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In the last days of February San Francisco 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia suddenly saw the writing on the wall as he came and went from his Santa Clara headquarters doors. It was that the San Francisco 49ers had made a new agenda with all the trimmings of a Thanksgiving dinner feast that suddenly went on a crash course Atkins diet. The San Francisco 49ers under Dr. John York and General Manager Terry Donahue made no qualms about it as they promised fiscal renewal and the elimination of fat dead money contracts.
Becoming competitive again starts with getting healthy under the league’s mandated salary cap. And to do that the San Francisco 49ers plagued for years with dead money contracts from players already long gone and contracts that promised loop hole bonuses and void of so many this and so many of that have to be eliminated. The bus has suddenly come roaring to halt in the middle of the parking lot and out comes the fat contracts and players walking on the verge of declining in productivity and effectiveness.
In order for Jeff Garcia to return to the 49ers the front office made it abundantly clear that he would have to take a serious pay cut and agree to the agenda that the front office had made in order to make the team competitive and healthier in terms of personnel and financial prosperity.
With the sudden releases of Derrick Deese, Ron Stone, Sean Moran and Garrison Hearst came the realization that the San Francisco 49ers were serious about becoming leaner, healthier and younger all in one. All of the above for the most part were offered something but at a reduced salary that made them decide between being a back-up with their present team or proceeding to free agency where the money was and the promise of staying in the game as a starting player in the NFL and being paid like one.
The later option was simple and what it all comes down to is the almighty American dollar. It is what generates a player’s will to do funny things and to dictate the future of where they will be physically for years to come.
Looking at Jeff Garcia’s contributions to this team I have to say I was incoherent when I learned that his release was impending. I couldn’t understand what was happening or to answer as to what the logic was behind cutting a three time Pro Bowl quarterback that was coming back probably healthier and more determined than ever to take us to the next level again.
Sure Jeff Garcia has his faults and 2003 wasn’t his crystal ball year, but who doesn’t have a year where they are constantly nursing injuries all season long sometime in their careers as a professional athlete. Jeff Garcia was not looked upon back in the beginning when Steve Young went down with any kind of fairness from many.
In fact there were many fans that thought he shouldn’t be the starter over a Giovanni Carmazzi or a veteran such as Rick Mirer. However Jeff Garcia a Canadian Football star came into this league and brought back a taste of the glory years on his arm and legs in the form of a man called Jeff Garcia.
I supported Jeff Garcia from day one and so did the man that was called to see him and recommend him in Bill Walsh. Jeff has an uncanny ability to make a play when all chaos is breaking out all around him. He is almost like the eye of a hurricane waiting and then scrambling suddenly in order to make a big time play that more times than not has paid dividends.
“In one way or another I’m going to have to sacrifice,” Garcia said, speaking with reporters in the team’s parking lot after meeting with general manager Terry Donahue. “It’s very difficult for me to find something that outweighs loyalty, but when I take a step back, personal happiness has to come in to effect and that’s really what it’s going to come down to at some point.”
All of life’s mishaps have happened to Jeff Garcia it seems in 2003 and right after it. Jeff suffered endlessly from nagging injuries throughout the season that highlighted back-up quarterback Tim Rattay in many instances and gave credibility to Tim someday becoming the perennial starter sometime. It also arouse suspicions inside the front office and on the sidelines that Jeff Garcia, 34, was not as durable as he once was when first arriving on the scene as a 49er in 1999.
Jeff Garcia then had to battle the stigma from his arrest on suspicion of drunk driving after attending a local hockey game on Jan. 14 and police reports put his blood alcohol level at .08. He has since then publicly apologized to the organization and all his fans in which I was moved and wish him the leniency in his sentencing and hope he’s able to finally put this chapter behind him.
“This has been a rough off-season for me in a sense of what I’ve had to deal with personally,” Garcia said. “But I think it’s going to make me a better person and a better player in the end wherever that may be.”
Jeff’s contract as it was called for him to make $9.958 million in just base salary. A figure that both sides knew had to be reduced at all costs if Jeff was to remain a 49er. This in itself was an obstacle that needed to be negotiated and what made it even stickier was the $500,000 bonus he was to make on March 3rd as that date approached according to his present contract. This was a bonus the 49ers struggling to keep the few free agents it could did not want to pay out.
