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As the grass at Mile High Stadium in Denver freezes back over and the Denver Bronco’s prepare for post season play, the 49er’s went home after a brief meeting with coaches Sunday to contemplate their (6-10) overall season.
The San Francisco 49er’s were humbled after Denver dominated every aspect of the last game, being trampled (38-9) and sent packing realizing that they were still far away from being in the playoff atmosphere of the NFL today.
We still were able to improve from a record of (4-12) in 1999 and we developed and enhanced a defense that was as porous as a soggy sponge saturated with water. Our offense remained a solid foundation, as the line was confident and successful in clearing holes for Charlie Garner and at the same time protecting quarterback Jeff Garcia.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia proved to be the future for this franchise with season-breaking statistic’s and being nominated to the Pro Bowl he in all senses of the word solidified the quarterback position for many years to come.
Running Back Charlie Garner without question is one of the NFL’s most elite and once again had an outstanding season that will require far more money to keep as he becomes a unrestricted free agent and been nominated to the Pro Bowl.
Wide Receiver Terrell Owens has become the undisputed replacement of the future for legendary Jerry Rice; the baton has been passed, as Jerry is almost certain to be a casualty of the dreaded salary cap. And he also has been nominated to join his teammates in the Pro Bowl.
General Manager Bill Walsh and Head Coach Steve Mariucci will have the undaunted and most unpleasant task of cutting player personnel to get the team far enough under the projected $67 million salary cap by March 2nd of 2001.
Because of past promises and incentive clauses, the 49er’s said Mariucci, are $12 million to $13 million over the salary cap. No roster cuts can be made until Feb. 22nd, according to Mariucci, which will give the franchise plenty of time to brainstorm and weigh their options.
“We want to get to something like $62 million so we can sign a couple of our free agents,” Mariucci said. Among the free agents that are targets to keep are running back Charlie Garner and offensive tackle Scott Gragg both who have played outstanding play on the field on any given day.
Casualties and those who are most likely to be cut are wide receiver Jerry Rice and linebacker Ken Norton Jr. By releasing them it would create nearly six million dollars in cap space fro next year. However the way Jerry Rice’s contract is structured, the 49er’s probably will not release him until after June 1st.
Both of these athletes command the utmost respect for their contributions to this great franchise, they have been most influential in establishing leadership on and off the field and have given us many years of unbelievable difference making plays that have led us to victory.
Linebacker Winfred Tubbs is also a target of salary cuts whose cap figure is $2.65 million dollars. “I’d like to stay,” Tubbs said. “But what do you want me to do? Go upstairs and hypnotize the coaches into letting me stay?”
The 49er’s with his release would be very thin at linebacker as they would have to draft or find at least two more via free agency as they have been thin at this position since deciding to carry four quarterbacks on their roster.
Part of the fact that the 49er’s have salary cap and roster decisions on their minds, is the reality that under the new league mandate, each team must select six players to compete in NFL Europe. A leading candidate for that trip is quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi.
Carmazzi’s future can only be more defined by sending him here as he was drafted with the intention of someday being the future leader of this 49er franchise. In retrospect though he was surpassed by a quarterback taken in the seventh round last year in Tim Rattay.
“Finding six guys won’t be easy,” Mariucci said, “The real young kids who are just glad to be here wouldn’t mind being there at all. The older guys don’t want to go over there. They want to stay here. They’re not interested in the nude beaches.”
A few players who plan on sticking around the area will be invited to work out at the club facility. The one problem with that is the $500-a-week salary they get for the workouts counts against the salary cap.
Coach Steve Mariucci has a lot to do in this beginning off-season one will be to sit in front of his television and watch bowl games. And at the same time scout for players, one player and position he will not have to scout for is his quarterback position.
Pro Bowl bound Jeff Garcia has silenced his critic’s as he has had the most productive season of his career as the first year starter for the 49er’s, learning from the marvelous one himself Steve Young he has led this franchise up and down the field almost in identical fashion.
“Jeff saved us an early draft pick,” Mariucci said. “He’s highly motivated. He’ll build on what he’s accomplished.” “We’ve got to develop depth on offensive line and at tailback. We need to find another receiver who hopefully will also be a kick-return specialist with good speed. We have to continue to build our defense.”
The 49er’s are most likely to draft in the beginning rounds for defense again as they are in need of a defensive end and a linebacker. Certainly they are looking at improving a defense almost last in every category and seem to be only a fraction away from accomplishing that goal.
“We’re a couple of good players away on our defensive line to be a competitive team. We can add another defensive back and shore up the kicking game to make sure the guys we have right now are the right ones.”
Both Mariucci and Jeff Garcia have met in confidence regarding the offensive needs of the team and they both have come away with the need to retain what they have as a priority. The offense from the line to its elite receivers continues to be one of the highest scoring offenses in the NFL.
