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As I am writing this, the Raiders and Ravens are dueling it out in the AFC Championship Game for the right to appear in Super Bowl 35. This is something that the 49ers fans of old took for granted; and for good reason. 49er teams during the eighties and early nineties were the benchmark in professional football and a Super Bowl berth was expected even before minicamps had begun. Unfortunately, this is not the 49ers your father grew up with nor are they likely to make it to the 'Big Dance' anytime soon.
What was once the most feared and respected team in the NFL is now a group of young individuals coming to terms with life out of college. This transition for any young player is a hard one. What was once black is now white, and what was up is now down. However, in the case of the 49ers, it now appears as though the rookies are leading the way.
Cast your mind way back to April of 2000; more specifically Draft Day. The 49ers hierarchy including Bill Walsh - one of the best draft minded individuals in all of professional sports - had formulated a plan. This wasn't just a plan for accumulating the most picks, but a plan to acquire the best players at their respective positions. Rebuilding had commenced.
In most cases, rebuilding a struggling franchise is brought about by necessity. Aging players on the fringe of retirement that demand the big dollars usually results in a bloated payroll. This creates an interesting dilemma - do you keep an aging but proven veteran and pay the ensuing costs, or do you look towards the draft for unproven but inexpensive talent? The general consensus was "Let's go cheap!"
Without getting into a draft analysis, the 49ers achieved their goal. For the most part, the 2000 rookie crop exceeded expectations with a number of them in starting positions by seasons end. Some outperformed others in their development, but these are still early days. From what it appears though, the 49ers have at least a couple of rookies that can be considered 'future impact players'. These include linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerback Jason Webster. Although the performance of Peterson was expected (taking into account his high first round selection), the coming out of Webster was a nice surprise considering Ahmed Plummer was expected to make the difference in the secondary.
Can the success of last seasons drafting be duplicated? Maybe not to such a great extent, but all the pieces are in place for 2 or 3 more players to really make the difference. Walsh himself realizes this and has openly conveyed the same message to anyone who would listen. Building a franchise can be likened to a puzzle in that all you need are the right pieces to complete the whole picture. Anyone who is familiar with 49ers would be hard-pressed to argue that the team isn't any closer to a championship than they were a year ago.
What positions need to be focused on to take the 49ers to the next level of competitiveness? As demonstrated by this years playoffs teams, the key to winning is defense. If you can shut down a team such as the Rams or Vikings and limit them to only a handful of first downs, then you place the onus on your offense to put you in a position to win. Players such as Deion Sanders and Reggie White have been doing this for years. A good defensive player can mean the difference between a 5 yard gain and a 99 yard TD. Because of this, the 49ers will be focusing on the linebacker position and could quite possibly add another defensive lineman; their two main areas of concern.
Offense is of less concern. However, look for the addition of a HB to compensate for the loss of either Garner (if contract negotiations fall through) or Hearst (who may or may not be able to play due to a lingering ankle injury). Another WR may also be selected, most likely in the later rounds, to fill the void left by Jerry 'I'm going .... no I'm not' Rice.
The coach is often 'the forgotten one' unless of course the team is not performing up to expectations. In such a fickle sport where the fans demand success and accept no excuses for failure, Steve Mariucci has performed admirably. He has rested the weight of this team on his shoulders from day one and at no time has his abilities come into question. For my mind, he was the undisputed NFL Coach Of The Year, and sooner rather than later, this will be officially acknowledged.
Of course many other offseason moves will be made including some free agent signings, but the main focus will be to reduce the salaries of players which have been identified as being integral to the rebuilding process. This is in essence, the biggest hurdle of them all - remaining under the salary cap whilst fielding a competitive team. Rest assured, what measures can be taken to ensure success in the future are being taken. It is only a matter of time before the 49ers become what they once were - the benchmark in professional football.
What we as fans witnessed in season Y2K, bodes well for the future.