The San Francisco 49er’s are playing a cat and mouse game with Pro Bowl inductee Running Back Charlie Garner, his status as a unrestricted free agent has his agent and himself looking at major money for the first time after stellar seasons as a 49er.

There are very mixed signals coming out of the San Francisco front office as to whether they will even consider an offer or contemplate resigning Charlie Garner as he will command a much larger salary after another successful season in a 49er uniform.

Acquired as a free agent in July of 1999 Charlie Garner has made his footprints in detail on the grassy turf of 3-Com Park, his ambition and durability have at times come into question only to be diminished with each successful season he has managed to achieve.

In 1999 Charlie was in all essence the only real offensive component that was productive in all our 1999 season finishing the season at a low (4-12) record. Charlie started all but one game in 1999 and rushed for 1229 yards averaging 5.1 yards per carry his longest being 51 yards and a total of four touchdowns.

I can still remember the darkness of the 1999 season and remember the only glimmer of hope and only ray of light that still shined in the 49er offensive system was the playmaking of running back Charlie Garner. He dazzled me to the point that it kept me coming back to the television to watch this formidable athlete perform his famous “jukes and jives” and make defensive players miss as he could be a power runner when needed and an outside runner whenever the scheme presented itself.

Charlie could also be a formidable receiver out of the backfield a weapon the 49er’s began to utilize as a alternate to their tight end position, in 1999 Charlie had 56 receptions for a total of 535 yards averaging 9.6 yards per reception and two touchdowns.

No one ever imagined that Charlie Garner a former Philadelphia Eagle with very average seasons there could come in and fill the void left by then 49er running back Garrison Hearst fallen to a season ending ankle injury.

He proved them all wrong and then some, as Charlie tore up the turf in 1999 and was able to stay healthy, and was able to be the durable back the skeptic’s had all questioned in detail at the start of both season’s.

In 2000 Charlie rushed for 1142 yards with an average of 4.4 yards per carry the longest being 42 yards and had seven touchdowns. He started all but two games in 2000, in receptions Charlie was turned to even more he had 68 receptions for 647 yards averaging 9.5 yards per reception and three touchdowns.

Is this the production we want to lose as a rebuilding franchise? I certainly hope not and should we do everything in our ability to try and tender him an offer? I would again certainly hope so.

The San Francisco 49er’s has until March 2nd to re-sign running back Charlie Garner. That’s the mandate from Garner’s agent, Scott Crawford. “Things could get ugly,” he said.

Charlie Garner is very upset, Scott Crawford has said, about general manager Bill Walsh’s comments that the running back “suffered from wear and tear at the end of the season.”

“Bill’s comments hurt Charlie a lot,” Crawford said. “He feels that Bill is trying to de-value him, and we are not going to tolerate that. We have been very clear with him. The 49er’s are his first option until March 2nd. Then, they have to stay in line like everyone else.”

In comes the question as to why would Bill Walsh try and de-value a solid and productive offensive weapon that Charlie has proven to be again in this 2000 season? I do not have a real answer to that, what I do know is that we would be foolish not to try and make a legitimate offer.

“I am not enamored with the possibility,” Crawford said. “I have no idea what Bill Walsh is trying to do. He is trying to be a spin-doctor as to why they can’t resign Charlie. If Bill thinks the price tag is going to be too high, say that.”

There has been a lot of speculation by both critic’s and fans that Charlie really did slow down in the last half of the season, but when we look back there are legitimate reasons as to that.

Garner at 27 years old averaged 17.7 carries for 84.8 yards (a 4.8 average) in the first 12 games, 11.5 carries for 31 yards (2.1 average) in the last four games. In the last four games of the season with the expected release of legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice at the end of this season due to salary cap restraints. The passing game became suddenly dominant over the running game.

“I think a couple of games, we were in a situation where we were throwing the ball a lot,” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said. “So he was, a little bit, a product of us not being adamant about running the ball 30 times a game with him.”

As I have observed and I have not missed one 49er game this season, the 49er’s were sorely focused on making Jerry Rice an offensive target towards the end of the season. But in hindsight simply helped wide receiver Terrell Owens accomplish more yardage and break an NFL record with 20 receptions in one game.

Charlie Garner has indicated he wants to remain in San Francisco, as he is very thankful for them taking him in free agency in 1999 and giving him the chance to accomplish all the personnel goals he has set out to do for himself.

“It’s very vital that I come back,” Garner said. “I think I have a good fit here and I’ve been playing well, so I wouldn’t want to change that. At the same time, I recognize that they’ve got things they want to do upstairs.”

