From off-season to pre-season
The time has finally come my friends that the San Francisco 49ers will take center stage at 3-Com Park at Candlestick Point and beyond as they ready themselves for the 2003 NFL season. Much has been done to get the team in the best possible position to win and win big. We have made enormous changes in almost every facet on the team and have even made leadership changes by replacing Steve Mariucci with offensive-guru Dennis Erickson.
We are coming off a fabulous 2002 season with an (10-6) overall record and a deeper punch into the playoff scenario that ended in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida. After this loss the 49er top brass made the decision that Steve was not the answer anymore towards progression of the Super Bowl. After a long and detailed search that bordered on lunacy the 49ers finally made a last minute move with acquiring Dennis Erickson from Oregon State.
So far the going has been pleasant for the 49ers as Dennis Erickson has brought a breath of fresh air to the team by bringing in new assistant coaches and a philosophy that we are going to attack and attack on offense like never before. Even 49er consultant and architect Bill Walsh seems to be embracing the new era of Dennis Erickson, as he believed that the conservative approach of Mariucci was not always the best approach. “I’m hopeful, and we all are, that we get the ball thrown down the field better than we did last year,” Walsh said.
Many a fan last year bit their tongue or cursed the predicament that the 49ers placed themselves in time after time. It seemed like we struggled to gain supremacy over our opponents in many a game where we should’ve been dominating right out of the gate. Jeff Garcia’s average completion of 10.2 yards was the lowest for a starting quarterback in this team’s history. Why was that? There are a few good answers and obviously above all else it was that the play calling lacked creativity. With an offensive line second to none it struggled last year to give Jeff the ample amount of time in the pocket to make precision passes for completions.
The offensive line was severely banged up for most of the season but still delivered a sound punch throughout the season. Jeff was also criticized for having happy feet in that he never really gave the line time to set up blocks and manage the rush while he took time to survey the field and make a read. His lack of arm strength to throw the intermediate or deep pass was also a factor in this offense’s mental breakdowns in that he would always take the safe dump-off pass underneath versus airing it out.
But it was other factors that made contributions to Jeff Garcia’s failures and mistakes as well. As the season came to a close it was Bill Walsh that analyzed the situation and he assigned a great share of the blame to the wide receivers themselves. He believed a lot of the time that the receivers ran undisciplined passing routes that forced the hand of Jeff Garcia far too many times.
When you really think about these aspects some of these do come to light when you think about them. It is certainly true that many a call was termed too conservative in my opinion. Not to say that all conservatism is bad because its not, but certainly we could’ve been a lot more creative in games that were close or ones that we were losing control of.
“I think as much as anything, our receiver’s patterns weren’t breaking them open quick enough,” Walsh said. “They weren’t precise, sharp patterns and, consequently, Jeff could only wait so long on them before he had to go to an outlet receiver.”
Where does the blame lie here? It seemed to lie with our wide receivers coach in George Stewart who is now a coach with the Atlanta Falcons. It was made clear that the 49ers were still interested in keeping Stewart but not to coach the wide receivers as they were looking for him to take over special teams. Stewart received word from Atlanta though and chose to follow his career there instead right before the hiring of Dennis Erickson.
Bill Walsh is hopeful that newly acquired wide receivers coach Eric Yarber, who was a wide receiver with the Washington Redskins from 1986 to 1988, followed Erickson from Oregon State.
One thing is for sure in that Erickson will demand accountability in receiving and making completions. In order to fuel his high-octane offensive philosophy he will need his receivers to catch the ball and gain yardage after the catch. Yarber is sure to be under scrutiny from Erickson should anything go suddenly wrong or off course throughout the season.
One of the off-season’s priorities was to get a receiving tandem in place that would work well together. One of the one’s that didn’t fit into our equation anymore was J.J. Stokes. Stokes was shown the door earlier in the year when he was given the green light to seek a trade and that he would have a June 1st cut off date to do so. Stokes entertained offers from Green Bay and Denver before settling on the Jacksonville Jaguars, where it looks like he’ll be the No. 2 wide receiver in their offense.
He signed a one-year deal worth $805,000 along with a $150,000 signing bonus. Also laced into the contract are options and incentives that could generate $300,000. When June 1st came around other clubs that showed interest in Stokes were the New York Jets and the Detroit Lions. J.J. Stokes is looking to pair up with veteran Jaguar receiver Jimmy Smith as this team has been starving for a receiver since it released Keenan McCardell that was the consummate partner next to Smith.
