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The San Francisco 49er offense which ranked fifth in the NFL last season and third in the NFC last season will be on a hot seat this 2004 to even repeat these numbers. Gone are so many veterans that played an integral role on offense last year. In are so many second-year and rookie players this year. The sins of failed contract signings and dead player money has comeback to bite the 49ers much like it did back in 1999.
General Manager Terry Donahue will lead you believe that it is not a repeat of that ominous year in which all of the Carmen Policy era came crashing down on the 49ers and the ending of an era took place with the career ending injury to quarterback Steve Young. But the fact of the matter is this.
Donahue indicates that he purged the roster now so we could sign the free agents of tomorrow, but the same philosophy was said back in 1999 as well and the front office still failed to deliver on it's promises.
Are we to believe that this team is in better shape then it was back in 1999? I hardly think so. I see an identical scenario happening, not maybe to the same degree as five years ago but enough that will see us staring up from below for an extended amount of time.
The organization never was able to even land a big name free agent this season. We were left to bargain hunt in acquiring free agents via a trade for former Philadelphia defensive end Brandon Whiting. And he's no sure thing after having shoulder surgery going into training camp though our team personnel says he's ahead of schedule.
Then you have offensive tackle Greg Randall a free agent from the Houston Texans that we already dumped due in part to the signing of un-drafted free agent Khiawatha Downey. Downey is the first player to sign with an NFL team after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But he's shown no ill effects of that disease as of yet and made such a nice impression in mini-camps that compelled the coaching staff to say goodbye to Greg Randall.
Offensive guard Scott Rehberg was signed by the 49ers after he was released by the Cincinnati Bengals and is expected to rotate and provide immediate depth to a young and eager offensive line. He is a seven-year NFL lineman that is expected to add substance to the offensive line after losing left tackle Derrick Deese and right guard Ron Stone.
Rehberg has started at every offensive line position but center in his seven-year career and was drafted by the New England Patriots in the seventh round back in 1997. He made it on the Patriot roster after cuts and started and played six games at right tackle.
He later went on to the Cleveland Browns in 1999, after being left unprotected in the expansion draft. He played just one season there but started 13 games there at three different positions. He was then acquired by the Cincinnati Bengals via free agency and started six games there and appeared in 10. From 2001-03 he appeared in 46 games and made eight starts as a reserve lineman.
The 49ers re-signed former Cincinnati Bengal Brock Gutierrez after he filled in successfully last season behind starting center Jeremy Newberry who played injured throughout the 2003 season. He also was a seven-year veteran with the Bengals and adds experience at a very critical position; he stayed active in all 16 games and appeared in 13 of them.
The 49ers are relying heavily on second-year left tackle Kwame Harris to fill the enormous void left by the departure of Derrick Deese to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He will have very big shoes to fill as he struggled in coverage when he was called upon frequently due to injuries to Deese last year. Protecting the blind-side of a quarterback yet to be determined is serious business for this young and aspiring offensive lineman.
Harris is used to playing at right tackle in college while he was in Stanford and has had to make radical adjustments in moving over to the left. He is learning to adjust his weight correctly and his right leg has become more dominant through the weight bearing process. Harris has also been working out with Jackie Slater, a Hall of Fame tackle who retired in 1995 after 20 seasons with the Los Angeles/St Louis Rams. What Slater has been doing is training Harris in the art of yoga. In those yoga sessions Harris limbered up three times a week in a room where temperatures soar near 100 degrees.
"It helps you with mental toughness because the heats always there," Harris said. "His technique is a lot cleaner, a lot better," Erickson said. "We all forget he never played on the left side (until last year)." "Kwame grew up a lot last year," center Jeremy Newberry said. "It helped, with Derrick hurt, to get in and grow."
Harris attributes his renewed success to Slater who has been working closely with him this spring and is still working with him through the summer. Harris joins a line that will feature linemen that have been worked in gradually due to injuries that plagued the line the last two seasons.
Third year Eric Heitmann will take his place next to Kwame Harris on the line after learning the position of left guard from the legendary Ray Brown. Right guard Kyle Kosier will take his place next to right tackle legend Scott Gragg after learning that position and others through injuries primarily to Deese and Stone last year.
Of course second-round pick Alabama's Justin Smiley is progressing very well through mini-camps and is expected o compete for playing time this season. Third-year player Dwayne Ledford is also fighting for a spot and playing time as well after obtaining valuable experience through NFL Europe.
Due to the play of the offensive line the team ranked in rushing offense fifth place and tenth place in passing offense in the NFL. Gone is offensive line coach Pat Morris who played a vital role in this progression and success of this offense.
He was the teacher of principle that was educated in the fine art of offensive plays from legendary coach Bob McKittrick. Now Gregg Smith will apply similar principles as he has said he has very similar attributes that Pat Morris had in getting the most out of a line with unpopular names.
Getting back to one of the most talked about stories is the signing of un-drafted free agent Khiawatha Downey, 24, will earn the rookie minimum salary of $230,000 this season if he successfully wins a roster spot with the 49ers. Downey was expected to be a middle-round draft pick in this year's NFL draft. In fact Mel Kiper Jr. a renowned draft expert for ESPN projected Downey as the 13th best offensive guard eligible for the draft.
The 6-5, 315-pound Downey, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001, he was a Division II All-American at Indiana, Pennsylvania University. He went to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis and was a symptomatic, but was still not selected in this year's draft. San Francisco was the only club to make contact with Downey's agent Joe Linta, who faxed a waiver to all 32 teams freeing them of all liability associated with the disease.
