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One of the greatest adjustments the 49ers will have to make as the 2003 season unfolds is learning how to make all the pieces fit again. With so many changes and evolutions transforming on a daily basis the players find themselves faced with an array of different faces staring down at them as the coaching staff has been reborn.
San Francisco carries with it the proud and distinguished distinction in coaching, it has always fielded many extraordinary talents as has been proven over the many years of its existence.
The Bill Walsh tree is just an example of the many coaches that have gone on to be successful in both the NFL and college ranks. The flavor has always been an interesting twist of sorts as many hybrids of the West Coast Offense have been formulated to coincide with each coach that has left the franchise.
Yet another great coach has been hired by Dr. John York to wield his expertise with the 49ers and that is former Hawaii football coach Dick Tomey. Tomey came out of a two-year retirement spree to all of a sudden spring to new life by joining former colleague Dennis Erickson. His coaching days as head coach of the University of Hawaii center mostly on his stingy defenses that he is famous for throughout the country.
He has compiled a 63-46-3 record from 1977 to 1986 at Manoa, and he coached the Hawaiian Rainbows only first-team All-American, in defensive lineman Al Noga. His ten seasons with Hawaii earned him WAC Coach of the Year in 1982.
He left Hawaii for Arizona and remained there for a 14-year span and among his accomplishments there was a 12-1 record in 1998 the best season in school history. The Arizona faculty also named him the Provost's Outstanding Teacher in 1999.
Tomey has proven to be a success almost wherever he has gone and his expertise in defense also speaks for itself. He is also no stranger to the San Francisco 49ers as he was a part of the 49er training camp in Stockton back in 2001. General Manager Terry Donahue invited Tomey to camp to help them evaluate the current roster. Since then he has been a television analyst on Hawaiian games since resigning at Arizona.
Both Tomey and Dennis Erickson have shared a close relationship from their college days with each other and that in large part played a key role in his getting a call for help. With both special teams and a defense that has wallowed in its own misery the 49ers are serious about improvement.
Tomey while coaching in Hawaii came to know Erickson while he was the head coach of Wyoming. Their paths continued to cross when they were both in different places like Arizona and Miami. Tomey also has a relationship with General Manager Terry Donahue from his days back with UCLA, and Tomey also has a close friendship with former 49er coach and now team consultant Bill Walsh.
So the recipe seems to be all in the right place, now we should see a defense that has been tragically inconsistent become one of respectability again and a special teams unit located at the bottom rise above water.
"He'll be a defensive assistant and help with special teams," Erickson said. "He'll help with the nickel defense and be a defensive advisor." "I'm sure a lot of it will be the same, but I know I have a lot to learn," Tomey, 64, said. "It will be like drinking out of a fire hose at first."
Tomey will be an asset to both Erickson and Jim Mora as the 49ers jump start their anticipated 2003 NFL season. He will answer to both as they will seek his advice and listen to his proposals. His many years of experience can only enhance an already respectable coaching staff that is literally busting at the seams with a contrast of knowledge.
"Dennis and I have competed against each other for years," laughed Tomey. "When he was at Wyoming, Washington State, Miami; it seemed we were always going at it. It's going to be nice to pair up for once."
Even the veteran coaches besides Erickson are familiar with Dick Tomey and his legacy and they all look forward to working with and listening to him. Both the young 49er defense and the special teams have struggled to keep their heads above water for too many seasons now. Although we are constantly adding and subtracting personnel we have so far failed to yield a formidable unit in either category.
"He brings head coaches perspective to our defense and that means he looks at the big picture" said Jim Mora. "I'm really looking forward to having him on the staff. He's had some great defenses in the past and he believes in having a sound, fundamental, aggressive defense."
If there were any coach that I would say was the best outsider coming in I would have to say that this was the best one. Tomey will add a new dimension to our defense and he will be instrumental in helping our special teams deliver the yardage that we all have been craving for. His insight and willingness to learn all over again and add his expertise to our group of experts will only help our units become more effective.
"I'm excited about the possibilities and potential of the defense here," added Tomey. "Jim (Mora), Brett (Maxie) and Dan (Quinn) have done a tremendous job developing this group. I just want to come in, add what I can and be a part of a successful group."
When you look at Tomey you cannot help but be impressed at his long years of service and wonder why he is coming back into the thicket after taking two whole years off. Many cannot understand what drives a football coach to want to coach all their lives and still coach once the gray hair turns to snow. But like anything else and a veteran player's mentality for his unwillingness to hang up his cleats a coach cannot put the clipboard down and just simply walk away.