Without Smith, the Jacksonville wide receivers combined for just 58 catches, 788 yards and just five touchdowns in 2002. Stokes played a total of eight seasons for the 49ers and caught 327 passes for 4,139 yards and 30 touchdowns. His very best season was in 1998 when he caught 63 passes for 770 yards and scored eight touchdowns. This is what Jacksonville is hoping it has found with signing J.J. Stokes. It is definitely something we thought we had in drafting him as the No. 1 pick out of UCLA in 1995.
So goes that minus from our wide receiving corps. It was J.J. Stokes that was deemed very expendable based upon his drop in production, his inability to stay healthy and his failure to breakout of a clear slump in which he never was really consistent. He never really bonded with quarterback Jeff Garcia either as he was really never on the field enough for them to find a rhythm that made their situation a comfortable one.
Bill Walsh along with several other 49er officials’ want the receiving end of this offense fine-tuned and to be more dominating at the point of attack. You can bet that it will happen under Dennis Erickson, as he demands offensive proficiency.
“I’m just hopeful the new coaching at the receiver position will sharpen the patterns and make them more distinct and Jeff will have a better target, “ Walsh said. “That’s the key, more than anything else.”
Yarber has already taken up the advice that Bill Walsh just mentioned as both mini-camps and training camp is focused on just that. More precise route running that is essential towards the success of the West Coast offense. With that emphasis on route running and separation the 49er wide receivers now believe that we have a distinct plan in place in the form of attacking opponents.
“We’ve been emphasizing being disciplined in your routes, getting the depth all the time so the timing with the quarterback will be sharp,” Yarber said. “If you shorten your routes and don’t get the proper depth, then the quarterback won’t be ready to throw and that’s when turnovers come about. We talk about route discipline all the time.”
If there is anything more vitally important it is the bond between a quarterback and his receiver. Anticipating where his receiver will be at any given time is paramount towards the team’s success. Errors in that ideology cost the team victories, which directly reflect on the duo as responsible. So you can see where some of the internal pressure comes from when you see the faces of frustration after a play that fails on both the faces of a quarterback and his receiver.
The very wide receiver that made J.J. Stokes expendable in Tai Streets will tell you how production translates into success for a team. He caught 72 passes for 756 yards and five touchdowns last season. He understands the importance of proper route running and the way it is applied on the field in order to form continuity with the quarterback.
“The first couple of mini-camps, that’s huge to try and get that timing with the quarterback,” Streets said. “You want to be the right depth. We’ve put a special emphasis on that, getting the right depth and making sure we release correctly to try and get in a good rhythm with the quarterback. You do that every year. Always looking to improve on having a good feel with the quarterback.”
Another wide receiver that has suddenly stepped in to take his place on the roster has been Cedrick Wilson. He has taken his position so seriously he is turning his life upside down both mentally and physically in order to achieve the desired results he needs to attain. His diet has been detailed and annoying and his concentration on physical development is second to none on the team.
Everyone from General Manager Terry Donahue on down has been impressed with Wilson’s production throughout mini-camps and now training camp. When he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL draft, Wilson had 15% body fat.
“That’s too high for a receiver,” strength coach Terrell Jones said. Now Wilson is at 12% and hopes to be lower with training camp. Cedrick Wilson has rededicated himself to what is most important to him. He has raised his level of play to such heights that everyone from manager to teammates are stopping to take notice.
Cedrick Wilson began his career with the 49ers by playing in six games as a rookie. Last season, he played in all 16 games and believe it or not was by the end of the year challenging J.J. Stokes for the third receiving slot. He finished the 2002 season with 15 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown, and was a specific threat whenever he was on the field because of his ability to get separation from defensive backs.
Wilson also has a mentor that motivates him to new heights as Terrell Owens has provided him a catalyst to become just like. His appeals to have more playing time this past season did not fall on deaf ears but under Dennis Erickson who favors a wide open passing attack you can rest assured that he will have more chances.
“I want to be the guy when we need it,” Wilson said. “I want to be that guy. I know Terrell Owens is going to get double-teams.” Cedrick Wilson has spent countless hours in the film room watching Terrell Owens and his maneuvers on the field. His physical style of play has intrigued him to such a point that he has asked to be a part of his training and routine. Here Wilson has made note of Owens remarkable strength and changes in his physique that have been attributes to his success. “With my size (5-foot-10, 186-pounds), I knew if I increased my strength, I could be a much better player,” Wilson said.
Along with working with Terrell Owens he has also leaned heavily on fellow strength and conditioning coaches Terrell Jones and Jerry Attaway. Since appealing to them for help he has made progress in gaining muscle in his shoulders, chest and legs. Attaway has also taken extra time with Wilson in really increasing Wilson’s flexibility.
