July 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM
The glory days of the past are over. The dilemma the San Francisco 49ers face right now as we speak is who will be on the receiving unit for this ever-changing franchise and who will emerge as the next big playmaker we haven't seen since Terrell Owens?
Jerry Rice set the table and laid out the red carpet for this franchise for many a season and made the 49er offense one that was literally feared and respected to all that faced it. He was the perfect weapon in every facet of the game giving of himself and self-sacrificing to assist a team that remained his only faithful counterpart.
There will never be anyone like him ever again. The entire professional football world knows that all too often and clubs like the Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and now the Denver Broncos will all be thankful for having him even for a brief tour within their ranks.
He set the precedent for what it is to be a team-oriented playmaker on a team that obliterated its opponents in many a playoff experience and Super Bowls to boot.
His exit from this franchise as I remember it was so painful and so heartbreaking. The salary cap became something that robbed a franchise of its actual identity or so-called individual athletes that laid the foundations for their respected franchises.
When Jerry Rice left so did so much more. We yearned to find someone that would replicate him and for a brief time we discovered Terrell Owens. Here was an athlete that reminded us of what the young Jerry Rice was in a sense. He made big plays when it counted and instilled a fear of intimidation like never before throughout the NFL.
However he came with great baggage and a knack for being a public and even a private nuisance more so than just once. He clashed with front office executives and coaches alike and when that wasn't enough he turned to the media to spill emotions and ranting that literally made your hair curl.
In his last days as a 49er Jerry Rice walked out in the player's parking lot and opened his trunk and handed Terrell Owens a football. He told Terrell Owens, "This is your team now, take the ball and run with it."
Terrell Owens tried in the beginning but his past that was a troubled one got the best of him and caused him to become a liability more so than a benefit.
Our offense became a formidable one with Terrell Owens, J.J Stokes, Tai Streets and Cedrick Wilson. They evolved into a prolific passing assault that struck fear in every defensive coordinators mind inside the NFL.
From unbelievable comebacks to absolute shootouts the San Francisco 49er offense was one that stayed very efficient under the leadership of Steve Young and Jeff Garcia.
Salary Cap casualties took their toll on the franchise and bad management was revealed to be the culprit. Fans endured hard times and the team struggled to find itself as seasons passed.
Steve Mariucci's era came to an end in a bitter feud with ownership and more mistakes were made when both ownership and top management made the decision to go with the anti-West Coast head coach in Dennis Erickson.
As time passed so did many 49er fans that cast away their loyalties for the franchise and became a fan of someone else. Seats at Monster Park remained vacant and fans left early in disgust after watching their team dissected and quartered right before their eyes. The 49ers turned to the draft to find most of their answers after Terrell Owens left along with Tai Streets.
From those drafts we saw Cedrick Wilson blossom into something special as he became the team's leading wide receiver last year with 47 receptions, but left after signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers with the entrance of new head coach Mike Nolan. 12-year veteran Curtis Conway who filled a much-needed role on the receiving unit as a pure veteran presence was let go also after 594 career receptions at age 34.
Now the leading role belongs to third-year No.# 85 Brandon Lloyd. The team's leading returning receiver who had 43 receptions last year and led the 49ers with six touchdown catches to highlight his first year as a starter.
What many people don't know about Brandon Lloyd is that he has a great passion for making music and has entered the hip-hop world with a storm. He has hooked up with a young Southern California producer who is making a name for himself in the business in Adam Weisner.
Lloyd has actually completed more than 16 tracks for his debut rap album, "Training Day," which he is already preparing to release on his very own Flight 85 label by the end of the summer.
Most of his hard work on the album has taken place in the off-season right after the disaster season of 2004. Brandon Lloyd has been testing the waters of the rap music industry since he was in high school growing up and listening to fellow football veteran Deion Sanders album and its popular crossover single, "Must Be the Money."
He became influenced by the new wave of urban rappers, and began his own work on his own sound during his sophomore year at the University of Illinois, developing tracks and making tape mixes for his friends.
Regarding his influences, Lloyd said, "I give a lot of comparisons to Fabulous. My inspirations are Jay Z, Little Wayne, a lot of new school rappers that got inspired by a lot of guys who have come through here recently like 50 Cent and his whole crew (who are) releasing songs on the underground."
Some fear that his obsession with rap music may interfere with his professional football career. Some instances have been noted with other professional athletes that have dabbled in extra curricular activities and have fallen on their faces.
