returns from injury), the 49erís will be again experimenting with their chemistry early on. What we want us where we left off last season in the game against Chicago where we did not allow the Chicago offense to even cross midfield.

We love our new additions in free agents Dana Stubblefield and Derek Smith and especially rookie defensive end Andre Carter and linebacker Jamie Winborn. But General Manager Terry Donahue cautioned that they look only good on paper right now. With more regular season games they will get in shape in a hurry. What needs to happen is that this defense gets on the same page and stays there.

Which brings me to another point exploiting a weak division, but are we in a weak division now? The answer is no we are looking up at St. Louis and New Orleans they are the thorns that will come back and haunt us from last season. They are the elite now, just as proven in Week Two when the Rams defeated us 30-26 at 3-Com in another close one.

We must finish at least at .500 we have that capability now, we must take at least five out of three games against division opponents, that is a must we are already 1-1. We have to be able to look down on Atlanta and Carolina and be able to dominate both to have a shot further. Hereís how I rank us and analyze each team in the National Football Conference West Division.

1) The St. Louis Rams

The Rams are a high potent offensive team, they rely on that as their bread and butter, their defense has improved greatly coming out of the draft, and they have proven that capability on the field already in Week Two against us.

Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim can all jump in and help as they are all big playmakers, which is why of course that the Rams are pretty special. They seem to be on track all the time, and can attack you in a variety of ways with a variety of talented weapons. Marshall Faulk though is public enemy number one; he is the spoke in the wheel you must contain first.

Even when last season when Rams Quarterback Kurt Warner went down, then Trent Green came in and they never skipped a beat. Throughout it all, they still were first in every major offensive category. Needless to say the offense is the least of the worries. Although their defense gave up the most points in the league last season, they know they will have to improve here, and they have already addressed that soundly.

They made unbelievable defensive moves with signing Aeneas Williams, Mark Fields, and Kim Herring as free agents. They drafted Damoine Lewis and Adam Archuletta. When you add these players to Grant Wistrom (11 sacks last season), and linebacker London Fletcher, and the Rams defense is well on its way to being rock solid. Even though in areas they are young they will still be more athletic.

With this huge upgrade in their defensive front, this should give them the edge they need over New Orleans in the West. They identified their weaknesses from last season and answered their call.

2) The New Orleans Saints

The Saints were a defensive juggernaut last season and are expected to be one again this season; their offense is nothing to sneeze at anymore either as long as Quarterback Aaron Brooks is running the show. Offensively they addressed their need to have a viable running back at all times, Ricky Williams is still their workhorse but he was unhealthy way too often for the Saints.

Therefore they drafted top running back Deuce McAllister, who does a nice job of picking up the ball out of the backfield. He is a definite boost to the overall offensive depth problem, here they now can show different lineups and schemes as Williams and McAllister will be a formidable running contingent. This will open up their passing opportunities.

Joe Horn for one had a breakout season last year as a full time wide receiver. The Saints offensive line vastly underrated may be the strongest unit on the whole team. They display cohesiveness and have sound communication, and recently have formed a bit of an attitude so watch out.

With Aaron Brooks and Jeff Blake at quarterback the controls are in secure hands no matter how you look at the picture, one has skills the other lacks in each category, so they compliment each other. The Saints defense has always been their signature unit but I see their offense mustering force every season.

Their defense led the league in sacks last season, and I expect no differently this season, they generate probably the best pass rush I have ever seen as of recently. This allows their secondary to just hang back in coverage because they have enough of a pass rush with just their front four. Their defense even minus linebacker Mark Fields will be formidable to overcome; it will be what gets them to the playoffs again also.

3) The San Francisco 49erís

The 49er offense will once again be a premier offense in the entire league, ranking fourth last season, I expect us to top even that with a running game that remains a mystery after losing Charlie Garner to Oakland. They led the league with the least interceptions and second in the league with fumbles lost, they had in all a total of 19 turnovers.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia is solid in everyway, going to the Pro Bowl last season and breaking personnel career records he will be even more dangerous this season. Depth here is a concern as Tim Rattay is the only backup with some experience and that is very limited.

The running game will be the biggest enigma in the offense; the offensive line returns fully intact from last season and will not skip a beat as the season wears on. Garrison Hearst attempts to make a comeback after two and a half years out with an ankle injury. He has had only limited effectiveness.
It is third-round pick Kevan Barlow picked up as insurance that will have to fill that whirling void of the unknown. However you look at it, the 49erís must establish some kind of productive running game to compete for a shot at the playoffs.

The Receivers are very solid even after the release of Jerry Rice; they were prepared for just that, as they field Terrell Owens, J.J Stokes and Tai Streets all of whom have great vision and speed. Lately it is their hands that are the only question.

The defense was the malaise of the team last season, but now they can wipe that away with some solid performance based on better experience. We drafted top defensive end Andre Carter and linebacker Jamie Winborn both will add further depth and talent to a starving for success defense. It will still be defensive tackle Bryant Young that anchors the entire defensive line, but free agent acquisitions Dana Stubblefield and linebacker Derek Smith will add a better attack on a consistent basis.

