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The San Francisco 49ers have really impressed both coaches and fans in obtaining victories in their first two pre-season games, the first in Kansas City winning 24-6 in an extraordinary display of quarterback power and the second in a Battle of the Bay against Oakland at home winning 14-10. What was missing in these games was the 49er starting quarterback in Jeff Garcia as he suffers from a bulging disc in his back that he incurred while in Los Angeles working out with a personal trainer.
In fact Jeff Garcia was still in pain as he never took the flight that left for Kansas City as he was sidelined to rest his back and to rehabilitate through epidural injections that helped reduce the swelling. This has been a traumatizing time for Jeff, as he wants to be included in the starting lineup as the 49ers push through the pre-season. It has taken a mental toil on him as he watches game film and is forced to limit his playing time to practices that have restrictions on his time element on the field.
Sitting for long periods of time seems to effect him the most negatively, in fact by staying home from traveling to Kansas City and having to stand on the sidelines for such a long period of time probably was the nest therapy. If anyone knows Jeff Garcia though they will know that he will be back better than ever based upon his past injury experiences. Jeff has started 56 consecutive regular-season and playoff games. The only other time he ever missed significant playing time was back in Gilroy High School when he fractured an elbow as a senior. He also happened to miss one game in his career with the Canadian Football League with a sprained ankle.
"For me, it's just an odd position to be in," Garcia said. "This is totally new to me, and it's frustrating." "I really believe just for my own mental frame of mind that it's important for me to play in a pre-season game," he said. "Whether that will make a difference as to how I play against Chicago who knows? But for me I'll feel better about it."
It was on July 14th, working with a personal trainer that the injury came to light one week before the start of training camp. He didn't miss any of the practices until August 5th. That's when he warmed up for some 45 minutes, and then on about his eighth throws during receiver-vs. -Cornerback drill, he aggravated the original injury. He threw one more pass before removing himself from the drill.
If anyone on the team can relate to what Jeff is going through right now it is tight end Eric Johnson who missed playing time last season because of the same bulging disc in his back. He has been a sounding board to Jeff throughout this whole painful process as he has given the quarterback day-to-day advice on how to best cope with the injury.
"Jeff hasn't gone through that game where it's gotten really bad. He stopped right when he felt it, so hopefully he'll be back a lot sooner than I did," Johnson said. "Anyone can have a bilging disk and still be fine. It's just when it gets irritated. You never know though with these things. If he rests it, he'll be back a lot sooner than I was, because he never hurt it that badly. We'll see."
Pushing himself to the limit is Jeff's forte in the spirit of competition and elevating his performance on the field. He misses the game feeling he encounters when he takes to the field regardless rather it is pre-season or regular season. Experiencing real game feelings and emotions is where Jeff feeds on like a feeding frenzy in taking the hits and feeling the glare and breath of defensive linemen zeroing in on him like a target for destruction.
"For me, being there is important," Garcia said. "We have a couple of young quarterbacks that are adapting to what we do. They're trying to learn on the run. I want to be there to be another voice or another ear for them. I want to contribute."
As much as Jeff wants to play the trainers and coaches have other thoughts as to how Jeff will be at 100% come the first regular season game against the Chicago Bears. Getting him to that point is what Dennis Erickson is projecting almost on a daily basis as he evaluates where his star quarterback is health-wise. Fans have had to read almost daily barrages and listen via through television on the condition of their star quarterback, as the most grisly of negativity is apparent when sports broadcasters get hold of a story.
"My plan is not to play him and shoot for the New Orleans game," said Erickson. "He's frustrated, he's very competitive and he hasn't been hurt he hasn't missed anything and that's frustrating. He now understands that he has to watch himself to see what he can and can't do."
With Jeff on the sideline it has forced back-up quarterback Tim Rattay into the lineup and this is where he has picked up the baton and really has run with it. In getting ready for the first pre-season game against Kansas City he felt a sense of excitement that comes with being the starting quarterback and having the eyes of the world centered on him.
"It's fun to finally get in a game and go up against a defense other than our own," Rattay said. "This is a chance for me to go out and do some stuff, knowing that once the season starts I'm not going to be getting a lot of (practice) reps."
Tim's game experience has been limited to a large extent as he played in the 49ers regular-season finale against the St. Louis Rams when Jeff was yanked early as a precautionary measure in securing his health for the post-season. Rattay completed 14 of 21 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns in that game that turned ugly through no fault of his own after building a 20-3 lead through the third quarter. The Rams came back in the fourth quarter in that game and exploded handing the 49ers a 31-20 loss.
"I'm a big Tim Rattay fan," Erickson said. "It's hard to find any negatives other than he hasn't played. He's got a tremendous arm. He gets rid of the football. He's a very good athlete. He understands what is going on. He is really bright and understands this offense."
Tim has really sat down and studied Jeff Garcia and has tried to learn from his mentor on how to best be the quarterback that he needs to be and to reach that next level. Jeff has played an intricate part in Tim Rattay's development as a professional quarterback and plans on helping him every step of the way.
