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49ers experience changes from the draft to the front office
(06/26/03) 3:00 PM
By Sydney

Bill Walsh was just three years into his job as a head coach of the San Francisco 49ers when they became Super Bowl Champions in 1981. It is through the NFL draft that teams are made into true champions of the sport that we all look at as being the ultimate in fan entertainment. The draft is where teams that have a great infrastructure and an owner willing to take a few chances, will become successful the majority of the time. And then you have some teams that will be forever in search of the right answers such as the Cincinnati Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals.

Now with Walsh demoted to a team consultant and soon to be retired, his protege in Terry Donahue whom he tutored and worked hand in hand with is on the seat of opportunistic power. Donahue is now the bread and butter of this franchise and his decisions will shape and transform the team into the image he believes will prove successful. Donahue of course like Walsh is surrounded by some of the best scouts and coaches in evaluating talent in the nation.

Teams are only as good as their front office is. If not for a sound front office and an owner that shows genuine concern and interest, teams are forced to start with woeful inadequacies right from the get go. It is vitally important though that an owner allows his staff to make the sound judgments he has paid them to do in the first place. All too often we hear of the meddling and forced insight of some owners in trying to shape their own rosters.

“You just never know what is going to happen,” said Dennis Erickson, the 49ers new coach who had draft experience as the Seattle Seahawks coach from 1995-98. “It’s not going to go like you want, ever. There might be a guy you think will be there when you pick, and he’s not.” “So you need a plan that involves a variety of different things. There are times when you have to look at moving up to get the guy you want or moving back to get more picks.”

This year the 49ers chose to stay put with each and every pick they had in order to draft the best possible player at their position when the time came for the 49ers to make a pick. The San Francisco 49ers like most all other teams go into the April NFL draft with a master plan in acquiring fixed players that would be beneficial to their cause. All the pre-draft hard work and evaluations are key elements in laying claim to those that you have targeted.

“As an organization, we feel very confident and prepared,” Donahue said. “You need to have some luck. You can do all the scouting and evaluating you want, but in reality it’s a crapshoot.”

It is an interesting history when you look at the San Francisco 49ers and try and see how well they have drafted over the years and you analyze at how many first round draft picks that have made the team and become successful. In every decade since the 49ers have drafted in 1950 the percentage in first round draft picks that made the team has been most successful.

Since 1950, the 49ers have had 57-of-60 (95%) of their first round draft picks make the team and 54-of-56 (96.4%) of their second round draft picks landed spots on the roster. Since 1990, the 49ers have had 85 of their 105 draft picks (81%) make the active roster. Last season, nine of ten choices made the roster. So as you can see the success rate is most astounding from a 49er standpoint in knowing that those we pay in the front office and assemble as a staff are proving our money’s worth. Terry Donahue’s mission since coming to the 49ers in 1999 was to make the 49ers “fast, young and healthy.”

The drafts since 1999 have reflected that philosophy. In 1999, there were 19 players drafted by the 49ers on the roster. That number increased to 28 in 2000 and to 32 this season. As you can see that is a lot of young talent and with these kind of numbers it drove the age of the roster downward in the process.

In 2000, the average age of the offensive starters was 29.4 and the defense 26.9. Those averages have dropped to 28.1 and 26.6 respectively, this season. What kind of impact do you see this happening on the team as a whole? Certainly you must be able to tell that a younger team is always more profitable long term than a team full of aging veterans. Although the Oakland Raiders will argue that point many along with myself believe the way of the future resides in what the San Francisco 49ers discover in its youth prospects.

The team had two Pro Bowlers in 1999, three in 2000 and six in each of the last two years. So as you can see the influx of younger talent is having a dramatic effect on the overall stability of the team. Certainly when the team in 1999 went 4-12 the roster was screaming to be changed, the front office steered by Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue went about retooling the roster around a set number of veteran players.

Only 15 players remain from that 1999 roster believe it or not, including six starters, four of which are Pro Bowlers (Bryant Young, Jeremy Newberry, Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia). With all of the injections of youthful hopefuls the 49ers have risen to be one of the top tier teams in the league once again, even going as far as to win their division crown as well.

Also the 49ers since 1999 have changed head coaches with the firing of Steve Mariucci, and the coming of Dennis Erickson we have a change of heart at the helm of the team. A change that will be witnessed by tens of thousands of 49er faithful that hope to see this change as a positive one.

Dennis Erickson will be more aggressive and dynamic in many ways, especially with regards to the offense in which he will be a “pass it down the field,” kind of guy. Attempting to get the most out of an elite wide receiver in Terrell Owens will be one of his main priorities as well as maintaining a sound running game as well. He has already made several references to taking calculated chances and to promoting once idle players into productive ones. He will use fullback Fred Beasley more often than not in the passing game and he will apply more two tight end sets in the likes of Eric Johnson and newly acquired Jed Weaver.

Dennis was also allowed much more access into the draft decisions that were made this season than Steve Mariucci was. In a nutshell he was granted many more privileges then Mariucci was provided and played an integral part of the draft in being allowed to give suggestions and insight. Dennis had exclusive rights in the draft as a former Seattle Seahawk head coach and was more than willing to be a part of that under Terry Donahue.

“This draft has been very thorough. Coming in during the middle of all the evaluation stuff, it will probably be a little different than it will be further down the road. Last week, we spent about seven or eight days with all of the scouts, Terry and the coaches and I went through every position. I got to learn a little bit more about the players and how we’re going to do it, which is very similar to what we did in Seattle. I’ve looked at a lot of film the last three or four weeks myself. We all got together in April. What happened to us then is all the position coaches went out and looked at all of these players and they put their grade on them. Then we got together and sat down and went through every player and every position.