"The part you can't replicate is the family relationship with the players, the coaches and the people in the organization," said a happy Dick Tomey. "Being here has been wonderful and exciting. I haven't been part of that for the past several years and it's so nice to be around the environment again. And this organization is a special organization in all of sports. When you think of the great organizations you think of the New York Yankees and the San Francisco 49ers."
What more can you say? This is the perspective of not just a seasoned and talented head coach but of many a 49er fan as well. I have always been under that mental impression that our organization was one of splendor and greatness.
what makes us so unique from other football franchises and fills our senses with a fragrance of winning. So much has been said of this over the years and we have always been able to back our words up with actions on the field, we yearn for those days to come again and will with the right formula.
Another major coaching staff change under Dennis Erickson took place with the promotion of defensive quality control coach Dan Quinn to defensive line coach. The surprise promotion has left Quinn with a position that he should feel very comfortable in, he embraces the renewed confidence in him as well.
32, has served the last two seasons as the 49er defensive quality control coach, however he spent a great deal of time after practices working with the team's young defensive linemen, including Andre Carter, Chike Okeafor and John Engelberger.
Quinn essentially replaces Dwaine Board, who had been with the 49ers for 13 seasons before answering the call to join Mike Holmgren in Seattle. Dan Quinn will have formidable shoes to fill in the mold of Board and his predecessor in Bill McPherson. Before joining the 49ers, Quinn spent five years coaching the Hofstra defensive line, serving as well in double duty as the defensive coordinator in his final season there.
Dan prior to joining Hofstra University worked as the defensive tackle coach at Virginia Military Institute and as a recruiting coordinator for VMI. He was a graduate assistant for the defensive line at the College of William and Mary prior to VMI. As far as his early years he was a four-year starter at linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle at Salisbury State University. He also was a four-year letter winner in track and field.
The credentials are pretty impressive and I like the fact that we had the manifest to promote from within for once, rather then looking again to the outside. Quinn will work well in getting the new assistant defensive coaches up to par along with defensive coordinator Jim Mora.
"I've interviewed a lot of guys through the years and he was very impressive," Erickson said of Quinn. "He understands the system and he's a good technician." "I certainly want to build on what these guys have built," he said. "We got our work cut out for us because this is an area we need to get better at."
Other then the coaching changes Dennis Erickson has made rather clear that there will be no other dramatic changes. Over the weeks since he has been hired he has been busy getting accustomed to the playbook of the West Coast Offense and the facilities as well.
He views the system that Bill Walsh built as a sound system that has worked for the team for many years, he sees the system as the best means of getting to the end that is needed. His tendency to open up the offense with three and four wide receiver sets is common knowledge to many that have worked with him. And he has been known to go with an empty backfield in order to obtain the maximum results of the passing game.
But he has toned down that radical change of heart over his seasons in college and has acknowledged that the philosophy has some holes to it especially in regards to the safety of the quarterback.
"But we had gotten away from that at Oregon State the last couple of years," he said. "The defenses force us to change. When we went to an empty backfield, they blitzed and went for the quarterback, and he took a beating."
One thing is very paramount when you compare college and the pro's the one thing that defenses will do should the 49ers go with an empty backfield is blitz Jeff Garcia without mercy. Even though he is a mobile quarterback putting him in harms way is not recommended due to the depth that exists behind him.
No one is really at top form to come in and assume the duties should Garcia go down. Tim Rattay is a serviceable quarterback but not over a sustained length of time and Brandon Doman and Cade McNown are still on the bubble as we speak.
"We'll still go 'empty' from time to time; the 49ers did that at times last year, too. But it won't be a big part of our offense," Erickson said.
When you read into this one thing is very clear in regards to Dennis Erickson and that is he is a gloves off the fist kind of guy. He will throw different looks at you and you can bet that the trick plays will increase under his leadership. Using Terrell Owens and his entire talent will be implemented and we can only thank God for that as we mix this offense up a little bit and acquire a killer instinct.
However when you think about the other side of the coin you have to wonder if Erickson will reduce the number of carries in the running game that has been a staple of the San Francisco offense. Believe it or not folks this is our bread and butter over the years, as much as we all like to see the aerial passing attack and the magnificent yardage acquired because of that we have to think running game. This has been and continues to be a worry for me as I analyze the way Erickson applies his philosophies.