"I don't have the foot speed a lot of people do," said Rattay, who decided to report to camp 5 to 10 pounds heavier than last year. "I'm always trying to work on that. If you can move around a little better, it's going to help you. The days of standing back there and throwing it are gone; defenses are getting so fast."
"Jeff is probably the best in the league right now in terms of escaping pressure and still throwing the ball downfield. I try to watch how he does it then work on it in certain drills."
Other teams as well as the 49ers will watch Tim closely as next year he becomes an unrestricted free agent after not attracting any interest as a restricted free agent this year. Rattay was signed to a one-year deal, worth $605,000 that is proving to be a Godsend when you think of where Jeff Garcia is right now. Tim never sweated either about rather the 49ers would sign him or not as he remained confident in his experience and his abilities as a top-notch back-up quarterback.
"I always knew it was going to work out for me when I was a restricted free agent," he said. "That did not distract me from continuing on the things that I need to focus on to get ready to go for this season."
In the first pre-season contest against Kansas City the trio of 49er quarterbacks stepped up to the plate and delivered remarkably on the field. Tim Rattay put out probably his best outing in all of his career as he was 8-of-9 for 90-yards with no interceptions and a thriller of a 39-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Ken Dorsey was equally as impressive as he completed 4-of-7 passes for 39-yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Brandon Doman who is seeking to ward off Ken Dorsey also had a good outing going 11-of-12 for 101-yards with no interceptions. It is here that the competition is the most ferocious as the battle for the third string quarterback position will become very heated indeed.
Others that did not fare as well in this opening game were first round pick Kwame Harris and punter Bill LaFleur It was a learning stage for Kwame Harris more than anything though as veteran left tackle Derrick Deese was there on the sideline coaching him all of the way. In that game Harris the star offensive tackle out of Stanford surrendered two sacks and allowed Chief defensive linemen to pressure the quarterback on four other crucial plays.
The learning curve on a college tackle to the professional level especially going from right tackle to left is tremendous. Kwame Harris got a first taste via veteran defensive end Vonnie Holiday of the Kansas City Chiefs who practically had his way with him throughout the game. When Harris returned to the sidelines it was veteran Derrick Deese that was there to console and coach him.
"The guys we played in college were good also," Harris said. 'I don't want to belittle or diminish their success or what they've done." "But these guys are the cream of the crop. You skim the top off the best guys in college and that's what you have out here. Obviously, you're going to get people who are bigger, faster, stronger and just more athletic across the board. That's what you notice when you come out here."
Deese who had off-season ankle surgery to repair his severely sprained ankle last season had many a kind word for Kwame Harris and encouraged the rookie to simply shrug it off and to keep on playing and learning. It was through three whole quarters that Harris had a heck of a time in that learning curve; from this he will reap a ton of experience in taking on the next purge of defensive ends.
"It's rough that first game," Deese said. "You're nervous, and he's had to jump right into the fire. It's something he can work on. It's all on film now. He can see what he needs to work on in practice and what things he did O.K. at."
"He's got to know that in this league, teams are studying your weaknesses," Deese said. "So until he starts shutting down some of the stuff that these guys are doing against him, other teams are going to try the same thing."
"You've got to go out and do what you can do and just trust yourself. You've just got to trust everything that you've practiced, everything that you've learned and listened to, and go and play the game and have fun."
Rookie linemen are enlisted to this type of experience every single time come the fist pre-season game. It is no different than it was 10 years ago, as former 49er tackle Kevin Gogan, who served as an analyst for KTLA's broadcast of that game, said afterward that Harris endured the baptism of fire that all rookies encounter in their first game. When you look at punter Bill LaFleur you see nothing in my eyes but discouragement.
After coming off a poor rookie season, he had a gross average of 43 yards on five punts. When you think of his predecessor, Jason Baker he averaged 56.5 yards on just two punts for the Chiefs. This is truly pathetic in my eyes and the 49ers must make some hard decisions on the punting competition if this trend continues.
Veteran defensive tackle Jim Flanigan continues to be question mark as his calve injury has hampered him from starting in any games and raises concerns at the position with regular season approaching. Both back-ups in Travis Kirschke and Anthony Adams have played remarkably well under the circumstances and continue to improve with playing time. Since Flanigan has underwent and MRI and received epidural injections because they believe the injury is related to his back.
Adams is displaying the burst and energy that is needed to help replace a veteran like a Dana Stubblefield that left to play across the Bay in Oakland. Adams registered four tackles against the Chiefs and played record defensive-high 41 snaps. A great deal of pressure will be applied on Adams to perform, as he'll be in rotation with Flanigan once he becomes healthy enough to start.
"He's explosive, he has good quickness. His biggest asset is that he is a warrior, he plays hard all the time," added Erickson. "If you watched that game he plays thirty-eight to forty snaps, he was going just as hard at the end as he was at the beginning."