The bottom line for management has been thinking about bringing in another receiver to beat out Cedrick Wilson or at least compete with him on the field. The 49ers have almost forgotten that prospect because Wilson has made that unnecessary with his dominance on the field. “Any guy we bring in as a third receiver has to beat out Cedrick Wilson,” Donahue said. “That won’t be easy.”
“Cedrick Wilson looks terrific,” 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said. “In practice, I don’t know if he could look any better. I would point him out as one of the top performers in mini-camps and everything we’ve done. I would put him in the upper five percent of guys that have shown up and made plays all over the field. He looks great.”
Others that are competing for time next to Cedrick Wilson will be holdover veteran James Jordan and rookies Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle. All of these receivers hold advantages over Wilson in size but Wilson has stepped up and made that a non-issue in a big way.
“After watching Terrell (Owens) and J.J. (Stokes). For my size, I knew if I could put on some muscle and get stronger, I’d probably be a much better player,” Wilson said. “And I could see it in (spring) mini-camps, now I’m stronger and faster and, especially, more knowledgeable.”
One thing that all 49er fans and the coaching staff want in tandem is to relieve Terrell Owens by taking pressure off from him in the form of double-coverage. Cedrick Wilson is determined to do just that and we can be thankful in that being his purpose. What he has been able to do on the practice field has been nothing short of amazing as he continues to pursue the ultimate dream in increased playing time.
The offensive passing attack under Dennis Erickson is sure to be emphasized as the 2003 NFL season nears closer. Despite the notices and concerns about depth the 49ers feel confident in their wide receivers on hand to get the job done. I would have to concur with that thought because I have been impressed with what I have seen and heard from last season to what is now currently training camp.
I have high aspirations for this 49er offense as we are strengthened considerably in almost every area from the line to the backfield. We will feature a legitimate running and passing threat every time we take to the field, because we are second to none in both categories now. Jeff Garcia has been most impressed with his vast array of weapons at his disposal and finds the offensive line as strong as ever with improvements in depth taking a front seat.
The suspect part of this 49er team again falls with its defense, despite concentrated efforts to beef up this unit through the draft and through free agency. The San Francisco 49ers ranked last in third down defense last season a statistic that we want to rid ourselves of once and for all.
There are certain other variables though that have contributed to this third down nightmare for the 49ers and it is those things that the revamped coaching staff of the 49ers is trying to erase and make sure it is not repeated this season. Coaches have gone to great lengths in identifying and solving the problems that plagued the team last season and to have a counter to every situation that it encounters on third down this season.
“We started to critically look at why we were last in third down conversions. Why were so good on first and second down and why did we struggle on third down?” said new defensive assistant Dick Tomey. “Was it personnel, play-calling, scheme? Just what was it?”
Statistically if you eliminated just one-half of those failed third down conversions last year it would have positioned the 49ers into the top 10 in league standings. But the task is now underway in bringing this runaway symptom to a halt and transferring our energies, as a team on to more positive matters at hand.
“We found over 40 plays where the offense made the first down by a yard or less,” said Tomey. “We broke the film down and showed it to the team and when you think about footwork, alignment, reaction, explosion and recognition, all of the things that go into a play, you can always find a foot or a yard. The thing is we’re just trying to find a little bit.”
Although we didn’t address our secondary problems in this year’s draft we did find help through free agency in signing five-year veteran Fred Weary. The need became apparent when cornerback Jason Webster continued to have ankle problems that he suffered last season with a painful injury. Weary spent time with the Atlanta Falcons last season as their nickel back specialist, and played in all 16 games but did not start. He was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the 1998 NFL draft in the fourth round out of the University of Florida.
He has accumulated 25 starts and has had seven interceptions in 70 career games so far. He helps solidify a defensive backfield that has battled injuries for most of the 2002 season. Starters in Ahmed Plummer (abdominal strain) and Jason Webster (ankle injury) sat out part of off-season mini-camps so far. Jimmy Williams also is still recovering from a December knee injury he endured towards the end of the season on a kick return.
Bringing in Weary eases some of the tension that has been applied by 49er fans as most have been concerned that the secondary has been largely forgotten. Second-year player Mike Rumph played a lot last year with secondary injuries decimating the team and he learned first hand at how high speed the NFL really is.
Former USC Trojan corner back Antuan Simmons was also signed by San Francisco to add depth to the cornerback slot as pre-season comes into highlight. He had just come off from a successful season with the Barcelona Dragons in NFL Europe after being signed by the San Diego Chargers as an un-drafted free agent. With the Dragons he recorded 44 tackles, eight passes defended and one interception. Simmons seems to be the dark horse in training camp, as he will ultimately battle Weary for the coveted right in backing up Webster and Plummer.