Brandon Lloyd has made it abundantly clear that his football career comes first and this is merely a great hobby that he feels he can control and maintain without depriving him of the craft he was hired to do and that is to catch footballs for the San Francisco 49ers.
Mike Nolan, head coach of the 49ers can see no real reason to be concerned as well as he brings in a new tough curriculum where everyone and everything will be held accountable for their actions. However he still believes as a coach and a human being that there is still life outside of football.
"Some guys work on their (college) degrees in the off-season, some guys work on their rapping," Nolan said with a shrug and a smile.
"Hopefully, it's a career after football, not during. I know he does a little bit now. As long as it is not a distraction to his job, there is time in the day for those guys to do some other things. As long as they're maintaining their workouts, it doesn't concern me."
The murky waters surrounding the state of the receivers come training camp in Santa Clara will be interesting to see. Brandon Lloyd will have to separate his rapping from his catching no question about it and hopefully it will be a side attraction that will inspire him to play better on the training field.
Right now if the season opened today the 49ers would field Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle as their projected starting wide receivers. A man named P.J. Fleck, a 5-foot-10 practice squad product, would have then inside track on the third receiver spot on the roster believe it or not.
This happened primarily because of a practice injury to Derrick Hamilton who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while making a catch one Wednesday in practice.
With hope he'll contribute sometime in the 2005 season it is relatively doubtful that he'll contribute at all because these types of injuries typically take a whole year to heal. Players often say they don't regain full strength and speed for two years.
Derrick Hamilton was in battle with P.J. Fleck for the number three position throughout mini-camps until his injury robbed him of that all together. At 6-foot-4 and 205-pounds, Hamilton is the most physically imposing of all the 49ers receivers. Mike Nolan had recently said that Hamilton had played his way into the No. 3 spot behind Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd.
Some say the former un-drafted free agent in P.J. Fleck lacks size, he's 5-10 and weighs 185-pounds. But his speed has impressed coaches with his hustle and determination. Fleck rarely drops a ball in practice and appears to have passed last year's first-round draft choice, Rashaun Woods, on the team's depth chart.
Since then Arnaz Battle has impressed the heck out of the team's coaches in his on the ground performances. In fact he's worked himself into being the No. 2 man on the unit right next to Brandon Lloyd and is very excited about having that opportunity.
"I think he's very capable of being a starting wide receiver in the NFL," Nolan said. "He's taking command of his position."
It was thought that at one time Arnaz Battle would never fit into the West Coast System having been a quarterback that was converted to wide receiver out of Notre Dame. Since then Battle has been used primarily on special teams where he's emerged as a return threat and is the team's best gunner.
"I'm the number one gunner, the number one punt return man and a starting receiver right now," Battle said. "I'll do whatever they want me to do. It's hard to tell now. I'm still returning punts, but if you look at the depth chart there's a little more focus on being a receiver."
The San Francisco 49ers have not turned their back on the receiving element of their offense in anyway as many believe they have. In fact I see incredible hopeful prospects not only through free agency but the draft as well.
The 49ers answered the call in the fifth round by drafting Rasheed Marshall from West Virginia an athlete that started as a quarterback and now is a wide receiver.
In fact Marshall was not just any kind of quarterback, but a quarterback that was 6-1, 190-pounds and finished his career with 5,558-yards passing and 2,040 career rushing yards.
As a three-year starter, Rasheed Marshall was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year after passing for 1,886-yards and 29 touchdowns while at the same time adding 861-yards rushing with nine scores in 2004.
Making the transition from quarterback to wide receiver has not been an easy one to accept but he's taking on the role of being a "Slash" kind of athlete that will bring a changeup from the normal play calls associated to our offense.
"Running routes is the most difficult thing in the transition from quarterback," he said. "On this level, it's so hard not to tip off the quarterback and let him know what you're going to do."
"There are so many ins and outs to it. You can't really give away too much because the cornerback would be all over you. So, the more I work on that, the better I'll be at it."
The workload for this fifth round rookie right out of college will be enormous as he learns the playbook and makes the switch from being a big time quarterback to becoming a professional wide receiver in the NFL.
"Catching the football comes natural to me," Marshall said, "but there's a lot of work to running routes."
Marshall will be considered a heavy favorite on the 49ers special teams unit. He'll compete for the task of returning punts more than likely and will have to assert himself to be a part of the starting lineup. He is more than willing to accept this role and is very committed to making sure that he does whatever he can to help the team.
He may even be competing for returning kickoffs based on what he does in training camp and in pre-season football. He may even take some snaps from under center to highlight potential possibilities of filling in at quarterback on special plays.