With a backfield that consists of Kevan Barlow, Garrison Hearst, Fred Beasley, Terry Jackson, Paul Smith and Jamal Robertson you have to put a lot of weight on this unit to deliver results. I can't imagine Erickson not using this group of athletes to our best advantage and use them often as I believe the best passing game can only be obtained with the threat of a lethal running game.
"Ultimately, you have to run a system, which fits your players," he said. "(Fullback) Fred Beasley is a helluva football player. It doesn't make sense not to have him on the field. And I like the backup running back (Kevan Barlow). I think our running game will be very important because I think our best chance for a good passing game is with play-action passes."
I have faith that he will use our running backs in tandem with our top flight wide receivers especially in Terrell Owens whom Erickson is mesmerized with since meeting him on the flight over from Seattle on the same plane once he was hired as the new head coach. He has high expectations for our receivers and looks at opportunities to acquire a top-notch receiver in the up and coming draft as well.
On Terrell Owens: "If you throw the ball near him, there's a good chance he's going to get it," Erickson said. "He's a big-play guy.
"Looking at the videos from last year, I thought Tai Streets did a pretty good job, and I like the tight end, Eric Johnson. He looks like a good receiver. I'm hoping to use him a lot." "We need another receiver, and it looks like this is a good year for receivers in the draft."
Obviously with Tai Streets making every indication that he is not interested in a long term deal with San Francisco it compels us to believe that San Francisco will take a wide receiver in the early rounds of this draft. When you think about it, it really is a no-brainer as we are exceptionally vulnerable and weak without our top wide receiver in Terrell Owens. Every effort should be spent in acquiring a wide receiver that will take the heat off Owens over the long term rather than the short term.
If Tai Streets is so unhappy about being the second-tier wide receiver and having a big part of the pie on the 49er offense I say deal him in a trade or something and promote Cedric Wilson. It really upsets me to think that we provided Streets a big break in competing against J.J. Stokes and winning that competition and he continues to still be unhappy.
Getting involved in the personnel matters of this franchise is something Dennis is staying very clear of especially since his predecessor in Steve Mariucci had always indicated that he wanted more of a say in these matters before which angered team owner Dr. John York.
"Terry is talking to the coaches to se what we think we need, but he'll be making the decisions," Erickson said. "That's fine with me. I got into the personnel thing and the salary cap when I was in Seattle, and it was a headache. I'm happy just to be coaching ball again."
Dennis has been very busy analyzing each and every one of his players and of course will be making recommendations to the front office on matters of concern and need as the NFL draft approaches. Even quarterback Jeff Garcia has come under his scrutiny but he feels that Jeff will be a quarterback that gives the 49ers the very best chances at winning.
He has won the backing and support of Jeff already as he continues to make contact with some of the players and assures them that changes will be minimal at best. Jeff sees the new coach as a breath of fresh air that needed to come into the team as his offense has been ridiculed for most of the season because of the conservative play-calling.
"He's not a Brett Favre or Dan Marino, but he's got the arm strength to throw the out or throw it up field," Erickson said. "I don't think it's so much a matter of strength, either, as timing. It's something you have to work on in practice."
I beg to differ a little on this quote, as I believe Jeff is one of the best quarterbacks in the league today. He has had to fill some enormous shoes in the place of Steve Young and has carried this team to the playoffs numerous times and led the players in many a comeback battle right down to the wire.
He is a gutsy quarterback that has tremendous will and courage and is unwilling to ever calling it quits. He provides entertainment almost every week that he plays in my opinion, as he is able to break tackles and run without fear for first downs.
So much of Joe Montana and Steve Young are traits that are instilled inside of him, that he carries these images and their mental composures inside his head when he plays. I have been a stout supporter of Jeff's for a long time and I am proud that he is the quarterback of this team. I can only assume and hope that he will continue to blossom under Dennis Erickson's direct supervision.
Some signings continues to happen in San Francisco some are more peculiar than others are when you wonder why punter Bill LaFleur was signed to a one-year contract. LaFleur was an exclusive rights free agent that accepted his tender offer back in February. But when you look at his numbers and his production once coming into last season it makes you angry to think that this guy is someone we are keeping?
Another coach in Jeff Rodgers made the coaching staff after being at the University of Arizona, where he spent the past two seasons as a graduate assistant on defense. Prior to Arizona, he was a linebacker for University of North Texas, where he was a two-time All-Big West selection. He has been named Special Teams Quality Control coach and will work very closely with new Special Teams Coordinator Larry Mac Duff.
I can only assume and hope that under these two special teams upgrades that the 49er special teams units will blossom for once. I have extreme faith that Jimmy Williams will continue to defy logic and stay a competitive player despite his injury last season.