“I think it would be a major positive for the General Manager’s to do their best to keep this offense intact,” Garcia said. “Those five guys up front did a great job this year.”
“I don’t expect this team to change a whole lot. The loss of Jerry will create a huge void. Fortunately, we have a lot of great receivers, people who can step up and do a great job.”
Mariucci also said he planned “to try to hold the offense together because it would be nice to build on what we’ve started.”
Medical operations are scheduled for three players as they have dates to go under the knife after the first of the year. Their injuries are all to be reported minor. The person to perform these operations is team doctor Michael Dillingham; he will perform surgeries in the next few weeks on running back Garrison Hearst, linebacker Julian Peterson and safety John Keith.
Hearst who is still bothered by his right ankle will have surgery on Jan. 9th, Mariucci said. Hearst has already undergone two surgeries since breaking that ankle in January 1999, and the next one is meant “to go in there and take some bone out,” Mariucci said.
Hearst practiced with the 49er’s the final two months of the season but was never a part of the starting lineup, the practice was meant not only to be a morale booster for Hearst but also to give the 49er’s some evaluation time on Hearst’s condition.
Peterson, the 49er’s top draft this year, will have surgery Jan 4th on his right shoulder, which he originally injured during training camp. Keith, a rookie safety who broke his arm Oct. 8th against the Raiders, will also have surgery Jan 11th to fix an arthritic condition in his left knee.
All three players are expected to make a positive recovery and be healthy by the time the 49er’s reconvene for their April 28-29 mini-camp sessions. It s then that it will be anyone’s guess how many of their teammates will still be a 49er when that comes around.
Changes in the coaching staff are not planned but Mariucci would not be surprised to see other teams knocking on the door to ask for permission to talk to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as he will be a leading candidate for a head coaching position possibly as early as next year.
The 49er’s have a proud history of turning out some of the most top-notched quality head coach’s in the National Football League. As their assistants are all students of Bill Walsh’s offensive philosophy and they carry that with them into other teams and infuse that doctrine into their overall game plan.
All eight of the 49er’s unrestricted free agents have stated that they want to stay and return to the 49er’s next season, it will be very hard pressed to satisfy all of them as the money is sure to be on short supply.
Offensive tackle Scott Gragg has accomplished much with this franchise and held the offensive line pretty much intact with the help from the veterans he has not missed or skipped a beat, as his performance has been exemplary.
“This has been a great year for me. I haven’t had this much fun since college, and I would love to come back here,” said Gragg. Who won’t need surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee?” “They know I want to be here. Now it’s in my agent’s hands. I got too emotional in that (business-side) stuff and I let my agent do my dirty work.”
Some of the most complex negotiations will take place between running back Charlie Garners agent and the 49er’s as they try to find a way to resign him to a new multi-million dollar contract, many veteran players in the process would have to be sacrificed to make room.
“I’m going to go home to Virginia and sit back and wait for the Pro Bowl,” said Garner, who will be joined at the Feb. 4th Pro Bowl by Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens. All three 49er’s will be going as NFC reserves.
Certainly it is without question that Charlie be resigned going into the 2001 season, the dark cloud that has hovered over Garrison Hearst still remains as we are still searching and wondering if he will ever be the 100% running back that we were so accustomed to.
Even though Garner will command a real large contract in the sum of $4 million plus he is still the most potent weapon we have to bear on our offensive front. Rookie Paul Smith is a power north-south type of running back, Garner in conjunction with Smith would be a viable and reliable backfield for many years to come in my opinion.
Wide Receiver Terrell Owens has had his most productive season in the six years he has been a 49er. He has demonstrated toughness and versatility in his attempts to be around the ball in all-possible timing routes. Owens is second only to Vikings receiver Randy Moss in overall statistics and outstanding top-tier performance.
Owens has clearly been forced even more to the forefront with the expected release of legendary Jerry Rice and he has stepped up to the plate and delivered time and time again, even through the agony of injury as he has been bothered with turf toe for some time now.
“The thing now is to relax and reflect on what’s happened this year,” said Owens, who set career highs with 97 receptions and 1,451 yards. “Once I get my mind right, once April hits, I’ll just start hitting the weights like I did this past off-season to get back in shape.”
On special teams primarily on kick returns Kevin Williams has filled that role for us this season to what extent has he filled it? I certainly believe he did an average job at best in my opinion, we need someone who is a potent threat every time they touch the ball, Williams just does not generate that mentality.
Williams is another unrestricted free agent, I like the play of running back Jonas Lewis and what he brings to the table as a change, he has done a excellent job so far in his return and tackling abilities as demonstrated when he was reactivated from the practice squad.
As far as being an unrestricted free agent, Williams said: “I’m just going to go home (Dallas) and enjoy my kids. I am not going to stress myself.”