The 49er defense will be based on athleticism, talent and speed, these are the attributes for a sound defense, one that must become better if the 49erís are ever to return to their justified roots of glory again.

4) The Atlanta Falcons

The experiment with the top quarterback in the 2001 NFL Draft continues in Michael Vick, he is in sharp contrast to veteran Chris Chandler in that he is mobile versus a pocket passer, both will bring a different look to each game. As seen in Week One against the 49erís.

The offensive line remains a big question as they gave up a total of 61 sacks last season; this is exactly why Chandler has been riddled with constant injuries. Vick will scramble and make plays on the run. The line will also have to create holes for running back Jamal Anderson as even when the line was porous last season earned over 1,000-yards rushing and 42 receptions. Only left tackle Bob Whitfield is a sure starter for the long haul, making the line a concern for the running game.

The receivers are well schooled in their art Terance Mathis and Tony Martin are two big playmakers when they are on their game, you can expect to see a lot of them this season, they also have Shawn Jefferson and rookie tight end Alge Crumpler to throw to.

On defense the Falcons carry a smallish line defensive end Brady Smith and defensive tackle Travis Hall will have to anchor this revamped defense. Lots of youth will start and inexperience will define how well this unit can accomplish its goals for the season. I do not see anymore than an average output here. I see a team continuing to struggle to see the light of .500 ball.

5) The Carolina Panthers

The Panthers under former 49er Coach George Seifert made some bold moves this year, it was thought that Jeff Lewis would be the heir to Steve Beurleins thrown at quarterback. To start out a quarterback with very limited experience is always a work in progress, they drafted Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State Chris Weinke, and he won the starting position by way of pre-season play.

He already defined himself in upsetting the Minnesota Vikings in Week One of the regular season, it will be interesting to see his development over the 16-week season, and how he will hold up. Starting such a fresh quarterback he will have a learning curve that will need to be completed, especially in learning the complicated West Coast Offense under Seifert.

In the running game it will be even more important that this is on key so that Weinke will get some relief by handing off to a reliable back to take pressure away from himself. It will be up to Tshimanga Biakabutuka, should he fail they signed former Pittsburgh back up Richard Huntley. The production from this unit has been spotty at best.

The receivers include Patrick Jeffers, Muhsin Muhammad and Donald Hayes. However they will continue to rely on tight end Wesley Walls, as he has been the most consistent threat through the years.

The defense has been decimated after seeing Reggie White retire and itís refusal to resign Eric Swann, now it will be up to Chuck Smith and Sean Gilbert to make the difference newly drafted linebacker Dan Morgan will also be a welcomed addition. However I do not see this unit being intimidating, and the Panthers, as a whole will struggle to see light from the cellar they are in.

The overall ranking reflects the strengths and weaknesses of all in the West division, it is the best analysis I can come up with in researching and dissecting each team. Many other professional analysts have a similar scenario, however not necessarily the correct on in the end, but this is where I would place them myself.

The San Francisco 49erís can expect to have a lot of bumps and bruises all along the season as it progresses. For one we could honestly doubt that ridding Jerry Rice was the right thing to do with J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets resting in a hot tub nursing their injuries. How often did Jerry do this?

Rookie defensive end Andre Carter is being looked upon to provide a pass rush that has been virtually non-existent after Chris Doleman left the team for the Vikings. How well will he handle the run? This is another question we will find an answer to as the season moves ahead. Carter must be more than just a one-dimensional pass rusher must, he will be relied upon to provide the menacing push so that double-teams will move his way, opening the floodgates for Young and Stubblefield.

Garrison Hearst in all likelihood could end up with being the first two-time winner of the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, it will be hard to achieve considering his limited advances and his recent concussion in Week Two against St. Louis.

And the all too often mentioned salary cap continues to haunt this team, the 49erís have an estimated $15 million in cap space gobbled up by players no longer with the team. The result: a roster filled with young, untested players whom otherwise might not be in the NFL. General Manager Terry Donahue has down played the cap and sternly believes it is of no use crying about, he also states that the injection of youth is a welcomed sign in order to find future talent at reasonable prices.

The schedule the 49erís face this season is a difficult one, it has been rated as one of the most difficult in the league, even though they have been picked to finish third in the league that task itself will be daunting. It will be imperative that they take most of their division opponents, as this will determine their destiny in the long run.

Across the Bay, in Oakland there is talk of the Raiders making the Super Bowl this season, I find it a long shot considering the age of this team, if ever there was a team to air on the television show ďthirty somethingĒ it would be this team. I think they had their best shot last season and blew it, it will be a lot more difficult this year. However I still wish Charlie Garner and Jerry Rice luck.

One thing we can be thankful for is not winding up like such clubs as the San Diego Chargers, Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals; wasting big dollars and high draft picks while desperately trying to shore up their quarterback position, all the while heading no where fast. This we can be thankful for and for Jeff Garcia who turned out to be almost a Cinderella story in disguise a he brings a winning formula to our team that no one can possibly dispute.

This concludes my two part series on the crystal ball theory regarding the 49erís and there ascension from rebuilding to transition within the framework of a complete team status. We looked at a lot of different aspects and answered a lot of present day questions that hound the team mentally and emotionally. It is finding solace to better us that should prevail.