This is one area where San Francisco must consider important based on the numbers of last season. Certainly Bill LaFleur with a 14-yard punt in the final post-season game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is not a player that fits in that category in my opinion. We need to find him so close competition as we did for Jose Cortez when he was struggling two seasons ago and was ultimately replaced because of his consistency problems.
In the 49ers only real free agent spending yet this 2003 season they signed Miami Dolphin tight end Jed Weaver. Weaver came into the NFL in 1999 with the Philadelphia Eagles before playing out his next three years as a Dolphin. In his four years in the NFL, his totals include 45 receptions for 560 total yards and five touchdowns. In just this past season alone he finished with six receptions for 75 total yards and three touchdowns. He has a total of 64 games played with 21 of them starting.
Why Weaver? And why a tight end? These are questions that we can only ask ourselves and wonder as to why would we acquire a tight end when we have Eric Johnson and Justin Swift? The answer being Swift is a free agent and even though he played well when Eric went down last season he was not the lethal threat that we so desired in his absence.
Weaver at 6-foot-4, 258-pounds was not used much as a passing target in his tenure with Miami; he was used primarily for his blocking abilities, which is also a very good reason why the 49ers opted for Weaver. Eric Johnson's forte is passing and having sound hands, he is still working diligently on his blocking aspects of his position.
This is where Weaver will be a strength because his skills here in this area are excellent in comparison. Justin Swift was not regarded as high as Weavers abilities and the coaching staff and front office believe this is a definite upgrade at this position.
He is a former walk-on at the University of Oregon; Weaver earned his first letter as a sophomore in 1996 when he played on special teams. He then started on his career by working his way up into the starting lineup by his senior year where he suddenly became the favorite target of quarterback Akili Smith. Where he became a clutch receiver as the team worked to incorporate a version of the West Coast offense into it's own system.
Eric Johnson has been the starting tight end since being drafted and essentially replacing the often-injured Greg Clark that was ravaged with constant hamstring problems. Johnson was fourth on the team last season with 36 receptions for 321 total yards and zero touchdowns. Justin Swift caught 10 receptions for 63 total yards and was declined a tender that would have kept him on the team, requiring the team to look for a back-up tight end.
"Jed is looking forward to having a big role in the offense," said Drew Rosenhaus, Weaver's agent. "The team indicated that Eric Johnson is the starter but they plan on using a lot of two tight end sets. Jed has the versatility of being a good blocker and a capable receiver."
This will play well in our hands should the 49ers start applying more two tight end sets as to fool the defenses into wandering what the play will be. It is a trick question to a defense in unraveling rather the 49ers are loading up for a running play or adding another set of dangerous hands to their passing attack. The problems that led to Justin Swift's demise lie mostly in his inability to get down the field as a dangerous passing option.
The combination of Eric Johnson and Jed Weaver together in the 49er offense will poise some great problems to a defense that is trying to shut down such a high explosive offense in the 49ers. Together out on the field at once they should wreck havoc on opposing defenses and move the chains on a consistent basis in which we are all very hopeful for.
And with the resigning of tight end Mark Anelli, the 49ers sixth-round draft pick from 2002 the 49ers seem to be all set at the tight end position. They look to further develop Anelli who is a prototypical tight end in the mold of former 49er tight end Greg Clark known for his excellent blocking abilities. The 49ers are very interested in continuing his development over the course of time to determine his value and contribution to the team.
The 49ers also have long-snapper Brian Jennings who has been used on a rare occasion as an emergency back-up tight end so the depth at this position remains at a high level when compared to other positions on the team. I am happy that this position has been secured as it is one more position that will not be a target in the up and coming draft, concentrating efforts on getting other prospects that are essential in us building a roster to be successful.
The greatest coup this off-season was the cutting of 49er defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and witnessing his journey across the Bay and signing the dotted line as the next Oakland Raider. The answer to the 49ers salary cap problems fell on two key members of the team and those were Dave Fiore and Dana Stubblefield who despite good years of service were not offered a restructuring of their contracts.
San Francisco General Manager Terry Donahue considered Stubblefield's salary expendable because "his weight got higher on him," as the 2002 season progressed. Stubblefield had a salary of $2.3 million dollars and Donahue hinted at this as a reason as well as his non-factor as a pass rusher this past season.
Waiving Stubblefield only angered him to such a point that he dismissed ever becoming a 49er again and signed with our archenemy the Oakland Raiders where he will join former 49ers in Jerry Rice and Charlie Garner.