Releasing Jeff Garcia would save the club $1.7 million dollars towards the salary cap and would save even more as much as $5 million if he would agree to a reduced salary. But the secret ingredient that the 49ers saw as freeing up even more money down the road was to take Jeff’s salary hit all at once this year by releasing him at $10.3 million rather than to post phone it for the future.
Jeff has always struggled to live up to the very high expectations set in stone by legendary quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. He has known this right from the very start as 49er fans have a certain code of conduct that includes emulating those legends that you come in to inherit once you become a San Francisco 49er.
Everything is carefully scrutinized from every play to every throw, Jeff Garcia saw this past season erode more than ever for him as injury after injury sapped the very life from him as he fought to maintain an image he 's struggled to uphold ever since he took the helm from Steve Young.
“It’s almost like you can never do enough to please,” Garcia said. “At some point, that starts to get old.” Looking for the perfect balance in his abilities and talents as a quarterback has been something Jeff has searched for in his four years as a starter. This past season he experienced his least productive season in his career, throwing 18 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions and compiling a passer rating of 80.1%. Being, 34, Jeff Garcia has a narrow window of opportunity left to seek his place in pro football history as a Super Bowl champion.
“What it comes down to is I want what is right for me, for once,” he said. “I have to look at myself and look at what is going to make me happy in my life.” “I’ve always been one to make sure everybody else is happy before myself and it really comes down to a time in my life when I have to look out for myself, No. 1.”
With these statements after meeting General Manager Terry Donahue Jeff Garcia had to have known what was coming about in not agreeing to a reduction in salary. Certainly realization that the very franchise that brought you into the NFL was about to send you packing has you thinking the weirdest of situations.
During negotiations between the 49ers and Jeff Garcia’s agent the main sticking issue of the reduction in base salary to $5 million was not the only issue but the issues of including incentive money in the range between $1.5 and $2 million for Jeff Garcia if he met certain criteria was a major player in these talks. This was an issue that the 49ers were determined to alleviate from their financial books and they took a hard stand on this precedent.
Meetings took place but every time Jeff Garcia left those meetings and or his agent the less likely it looked like a deal could be had. General Manager Terry Donahue struggled and juggled with the thought of never having Jeff around and looked at what it could do with Jeff still on the roster as well. It came down to a test of nerves like nothing ever before for this general manager tutored to succeed under Bill Walsh.
“He is a great player and a great guy. We have to look at what is important to this organization over the next three years. We have to make sure that we get cap healthy. It is very important that we chose cap health over cap hell and so we can make short-term decisions. We have to loom at the overall health of our football organization and where we are going. We are going to continue to have discussions with Jeff’s people regarding his situation and we will just work towards a solution.”
Having an incentive-laced contract would create even more salary cap concerns for the San Francisco 49ers. The front office made it very clear to Jeff that he would have to make major concessions to remain the starting quarterback of the 49ers. However Jeff seemed to move towards rewarding himself as a big name quarterback and chose the later instead.
With having five years left on his contract as a 49er, the unpaid bonuses in that contract would accelerate upon his release, meaning he would count more than $10 million against the 49ers 2004 salary cap. The bright side to this and to what Terry Donahue has looked at as promising is that all of Jeff’s salary would be eliminated by 2005.
Director of football operations John McVay said it best when he said earlier about Jeff Garcia’s contract dispute that “there’s no way in the world” Garcia would be back with his current contract. It put the Garcia camp on notice that in no uncertain terms that he would have to be a player with major concessions to stay a 49er.
Earlier in February it was even suggested that the San Francisco 49ers would try and trade Jeff for multiple drafts picks if there was any interest out there that they could generate. One of the major organizations that came into mind was the Washington Redskins, but it never materialized.
Jeff Garcia brought credibility and a winning attitude back to this franchise when in 2001, the 49ers arose above their rebuilding era to play their first playoff game in three years. Then came 2002, another trip into the post-season, and a wild card playoff victory over the New York Giants. His miracle fourth quarter comebacks were heroic and bordered on greatness renewed with many a 49er fan.
Then as Steve Mariucci was shown the door and Dennis Erickson was brought in with a new offensive philosophy so was the demise of Jeff Garcia. Injuries struck Jeff right in training camp and beyond as he suffered bulging discs, concussions, groin, wrist, and ankle and knee injuries.
Dennis Erickson encouraged Jeff to throw downfield mire and take more chances by staying in the pocket longer, ideals that were damaging to a quarterback that made his best plays while breaking away from the pocket and moving around on the run.