49er left tackle Derrick Deese is another potential salary cap victim this year because he has a $2.4 million cap figure for 2001. Deese was unable to play in the season finale against Denver due to a injured knee, back-up tackle Matt Willig replaced him and very well could be the permanent one.
Since becoming a starter in 1994, Deese has been the main man in protection of Quarterback Steve Young and of Jeff Garcia, which I should say has been by the evidence most outstanding this year and Deese was a big part of that.
Not only does Deese have the ability to read and break down plays but he also has the physical toughness to keep roving defensive ends and tackles at bay, allowing the quarterback to make the reads and obtain positive yardage.
Deese has been instrumental come crunch time when the offensive line is suffering with injuries it is Deese who has the versatility to replace anyone in any position due to his knowledge and playing time on the line.
“I can’t worry about whether I fit in or not,” Deese said. I’d like to be here. I don’t think you can worry about all that stuff. The salary cap has been going on here for years. They do whatever they have to do to keep guys and win games. I don’t know where I stand.”
At defensive tackle Brentson Buckner in conjunction with Bryant Young proved to be a formidable force in blitzing the quarterback, to bring them back as a tandem in my opinion is crucial, we will have little money to sign any free agents resigning Buckner makes practical sense to me.
“We need to keep as many players as we can together,” he said. “Over the year we’ve grown, we’ve become a family. Look at Washington; they have a lot of great athletes but no continuity. As the season went on, we played better. The core players we have here, the best thing is to keep them here at all costs.”
The future of the 49er’s looks to be very promising in my prediction as we will lose some very exceptional talent in veterans, but we will be injected with more youth to round out a future foundation that we can continue to build upon and improve.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia is the first piece to the puzzle as he has come so far in so little time, In Week 2 he was being booed by the home fans, benched in favor of Rick Mirer and nearly lost his starting job. By Week 15, he was on a hot streak throwing to wide receiver Terrell Owens an NFL-record 20 times, throwing for over 400 yards with no interceptions and making plans for his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
He is without question the man to lead this offense for many years to come, why fool with current success? It is time to bow and accept skeptics and critics alike the very fact that Garcia is the man to remain at the offensive controls for many years to come.
He was only expected to be adequate, to get us through a season with just a few bumps and bruises, he has trumped that with significance that can only be defined by your observations alone.
He started all 16 games and threw for more yards in a season than any 49er’s quarterback ever. In one year he broke the record held by none other then Steve Young himself, his ability to play it safe and remain one of the lowest interception ratio’s is also a testament to his ability to make that safe plays and prevent costly turnovers.
There is also the very known fact that without the genius and strategy involved in the front office primarily General Manager Bill Walsh in conjunction with his successor Terry Donahue. That this season would have been a variable bust if not for the outstanding draft we had and the performance of those rookies on the field.
Walsh Company parlayed seven draft picks into 11 and came away with six rookies who became defensive starters. The cream of the crop is outside linebacker Julian Peterson, who immediately became the team’s best outside pass rusher and continues to show promise of being great in coverage as well.
Peterson in my analysis is the very definition of a high-caliber linebacker for many years to come he is definitely a cornerstone to this renewed defense that can only become better with time. I have had great moments observing his playmaking skills on the field; he is exceptional by all means.
Cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster have in all senses of the word had to grow up in a NFL hurry, as when they were drafted they were knighted with very high expectations. As they were given the reins of both starting early in the season and expected to deliver some practical results.
Both Plummer and Webster took their knocks early starting but they both improved as games went on and became solid as I see nothing but further improvement come 2001 in their overall coverage abilities.
Joined by rookies in the safety pool John Keith and Ronnie Heard along with defensive end John Engelberger, the defensive foundation has been laid and will improve as years wear on.
The ongoing soap opera of whose going and whose staying will be played out right up to June 1st as that is the intended release date of wide receiver Jerry Rice, most will take place in February and March as salary cap restrictions will have to be met.
Bill Walsh is expected to control this last draft and then hand over his position to Terry Donahue. Whom I believe is very capable with the tutoring done by Walsh himself, I hope along with many others that Walsh will continue to stay on as a consultant for a few more years to come.
I am very satisfied with what the coaching staff under Steve Mariucci has been able to accomplish with such a talented rookie pool, and that will continue going into 2001. The optimism for continued rebuilding and solidifying positions for years to come must take the forefront in this makeover.
Veteran personnel will have to be sacrificed in order to resign unrestricted and restricted free agents. That has to be the necessary evil in this business, I honestly believe the franchise will do whatever is in it’s means to do to keep the stars that are shining here for years to come.
The blueprint for remodeling and rebuilding is a complicated one sometimes, and is not a masterpiece until all the right pieces are put into place and proven capable of handling the responsibilities of what the pieces are in charge of. Patience is of the utmost importance in this project as we the fans must accept and acknowledge.