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The hiring of coach Dennis Erickson ushers in a new era of uncertainty and skepticism. Clearly a candidate from out of the blue, Erickson seems to be the outlier on a list of candidates that represented the defensive echelons of the NFL. So what does Erickson bring that none of the other candidates brought to the table?
Today, i wore my 49er jacket to show support for the new hire, and 3 different people approached me and asked if Erickson was the right man for the job. In each one of their gleaming eyes i could see a glimmer of hope that spoke to me. It said we weren't going to be stuck with a perpetual assistant coach at the helm. We were hiring someone with a philosophy, someone with a proven track record. Frankly, Erickson looks like he has that x-factor, that spark that makes the team on the field as well as off.
One of the things that the 49ers have been lacking on the field is an identity. When the Oakland Raiders take the field, you know they will play a hard-hitting, smash mouth, borderline insane type of a game. They have an on-field identity, granted it's not a great one, but its something. The 49ers on the other hand, have a reputation of being a wine and cheese team, a team that will finesse their way into the playoffs. Now I'm not contending that there should be riots in San Francisco to "establish an image" by any means; but it seems as though the Niner emblem just doesn't strike fear into the hearts of opposing teams. When Erickson makes comments like, "I think it all comes down to aggressiveness. I want us to be aggressive on offense, and defense" it gives me hope for a brighter future for the young 49ers. Aggressiveness is what often times lacked from the 49er coaching staff, and Erickson might just be the medicine to heal that ailment, the source of a new on-field identity.
There has also been criticism stating that the minority candidates were all just a dog and pony show. The fact remains however, that Erickson brings a resume with head coaching experience, something that the other candidates could not produce. Erickson has taken many dismal programs and in almost all of them he has yielded a positive turnaround. In Miami he went 63-9-0, tied for the best ever among college coaches in a 6 year time span. For you math whizzes out there that's about 1.5 losses per year. Pretty remarkable stuff. In addition to what he's done with stacked rosters, he took over an Oregon State team that was bleak at best; they were the doormats of their division. In 2000 Erickson led the Beavers to a school record 11-1 record, tied for best in the Pac-10, and a 41-9 romping of Notre Dame in the fiesta Bowl. It was the Beavers first conference championship in 36 years. Clearly, the record speaks for itself.
Even Bill Walsh exuded optimism when he spoke of Erickson. "His track record is as good as anybody out there." Walsh continued, "Dennis is the guy that can get this offense turned around. Last year the ball just wasn't getting released to our receivers down field...I think [Dennis] can shake things up and get us going again." Many times the offense was blasted because many felt they had the talent to score at will, as the offense did against a tough New York Giant defense in the Wild Card playoff game. Garcia spoke out about wanting to open up the offense while Owens complained about the lack of a killer instinct. Erickson's aggressiveness and propensity to get the ball down-field will help correct the offense's inconsistency. Often times it was the conservative calls of Knapp and Mooch that kept the opposition in the game. It looks as though Erickson will have a hand in turning that around.
Even Jeff Garcia, one of the most outspoken opponents of the coach selection process, endorsed the hire when he said, "I think [Erickson] was definitely the right person for the job."
What tools will Erickson work with in San Francisco? It seems as though Jim Mora Jr. is off to Detroit where he can be reunited with his previous boss, Steve Mariucci. I would be surprised if Mora Jr. stayed in the organization. I would imagine that there would always be a sort of resentment that arises from taking orders from a guy whose job you could (and maybe you feel you should) have had. The embarrassment/ego factor alone should send him packing. With Carolina promoting defensive line coach Mike Trgovac to defensive coordinator, Mora's move to Detroit seems imminent. This gives the new coach some needed latitude in hiring his defensive staff. The new coach's defensive hires will probably come within the next week.
Erickson's offensive staff is pretty much set. Knapp has signed a one-year deal that will keep him on as offensive coordinator, offensive line coach Pat Morris will be retained, and quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner is a good friend of Erickson's so it looks like he will stay as well. To a point this stability on the offensive side is a good thing, because Erickson meets the challenge of learning the West Coast Offense. At the news conference that announced his hire Erickson said, "Why change [the offense]? It's been very successful." He will probably tinker with it a little and change the terminology up, but Knapp will have to be the teacher for at least the off-season. Come game time however, Erickson will be making the calls on the field, and his aggressive play calling will move the 49ers beyond a #8 offensive ranking.
Most of the variables have been taken care of. Dennis Erickson is a coach that will not cause too much friction with the front office. He will infuse some much needed aggressiveness on both sides of the ball, especially on offense-where Mariucci's vanilla game plan was often a point of contention for both Owens and Garcia. Basically, he has a situation in San Francisco void of distractions, an atmosphere necessary for a successful tenure. We don't need another Mooch-Owens type feud.
His real only blemish is the time he spent in Seattle. To put this in perspective, his record of 31-33 is the exact same record that Mike Holmgren (The birthday cake coach for many Niner fans) has amassed in Seattle during his last 4 years. Moreover there was a lot of front office turmoil in Seattle that affected the performance of the team, a variable that should be absent in San Francisco.
What's left is the fans.
We are always the most critical voice when it comes to our beloved team. We are the first to jump for joy, but we are also the first to criticize when things don't go as they seem. Ray Ratto says that Erickson is "certainly is being ordered...to do more than Walsh, George Seifert or Mariucci ever did, with a situation as fluid as it is volatile." Well i believe that Erickson will take this team to the next level. I cant assume that he will have a one year wonder as he did in his first year in Miami, but he will take this team, mold it in a new aggressive image that resembles a coach hungry to prove the nay-sayers wrong. Erickson knows that this might be his last chance to prove that he can make it in the NFL. He admitted to being left unfulfilled from his lack of success in Seattle. He is not a coach who feels he deserves a second chance, he is a coach that wants to prove his point-that he is a good coach.
I have confidence in the new coach. I didn't think at the outset of this search, which often resembled a blind man looking for the light switch, that we would find someone better than Mooch. For all his deficiencies, Mariucci was a good coach. But Donahue managed to save hours of disparaging comments, and he may have even saved this organization from the basement of the NFC by hiring Erickson. Basically, I have hope that the organization will rise above stingy quasi-owner John York (Denise DeBartolo York is the real owner) and prove people like Ray Ratto wrong. Consider this one of Dennis Erickson's first ringing endorsements among the "media." As a fan, I don't want to sell the team short, but similarly I don't want to sabotage the coaching tenure before it starts. Pessimists can leave, the exits are marked, but once you leave the bandwagon door gets dead-bolted and you will be stuck on the outside looking in.