I have a pretty good idea of where we are at. We’ve got them rated and when it gets down to where it is close, where it is one position or another, then Terry and I will end up talking about it and I will have my input in it. I’ll have a lot of influence on who we pick and what position we will pick. We’ve studied our football team and we have a pretty good idea of where we need help. The biggest thing with us is finding out who is the best player on the board at that time. That will change as the draft goes on. It changes all the time.”

So as you can see Dennis Erickson had tremendous insight into this year’s draft. I am convinced that the chemistry between Donahue and Erickson is much more pleasant than it was when Mariucci was in charge. The rift that was well documented via the media showed that the relationship between Steve Mariucci and owner Dr. John York was the ultimate scandal.

Since the firing the 49ers have tried to move forward licking the wounds from many a fan that were enraged at the idea that Mariucci was a scapegoat for all the teams ills. York was convinced that Mariucci bred division in the front office particularly with General Manager Terry Donahue and consultant Bill Walsh. The need and drive for power were evident in York’s mind and he was convinced that Steve was trying to establish his own agenda.

York was also very disturbed when Mariucci would talk to the media and ramble on about what really wasn’t in York’s mind. He found that the flirtations with other football organizations was a distraction and an embarrassment for the team and looked upon it as high treason within the organization. Emotions and feelings built to such a crescendo one night that a phone conversation turned deadly for Mariucci and a fly in for York to fire his very successful player’s coach.

Was there division in the ranks when Donahue and Walsh thought of Steve Mariucci? Evidence suggests there was because privately both Donahue and Walsh expressed reserved criticisms. Publicly it seemed all was well as both Donahue and Walsh established a front that indicated they were supportive of their coach. Bill Walsh, a Hall of Fame head coach believed he could have assisted Mariucci on many occasions but was taken aback when Mariucci never sought out his counsel.

I must admit and I confirm my emotions at the time of the firing that I was one of the many fans that was disgusted and enraged at the dismissal of Steve Mariucci. It is said and is relatively known that Steve practically begged to retain his position in front of Dr, John York. It was a sad day for many fans and a relief for other fans that thought it was time for a change to take place.

Mariucci was always blamed for being ultra-conservative in his style of offense and was often criticized by not only fans but from his won players as well. He was well liked regardless of his principles though but both Donahue and Walsh were convinced that discipline was sorely lacking on and off the field. Dennis Erickson has already established set rules and regulations in practices and being punctual to all meetings. Steve Mariucci was well known for letting many situations fly by with no intent on making it known that it was unacceptable.

At the same time though Steve was well liked by the players and became close with many including their families. Steve was also very generous to fans that attended training camp with autograph sessions and was more than open to granting numerous media sessions with his comments involved. The well documented detachment between Mariucci and York came to a head when York more than once commented about Mariucci’s off the field performances that in his terms did not meet the organizations standards.

Disagreements were common place between the head coach and the general manager; they also soon became prevalent between consultant and ownership as well. All in all the stage was slowly but surely set for a showdown with Steve Mariucci.

“That does not mean you can’t have arguments between the head coach and the general manager, or discussions and differences between the ownership and the head coach,” York said. “But even with differences and arguments, there needs to be an agreement that we’re going to play on the same team, and I don’t think Steve was on that team.”

“(When Bill came in), there’s immediately this friction between Bill and Steve. Steve never came to me and said Bill Walsh shouldn’t be here. When Terry became the general manager, all of a sudden the problems with Bill were gone and now there’s problems between Steve and Terry somehow that were being created, and I didn’t feel either Bill or Terry was creating that.”

Even though Steve generated a fantastic rebuilding phase and was instrumental in coaching raw talent, it was these off the field issues that dogged him continually. Steve also put together an impressive win loss record that included many playoff appearances along the way. Dr. John York was quick to give his acknowledgment of that and was appreciative for what Steve had accomplished statistically. However the scenario of power within the franchise was very debatable at best with Steve on board and York waned Steve to simply be the coach that was satisfied with just coaching.

York then added, “But how can you continually have something that is supposed to be a team and everybody is not on the same team, and the person who wasn’t on that team was Steve. I really don’t think that he sat down and was truthful with me or with Terry. I think he used the press and agents and everybody else to get his feelings and disappointments across, and I don’t think that’s the way that you can run an operation.”

So the end came for Steve Mariucci and the consensus is still out on both his firing and the way it was handled and the hiring of Dennis Erickson as his replacement. I have strong feelings as indicated before on the way the firing was handled. Certainly at the very least Mariucci should’ve been able to say goodbye to the team as a collective unit and gone out gracefully.

I still stand on those convictions and even owner Dr. John York will confess even now that the situation could’ve been handled more professionally than it was. But all that is now water under the bridge. In October the Detroit Lions will come to 3-Com Park and Steve will look for those players he never had the chance to say goodbye to. At the same time he will do everything in his power to defeat his old team right in San Francisco, so that he will walk out of his old park a redeemed coach in both his mind and soul.

I am convinced also that new head coach Dennis Erickson is a great burst of fresh air to this team. With some changes in philosophies and implementing his style of playing the game, it should prove to be a good mesh with the West Coast offense. Airing out the ball more and utilizing star players more I believe is a welcome prospect to see happening.

Looking at other earlier promotions I want to acknowledge the wise decision to extend John McVay’s contract another year and promote Terry Tumey to Assistant Director of Football Administration. Tumey, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA in 1988,and his master in business administration from UCLA’s Anderson School in 1993, will serve as the budget and finance manager for the football operations department. He also will oversee the training room, equipment room, strength and conditioning department, team travel, training camp and video department.