Stubblefield, 32, has been a defensive veteran of 146 games in 10 NFL seasons, seven with the 49ers and three with the Washington Redskins. He rejoined the 49ers in 2001 after a horrible three-year outing in Washington, reuniting with age-old friend Bryant Young as his teammate.
Stubblefield was the 1993 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and 1997 NFL Defensive Player of the Year as well as a three-time Pro Bowler. He has replaced on the Oakland Raider defensive line big Sam Adams. Stubblefield has signed a one-year deal for the NFL minimum of $755,000, with no signing bonus. He remains enraged at General Manager Terry Donahue for the not so candid remarks for his waiving due to his weight and performance.
"If that were true, why didn't anybody say anything to me about it?" Asked Stubblefield, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 290-pounds. "Nobody pointed it out to me, nobody said it was a problem."
The sad part about this entire episode is that it leaves a 49er fan thinking what just happened here? It is so ironic that we are willing to practically give away top quality talent to a team that spits and mocks our very name whenever it is merely mentioned.
Dana Stubblefield got the final laugh on us by signing as a Raider like so many cast offs from our beloved franchise have. Dana has made everyone hear out loud that his days as a 49er are now finalized forever, he will never wear the red and gold again due to the treatment he believes since he was a 49er not long ago is a foreign element that never existed under Eddie DeBartolo.
"For me, that door was closed after the initial phone call from Terry," Stubblefield said. "(What he said to the media) really got me, yes, because when we talked, he never said anything to me about it. I always kind of left it open for him to give me an explanation why they were letting me go. And he never did."
Dana has also gone on record as to questioning the integrity of the 49er system now and it's willingness to do anything and everything in order to be categorized as a successful football club. He honestly sees the organization slashing veterans at such a dramatic rate that it leaves the team with too much inexperience and leaderless on the field and off it as well.
"Some of those younger guys, you have to light a fire under them to get them going in certain games," said Stubblefield, who was one of the oldest players in the 49ers locker room and was counted on as a team leader.
Now we are forced to stare at Dana in the silver and black the ultimate insult to a present day 49er fan is to witness one of your own wear these colors. Dana is not without memory when he recollects at how the 49ers were and still are treated by Oakland Raider fans. He can still remember the dramatic overtime victory just last season in which Jeff Garcia and company delivered an offensive knockout blow in overtime.
But he will be on the other side this time maybe even ridiculing his former team alongside a distinguished Raider fan for the way he was treated by our organization. Dana points to the firing of head coach Steve Mariucci and asks people to draw their own conclusions on this present day organization. Lord knows I have my own opinions in this forum as well as I question the moral fiber of this organization and wonder why communication is not more forthcoming then it has been.
The Oakland Raiders will pair Dana Stubblefield with big John Parella, whom is a long time friend of Dana's going back to their college battles against each other. Now they will be reunited much the same way, as he was with Bryant Young but now playing on the same side.
"Have you seen that line, with Parella and the guys I get to play with, Trace (Armstrong)? It's great," Stubblefield said. "John, and me our style of play is similar. We're both from the Big Eight, so we know how to play the run."
On equal parts the Oakland Raiders are proud to have an ex-49er whenever the chance presents itself. Another practical reason why Dana crossed the Bay was to keep his family in the Bay Area. The Oakland coaching staff has been warm to Dana's arrival and have been doing everything to make sure that he is comfortable in his new environment.
"He's a player that we've always had a great respect for as a person, a leader and as one of the top players in the National Football League," Callahan said. "What we get in Dana is a player that gives us instant character and leadership that we constantly talk about here."
One thing is for sure, Dana will be missed and his departure will continue to be a question as to why? Did the 49ers abuse the communication lines with him and Dave Fiore? I tend to think so based on their testimony and sources that I know. Both of these players were veterans that made a difference both on and off the field, their individual sacrifices and leadership on the team has been compromised.
We have to have some veteran players in existence on the team, talk of offensive tackle Derrick Deese being cut continues as well and where will all these cuts leave the team? Certainly I believe in building with youth like so many else believe, but the fine elements of leadership must be kept in order for the youth to become battle seasoned and adjusted.
When we compromise that with bad communication and ignorance to the fact that these players made great contributions to this franchise we damage our credibility as an organization based on truth and integrity.
We are known for our red carpet rollout for new and old players, we welcome those that dare to make a difference side by side with us rather than against us. What this team must do is try and undo what it has done to players as fine as these, it should've been handled with a bit more sincerity and professionalism I would say.