Optimism Runs High Within 49er Ranks. 01/06/01 7:00 AM
The San Francisco 49erís of 2001 will look vastly different but they will be in a much better position to qualify as a real competitor in the National Football League once all the cuts and acquisitions are finalized.
This season was a real solid stepping stone for this organization as it ran the gauntlet with five defensive rookies and succeeded in every facet.
There is every reason to believe and speculate that we will have a playoff caliber team in 2001, the optimism is prevalent not only in the players and fans themselves but also in the highest ranks of the front office and management as well.
I can honestly say that I have seen remarkable progress made on all fronts of the franchise. As the coaching staff has been instrumental in keeping the players plugged in to a positive thought process and made to feel confident in their abilities to adapt and overcome adversity even in the toughest of situations.
Not many have testified on Head Coach Steve Mariucciís behalf, I would like to do that now, as he has developed a unique repertoire with each and every player shows incredible passion and enthusiasm on and off the field.
He Makes his office door available to each and every player regardless the situation, and establishes ethicís and integrity as a foundation that this team is held accountable by.
Reality for 2001 to happen is the fact that this year is just another rebuilding year considering the salary cap situation is absolutely no better then last year.
The 49erís are going to be forced to cut approximately $20 million dollars to get under by March 2nd of 2001. Most especially if they are to resign some of there very own free agents.
General Manager Bill Walsh has made it clear that he will work very hard to restructure and extend contracts so that veteran players will have the opportunity to resign with the team if they are serious about helping out the team with itís salary cap limitations.
He also is very concerned with losing the very essence of the positive player personnel that have helped make the rebuilding process a little more bearable and comfortable in a season filled with rookies trying to make the grade with each and every game played.
ďWe donít belong in the playoff series, but we might be there next year,Ē Walsh said. ďIím expecting weíll do that. Six wins and ten losses can become 10 wins and six losses.Ē
The glaring reality is though how can you get there should you cut the very veterans that are capable of steering you there, with their leadership and playmaking capabilities sorely needed to influence the rookieís and second-year starters going into another pivotal season.
The offense the symbol of power for this 49er franchise is in various needs of address, free agents to be are Quarterback Jeff Garcia, Running Back Charlie Garner, Fullback Fred Beasley, Offensive Tackle Scott Gragg and Defensive Tackle Brentson Buckner.
As it looks now all could be resigned with extensions or restructuring but Running Back Charlie Garner, because of his breakout success this year as a running back and a versatile receptionist on the field. He will command a hefty pay increase that has the front office thinking ď slim at best mentality.Ē
It is without question a very wise decision to try and resign Charlie Garner with reasonable money. I do condone the fact that he will have to make concessions and agree to certain bonus clauses for he will have to be willing to make a positive overture on his part as well as our own.
He will be seeking in the range of $4 million dollars, which according to Walsh is much too high considering the drop-off in production in the second, half of the season. Running Back Garrison Hearst who has been sidelined the past two seasons as a 49er will undergo his fourth surgery on January 9th, that is two years to the date when he first broke his leg against Atlanta in the playoffs.
His salary is expected to increase to about $2.5 million dollars, which is a lot of money to spend on damaged product with no sure definition that he will be 100% again in his remaining career. The option to cut Hearst and retain Garner as a definite starter and veteran presence in my opinion is the most tempting.
There have always been the question as to Garner lasting through the wear and tear of a full season, and how well can he hold up under the constant beating of punishing tackles and full-contact hits.
I am a firm believer that Garner has displaced these questions as he is one of the most elite and best cutting running back in the league today, and with that he does deserve a pay raise as long as it remains cap friendly.
Garner is a running back that is multi-dimensional and very versatile he can run as a power back right up the gut, or he can ďjuke and jive ď all the way to the side and around again for a substantial gain. Garner has also turned into a receiving threat down the field and made some outstanding plays in the process.
Garner is making his first appearance in this years Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Even though it looks dim to resigning him the franchise must look high and low into a way to retain him, for he is the best offensive weapon at their disposal.
The team will have greater financial freedom come 2002, however there will not be many free-agent backs that fit this system as well as Charlie Garner does right now, Signing him to a long-term deal makes perfectly good business sense. Should it be a t the expense of others I would have to agree.
