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Ever since the San Francisco 49ers came to an end officially after the 2003 NFL season, Head Coach Dennis Erickson has swiftly made changes and predictions on the status of next season. Dennis has acquired many 49er fan critics during the ride throughout this turbulent season and continues to carry a label of being just plain mediocre at best.
Dennis Erickson has quickly made changes among his staff starting in general with both coordinator positions and some support positions as well. He now looks back on the 2003 season as a season of troubles he wants to erase from his memory. Play calling was one of the fundamental errors of the season as many a 49er fan including myself felt that offensive coordinator Greg Knapp was given too much autonomy.
"My hands are going to be involved in it," Erickson said. "I’m going to do that this off-season, make some changes, do things I want to do (offensively) and some of the things that have been done here. My input on Sundays will be much more than it has been."
These remarks came just one day after offensive coordinator Greg Knapp joined now departed defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. in Atlanta with the Atlanta Falcons. It proves that Dennis Erickson now has reservations about allowing Greg Knapp so much autonomy in the offensive play calling that occurred throughout the 2003 season.
Many times you’d see Dennis Erickson on the sidelines without headphones on and just pacing up and down the sidelines. It was offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s team if anything as he called all the shots and made 99% of all decisions come game day. It angered many fans including myself as we all felt that the offense Dennis Erickson promised never materialized and even thoughts of improvement were an afterthought at that.
Dennis Erickson continues to make promises about the future as he has made known he wants to simplify the terminology on the field and to use a wider variety of formations, and to increase the use of the short passing game. He has even gone out and publicly called for a one-back formation where there would be no more two-back rotation of Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow. One of these guys would be the feature back and would get the bulk of the rushing opportunities and become stronger in their repetitions.
Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora Jr. has done one heck of a job here in San Francisco in my opinion. His loss will be tremendous as he has been our coordinator for five years and has managed to transform our defense into one of the most respected in the league. Jim Mora came close last season to becoming the San Francisco 49ers head coach just after the impromptu firing of Steve Mariucci.
Even though Jim is only 42, Mora has been a coach for 20 years and has been in the NFL for the last 19 seasons. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and their General Manager Rich McKay came away greatly impressed throughout the interviews they had with Jim Mora and named him their new head coach after the firing of veteran Dan Reeves.
"I understand the obstacles, I understand the apprehension, I understand the concern, especially with the so-called names who are out there," Mora said. "But every name started somewhere."
"I’ve spent almost half my life in coaching, and my entire life in football," Mora said. "While I may be young in age, I’m vastly experienced."
As soon as Jim Mora jumped ship with the 49ers, Offensive Coordinator Greg Knapp was asked to follow suit via Jim Mora. San Francisco now was left without both it’s coordinators and a head coach that had been labeled a failure in his first season. Many a fan and sports broadcaster believe 49er owner Dr. John York and General Manager Terry Donahue made a last ditch desperation hire in Dennis Erickson after countless failed interviews with other candidates.
Quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner was promoted to offensive coordinator immediately after Greg Knapp’s departure. He is a long time friend of Dennis Erickson’s and is on the same page as Erickson in game planning and terminology.
Both Ted Tollner and Dennis Erickson plan on implementing their stamp on the 49er offense and to be in close consultation with one another throughout the battle of each and every game. At least that is what has been promised to us at least again.
Dennis Erickson and Greg Knapp both admitted after the season and after Knapp’s hiring in Atlanta that communication between the both was anything marriage like. Greg Knapp was the primary play caller for the 49ers over the past three seasons.
The Atlanta Falcons after hiring defensive coordinator Jim Mora made public that they wanted Greg Knapp to accompany him as their offensive coordinator. Jim Mora accepted a lucrative five-year, $7.5 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons.
Assistant coaches under Dennis Erickson and old friends brought in by him when he accepted the job as the San Francisco 49ers head coach quickly rose to applaud the moves as beneficial to their old and new boss.
"This is going to be good for Dennis because he’s such a good game-day coach and is able to scheme and attack defenses," said Greg Smith, an assistant under Erickson since 1982. "I know he’s excited about what’s going to go on. I look forward to him taking a real active role, especially on game day."
Dennis Erickson’s new staff was quickly implemented with sudden changes and the purging of the old Steve Mariucci regime that had seemingly made Dennis Erickson’s job in San Francisco frustrating by keeping the same terminology and game day implementations that Steve would’ve wanted if he were still here.
Ted Tollner’s promotion to offensive coordinator I believe is a good move. Tollner, a former coach at San Diego State and Southern California, has spent the past two seasons as the 49ers quarterbacks’ coach. "We have the same philosophy," said Erickson, noting that Tollner would have a say in the play calling, along with Greg Smith and running backs coach Tim Lappano.
Tight ends coach Greg Smith has replaced Pat Morris as offensive line coach. Pat Morris joined the Detroit Lions staff, ending his seven-year tenure with the 49ers. This will also be a great loss in my opinion as I had the opportunity to meet this great coach that followed in the shoes of great offensive line guru Bob McKittrick.
Greg Smith, an assistant head coach who also coached tight ends last season, has overseen the offensive line on most of Erickson’s staffs since joining him in 1982 at the University of Idaho. 'That’s my comfort zone and where I feel my best," Smith said. "Pat and I know each other a long ways back, so we share a lot of ideas and blocking schemes."
Getting back to Ted Tollner who has been the quarterbacks coach the past two seasons, both Jeff Garcia and himself have formed a great relationship and seem to be on the same page with one another. Greg Knapp helped groom Jeff before Tollner arrived in 2002, and now Knapp will be tutoring hotshot superstar Michael Vick who is the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons.
