Hats Off to Terry Donahue
March 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM
By Brett Pahler
In the last two months an endless stream of criticism has descended upon our beloved San Francisco 49ers like a thick London fog. Columnists across the board are writing off the 49ers, claiming that they've lost their luster, that their colors should be red and fool's gold, and that they're just another franchise now.
Not so fast. Donahue has done a masterful job of working the salary cap this off-season. He's faced difficult decisions and he's made the right decisions. Garcia had to go. He had made more money than any other quarterback the last two seasons without coming close to meriting it. He's not a good fit for Erickson's offense. He's not accurate. He can't stretch the field. He's on the downside of his career. If we didn't cut him loose this year, he would have crippled our salary cap next season. Or the year after that. Granted, Donahue never should have given Garcia the enormous contract in the first place, but general managers miscalculate the useful lifespan of their players from time to time, and now he's rectifying it in the quickest way possible.
Next, obtaining a second round pick for Owens given the time constraints he was under was remarkable. Donahue needed to trade Owens quickly in order to free up the cap space to sign Ahmed Plummer before he signed with Detroit or Cincinnati. Donahue's achievement is even more admirable considering the media's methodical lambasting of Owens, which significantly reduced his market value. Case in point, if the Redskins and Falcons were willing to part with first round picks to sign Laverneous Coles and Peerless Price respectively, the 49ers certainly could have secured a number one pick for Owens had the media not assassinated his character week in week out.
As the chaos subsides and we take a quick inventory of the survivors, we find that we still have a pretty decent ballclub. Donahue was able to resign Engelberger and Plummer, which means the 49ers will have 10 of 11 defensive starters returning – tackle-missing machine Zack Bronson being the exception. Losing Plummer would have set us back at least a year. Donahue didn't let that happen, and with a decent draft, the defense should improve. The rumor mill has them selecting Miami's Vince Wilfork in the first round, which would immediately turn the defensive tackle position into a strength. Perhaps we would use one of our second-round draft picks on a defensive end or perhaps a free safety. Either way, the defense will be a ball-hawking unit, likely a top-10 unit.
On the other side of the ball, things are not as grim as they appear. Tim Rattay steps in as the starter. Many question Rattay's mobility, pointing out that Green Bay sacked him four times when they played at Lambeau last year. Well, Green Bay also sacked Donovan McNabb eight times and he's as mobile as they come. Remember, Rattay only took one sack in his first two games. Others point out that the departures of Derrick Deese and Ron Stone may leave Rattay unprotected. On this, we'll just have to trust Donahue that Kwame Harris will be good enough in his second season to get the job done. We will almost certainly spend a first-day draft pick on a replacement for Ron Stone. We will also likely spend a second-day draft pick on an offensive lineman for additional depth. A starting five of Kwame Harris, Eric Heitmann, Jeremy Newberry, our third-round pick this year, and Scott Gragg, is not a bad unit. They won't become an elite unit until Harris realizes his potential and we upgrade the left guard spot and relegate Heitmann to backup duties; but it's certainly a functional line. After the 2005 draft it should be superb.
And yes, we may be a little sparse on receiver this year, but that doesn't mean Rattay's going to face constant pressue before the receivers get open. Owens' departure will be mitigated by the fact that every other receiver on the roster will have improved after another year of work and film-study. The receiver we will likely select in the second round will probably surpass Streets' measley 595 yards. Cedric Wilson and Brandon Lloyd will both be better than last year. Both, by the way, played well in the final two games of the season, against Philadelphia and against Seattle, with Owens sidelined. Furthermore, keep an eye on Arnaz Battle. He has the size, speed, and elusiveness to be a mini-T.O., but is still learning the position. Having Eric Johnson's 4.7 speed returning from injury will help us stretch the middle of the field. So, while the unit will suffer with the departure of Owens, every other receiver on the team should surpass their performance from last year. We will still keep an eye out for receivers in the first round of the 2005 draft, but our receiving corps are far from devastated.
Perhaps I'm overly optimistic, but I find it difficult to believe that last year's fifth-ranked offense is going to slide all that much due to the departures. Erickson has had another year to tinker, which started to pay off towards the end of last season as the 49ers averaged five more points per game in the second half of the season than the first (26.5 to 21.5). This year we'll be running an offense that he's comfortable with from the outset. Barlow and Beasley are still back there. And, let's face it. Rattay's numbers last year were impressive.
I don't expect us to make the playoffs this year, although I see us being a very competitive team. We'll still have the best defense in the division. Another strong draft next year, combined with Garcia, J.J. Stokes, and Junior Bryant coming off the books, and the 49ers should challenge for a playoff birth. In 2006, Donahue expects to be $14 million under the cap, at which point we will be a young, talented, and now fiscally responsible organization, primed for a title run. That's not to say we'll win one, but our front office will put us in a position to have a chance to win one, which is a far cry from where we are now.
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