Back in college he had to have back surgery following his junior season, doctors discovered a benign abdominal tumor that required two surgeries and kept him hospitalized for six weeks. The ordeal lasted so long that he lost 40 pounds but recovered for his senior season where he recorded 30 tackles and 208 tackles.
The 49ers continued their secondary doctoring by signing veteran safety Scott Frost who is best remembered for his college career as a quarterback where he led the Nebraska Cornhuskers to a co-National Championship as a senior in 1998. As a senior, he set school records for quarterbacks for most carries (176), rushing yards (1,095) and rushing touchdowns (19) in a season.
Frost joins a safety committee that was ravaged by enormous injuries last season starting with rookie Kevin Curtis and tainting every other safety on the team. With training camp now in Santa Clara away from the dangers of Zuckerman Field in Stockton, the 49er safeties should stay relatively healthy barring injury in a full contact game. Frost is 6-3, 218 pounds and was originally selected by the New York Jets in the third round of the 1998 NFL draft. He spent three seasons with the Jets before being waived and claimed by the Cleveland Browns where he did appear in 12 games.
Released by the Browns, he was then picked up by the Green Bay Packers late in the 2001 season. He spent the 2002 season on Injured Reserve with a shoulder injury. His career statistics include appearing in 55 games, with one start, 37 tackles (22 solo), one sack and one interception. He also registered 43 tackles with special teams, where he will have the most impact with our team this season.
Frost, Simmons and Weary are all excellent additions to a secondary that struggled to find it’s own identity last season. Behind Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster stand Mike Rumph and Rashad Holman whom both struggled to seal the gap that was created when both starters incurred injuries.
Providing better competition and options is where the 49ers have addressed this problem area that was exposed dangerously last season. Frost will help back up Zack Bronson and Tony Parrish along with John Keith in providing quality insurance and assisting in elevating our special teams play. Second-year safety Kevin Curtis suffered yet another relapse in his recovery from a knee injury. He suffered a re-tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the 49ers last mini-camp back in June.
Kevin Curtis was sought out in the 2002 NFL draft in the fourth round and was coveted to add youth and speed to the secondary of the 49er defense. He suffered his nagging knee injury initially in a pre-season game last year and sat out on injured reserve for the entire season.
With just 32 sacks last season and ranking 24th in the league and allowing their opponents to convert 46.9% of their third downs last season, the 49ers signed veteran defensive end Byron Frisch to their training camp roster. Frisch spent his 2002 season with the New York Giants and is a former Brigham Young University football star. He came into the league as a third round selection of the Tennessee Titans in the 2000 NFL draft. He stayed on the regular roster the first year, but remained inactive all 16 games.
The Titans then released him after the 2001 pre-season, the Dallas Cowboys where he appeared in 13 games and recorded three sacks then obtained Frisch. He added to that sack total with the Giants during 10 games last season. His college career was a great milestone in his football career as he was a four-year starter for BYU. He totaled 222 tackles, 25 sacks, seven forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
He was named team captain as a senior, and earned third-team All-America and first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors after recording 55 stops, 14 pressures, eight sacks and two forced fumbles. He also totaled 70 tackles, five sacks, one forced fumble and one recovery as a junior team captain. So this guy does have a motor that he’ll use to compete with John Engelberger and Sean Moran.
“Man it was frustrating. Every single time they needed nine yards they got 10, or they needed 15 yards they got 16,” said linebacker Jeff Ulbrich. “The good news is that all that’s tuff that went wrong is correctable.”
So the battles in training camp in Santa Clara begin, and head coach Dennis Erickson supervises his very first championship caliber team. We have so many strengths but again so many questions in terms of weaknesses. Players are playing and competing for their very lives in this training camp, tearful cuts will have to take place and moving on will be a standard many will have to accept.
The setting at 49er training camp is much different than it was last year, both in terms of humidity and temperature to the conditions of the field in which they practice on. No long lines of fans adorn their practice field as it has been closed to the public except for a few corporate identities and booster club passes. The fans have been granted some limited time to watch the 49ers practice and demonstrate but nothing on the scale it once was.
This will be a season defined by leaders on and off the field and players committed to excellence. We have the potential to go so far with the talent and abilities assembled before us, the real task that will be most difficult is keeping that pool of potential healthy and satisfied. Happy training camp folks and let’s get ready for our pre-season startup!