I have always been a Garrison Hearst fan and still will be, however the very uncertainty of his future is something we really cannot take a chance on with the salary cap the way it is. To have someone with Hearstís past production on the sidelines for another year would be counter-productive to what we are trying to achieve.
At the very onset of this season the questions regarding wide receiver Jerry Rice were starting to surface as to this being his last year as a 49er. The curtain most definitely has fallen on the ďgreat oneĒ as the season finale testified to that very fact.
It is a real ending of the 49erís of old as Jerry Rice symbolized everything that there was about a 49er franchise that dominated the 1980ís and carried itself well into the 90ís. Jerry was the very center of that offensive production and has carried that mantle with him right up until now as a 49er.
Even though Bill Walsh offered Jerry a one million retirement bonus it offered little substance to a athlete bent on accomplishing more records and stretching the playing field one more tome or at least one more year in a different uniform.
Even though there will be sadness at Jerryís departure as I have the utmost respect and idolize this athlete, the positives far outweigh the negatives. In the fact that wide receivers J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets will have to step up and produce, their strengths and playmaking skills will be better utilized with increased playing time.
ďThis is going to be a good team in a very short time,Ē said Jerry Rice, whose likely departure in the off-season will remove one of the teamís final links to itís glory years. ďItís going to be very exciting to watch this team get better and better in the next few years.Ē
Although San Francisco failed to defeat a team with a winning record this season, it certainly stayed competitive in all but one game at New Orleans. Despite the entire contrary the 49erís were able to grow and mature into several categories of improvement from the beginning of the season.
Late officiating calls killed the 49erís in losses to Green Bay and the Saints, and they could have easily beaten Oakland and St. Louis at home.
With the surprise emergence of Quarterback Jeff Garcia and making his first trip to the Pro Bowl, along with a defense that has made remarkable strides since the beginning of the season they are more than capable of beating anybody.
With the ninth pick overall in the draft, look for Bill Walsh to make some wheeling and dealing again, as he did surprisingly last spring, to acquire more players.
He swapped the third choice in the first round for the 16th and 24th selections, plucking linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerback Ahmed Plummer in the process. I would expect Walsh to try and do the same with this next draft and the ninth pick. Everyone expected the 49erís to be among the leagueís worst teams for the second straight season.
What happened however was quite the opposite as San Francisco started slowly and suffered through a five-game losing streak before showing marked improvement while winning four of itís last six to finish (6-10).
Head Coach Steve Mariucci, who by all means has seen the ups and downs with his team, continues to be overly optimistic as to the future of his teamís direction. He honestly believes and has said that he expects the 49erís to be in the playoffs next year, even without several veterans that will more then likely be victims of the enormous salary cap.
ďThe difficult part is saying goodbye,Ē Mariucci said. ďIím finding it very difficult to do, personally. Iím learning from General Manager Bill Walsh, because heís had to do that for a lot of years.Ē
In the rebuilding process of the San Francisco 49erís which began last February, Bill Walsh began cutting veterans and restructuring contracts to fit under the salary cap. The main focus was then on youth as the reliance on that was a heavy one the same will most likely be in that direction again and should be.
The experience gained in the process by the many rookie defensive players on the team from the 2000 draft will in all aspects be priceless. The 49erís drafted 11 players in April, and all 11 made the roster. Five of those picks were starting by seasonís end, along with un-drafted rookie safety Ronnie Heard.
I cannot help but say how impressed I have been with this crop of draft picks, they have been the very best picks I have seen in a very long time, certainly a far cry from what we had drafted in 1999 and sown so little from.
I believe we have a real legitimate defense to challenge offenses with in 2001, the marked improvement in just one season with a rookie injection was a masterpiece itself being created. The real true colors of that masterpiece should begin to appear clearer as training camps start and the pre-season unfolds in 2001.
ďA lot of young guys got a big opportunity here this year,Ē said rookie Jason Webster, who joined rookie Ahmed Plummer as the 49erís starting cornerbacks for most of the season. ďI know Iím a lot further along than I would be if Iíd been sitting behind a veteran.Ē
The pressure and competition on these rookies in the beginning of the season has had to be unbelievable at times, as when games turned ugly so did the fan base that had so much promise for a turnaround year.