Just when you thought the bad news couldn't get any worse, defensive tackle Bryant Young went out on the injury list as he underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from his left ankle. This has opened the door for Travis Kirschke who will play out the remainder of the pre-season schedule as Bryant Young is expected to come back in time for the regular season opener against Chicago.
San Francisco's first game at home against the Oakland Raiders went very well as the back-up quarterbacks again impressed the masses with over the edge performances. The 49ers scored the winning touchdown on a 9-yard pass from rookie quarterback Ken Dorsey to fullback Matt Stanley with just 2:19 left to play. Stanley who made the bobbled catch as all of held our collected breath sprinted into the end zone that slammed the door shut on the hated Raider horde.
Dorsey went 6-for-15 for 47 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions while Tim Rattay was 4-for-11 for 33 yards and under constant pressure even getting sacked for a loss of seven yards. Brandon Doman complicated the competition by going 3-for-5 for 20 yards and a touchdown that was caught by Cedrick Wilson from 10 yards out in the opening score for San Francisco.
One negative catch on the day was the run defense as it was missing veterans Jim Flanigan and Bryant Young in the middle as Oakland's rookie running back Justin Fargas rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown. Oakland's back-up quarterback in Rick Mirer our former back-up as well had a good day going 9-for-16 for 134 yards but fumbled the ball at a critical time in the game.
On a positive note though was the rest of the defense played amazingly well as the speed of the defense was easily recognized as being lightening fast. Dennis Erickson even went to lengths in calling the 49ers first-unit defense "excellent," and singled out linebacker Jamie Winborn for a six-tackle, one-sack performance in one half of play. The presence of Winborn is a strong indication that opposing offenses will have to take a look at. His speed and athleticism is widely acclaimed throughout the NFL, as he had a 16-tackle performance on opening night last year against the New York Giants.
"I feel good out there, but I'm still making some silly mistakes," Winborn said after Thursday's 14-10 victory. "I need to look at the film to find out exactly what I still need to do to get better."
Still Erickson came away impressed with defensive tackle Travis Kirschke, who has paired with Anthony Adams to present the 49ers with probably its fastest duo in years. Kirschke is filling in for Bryant Young, who just had surgery to clean out bone spurs in his left ankle that had accumulated over 10 years of wear and tear. "His mobility surprises me compared to what I thought it was," Erickson said. "It was a pleasant surprise. He moves around really well."
More injuries came in this game in the first series when cornerback Ahmed Plummer went down with an ankle injury. He received X-rays, which proved to be negative, according to the team. Plummer was diagnosed with a bruise, and it was not disclosed at how long he would be out.
Right tackle Scott Gragg also had a scare went he went down with a left ankle sprain. He eventually left the field under his own power but the moment was tense there for a while, especially after it was Dana Stubblefield that caused the injury on his former teammate with a leg whip after getting blocked into him.
The offensive line continues to have problems as Jeremy Newberry plays with torn tendons and plays through pain and agony putting off surgery until after the season. Newberry displays a guts and glory type of attitude as he is determined to play the season on this injury that is heavily taped before every practice and every game. The 49ers have shown renewed concern with this predicament by signing Brock Gutierrez, a center that spent six seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, most of them as a reserve. Gutierrez saw almost all of his playing time during the 2000 and 2001 seasons, and was on the field for Corey Dillon's NFL-record 278-yard rushing effort in 2000.
The San Francisco 49er running game sputtered and spit with Kevin Barlow starting in the game as he had eight carries for just 29 yards. He averaged a mere 3.6 yards per carry and Jamal Robertson had another eight carries for 27 yards. In the passing game Eric Johnson showed true form by catching four passes for 26 yards and Arnaz Battle had two receptions for 30 yards.
Punting continued to be a problem for Bill LaFleur as he had six punts for 237 yards that netted an average of 39.5 yards. A, Lockett had a spectacular punt return of 28 total yards and A. Bruce on a kickoff raced for 58 total yards before being brought down. Special teams continue to be an area that needs attention and improvement. Certainly the punting part is pathetic at best, given that La Fleur just seems to be going through the motions rather than moving up. One thing the 49ers did improve on as well was the fumbling aspect of the game as they completed this one without a one.
The start of the pre-season bears significant weight in terms of player evaluation and competition. Dennis Erickson has the team on a 2-0 roll so far heading up against New Orleans. Even though it bears little testimony on winning or losing in pre-season it is nice to see the advancement nonetheless. As Jeff Garcia continues to improve so will the rest of the team as we move closer into the time segment that will signal cutting the roster. Most positions still remain solidified as contests to make the team easily fall on depth categories more than anything else. Injuries are climbing to a level that bears concern and depth concerns are noted as veterans are sidelined nursing wounds themselves. You have to be proud of where Dennis Erickson is going with this team.
I believe the added personnel in coaching were a blessing more than anything as progress is evident on and off the field. The 49ers are an attacking offense again and the defense shows a speed that was left in neutral towards the end of last season. It will as always be paramount that the team stay healthy down the long stretch, with the trend that is starting to mature it seems that will be our greatest challenge of all.