Part One: Oh My God
March 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM
The rusted relic of metal that surrounds 3-Com Park just became even rustier after the San Francisco 49ers under Dr. John York and Terry Donahue were sliced and diced to a point where they are almost unrecognizable. Just a few mere weeks ago the front office was making positive remarks about bringing back almost all of it’s free agents and then in a flurry of activity delivered one resounding blow after another.
San Francisco 49er fans by the thousands have never seen nor are they used to accepting the state this team is in right now. Our offensive line has been depleted with the expected release of left tackle veteran Derrick Deese taking place and on top of that right guard Ron Stone. This leaves any quarterback in a 49er uniform a little less comfortable behind a makeshift line that includes second-year hopefuls in left tackle Kwame Harris and Kyle Kosier.
The 49er offensive line despite it’s obscurity from being in the limelight has always been able to generate pure passing protection and has always been the substance that cements and provides opportunities for it’s running game to be so successful. How in God’s name can that be now? Releasing Derrick Deese generated $1.2 million dollars in savings and $1.5 million was saved in sending veteran Ron Stone through the exit doors for the final time.
It is to be noted that left tackle Derrick Deese is one of two that remained from the last glory days when the San Francisco 49ers last won a Super Bowl. He has been a rock ever since and one of the most underrated players in league history as he is relatively undersized for a prototypical left offensive tackle. Yet Derrick Deese knew his days were numbered as early as in 2002 when changes were being hinted that youth would become the team’s main priority.
Derrick Deese has not yielded a sack in his last 33 games played as the starting left tackle on the offensive line. But his durability began to come into question as the months went by as he struggled to recover from multiple high ankle sprains, even though for most of the time he played through until the pain was just too unbearable.
Kwame Harris drafted by San Francisco in the 2003 NFL draft was chosen to be the left tackle of the future and he instantly became the pupil of veteran Derrick Deese in learning the particulars of the game from a master in every aspect of this position.
Kwame Harris played sparingly in 2003 when Derrick Deese sat out on the sidelines due to ankle injuries and looked extremely green and uncertain. Yet he gained invaluable experience as games went on and he faced a multitude of the league’s best pass rushers.
“He (Harris) played extremely well against (Tampa Bay’s) Simeon Rice, who is a quality NFL player,” Donahue said. “Having watched that performance, I think that he is going to be a year older and year stronger now. We have a lot of confidence that he is ready to be the starting left tackle, or we would have not released Derrick Deese.”
The chapter closes in on this well known practical joker that irritated his teammates sometimes to the point of fist fights in the locker room and out on the field during practices and games. He joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1992, as an un-drafted free agent out of Southern California. The only other teammate left from the 1994 Super Bowl is defensive tackle Bryant Young as both played influential roles in bringing home that Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s a day I didn’t want to see happen. I would love to end my career as a 49er, but it wasn’t possible,” Deese, 33, said. “If you look at my play and what I’ve done, for having to stay at one position (left tackle) the last four years, I’ve done nothing but get better. To take a pay cut, it wasn’t a big deal to me because I wasn’t going to do it. I knew when I said 'no’ I’d be released.”
I can still remember meeting this great athlete in the player’s parking lot back in the summer of 2002. He is a monster of a man with a big Afro at the time but a smile on his face that lit up the space all around him. And one other thing the guy doesn’t know when to just shut up he talks smack all the time with his teammates. He quickly signed my football helmet and sent me packing as I stood in awe of what was all around me.
“Derrick informed me after this season that he felt he could be a starter in the league for the next couple of years,” general manager Terry Donahue said in a statement. “We released him at this time with the idea that this would be helpful to him in pursuing that goal.”
New starting left tackle Kwame Harris has nothing but positives to say about Derrick Deese. In fact he was just coming back from trip from Jamaica when he learned of what had happened to Derrick Deese. “Well, I knew something was going to happen with Derrick. I’d be lying if I didn’t, but I just had a feeling that something was going to occur.
Derrick was always good to me; he taught me a great deal about being professional and how to handle myself publicly and with the media. That doesn’t make it easier to see him go. Thinking about it and going through it are two different things,” Kwame Harris said.
I would be lying to you also if I didn’t feel more comfortable when Derrick Deese was in there protecting Jeff Garcia’s blindside. He was always a blessing when he was on the field because he fielded a record for protection that was hardly rivaled by any other offensive tackle in the league. Kwame Harris will have some very big shoes to fill I can vouch for that.
“I know I still can play,” Deese said in an interview on the NFL network. “My play speaks for itself. I’ve been able to play left tackle for the last four years and I’ve gotten better every year.”
And he can still play I will attest to that and I know many of my fellow fans will also. To loose a veteran like Derrick is so hard to comprehend because you know what his presence did for the team. You know he was one of the players that ignited the line to play harder and demanded more out of himself in turn as well.