Mistakes at times were not always taken lightly, however in their defense we must adopt the knowledge that they all came away this season something very valuable that was earned in the best way imaginable and that is precious experience.
The San Francisco defense was the leagueís worst up until a late-season surge that included a shutout of the Chicago Bears. Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora was chastised by 49er fans abroad and was labeled the scapegoat for all the missed chances and recorded losses that the team endured over the season.
However the coaching staff especially Steve Mariucci never lost faith and came to Moraís defense each and every time praising him for all his hard and dedicated work with a defense that had started five rookies and had many rotations throughout the season due to constant injuries. I am also deeply grateful for all his work knowing how unbearable it had to be at times to be faced with such difficult odds on almost every game day.
The key to this seasonís productivity rested with itís offense which was again one of the best offenses in the NFL, three dynamic players made breakout seasonís in Quarterback Jeff Garcia, Running Back Charlie Garner and Wide Receiver Terrell Owens.
All three individual athletes will represent the National Football Conference at this yearís Pro Bowl in Hawaii. The offensive line remained relatively healthy all season; minor injuries were quickly healed within a week or two.
The most encouraging aspect of this seasonís dramatic turnaround was the performance of Jeff Garcia, there is no question that he has eliminated the 49erís need to acquire another quarterback via the draft or free agency.
ďIn one way, you canít be happy with anything thatís gone on because we didnít make the playoffs,Ē said Garcia, who threw 31 touchdown passes and broke the franchise record with 4,278 yards passing. ďWeíll be back here in the off-season working to get better, because we want to be winners next year and for many years to come.Ē
Terrell Owens made both headlines and broke records this season as he was suspended for celebrating two touchdowns on the Dallas Cowboy star in Texas Stadium, and he broke a 50-year old NFL record by catching 20 passes in a game.
Owens finished the season with 97 catches for 1,451 yards and 13 touchdowns, he firmly took control of the wide receiver position and solidified it for many years to come in essence making Jerry Rice that much more expendable.
Charlie Garner had another fabulous season from when he was on the waiver wire before the 1999 season and finally picked up by the 49erís he started off strong and had several eye-popping games this season. He did fade away towards the end of the season as in the last five games he managed only 183 yards.
He finished the season with 1,789 yards; his downward spiral towards the end can be attributed to the fact that the 49er offense favored the passing game over the running game towards the ending of the season.
This was something I observed with concern and curiosity as to why would they abandon something that was their bread and butter for so very long. The evidence shows that the passing game was most prevalent in the last two games as they tried to feed Jerry Rice as he played his last games as a 49er. This was a mistake and the running game should have been the priority.
The path to a brighter future surely remains with the drafting expertise of General Manager Bill Walsh and Assistant General Manager Terry Donahue in this years April 21-22 NFL draft.
A lot of interest is being paid to Donahueís services for 2001, Bill Walsh is expected to step down to block any effort by other teamís to acquire his services, Walsh has been planning for this day for some time now. He has indicated he will step down right after the draft is completed.
Hopefully we will see Walsh continue to stay on in the front office in some kind of capacity, Donahue will without question be an excellent addition to an already dynamic organization and his knowledge and managing style will be a warm transition.
ďThis is exciting for John and I to get back in the swing of things like we did last year,Ē Walsh said. ďThe (1999 draft) was a little tougher; we picked late and didnít have all those choices. Last year, we were in the driverís seat and we took advantage of it. This year, there is not quite as much power in terms of selection, so we might not be able to do the things we did last year.Ē
ďStill this is exciting for us. Weíre four or five players away from being there. The draft can serve us well in that area.Ē There is no doubt as to what Bill is saying the draft is the best way to renew a team from the inside out.
There will be many sacrifices that need to be made this year just as well as there were last year, salary caps are veteran player killers high salaried contracts are restructured or just plain eliminated we will have to a little of both. I am most eager and anticipating the off-season moves the franchise will make within the next couple of months. Excitement and concern are a mixture of emotions that will be displayed within my own mental capacity.
There are many perceived and easy predictions as to where the 49er organization will go in shaving the enormous amount of money it is over in regards to the salary cap. One thing is for sure and that is we will continue to succeed with talent that is already there and with more talent that will be acquired and trained to unleash its fullest capacity.