Questions Remain About 49ers Coaches and Front Office
July 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM
By Brett Pahler
Last season, Dennis Erickson inherited the same team that Mariucci had coached to the division championship the previous year. In fact, based upon where the 49ers went in the playoffs in 2002, one could argue that they were the third or fourth best team in the NFC at the point of Mariucci's departure. Yet, as we all know, last year they slipped to 7-9. Question 1: Was Erickson the difference?
The 49ers will enter the 2004 season without both their offensive and defensive coordinators from a year ago. Question 2: In addition to losing a number of key veterans, have the 49ers lost some of their brightest minds on the sidelines?
The 49ers cap problems in 1999 were understandable, and were supposed to be cleared up by the end of the 2001 season. And now, six years after the initial cap problems came to fruition, the 49ers still lead the league in dead money, with $27 million tying up over 1/3 of the salary cap. Question 3: Is Terry Donahue a below average general manager?
Let's start with question 1, and find out why York and Donahue decided to fire Mariucci. Mariucci had an above average offensive mind. He was a tremendous motivator. He could find the positive in any situation. He had an uplifting impact upon the organization from his coaches to the players to the trainers to the secretaries. He had the people skills to manage an organization from top to bottom. Even my wife, who likes teams because of their colors and proximity to shopping, liked Mariucci because she thought he looked like a nice guy.
Yet, for all his charm and charisma, he wasn't brilliant. His positive energy could only take him so far. Mariucci ran a good organization and that was enough to beat half the teams in the league. But when faced with a superior strategist he was frequently overmatched. He won only 28.6% of contests against teams with .500 records or above.
Both originally college coaches, Mariucci has accomplished literally nothing compared to Erickson. Erickson won two national championships with the Miami Hurricanes. More impressively, he went 11-1 with Oregon State, one of the worst programs in all of Division 1 sports, crushed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, and probably would have won the national championship if Oregon State carried the reputation of a Florida State. By contrast, Mariucci went 6-6 with the Cal Bears in 1996.
Mariucci's strength was his ability to run an organization. Erickson's is his ability to put together a game-plan. For example, the 49ers soundly defeated the Buccaneers last season 24-7. If not for two dropped touchdown passes by Terrell Owens and an ill-timed jump by Zach Bronson, the 49ers would have won 38-0. Entering the game, the Bucs were 3-2. They had crushed Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington on the road. They had lost to two great teams, Carolina and Indianapolis, both in overtime. Erickson was the first coach to assemble a game plan that disassembled the Buccaneers from start to finish. You could see the frustration of Jon Gruden on the sideline. He knew that he had been thoroughly out-coached, something Mariucci never could have done.
But for every bright spot there was a low-point as well. Part of the problem stemmed from Erickson not wanting to step on anyone's toes, and thus, giving Knapp far more influence than he deserved. It was not until Knapp proved himself to be what we always knew he was that Erickson began taking matters into his own hands. And it showed, as the offense averaged five points per game more in the second half of the season. Tweaking the West Coast offense was never a good idea. This year he will have his own system in place, and will call the plays that have worked for him over the last 25 years.
Question 2: Will the loss of Greg Knapp and Jim Mora, Jr. diminish our creative capabilities on the sidelines? Knapp? Obviously not. Erickson will call the plays and do a much better job. Tollner, who coached USC in the 1980s, can provide what Erickson needs: an assistant, not an overly cautious, power-wielding automaton. Knapp can take his Knapps in Atlanta. Nice guy, but good riddance.
Mora is much tougher to gauge. To his credit, anyone who rises to the level of head coach in the NFL has talent. Looking at his resume, however, I'm not convinced that he is worthy of the position. He has never guided a defense to better than 13th in the league. From 2000 to 2003, the 49ers spent nine out of their ten 1st and 2nd round draft picks on defense. Most coordinators would do backflips if their team spent 90% of its top draft picks on their side of the ball. He even benefitted from the acquisitions of Tony Parrish and Derek Smith, both of whom have played at or near Pro Bowl levels.
The 49ers had one of the fastest defenses in the league. Yet, there were times when they couldn't stop the pass. There were times when they couldn't stop the run. There were years when they couldn't stop teams on 3rd down. There were the lapses where players were woefully out of position.
Mora contended that Mariucci forced him to play a more conservative defense than he desired. Regardless, Mora still deserves a good portion of the blame. Consider 2002, when the defense played well on first and second downs, but could not get off the field on third downs. Drive after drive, game after game, teams converted third and longs. If Mora knew how to tighten the screws, he would have.
Contrast this with Tony Dungy's work. In 2001, the Indianapolis Colts had the 29th ranked defense. Dungy turned them into the 8th ranked unit in a single year. Ray Rhodes has performed similar feats with several teams.
This is not to say that Willie Robinson, Mora's replacement, is any better. While Robinson has had success on elite defenses in Pittsburg, and is familiar with the 3-4, his resume as defensive backs coach for the Steelers does not distinguish him.
Thus, any improvement on defense will surface as a result of the familiarity and shared ideology of Erickson, Robinson, and linebackers coach Greg McMackin. McMackin may have been more deserving of the coordinator post than Robinson. He has coordinted phenomenal defenses wherever he has gone, and puts Mora to shame. He served as defensive coordinator under Erickson in Seattle, and quickly improved the defense from 30th to 8th. He coordinated the #1 defense in the nation during Miami's title run under Erickson, and helped turn Hawaii from an 0-12 squad to a 9-4 squad in just one year. Expect McMackin to have more influence this year than last.
Erickson has brought some good people with him. Last season, Eric Yarber, probably the best wide receivers coach in the league, took over for George Stewart, a former offensive lineman and special teams coach who Mariucci saw fit to coach wide receivers of all things. Cedrick Wilson credits Yarber with his improvement last year, and Yarber will have a tremendous impact upon the young receivers.
Question 3: Donahue and the salary cap. For the last two seasons, Donahue has had the wool pulled over his eyes by an independent scouting service that ranked the 49ers the most talented team in all of football. And if teams can go from 7-9 to the Super Bowl, the 49ers could have gone from 10-6 to the Super Bowl. Thus, he mortgaged the future to make one last run at it.
There's no question Donahue has made some mistakes, most notably the huge contracts to Jeff Garcia and J.J. Stokes. He probably regrets using the exclusive franchise tag on Julian Peterson, as he could have merely applied the regular franchise tag, making Peterson available for two first round picks, not to mention the cap room that comes with it.
Donahue may not be a visionary, but he learns from his mistakes, identifies success elsewhere, and emulates it; e.g., his transition to the Philadelphia/New England fiscal approach. Regardless, his value to the organization does not stem from his handling of the salary cap. It stems from his ability to evaluate talent. As shown by last year's draft and hopefully this year's, Donahue, Erickson, and Walsh make a good trio in the war room. He understands that lasting talent comes via the draft, not free agency. He is one of the only general managers that understands the value of trading down as opposed to up.
Donahue has the 49ers pointed in the right direction. Replacing Mariucci with the less charismatic but more intelligent and harder working Erickson was the right move. It is difficult to judge Erickson by last season. The resurgence of the Rams and the Seahawks' rise to prominence made the division much tougher. Last season did little more than give us a taste of life under Knapp and Mora.
The true test comes this September. The 49ers probably won't make the playoffs, but a number of signs will emerge to indicate if Erickson fits the bill. If he can win on the road, avoid blowouts, improve offensively during the year as the young receivers improve, win the games he should win, and finish in the middle of the pack, the 49ers will make a playoff push in 2005. Furthermore, a .500 record is seldom something to get excited about, but if the 49ers can go 8-8 with $27 million in dead money, imagine the possibilities once that money comes off the books, permanently.
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