All rosters are frozen until Feb. 22nd and teams must get under the $67 million cap by March 2nd. The 49er’s, $15 million over the cap, must get substantially under if they are to reign unrestricted free agents Charlie Garner, tackle Scott Gragg and defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. San Francisco has 22 free agents in all.

Charlie Garner is needed in this offensive system he makes the fit feel like a well-worn glove, his veteran presence and leadership by example are attributes that are very hard to duplicate and replace.

His agent Scott Crawford has had contract negotiations with the 49er’s already, and has proposed a deal similar in structure, if not in dollars, to Tennessee star running back Eddie George’s.

“He has a very cap-friendly deal where they paid him a lot in bonus money and close to minimum in base salary the first two years,” Crawford said. “Then it accelerated. That would work for the 49er’s because I think they will be out of the woods-cap wise by 2002.”

Crawford has already indicated that Garner is worth more then being a $2 million dollar running back, I tend to believe him in that assumption and Garner looks to command at least a salary of $3-4 million in base salary.

Again we may simply not have the money this year to cut such a deal, however at the same time we also must imagine not having a veteran running back with Charlie’s production at our disposal in 2001.

Garrison Hearst is again going through another surgery having bone fragments again shaved from his ankle, the time for a decision on his fate is now near and as much as a Hearst fan I have been and will always be the wait is up.

Garrison Hearst will make $2.5 million dollars in 2001 should we keep him on the roster going into the season with the assumption that he will be back to his old form and self as a complete and viable running back.

It has been two years too long in my opinion and we are still really without solid concrete proof that his ankle will be able to withstand the everyday wear and tear and punishment it will sustain in the NFL today. Hearst has been an unbelievable athlete and helped us in achieving playoff status, we will always be thankful for that.

However the timeframe as to when do we move on and stay with a productive back that has come in and filled in admirably, is definitely now I believe Garner has more then proven his total worth in a 49er uniform.

After the last game at Mile High Stadium against the Denver Bronco’s, Bill Walsh implied that Garners declining production toward the end of the season was a result of the 195-pound back hitting the wall. Walsh also continued to say that plenty of quality running backs could be grabbed during the draft.

Garners production in the last four games can reasonably be broken down as the passing game all of a sudden set precedent over the running game down the home stretch of the season.

Garners agent Scott Crawford pointed out that the only reason Garners production declined down the stretch, was due to the team making a change in it’s offensive philosophy more then anything else.

Garner in the last game against the Bronco’s played with a sprained right knee, gained just three yards on eight carries. Also at the time the offensive line was playing without two of its starters and a third, right tackle Scott Gragg, was playing with a badly sprained knee.

“How many holding calls were made on positive yardage runs by Charlie?” Crawford said. “How many times did they split Charlie out as a receiver in those last four games?”

The evidence here tends to support Crawford’s claim everyone, and I to am not without questions of my very own, Charlie was nicked up battered and bruised but not to the extent that he still could not perform at a high level.

Then why did we not remain with the running game? That is something only the coaching staff can answer at this time. We have always been a priority running team that should and must not ever change, the philosophy did suddenly change as the last games approached down the stretch I to was a witness to that.

“Charlie Garner is not a $2 million dollar running back, bottom line,” Crawford said. “Is he a $6 million back? We’ll see. We’re not going to gouge the market, but if it’s their belief that they’re going to sign Charlie for $2 million, that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to give him to the 49er’s for $2 million a year.”

Charlie bottom line deserves an offer from this franchise, whether it is at the cost of a few veterans so is it; in the long run a foundation will be established that will solidify a dependable and versatile veteran running back for many years to come. Even if it means saying goodbye to veterans that have been a part of this franchise a number of years.

Rookie running back Paul Smith alongside Charlie Garner would make the ultimate team in the running category. The idea of keeping both Garner and Garrison Hearst is a fairy tale in the worst degree, unfortunately Hearst with physical questions needs to be the one to take his career decisions to another opportunity.

Crawford has said that Garner will likely fetch a yearly salary in the $3.5 million to $5 million-dollar ranges. Last off-season, running back James Stewart signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Detroit Lions that included a $5 million signing bonus. Crawford said those numbers are a realistic starting point in negotiating a deal with Garner.

Now I am at no means saying we should mortgage our future’s to retain Garner as a running back on this team, simply saying he deserves a real and legitimate offer in order to retain him. The $3-4 million dollar range in my opinion is most acceptable with bonuses.

The soap opera of whether to give Garner a legitimate offer will likely be played out right up to the deadline. The reality is, is that we need to retain the services of a veteran running back and draft towards our most pressing needs and that is at defensive end and linebacker.