He was certainly not without fault with his practical jokes and his snobby flair sometimes with fellow 49er fans, but he was a fixture on the offensive line that will be very difficult to duplicate.
In 2002, Derrick Deese was one of only three offensive starters in the NFL who played all five positions on the offensive line. He started 11 games in 2003 and helped the 49ers finish third in the National Football Conference with 2,279 rushing yards and total offense with an average of 355-yards per game. Needless to say he was a hero to so many and a presence that all leading pass rushers had to negotiate in trying to reach Jeff Garcia and earlier Steve Young.
Enormous respect must go to left tackle Derrick Deese despite his many flaws. What athlete doesn’t have some? He has been a cycle of consistency that all head coaches would be proud of and it is worth noting that 33 games without allowing a sack is one remarkable accomplishment.
Still another San Francisco 49er fixture was sent packing, in that being veteran running back Garrison Hearst. After the 49ers granted a contract extension to running back Kevan Barlow for five years and $20 million dollars the writing was crystal clear on the wall for Garrison Hearst. Youth was in and old age was out. Garrison Hearst knew right from the start that the team seems committed to signing Kevan Barlow to a long-term deal based upon his years with the team and it’s long-range goals.
Garrison Hearst was asked to take a pay cut in order to remain on the team, as was Derrick Deese. Both refused so both were released. Garrison Hearst was slated to earn $2.5 million and the front office was not about to pay a back-up running back that kind of money regardless of which it might be. The age of tightening the purse strings under Dr. John York again took front and center with these releases and the age of the new order was again being defined against the age-old grain of the 49er archives.
Again this was a painful measure by all accounts and Garrison Hearst is one of the greatest athletes I have ever met as well in the brief moment I came into contact with him. He has been a steady force in the San Francisco running attack for many years and came back from a devastating injury that no normal athlete could have done. He remained on the sidelines with the organization that loved and cared for him for almost 2.5 years before coming back and performing as if nothing had even happened to him.
There were indications that the 49ers still wanted to keep Garrison Hearst on their roster but only at a bargain price that proved humiliating to Hearst who is more than ready to be a full time starter again in this league. His heart still throbs with the thrill of busting out and making the big play and he has proved very durable since coming back from a rare ankle injury that almost cost him his career.
Garrison Hearst was the fourth running back in team history to reach the 5,000-yard mark and gained 5,590-yards in his San Francisco career. He had a total of 26 rushing touchdowns as a 49er.
Hearst became the first player in NFL history to earn NFL Comeback Player-of-the-Year award twice in a career in 2001. He also owns two of the top rushing games in team history and was named to two Pro Bowls as a 49er (1998 and 2001). Finally Hearst finished the 2003 season second on the team with 768 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
What was so ugly at the end and was his undoing officially was his knee injuries that he incurred that made him miss the final four games of the 2003 season that propelled Kevan Barlow into the spotlight and cast him in the image of the future starter after stellar performances.
Garrison Hearst is very well known for his multiple abilities in running a slashing style and being one of the best receivers out of the backfield that was used more often than not when no one else was open.
He is also known as probably the best running back at picking up and neutralizing an oncoming blitz. No one blocks as well as Garrison Hearst hands down and this will play a pivotal role down the road as Kevan Barlow struggles with this even to this day. Protecting the quarterback will be a key role that the running back will have to perform on key because the fact remains that it will not be Jeff Garcia’s magician style antics anymore that gets the 49ers out of trouble.
“After we agreed to terms with Kevan Barlow on a contract extension, Garrison asked for and was granted his release,” Donahue said. “Garrison is a true warrior and one of the greatest guys in all of professional football. No one has ever been more competitive or has defied the odds like Garrison. He is a special player and person.”
Not only was Garrison Hearst due to earn a $2.5 million dollar base salary this year but he was also due a $500,000 roster bonus as well. Restructuring the contract was mentioned but no definite negotiations ever really took place. The large financial agreement that was made between Kevan Barlow and the San Francisco 49ers ultimately sealed the fate of veteran running back Garrison Hearst.
It is sad to see him go and yes Garrison Hearst is the better running back at this time hands down in my opinion and so many others as well. What went against him the most were his age and his lingering attraction to injuries in which his knee gave out at the end of the 2003 season. Garrison Hearst is not your average running back though and he’s not all washed up by any means. I expect him to be a starter somewhere and he’ll contribute in a big way to any team that makes him a reasonable offer.
Garrison Hearst in my eyes was the best running back San Francisco has ever had next to Roger Craig and Ricky Waters. Of course others may disagree but I feel Garrison brought a dimension that kept opposing defenses guessing all the time. Not only was he a threat to run north and south but also he was a viable threat to slash and pivot out of the backfield and make defenders miss as they grasped at air on his way by.
And if it wasn’t his legs and charisma from his hips that got you it was his attention and eye contact that did by catching passes that moved the chains and brought about new first downs and points that helped the 49ers achieve mastery in their offensive arsenal.
Garrison Hearst, 33, fell from grace this past season when he incurred a knee injury that provided Kevan Barlow the opportunity to showcase his talents as the starting running back in the final four games of the regular season.
Any athlete will tell you that plays in the NFL at how unfortunate injuries are because they can make or break your career on any given team because someone is always waiting in the wings to take over.
Kevan Barlow has been primed for this all along and has been working towards becoming the featured back in our offense ever since we drafted him. Garrison Hearst knew full well that this day would eventually come but he always tried to delay it by beating out Barlow at every opportunity through training camp and pre-season as well.
The competition between Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow was always an interesting one. Barlow though will be the first one to tell you at how thankful he was to have a mentor in Garrison Hearst to learn from. The success of Kevan Barlow over the years after being drafted hinged on how well he could learn from Garrison Hearst and adapt to the speed of the NFL over college play.
One thing is abundantly clear and that is that Garrison Hearst will be sorely missed. I am proud to wear my Garrison Hearst jersey and will continue to do so. In my eyes and my heart Garrison Hearst as was Jerry Rice will always be a 49er. His determination and love for the game are still there and he’s going to be a force wherever he is and in whatever he does.
Along with the release of Garrison Hearst came the release of defensive end Sean Moran who joined the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent in 2002 from none other than the St. Louis Rams. Moran played in all 16 games in 2003 after becoming a 49er however his production or lack thereof cost him a final roster spot. He recorded only 1.5 sacks this season and recorded 38 tackles in his whole two-year span as a 49er.
I am not astounded upon his release that helped save $800,000 towards the salary cap. Sean Moran was merely a back-up defensive end and never seemed to materialize as a true force. In fact I find his release almost a necessity based upon his productivity over the two years he’s spent with us.
The front office was kinder than I will be on this subject, but I expressed a real desire to see Sean Moran blossom as a veteran and solidify a spot on this roster with much better production. “Sean worked extremely hard and gave the organization great effort,” Donahue said. “We certainly wish him well.”
The offensive line took another serious hit with the release of veteran Pro Bowler right guard Ron Stone. He made the 2002 Pro Bowl after signing with San Francisco as a free agent. On a line that looks very unstable without the presence of a Derrick Deese out comes Ron Stone as well for good.
The 49ers saved $1.7 million upon his release after Ron Stone refused to take a pay cut. In his place Kyle Kosier will assume his duties but will hardly be the caliber of a Pro Bowl type guard that played efficiently next to long time teammate right tackle Scott Gragg.
Both when they were playing the right side formed a channel of power blocking that helped the 49er running game succeed all season long. Ron Stone did have some durability questions and was injured off and on throughout his stay with the 49ers, but nothing that spelled his release. Finding a mesh on the offensive line is a necessity if you are to have uniformed cohesion and chemistry for both the running game and the passing game.
Replacing Ron Stone will be difficult regardless if Kyle Kosier saw a lot of action this season due to injuries decimating the line on a weekly basis. As it will be for Kwame Harris to step right up and protect the quarterback’s blind side as the coveted left tackle on this offensive line.
Both are seasoned veterans that you’ll not replace over night. Having promise in injecting youth on the line is one thing losing invaluable experience and leadership on the line is yet another. I can assure you that any quarterback will assure you of how important it is to have some veteran experience on the line.
This will be a season where you could possibly and I am willing to predict regularly see the quarterback staring up at the clouds because blitzing defensive ends and tackles will have their hands on our quarterback. Sacrificing an offensive line that has managed to unite and stand strong for so long is being tested to the metal in this action. The results may not be to our liking as we watch the 2004 season unfold.
General Manager Terry Donahue of course has a master plan or should I say an agenda that calls for financial cost cutting in order to ease the pain of a $70 million buyout of former great owner Eddie DeBartolo. Dr. John York is most convincing that he has nothing but the best of interests in the team’s future, yet he proves time and time again just the opposite is true.
In short he has crippled this team to the point that you’d call it the San Francisco Bengals. He has made promises of prestige and glory returning to this once prestigious organization. Yet he has made little effort for all of us to see his true insights and logic on keeping this team competitive and in the hunt for the post-season.
I am all for turning this team around and trying to become faster, healthier and younger but I’m also a realist in knowing that too many cuts equal catastrophe and rebuilding something that I feel we should be over with after succumbing to the same scenario’s in 1999 and 2000.
Please stay tuned for my Part Two series in regards to the free agency lunacy that our beloved team is involved in. So much has been done to stimulate you into thinking the very worse for this franchise. I’m afraid that fears of being a cellar team are becoming more surreal each and every week that passes us by in the off-season.
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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