Finally, The Bright Side
December 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM
From the sound of the locker room after the game, you would think that the 49ers just secured a trip to the Super Bowl instead of just their second win in 13 weeks. While Erickson was trying to answer post-game questions from the NFL network, it sounded like the champagne bottles were being corked for a celebration of great accomplishments. In fact, all the 49ers really accomplished was proving that there is, in fact, only one team worse than San Francisco.
Despite the raucousness that I am sure went on after the win, the reality still remains. Not every team is Arizona.
Yet, with rumors swirling that Dennis Erickson will be forced out at season's end, and with the local media out for John York's head you might miss that there is a silver lining emerging on this perpetual black cloud that extends from 4949 Centennial Way to Candlestick Point.
That silver lining, of course, is the play of Ken Dorsey and Maurice Hicks.
I never thought I would be writing the words "Dorsey," and "play well," in the same sentence. But Dorsey, who looked to be overwhelmed in the NFL in his previous three starts, shined on Sunday, throwing three touchdowns, engineering a game winning drive and finally earning a QB rating that was higher than his jersey number.
The fact that he threw for three touchdowns, although impressive considering his previous performances, was not what stood out. The velocity and placement of his passes are what seemingly jumped off the screen. On Dorsey's second touchdown pass to Cedric Wilson, Dorsey threw a 25-yard out pattern, a difficult throw to make, and he placed it perfectly in the front corner of the end zone, right in front of the pylon. Of course, the biggest play of the game was the 19-yard pass to Wilson on third down that kept the 49ers' drive alive in overtime. "Ken, boy, fires that thing in there" with some velocity; the thing that was missing in all of his previous starts.
The impressive part is that he did it against an Arizona defense that has been playing well all season. They are ranked 11th in the NFL against the pass, and average under 200 passing yards per game. Maybe those injuries Erickson mentioned when he was providing excuses for Dorsey's abhorrent performances against Seattle and Chicago had something to them. The real tests for Dorsey will come in the next couple of weeks when he faces two of the top four passing defenses. With Rattay out for at least another week, and possibly the rest of the season, the door is wide open for Dorsey to capitalize on his chances and prove this was not a fluke. This is, of course, if he can do something no 49er quarterback has done since 2001 - stay healthy.
The other reason to be hopeful is the play of Maurice Hicks. Here is an undrafted rookie who has played football for the last 10 months straight; 5 months in the NFL so far, and 5 months in NFL Europe. As if that weren't enough, Hicks played the fourth quarter and overtime with torn rib cartilage. That type of injury hurts when you so much as take a breath, let alone take a hit. But despite working with the same patchwork offensive line that Barlow played with, Hicks managed to turn this game into a breakout performance proving that he not only has the moves, but the guts to take the team on his shoulders is need be.
Given Hicks' last few performances, it would be ludicrous to put Barlow back into the starting lineup. Even before a concussion kept Barlow on the sidelines, Hicks was making things happen in the running game. So far this season, Hicks averages 4.4 yards per carry rushing, and 10.1 receiving yards per catch. Before the Arizona game, his yards per carry average was actually higher at 4.6 yards per carry.
Barlow, on the other hand, averages 3.2 yards per carry, and 6.1 yards per reception. He averaged less than three yards per carry in seven of his last ten games. In limited action, Hicks did what Barlow has not been able to do all season: hit the hole and hit it hard. With Barlow due a large bonus in March, Donahue may look to trade him before then in order to save some money under the cap.
Perhaps Barlow is better suited for a running back by committee situation where he can be kept fresh. Maybe Barlow needs to get that chip on his shoulder back. Maybe the Hearst-Barlow, and now the Hicks-Barlow tandem is the way to go, utilizing the best talents of each back. Pittsburgh makes the RBBC work, so does Kansas City and Atlanta. Trading Barlow is not the way to go, since he has proven over his first four years that he can be a break out player when given the right opportunities. Perhaps his role just needs to be re-evaluated.
One thing is for certain, though. In order for Barlow and Hicks to coexist, Barlow has to check his ego at the door. The offensive line won't block for someone they don't respect. If an offensive lineman knows that you want him replaced, he may not be as willing to take on that linebacker about to pop you in the mouth. As we all saw against St. Louis, the one thing Barlow does well is get popped.
By no means do I think that the 49ers are back on track to the NFL elite. It still looks, sometimes, like USC could take them head-to-head. The offensive line, while performing admirably against Arizona, has been inept against everyone else. This would be great if every game were against the Cardinals, but I don't think Commissioner Tagliabue would go for that scheduling quirk. With Washington, Buffalo and New England comprising the finals three games of the schedule this may be the last time fans can talk about a win until next season.
For the first time, though, it looks as though there may be a foundation there, something to hold onto - a glimmer of hope that the 49ers' worst offensive season ever will not carry over into next year. With more chances to play Dorsey could prove that he can do in the NFL what he did in college - just win. Hicks can provide depth and spark to a team in desperate need of both. And a little mentioned name, Andy Lee, who is now consistently getting off punts with excellent hang time and fantastic distance, could actually be the special teams' player that the 49ers have been looking for. The seeds may be there, but it will take some serious horticulture skills to get the seeds from infancy to anything viable.
At least there is a silver lining. At this point, its all fans can ask for.
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