No one even called him for a try out either except for the 49ers who came away impressed. His greatest challenge will be to learn the terminology and graduate to a higher level of playing where he was playing at a sub-level college status.
"All I want is for someone to take the chance, because I'll make it work for the team that gets me." With Greg Randall now gone he is expected to have an inside shot at backing up right tackle Scott Gragg should he make the final roster, at least that is his hope.
Downey has a former teammate in running back Kevan Barlow while he was with the University of Pittsburgh. Barlow says he can recall a game against North Carolina four years ago in which Pittsburgh's left tackle was being dominated by North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, now with the Carolina Panthers.
That is when the coaches called upon Downey to see if he could offer any better protection. "He shut Peppers down," Barlow recalled. "I used to love running behind the guy. He was good."
Downey played his last two seasons at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania after getting kicked off the Pittsburgh team because of substance abuse violations. Downey's agent Linta said his client turned briefly to marijuana following his MS diagnosis. He fell into a state of depression but with the proper treatment it is now under control and not active whatsoever.
Meanwhile center Jeremy Newberry becomes the unquestioned leader on the offensive line. He has always been a leader of sorts and is now becoming more defined more than ever. Offensive coordinator Ted Tollner can see the difference that Newberry has made in all the younger linemen. Newberry enters his seventh season with the team and presses more than ever in keeping the 49er tradition alive and well in all of us.
Jeremy played last season for the entire time on an ankle that would've sidelined most offensive linemen in a heartbeat. But with constant therapy in working out in a swimming pool and limiting the strain on the degenerative tendons there he played through the pain all season and still performed at a very high level.
He has had the surgery that was recommended to him a year ago before the season even started in 2003 and is rehabilitating from that now. The surgery in all is a success for Jeremy but it has also limited his ability to do everything in mini-camps and still will throughout training camp.
"I feel awesome right now. I really do," said Newberry, who played the entire 2003 season in pain with a completely torn ligament in the ankle. "When I ran it felt as good as, if not better than, the other (ankle)."
Jeremy now inherits the leadership duties of the entire line and even of the team in conjunction with defensive tackle Bryant Young. Newberry has been instrumental in introducing the rookie lineman Justin Smiley to the line and assisting him on graduating from the college way of doing things to the pro level. He has also been working extensively with Dwayne Ledford who has excelled in NFL Europe and has contributed greatly to the line when injuries decimated it in 2003.
"I'm the same guy I've always been. I try to lead by example," Newberry said. "I come in and work my ass off. If that's being a leader on offense or the team, so be it. I just expect people to come in and work hard too."
Jeremy has also been in constant communication with the new coaches on the field as well as with new offensive coordinator Ted Tollner. Both Ted and Jeremy have been adamant in getting the line a new facelift and to try and instill simplified terminology into the West Coast offensive system.
"He's (Tollner) made a lot of sense out of that mumbo-jumbo we had before. A lot of it just didn't make sense," Newberry said. "For example, we'd call a play a keep, then we'd call it a solid, and then it's a keep again. He's really simplified the terminology, so the system is a little easier to learn."
"And he's added some stuff that's going to be good for us, like some checks on run plays. Sometimes we'd just run into a seven-man front when we couldn't block it. Now we have options to run something else, to run a better play."
Newberry will be in charge of a completely new offensive line. This year's new line will feature two new starters: Kwame Harris takes over for Derrick Deese at left tackle and Kyle Kosier takes over for Ron Stone at right guard. Their play in the 2003 season was crucial in getting them ready for the new and upcoming 2004 season, although they are young they look to be anchors on the line for a long time to come.
The sports critics are having a ball with these new additions and predict the worse case scenarios for the San Francisco offense. Many feel Kwame Harris will fail miserably at left tackle in that he has only limited experience there after playing on the right all through college.
And many doubt that Kyle Kosier is an upgrade over the Pro Bowl veteran Ron Stone, but he filled in adequately throughout when Stone and Deese were banged up throughout the 2003 season.
"I think what we gained last year was with some of those guys we had hurt, a lot of younger guys got a lot of valuable game experience. It helps them with their confidence number one, but it gave them actual game time," Newberry said. "You can't get that in practice, you can't get game experience unless you're playing in a game. Kwame (Harris) got that, Kyle Kosier got that, Dwayne Ledford got that. That's valuable."
Second round pick, University of Alabama's Justin Smiley figures to be a very versatile lineman this year as he tutors to learn the fundamentals of the 49er system and to work hand in hand with Jeremy Newberry on the fine arts of being a 49er lineman. In college, Smiley won many awards and plans on making a big splash as soon as possible this season.
"I think I'm a compete player," he says. "I'm an adequate run blocker and get good movement, but I think I'm a better pass protector. I feel like I'm an excellent puller and am good at traps and stutters and Power O's and stuff like that."
If anyone will tell you in relation to the 49ers offensive line it is this: Stay versatile and you'll stick around a long time, play a limited role and you'll be gone tomorrow. Smiley plans on being around a long time as do the others as all of the offensive linemen have offered to and some already know all of the positions on the line and can play effectively at them.
What will be a determining factor in this 2004 season will be how the line meshes with one another and the cohesion they form. The running game of Kevan Barlow will be determined by it and the protection of a less mobile quarterback in either Tim Rattay or Ken Dorsey will be utterly essential for us to have any kind of success. I'm excited to see this new line and I hope to see it grow into something so ferocious that will rival the lines of the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots.