January 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM
The San Francisco 49ers had one of their most disappointing seasons in the year 2003. There are many reasons and many people to blame for this as we examine the aftermath of a season that was promised to be a bright one in the form of a playoff contender.
There is no question that all 49er fans all around the nation and the world are dissatisfied with what happened both on and off the field and in and around the Santa Clara complex being the home of the San Francisco 49ers. I have so many thoughts on the direction of this team and the value the ownership has portrayed falsely on their intentions for this franchise.
New head coach Dennis Erickson knows full well what the tradition is here in San Francisco. The media and the fans remind him of that at every turn that they can. He in all senses of the word was bewildered at what the West Coast offense entailed and what it is to adhere to it because his offensive philosophies are so different from what Bill Walsh erected here in San Francisco.
The season of 2003 told the truth of how confused he really was as he secluded himself on the sidelines and allowed his coordinators to run the team every Sunday that spelled game time. His learning curve is definitely materializing as he even admits that he was taken aback by the complexities of the West Coast System and all it entails.
"I probably will be involved with the offense next year, much more than I was this year, without question," Erickson said. "I will even get involved a bit defensively as I get to know it."
"When your 7-9, none of us has done our best job that we can do," added Erickson, who went 7-9 once and 8-8 three times as the Seattle Seahawks coach from 1995-98. "We worked our rear-ends off; Next year I will be much more involved in all aspects of this football team than I was in coming in."
I believe you'll have to be Dennis if you're planning on keeping your job, because in this era of the NFL it is always a synonym of "Not For Long." You can bet that should Dennis Erickson have another losing or even a mediocre season next time his head will be on the line courtesy of the fans themselves.
Both Owner John York and General Manager Terry Donahue will be under tremendous pressure to do something should this next season end in failure. A playoff berth is the only acceptable measure that this team should seek and be satisfied with. However with so many unrestricted free agents and York keeping his wallet zippered up you may see a period experienced before back in 1999-2000.
Still there is optimism among some fans and especially the front office as both Dr. John York and Terry Donahue have given Dennis their blessings on a season full of leaning curves and unfortunate miscues and injuries. However you want to look at it, it is the front office that is ultimately responsible for the direction and mishaps of this season.
The 2003 Season was a season full of disappointments, so much that I grew many a white hair on my head from watching them. My health along with so many other fans that take 49er football very seriously has been compromised severely because of this very season. I cannot help like so many of you to get so involved into the game from opening kickoff to the very end of the game. Every minute and every second count in my head even when we are losing, I cling to the hope that a miracle finish can ensue. When the opposite happens I am devastated like so many of you and even the players as they hand their collective heads and hurry top exit the players parking lot and head for home. Fans take the hit here as well as players idolized by so many are suddenly irritable and unpleasant wanting nothing more than to just disappear.
But then you have the personalities of some that still stop and wave and smile at you as to say they recognize you as still they're waiting in your corner no matter what. Those are the kind of players I take my hat off to and acknowledge because it is their maturity and caring that show the true colors of the uniform that they wear.
2003 came apart at the seams almost from the get go after our opening romp over the Chicago Bears 49-7, we then went on a three-game losing streak in which we witnessed an overtime loss to the St. Louis Rams and blowing a late lead in a 13-12 home loss to the Cleveland Browns. From there we went to Minnesota only to be butchered alive in a 35-7 blowout and a great performance by wide receiver Randy Moss.
Other things plagued the team as on every road game, and all but two home contests our players featured a false start penalty in all of them. We finished with 32 such penalties this season, including five apiece from veteran Derrick Deese, right guard Ron Stone and tight end Jed Weaver.
It is these penalties and so many others that will irritate the heck out of you in any given game as the so-called discipline under new coach Dennis Erickson never really materialized as promised over the laid-back approach label Steve Mariucci inherited from the front office and the media. Penalties are costly to games and even redirect a game over to your opponent should they be multiple and consistent enough.
The San Francisco 49ers experienced bruises to their season almost even before the regular season began as one week before training camp Jeff Garcia sustained a bulging disk in his back while lifting weights with a personal trainer. Jeff had to battle this and a number of other injuries that included a concussion, a strained groin, a strained right forearm/wrist and a sprained left ankle, which ended his personal streak of consecutive starts at 61.
Never has Jeff Garcia been so extremely battered. It was evident in everything he did this season as his performance was well below his traditional performances of the past in forming him into a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback. He entered the 2003 season ranked fourth in NFL history with an 89.9 career passer rating. He posted an 80.1% rating this season, rallying from a four-interception performance outing Nov. 30 at Baltimore.
Calls for his head and for back-up quarterback Tim Rattay to take his place were rampant as Rattay defined success when the team was playing at home. Road kill proved though that Tim Rattay was not all that glorious as his pocket passer mentality was broken down and his inability to be successful as a mobile quarterback materialized.
The injury bug again attacked the team throughout the year as the offensive line was decimated all year long, and was ridiculed by wide receiver Terrell Owens after their loss to the Cleveland Browns. Owens can best be remembered the following week, and angrily confronting offensive coordinator Greg Knapp on the sideline and telling reporters later: "We got no heart."
