For the first time in over a decade, the 49ers look to have a pair of wide receivers that are one of the top tandems in the NFL. That's the way it used to be. That's the way it should be. For a football fan like me who grew up in the 1980's and 1990's, it seemed like a God given right for the San Francisco 49ers to always have great wide receivers. From Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon, to Jerry Rice and John Taylor, to Rice and Terrell Owens the team trotted out some of the best the game had to offer (with Rice being the greatest of all time). No matter the era, it seemed like the 49ers would always be able to find another great wide out to step in the spotlight. That all changed in 2004.
Jerry Rice and the 49ers amicably parted ways after the 2000 season, leaving Owens to be the star wide receiver and franchise player. But over the next three years, he became discontent and by the end of 2003, he was a cancer in the locker room. Owens called out his quarterback, argued with coaches and was all but gone considering he was able to void the final years of his contract. But a paperwork screw up caused the 49ers to retain his rights, forcing the team to have to make a decision. Having no intention of keeping Owens around, general manager Terry Donahue ultimately traded the star wide out to Philadelphia for defensive lineman Brandon Whiting and a draft pick. The 49ers went into a tail spin after that. Salary cap issues forced them to have to gut the team and the roster was in shambles. The team struggled for the next seven pre-Harbaugh seasons, especially on offense. One of the biggest issues was at wide receiver.
A lot of people want to call it the "Curse of T.O." You could definitely make an argument for curses considering that from Owen's last season in 2003 up until Michael Crabtree's 2012 campaign, the 49ers did not have one single 1,000 yard receiver. Let's put that in perspective. In order to gain a 1,000 yards over a 16 game season, a player must average 62.5 yards per game. In those 8 seasons, 167 players gained 1,000 yards or more and only one other team (the Bears) failed to have a receiver eclipse 1,000 yards. Looking deeper, the 49ers were the only team to not have a wide receiver gain at least 900 yards in that span. The 49er wide outs were only able to break 800 yards twice. Here are the wide receiver leaders for San Francisco from 2004-2011 (tight ends excluded)
04: Cedric Wilson: 641 yards
05: Brandon Lloyd: 733 yards
06: Antonio Bryant: 733 yards
07: Arnaz Battle: 600 yards
08: Isaac Bruce: 835 yards
09: Michael Crabtee: 625 yards
10: Michael Crabtee: 741 yards
11: Michael Crabtee: 874 yards
The "Curse of T.O." has gone beyond performance and even jinxed his old number, 81. Any wide receiver who has taken that number since Owens left has been a colossal failure in a 49er uniform. It started immediately after Owen's left. The 49ers attempted to replace him by drafting a wide receiver in the 1st round of the 2004 draft. Terry Donahue, apparently unhappy with what was on the board, continued to trade back until he settled on Rashaun Woods out of Oklahoma State. Woods was more interested in fishing than playing football and in his time with the 49ers he totaled 7 catches for 160 yards and 1 garbage time touchdown against the Rams.
Woods was traded to San Diego for cornerback Sammy Davis after the 2005 season and 81 went to free agent pick up Antonio Bryant. Bryant signed a 4 year/14 million dollar deal to be the team's top wide out. Bryant started out playing well gaining 245 of his 733 yards in the first two games but production fell way off after that. He began to clash with then head coach Mike Nolan, was arrested for drunken driving in November and never saw year two of his contract. He was released by the team after one season.
The number then made its way to a couple of Brandon's. Former 3rd round pick Brandon Williams took 81 for the three games he lasted in his second season with the team in 2007. He never recorded a catch. Brandon Jones came on board in 2009 after signing a 5 year/ 15 million dollar deal and donned 81 that season. Jones was a decent role player in Tennesee and the 49ers agreed to pay him almost 6 million dollars in guaranteed money. Jones caught 1 pass in 8 games after returning from a shoulder injury. He was also released by the team after one season.
No wide receiver has worn number 81 in the regular season since Jones. Braylon Edwards wore it in the preseason and was cut before the year was over as he battled injuries and never fit in with team. Currently, the number is worn by backup tight end Garrett Celek but that could change in 2013, along with the fortunes of the number. The sort of elephant in the room is Anquan Boldin has worn 81 his entire NFL career with both the Cardinals and the Ravens. One would think he'll end up with it again in San Francisco. Boldin (barring injury) could be the player to break the curse and, along with Michael Crabtree, give the 49ers the complete pair of dominant receivers they've been lacking. This whole "Curse of T.O." thing probably had more to do with how the organization was run from 2004-2010 more than anything else. The 49ers are now a well-oiled machine that may be the class of the NFL at the moment. That's not a curse, it's a blessing.
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