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With the regular season just weeks away, a few questions have yet to be answered regarding the 49ers roster. In all probability, most of these questions will not have definitive answers until midway through the season as unavoidable factors such as injuries cannot be forecast.
Having said this, the 49ers are comfortable with their starting lineup which for the most part remains unchanged from last year and has been penciled in as how the team will look this year.
Below is a list of question marks surrounding the 2003 San Francisco 49ers. They are not in any particular order but all will have an impact on how the team fares in their bid to make the playoffs.
Do the 49ers have a competent backup in Tim Rattay?
It’s no secret that the success of the team relies on the endurance of its starting QB Jeff Garcia. Ever since taking the reins from Steve Young, Garcia has improved in his performance each week. However, like Young, Garcia has a tendency of leaving the pocket too early exposing himself to defensive pass rushes.
This worries the coaching staff as they realize if Garcia continues this pattern of trying to make the plays with his feet, the offensive line will be unable to protect him from being banged up.
Sitting behind Garcia on the depth chart is backup QB Tim Rattay.
Lack of in-game experience has placed a HUGE question mark on Rattay’s ability to lead this offense. Because of this, Steve Marriuci has committed to giving him more playing time on the field during the pre-season.
So far, Rattay has shown a less than impressive performance against the majority of other teams second-string defenses. If he were inserted into a regular season game facing the NFL’s elite, there could be problems.
The bottom line – the 49ers need to assess their options quickly. Do they go fishing for a veteran QB in free agency, or, do they stick with Rattay as their no. 2?
Fingers crossed that Garcia remains healthy for the entire season.
Can JJ Stokes finally live up to his potential as the no. 2 receiver?
Back in 1997, the great Jerry Rice sustained a knee injury that was thought to be season ending propelling JJ Stokes to the no. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Terrell Owens.
Many thought that with Rice out of the lineup the offense would sputter... it did not.
Stokes showed just how much ability he had teaming up with Owens to form one of the more potent receiving tandems in the league.
Unfortunately, since then Stokes has taken a few backward steps and the back seat to the Terrell Owens show. This season, it is make or break for Stokes who must prove his viability as the undisputed no. 2 receiver.
The 49er fans are not the only ones disappointed in Stokes’ development - Stokes himself is his harshest critic.
Knowing full well that this is the season he must step it up, Stokes agreed to take a pay cut to remain with the team.
The early word out of training camp is that he has shown a marked improvement and is ready for a break out year.
Will the running game succeed with Barlow and Hearst sharing the load?
The answer to this question is simple – yes! With both Kevan Barlow and Garrison Hearst in the backfield, how can it not.
Obviously, the two will take carries away from each other, but the offense will be all the better for it.
It is expected that Barlow will see increased playing time this year, as the 49ers are aiming to mix up their game plan to keep defenses off-balance. Add to this the fact that Hearst is in his 30’s, an age when RB’s are known to wear down a lot faster during games.
Barlow is a stud and Hearst a proven 1000-yard rusher. This could be the year that both have over a thousand yards rushing. Imagine that….
Can the offensive line remain healthy?
This is a difficult question to answer, as injuries are a way of life in today’s NFL. So far, there have been a couple of niggling injuries sustained to starters during the off-season, but all are expected to return by week 1 if not before.
The offensive line is the most unheralded group of any football team. They are responsible for pass protection of the QB and opening holes for the running game – the sum of both parts equaling the word 'offense’.
The 49ers have not been known in the past to be big on drafting offensive linemen, rather acquiring the services of proven veterans through free agent acquisition. This off-season, they did address the depth by using two of their draft choices on linemen, but the major upgrade was when they picked up G Ron Stone from the Giants.
The 49ers have been known in the past for assembling offensive line units from discarded or unwanted players from around the league – hence the nickname often used 'no-name line’.
Because of this, the team is solid with starters and has one of the best lines in the NFL, but depth continues to be a big concern with injuries resulting in some serious shuffling.
Can the defensive line produce more sacks than last year?
Pressure on opposition QB’s have always been a goal of the 49ers, but over the last couple of years this has been lacking.
Andre Carter was drafted in 2001 in the hopes of providing that added spark to the defensive line while DT Dana Stubblefield returned home after a short stint with the Redskins.
Both proved to be great moves, however the 49ers have not stopped there. This year, the team acquired DE Sean Moran and DT Jim Flanigan to serve as solid backups.
While Stubblefield, Moran, and Flanigan are all in their prime, the big difference maker will be Carter who is coming off his rookie year which showed tones of promise over the last half of 2001.
The 49ers may not lead the league in sacks this year, but I would be very surprised if they do not make the top 5.
Will the defensive secondary be able to contain the Rams WR’s?
The road to the playoffs goes through St. Louis!
Before entering this years draft, the 49ers knew that they were going to upgrade their secondary in the hopes of matching it with the Rams WR’s – say hello to CB Mike Rumph.
Rumph comes from the much-publicized Miami defense and was selected in the first round to play in the nickel and dime packages alongside Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer.
He ads much needed height and has a nose for the ball.
Again, the key is to stay healthy. The 49ers have already lost a fourth round pick (SS Kevin Curtis) to season ending knee surgery. They can ill afford to suffer any further injuries if they wish to remain competitive against the Rams in their two divisional match-ups.
If they fail to beat out the Rams but do make the playoffs, they will have to do it as a wildcard… a less than enviable situation.
The New England Patriots showed in the Super Bowl the blue print for containing the Rams. You can bet that the 49ers have studied that game film to the extent of being able to recite the play by play analysis.
Who will win the kicking competition?
Jose Cortez started the season last year on fire before fizzling away to less than a spark. Over the last few regular season games of 2001, he had more misses and blocked attempts than he would care to mention.
The 49ers have tried to re-light that fire by drafting K Jeff Chandler in the fourth round of this year’s draft.
Early on in minicamp, it appeared as though Cortez was leading the competition and looked well placed to keep his spot on the team. Now it appears as though both have drawn level.
The bottom line is that very few teams waste early round draft picks by cutting them before the season. Expect Chandler to be on the active roster come September.
Can Cade McNown succeed in the 49ers West Coast offense?
Wanting some insurance in case Garcia went down with an injury and having only two inexperienced QB’s on the roster (Brandon Doman and Tim Rattay), the 49ers dealt for the services of Cade McNown in the off-season.
McNown, a former first round pick, comes across from the Miami Dolphins and is competing for the no. 3 position. The price – a seventh round pick in next years draft, was too good for the 49ers to pass up. After all, what do they have to loose?
Well, it seems as if McNown will not get to see playing time this year on account of his injured throwing shoulder sustained several years ago and appears to have worsen. A disappointment to McNown himself as he was hoping to establish a home after several years of drifting.
It is unclear whether or not he will be forced to undergo season ending surgery, but that is a likely scenario.
If that happens, what then? The 49ers have indicated that if surgery does go ahead, McNown will be placed on IR for the rest of the 2002 campaign and can start afresh next season by trying to make the roster.
I have no doubts that when fully healthy McNown can be successful in the 49ers offense. He has all the physical tools to play the game and some have even likened him to a young Steve Young.