Is Terrell Owens a distraction and a sickness to this team when he does things like this? You have to wonder about his timing but in all reality he does speak some truth when he talks. His antics here and throughout the season in relation to his performances and many a dropped pass have granted him a traveling passport to some other team that wants him.
Of all the things I hate about Terrell Owens, I still find things that I love about him as well. He has that character about him that radiates attention and signifies competitiveness and just plain heart for the game itself. He is selfish at times and mouthy when he shouldn't be, but it is his drive to always wanting to win that inspires me the most.
If a few more players would follow his lead and a few more coaches would listen and change play calling a little bit more maybe a few more victories could be registered. You have to wonder sometimes if Terrell Owens isn't really telling the truth sometimes. At the same time you have to be disappointed when the game is on the line and he drops pass after pass and is effectively neutralized in so many games as well.
When Terrell Owens or even Tai Streets didn't perform well they turned to rookie wide receiver Brandon Lloyd who showed just enough to make the 49er brass optimistic that they will have the athlete that will replace Terrell Owens and or Tai Streets. Both wide receivers are unrestricted free agents and both have made known their dissatisfaction with the franchise at one time or another.
"The team's expecting more out of me come next season, and I want to make sure I step up and rise to the occasion," Lloyd said. "It's expected, and I expect it. I want a bigger role, so I'm going to do in the off-season what's necessary to get it."
And then you have running back Kevan Barlow who is expected to be the starting running back next season with Garrison Hearst sustaining an untimely injury late in the season to his knee. Barlow racked up 1,024-yards after starting the final four games of the season as Hearst watched from the sidelines. But he also raised always-present concerns about his ability to hang on to the ball as fumbles left their mark on him again this past season.
Special teams this past season were a joke. And that is putting it mildly as the San Francisco 49ers have always made this unit one that is not a top priority. Well it really became a top priority, as games were lost solely because of the faults of this special unit itself.
The San Francisco 49ers missed five point-after attempts following a touchdown this year, with holder Bill LaFleur failing to cleanly field snaps on three of those alone. He also muffed the hold of a 31-yard field goal attempt against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Not investing money into special teams has comeback to haunt the 49ers time and time again over the years. Not going after a veteran kicker or even a punter has cost the team field position and points that have consistently put this team in a hole and ultimately contributing to our defeat this season.
Jeff Chandler, Owen Pochman and Todd Peterson take your pick. Is there anyone of them worse than the other? After a disgusting loss in overtime at the Arizona Cardinals due to Owen Pochman the 49ers turned to veteran kicker Todd Peterson, who by the way kicked for Dennis Erickson when he was with the Seattle Seahawks from 1995-98.
Peterson I must say did provide some stability but he still had an extra-point attempt blocked and missed two field goal attempts under 30-yards. This has also shown that Bill LaFleur is very inadequate at being a holder as Tim Rattay suddenly started becoming the holder after too many miscues. LaFleur again this season wasn't anything special in defining good field position for the San Francisco 49ers and should be replaced.
If there ever was a bright spot in this season it was with the defense under defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. This was a defense that was led by outside linebacker/left end Julian Peterson (team- high seven sacks), safety Tony Parrish (team-high nine interceptions) and linebacker Derek Smith (team-record 189 tackles). These my friends are a very impressive group and deserve applause and enormous recognition for their collective efforts in making this defense a force to be reckoned with.
Jim Mora emphasized a blitz-heavy attack right from the get go this season and helped key the 49ers National Football Conferences-best plus-12 turnover margin. They allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per home game in NFL history (58.3), but they allowed 153.9-yards rushing per game while on the road. A very contrasting contradiction as the 49ers suffered on both sides of the ball while on the road period.
"We were very inconsistent," Terry Donahue said. "One week the offense would perform and the defense didn't, or vice versa. Or the offense and defense would perform and the kicking game didn't."
"We just didn't get into a sync enough weeks to make the playoffs. That lack of consistency; It was constantly a lack of consistency."
It is all so true consistency and rhythm. It is what defines a team and allows them to prosper. Without it you have nothing and that type of production and execution comes from the front office down to the coaching staff and to the players on the field. The San Francisco 49ers have a lot to deal with in this off-season.
There are 26 players on this roster without contracts for 2004. Among that are 14 unrestricted free agents that signal a priority list for the 49ers to evaluate. It will not be an easy task as some of these players in my opinion should have had an extension done up before the season even started.
It is evident that Owner Dr. John York is holding the purse and he's not going to be all that generous with so many of these free agents commanding large amounts of money. We will lose some if not most of them due to our salary cap and the owner's mentality of fiscal restraint. There are already multiple scenarios being played out and negotiations in the process. 49er fans are left to guess at what these player's fates will be and how creative the media will be at abstracting information.
I hope with all my heart that we will not turn into a franchise that self-destructs like the Arizona Cardinals have been and a stadium empty of fans. Our faith is being tested to the letter every season under Owner Dr. John York. His meddling and inattentiveness to making this franchise a solid rock is disturbing to many fans including myself.
We still have no new stadium in the works. We still have salary cap issues and dead player money abundant. We still have no positive direction in the way of management and coaching.
We still are waiting for this owner to penny up and make commitments to franchise players that standout. We still wish Bill Walsh had more say in management affairs on this team. We still wish Steve Mariucci were still here. We still understand that there is nothing we can do but wait and see what happens next.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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