Before hiring Greg Knapp he came highly recommended to owner Arthur Blank as he consulted with Steve Mariucci, 49ers consultant Bill Walsh and former 49ers quarterback Steve Young. So did Mora at that.
"(Mora’s) extremely intelligent and very well organized," Bill Walsh told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He was my choice (to be the 49ers coach). Our general manager, Terry Donahue, had a background in college (football); that’s what he was familiar with. So he hired Dennis Erickson."
If ever there was a more evident decree then this in who holds the keys at the San Francisco 49er complex in Santa Clara this is it. The hiring of Dennis Erickson was a Terry Donahue and Dr. John York agreement, with Bill Walsh then and now a consultant wanting Jim Mora as the next in line to assume leadership of the team. It is no wonder now that you analyze that Bill will soon be done forever as the consultant to the 49ers in May.
With Greg Smith’s elevation from tight ends coach to offensive line coach, his position was also filled with Dan Cozzetto. Cozzetto, 48, coached the University of Washington’s offensive line last year, having spent the previous three seasons as an assistant to Dennis Erickson at Oregon State. He was an assistant coach at California in 1990 and 1991.
And with Ted Tollner’s promotion from quarterback’s coach to offensive coordinator his position was filled with Rich Olson as the new quarterback’s coach. Olson, 55, was out of football last season after being fired in 2002 from his post as the Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator. He served under Erickson with the Seattle Seahawks from 1995-98, as well as at Oregon State and the University of Miami.
Going back to Pat Morris our old offensive line coach whom I feel will be a huge loss to our entire offensive line, is that during his seven-year tenure as an assistant on the 49er staff, the team averaged 135.5-yards rushing per game, which is second best in the NFL.
That is what we are losing folks so really think about that one. Greg Smith has some very big shoes to fill in his role. Before joining Steve Mariucci on the 49ers coaching staff, Morris coached two seasons at Stanford as an offensive line coach. He also spent eight seasons as offensive line coach at Michigan State from 1987-94.
Still even more bigly ticketed names are leaving the San Francisco 49ers forever and these two will have a significant impact once they are gone forever. Both Bill Walsh and John McVay, two key engineers in the building of the San Francisco 49er dynasty that won five Super Bowls in the 1980’s and 1990’s, have watched their last season as 49er executives.
Right before the season ending loss 24-17 to the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park, Bill Walsh made known he does not expect to return next year as the team’s consultant. John McVay, an executive who most recently was serving as director of football operations, said he is retiring after 22 seasons with the team.
These losses will be resounding in this organization. So much of what they are is the San Francisco 49ers. With both of these men in there 70’s though you know that the end is on the horizon after so many years of outstanding service and dedication to this franchise. Eddie DeBartolo former owner of the San Francisco 49ers would be the first man to tell you that this dynasty would’ve never been without these two in it.
Now their horses have come riding in for greener pastures of tranquility and retirement. Although both will always have some kind of hand in football forever, the both of them are a symbol to what greatness really is in definition and character. What they erected and molded here is something that all 49er fans have and continue to marvel at every year.
"I’ve been hearing this for five years, but if they don’t come back, it’s clearly the end of an era," said Seattle Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren, who once worked on Bill Walsh’s staff and who spoke with Walsh and McVay before our last game. "You can’t think of the 49ers, in my opinion, without thinking of these two men."
Bill Walsh of course is the reason for almost every season in my opinion and so many others. He coached the San Francisco 49ers from 1979 to 1988, winning three Super Bowls, and returned to the organization in 1999 for a two-year stint as general manager. When Terry Donahue succeeded him, Walsh stayed on as a consultant. But since then he has told some of his closest friends that, with no specific role or duties, he felt he was slowly but surely being passed out of the organization.
To that I would say the same, as Bill’s desk is rather silent and empty most of the time at the Santa Clara complex under new owner Dr. John York. His role in the franchise has and continues to be dramatically cutback to make way for Terry Donahue and his staff to implement what they feel is the new direction of the 49ers. Although Terry Donahue was hand picked by Bill Walsh he has to wonder why he has been so secluded and relegated to such an insignificant role.
Now just recently Dennis Erickson has rounded out his new staff by replacing departed defensive coordinator Jim Mora with former defensive backs coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers for four seasons (2000-03), Willy Robinson. He joined the Pittsburgh Steelers after serving in 1999 as the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Oregon State, where he coordinated the number-one ranked defense in the Pac-10 for none other Dennis Erickson.
Prior to joining the Oregon Beaver’s Staff, Robinson spent the previous four seasons (1995-98) on Erickson’s staff as the secondary coach for the Seattle Seahawks and the Miami Hurricanes (1994).
"My philosophy is going to be is what Dennis Erickson’s is. We are going to be aggressive; I think the thing that I have learned from my experience is like being a wild bull in a china closet. You can get some things established, but you will break a lot of things as well. The most important thing is not only to be aggressive but to be sound in what you are doing," Robinson said.
Although Robinson comes from a club that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme he is unlikely to change a lot in San Francisco based upon the personnel. We could see though more use of the 3-4 based on his knowledge of it. It will also go without saying that he’s probably one of the best out there in terms of defensive assistants available.
Dennis Erickson has taken full control of this team starting in 2004. It will be up to him to prove the doubters and skeptics wrong that this club is belly up in the water and done. With salary cap questions looming and money non-existent because of a $70 million payout to former owner Eddie DeBartolo, the new ownership is powerless to do a lot of things. Even Bill Walsh has acknowledged that because of this buyout it has put the ability of the franchise to sign key free agents in jeopardy.
I am unsold on Dennis Erickson and very unsold on Dr. John York as most all of you are. I am disappointed at so many things but my devoted love for this organization remains strong and intact. I am hopeful that some deals will get done and that this new coaching staff will take us over the hump of mediocrity and into a playoff environment.