Right before the March 3rd deadline the San Francisco 49ers released Jeff Garcia. His five-year tenure as a 49er will always in my mind be remembered as a positive one. General Manager Terry Donahue made the announcement at team headquarters in front of the trophy case that houses five Super Bowl Lombardi trophies. All trophies won by Jeff Garcia’s predecessors in Joe Montana and Steve Young.
The strict guidelines that General Manager Terry Donahue is taking in this new course of action is intended to get the 49ers way under the salary cap come the year 2005. It is in the long-term interests as he says to cut Jeff now in order to prepare for the future. An awful lot of banking will be done on back-up quarterback Tim Rattay better known as a traditional pocket passer behind an offensive line minus it’s veteran linemen in Derrick Deese and Ron Stone.
“I have great respect for Jeff Garcia, for the kind of person he is, how he’s laid it on the line for this team,” Donahue said. 'But I have an obligation to ownership, to our coaches, to everyone in this building and to our fans to put us in the best possible position for the future.”
Becoming salary cap healthy starts now. Seeing Jeff Garcia leave honestly hurts as I have always enjoyed watching him play. He is a no nonsense type of guy and a guy with great sincerity and honor for his teammates and to his fans. He would always sign every single autograph no matter where he was and would always pay special attention to the children that flocked to the sidelines and shouted out his name.
“We predict next year (2005) that we will be $4 million or so under the cap,” Donahue said. “And the year after that, we’ll be about $14 million under. So we see that this decision will help us keep future stars like Andre Carter, for example.”
Still many fans look at this as a complete gutting of the team. I myself am disappointed in some of the releases but I can now come to terms as to why they were released. With durability and age questions at the head of the list many of these players were on the downside of their careers. The only thing I have a hard time with is that removing most or all the veterans from a team can have a damaging domino effect.
The team is now significantly younger yet very less experienced. Speed has been enhanced but nothing replaces experience on the field or fine-tuned ability. We will take a lot of knocks in 2004 and it can be expected to be a rough year considering the key positions that will be manned by such youth.
But the master plan is to get cap healthy fast and look at what the future promises rather than the immediate need to field a team by keeping over extended contracts and fielding a team for the now rather than a long-term one for tomorrow. Getting our future in order must take center stage and this is a philosophy I can understand and accept although hard.
I still want to be optimistic and want our team to be competitive and I think it still will up and to a point. New blood will have to learn fast while out on the field and bruises and injuries felt to take the experience with the pain. Becoming a good football player takes time and a season or two will tell the tale of the tape as time wears on.
“As we look at it, the future of this team is very bright. People have said we are decimating this team, but that’s not the case,” Donahue said. “We’ve just locked up Kevan Barlow to a long-term deal and we feel he will be one of the top 10 running backs in the league. Julian Peterson is on the roster and we are still working on a deal for him. We have Andre Carter, Brandon Lloyd. I think this is a chance for us to create some stars for our fans to get excited about.”
I want all my fellow fans to know and I concede that I am not predicting doom and gloom for our franchise. I was upset and disappointed that some of the players let go could not have been signed under a restructured contract. I understand as well that most wanted to continue their careers as starters and not relegated to being quality back-up players that saw reduced playing time.
Derrick Deese and Garrison Hearst come to mind. And I made strong cases about both with their leadership and championship caliber attitudes on the field I felt that we needed those voices on the field and in the locker room as fixtures a while longer. It is not my place to say and I know someone will step up on this roster and take their places.
Jeff Garcia’s release hurt this team on the field but not in the fiscal pocket book. We are a better team next year because of this. Tim Rattay has big shoes to fill, as did Jeff back in 1999. He’ll be a better fit in Dennis Erickson’s scheme but whom will he have left to throw to? And will the offensive line be able to protect someone it is not used to because of having Jeff Garcia for so long who breaks containment and makes things happen on the run?
There are many scenarios’ to play in one’s head as we think about our future without Jeff Garcia and with Tim Rattay. Obviously their styles are very different but we had a glimpse of what Tim Rattay can do on the field when given the opportunity. This will be a season that he’ll take a lot of hits and learn on the fly. Although I look at Jeff’s leaving with great sadness I embrace the future with Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey as well.
I plan on writing more about the decision to release Jeff Garcia and his career as a 49er along with the controversy surrounding Terrell Owens and the continuing drama of free agency. I hope you’ve enjoyed the two-part series in “Oh My God.”