The San Francisco 49ers made yet another move in the free agent market by acquiring Jason McAddley after he was released by the Tennessee Titans and is a three-year veteran in the NFL. He was a fifth round selection by the Arizona Cardinals in 2002.
His rookie year was his very best statistical effort in just a brief spurt in his career, catching 25 passes for 362-yards and one touchdown. What was the most impressive of his plays were that 18 of his catches went for first downs.
Head Coach Mike Nolan and his former wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan back with the Arizona Cardinals have nothing but good words to say about him. In fact McAddley brings a lot to the table in terms of special teams play.
He will compete to play in the return game along with Rasheed Marshall. During the 2004 season with the Tennessee Titans, McAddley returned 38 kickoffs for 849-yards (22.4).
Still sensing an urge to provide some veteran presence in this wide receiving unit the 49ers went to the free agent wire once again and acquired free agent wide receiver Johnnie Morton. If anything can be said about this player it is consistency.
He has had four 1,000-yard seasons in his career. Originally from the University of Southern California he has started 146 games in his 11-year career. Morton has gone on to catch 603 passes for 8,431-yards and 43 touchdowns in his career.
He even has established himself throughout the league as a legitimate big play threat while he's out on the field. Johnnie Morton has 116 career receptions over 20-yards and 19 catches over 40-yards.
He has the veteran presence that is missing from the equation anyway you look at it much in the same way Curtis Conway had while he was here just last season.
"Johnnie is our kind of guy." Head Coach Mike Nolan said. "He is a hardworking professional who will be a great example to our young receivers."
In fact like Jason McAddley, Johnnie Morton will be reunited with wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan who coached at Detroit from 1997-01. Under Sullivan's direction, Morton had his best statistical season, catching 77 passes for 1,154-yards and four touchdowns in 2001.
As a Detroit Lion Morton started 194-of-126 games, adding 469 catches for 6,499 yards and 35 touchdowns. He is in fact now the oldest player on the 49ers roster believe it or not. He beats Bryant Young by 3.5 months.
Morton plans to battle both Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle on the field for playing time but has admitted he'll also serve as a "second coach out on the field with them."
No doubt our wide receivers lack NFL experience. They in fact will learn on the fly so to speak sometimes at our own expense. But I still like what Mike Nolan is attempting to start here in San Francisco.
He's making every attempt to find players that are "team oriented," or are committed to playing as a unit and not for each other's individual glory.
I am excited to see Brandon Lloyd display some acrobatic catches and to see Arnaz Battle make catches across the middle and use his speed to our advantage. Both Jason McAddley and Johnnie Morton bring veteran experience to our lineup and they will be critical in coaching our young receivers both on and off the field.
Young in like first round pick Rashaun Woods, P.J. Fleck, Rasheed Marshall, Marcus Maxwell and Fred Amey. These are all receivers fresh off the meat wagon from college and looking to make a name for themselves. Training Camp in Santa Clara will be the center stage.
I am excited as a fan. And I salute the organization's efforts in opening the training facilities to the public so that all 49er fans can witness the taste of glory we all have come to know in the team we so love dearly.
The wide receivers will be as good as the quarterback having the time to find his intended targets. Morton will play a critical role in molding the younger receivers into a collective threat.
I am confident that wide receiver coach Jerry Sullivan one of the best in the business will provide the necessary means to highlight each of the receiver's strengths and play off from them.
It is my view that Morton will compete with Brandon Lloyd for the coveted No. 1 receiving slot, should he not win that battle he'll be used exclusively as the third starting receiver next to Arnaz Battle who is a strength in catching passes over the middle.
Rashaun Woods has been a major disappointment so much that Arnaz Battle flew right by him in early mini-camps held prior to training camp. He will have to show major improvements before the eyes of Mike Nolan throughout training camp or risk being left behind forever.
P.J. Fleck, Rasheed Marshall and Marcus Maxwell will all vie for the third and fourth receiving positions as training camp heats up. I like Fleck's chances the most having been a practice squad member and defining himself last season at this very same time segment.
The San Francisco 49ers will look different on the playing field there is no question. Our offense will still be dynamic and should show an instant upgrade over last year's fantastic follies. We need again to be patient and kind as these young receivers learn while playing the game we all take the time to admire more each and every week.
I want to apologize for my absence in article writing. I have been involved with a major move on my part in selling my home and moving to another. I have been consumed with that a lot lately and hope to be back to normal very soon.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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