Restricted free agent Strong Safety Lance Schulters seems to have the blessing of general manager Bill Walsh as his agent will use his own words against him in obtaining a better contract.

“Lance Schulters is as fine a safety as we’ve ever had,” Walsh said. “He compares with Ronnie Lott in the way he plays the game.”

Certainly this is most clear -cut as we need to retain such a high caliber athlete on a most improving defense for many years to come, Schulters is a positive force and demonstrates influential leadership on the field at all times.

Fullback Fred Beasley in my opinion is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL, he has been a force on this team and can be attributed to all the success Garner has been able to obtain with the aid of his services. He also is a restricted free agent and a deal should be made to hold onto him a while longer.

Safety Zack Bronson an unrestricted free agent could very well become a cap casualty due to depth at that position, John Keith is definitely being looked on to be the eventual starter at that position. However Bronson finished this season very strong and deserves every merit of retaining if it is possible.

Right offensive tackle Scott Gragg since being acquired and starting every game has been sensational, I have been most impressed with his blocking abilities and pulling techniques as he has opened lanes for Garner to run through.

Depth on the offensive line is definitely thin and keeping Gragg only makes sound sense in having an offensive line that continues to excel on a yearly basis. Gragg came relatively cheap last off-season but after an impressive start he could merit up to $2 million dollars a year. He has made no bones about it he wants to stay a 49er.

Gragg is a massive 6-8 tackle, and we would find it very difficult to let go as we are expecting a lot of turnover in the next two years on the offensive line side of the ball.

Veterans Ray Brown and Derrick Deese have uncertain futures as 49er’s.

Walsh along with the rest of the front office likes the direction they took with the bigger body at right tackle as opposed to the smaller, more athletic tackles they had in the past. Another tackle a defensive one merits recognition also and that is Brentson Buckner who without a doubt has been a dual force to contend with alongside defensive tackle Bryant Young. They have combined to be pressure and sack specialists and can only become better with a resigning of his talent.

Cornerback Monty Montgomery has had an inconsistent season and even though he appears to do better at the safety position it looks like he will be expendable due to depth at that position. Of all the defensive backs this season he has been the most disappointing.

Wide Receiver/Kick Returner Kevin Williams will likely be a cap casualty also as he is unrestricted, if anything Williams remained a constant and had very little game-breaking abilities. He did not make many mistakes but the whole point in special teams is to get a touchdown here and there to turn the tide of the game.

Defensive End Anthony Pleasant started every game but really had very little impact on pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He in all honesty was a disappointment and I really was hoping that he could have had a serious game-breaking season.

Quarterback Rick Mirer is unrestricted and I believe it is in our best interests to resign him to an extension as the number #2 quarterback, the insurance he provides is most invaluable and will provide Tim Rattay a chance to mature more into that role next year.

Kicker Wade Richey although his struggles were well documented this season broke out of his slump in breakout style and deserves recognition for over coming that adversity. He is also a restricted free agent and someone will likely be brought in to give both Punter Chad Stanley and himself some competition.

Defensive End and linebacker being our areas of opportunity one athlete that is restricted and stands out this season is linebacker Jeff Posey. Posey switched from defensive end and that has been a change for the better; he definitely could be a starter if not then a quality back-up linebacker for years to come.

Exclusive Rights free agent Quarterback Jeff Garcia needs a raise from this franchise along with negotiations on extending his contract for many more years to come. He had a base salary of only $312,000 this season, but met performance incentives to make upwards of $2 million dollars. With his nomination to this years Pro Bowl he certainly merits a raise.

Safety Ronnie Heard and Center Ben Lynch are also worthy of mentioning as exclusive rights, Heard made an impressive showing filling in due to injuries along the safety line and he will probably be tendered an offer.

Center Ben Lynch will be needed for depth especially with the retirement of starting center Chris Dalman, Jeremy Newberry has stepped in and made every single game this season without a hitch and has been an outstanding team contributor.

The 2000 draft was a masterpiece in my opinion and with Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue we can figure that to be the same this year. Walsh has said the team is “four or five players away” from being in the playoffs. It will draft ninth in the first round in Aprils NFL Draft.

The expectations are very high for next year the need to redeem ourselves and rectify our winning column is a definite priority. We need to as fans be completely confident that the front office will do it’s best to retain star quality talent and draft more at the same time.

Finances will be limited some unpleasant choices will most likely be made due to the salary cap, these are matters that are out of our control. However we must never give up the unbeatable spirit and resolve that we have as fans for this team to improve, I believe we have the proper management to do just that. It is a time for us to contemplate and look with great inspiration to a new and better season, we accomplished so much this season and many rookies grew up right before our eyes. To me that is one of the greatest memories I bring with me out of this season.