The San Francisco front office is scrambling all the way into overtime in finding a solution to their looming vacancy at the running back position. Pro Bowl extraordinaire Charlie Garner will test free agent waters for the very first time as a big money taking unrestricted free agent leaving behind the very field that turned him into glory.

Everyone understands the circumstances surrounding Garner and his desire to earn the impossible dream, that is as a premier running back on the open market in the NFL almost setting his own salary because of the limited pool existing in veteran running backs for the taking.

Charlie has done what only three other 49er running backs have done in team history; rushed for 1,000-yards in back to back seasons. Garner closed 2000 by rushing 258 times for 1,142-yards and career high seven touchdowns. He rushed for a career high 1,229-yards in 1999. The 49er’s have now produced a 1,000-yard rusher in four consecutive seasons.

That figure now lies in dangerous waters, as Garner will relinquish his 49er uniform for another at the advice of his agent and the very lure of big money has his mouth watering profusely to the extent he is willing to listen to anyone or anything.

General Manager Bill Walsh’s comments almost certainly had a crushing effect to the extent that infuriated Garner as to the effect he was labeled as “wearing down towards the end of the season .” In the final four games his production came under intense scrutiny and he was labeled almost as being ineffective.

I myself have commented and I will again as to the final four games that the running game was clearly relegated as a secondary option, and the passing game became the primary option the ball was not put into Garners arms on a regular basis like it should have been.

Clearly the records show that when Garner carried the ball 20 or more times the 49er’s registered a win any less than that they registered a loss. In 20 times or more they went 3-1 and in 18 times or more they went 4-1.

To say that Garner is still not a priority to try and resign would sound ridiculous, but so does the money he is seeking. The front office has indicated they are willing to negotiate but they have very little leverage to bargain with and they know it.

“It’s going to be really difficult,” said Walsh, when asked if the club could keep Garner. “It just depends what other people offer him. They can just blow us out of the water. My guess is that he would go to Minnesota.”

The Minnesota Vikings are expressing interest after their starting running back Robert Smith suddenly announced his retirement this season. This puts them in the market for a veteran running back.

With the still questionable status of Garrison Hearst, who hasn’t played since 1998 because of a serious ankle injury, losing Garner leaves the 49er’s in a real bind. Their only remaining backs are Fred Beasley, Terry Jackson, Paul Smith, Jonas Lewis and special team’s player Travis Jervey.

Should Garner decide to clean out his locker, Walsh admitted that the team must find a running back in the upcoming NFL Draft. “It makes it a priority,” he said. “It changes our draft mode. There are about five top prospects coming out of college. With the ninth pick, it’s a safe bet we could get one.”

Garner is expected to seek a salary in the range of $4 million dollars, this will be far too much for the 49er’s to even imagine about matching. Because they have more pressing free agents on their roster to try and resign mainly being offensive tackle Scott Gragg and defensive tackle Brentson Buckner.

Garrison Hearst who is now 30-years old broke his ankle on the first snap of a Jan. 1999 playoff game against the Falcons in his hometown of Atlanta. That spring, physicians discovered he was suffering from a condition that is known as vascular necrosis, which in essence cause bone to die because of poor blood flow. It is the same condition that prematurely ended the football career of former Raiders star tailback Bo Jackson.

For over two years I have kept my fingers crossed as so many of you also have that Garrison would make a spectacular recovery and resume his playing career. San Francisco has been very patient and continues to do so as we wait for the miracle to happen. Many prayers have been made and many more will come as we again look forward to his presence on the field in 2001.

Ever since the summer of 1999, Hearst, who in 1998 established a 49er’s team record by rushing for 1,570-yards, has undergone three operations or corrective procedures. Teams officials concede his comeback remains a long shot but in recent weeks seem more optimistic based on the progress he has made in basic drills.

His agent Pat Dye Jr. has confirmed that Hearst has agreed to cut his scheduled base salary of $1.7 million for 2001 to the league minimum of $477,000. Hearst has done this out of good faith to the entire 49er organization for being patient and hopeful, I for one call this a class act in all itself.

Because Hearst has not played since his broken ankle back in 1998, the two sides easily came together and structured a bonus package that will permit the eight-year veteran to earn back the difference if he should return back to the playing field this season.

“If he comes back,” Dye said, “so will his money. It’s the fair thing to do for a team that’s been very good for him.”

The restructuring saves the perennially cap-strapped 49er’s $1.223 million against the spending limit of $67.4 million for the upcoming season. Certainly if God is willing we will see Hearst make that comeback, it would really soften the blow should Charlie Garner say goodbye.

So what is to become of us should Garner leave? We have some interesting options as we still have a lethal tandem of running backs that showed some real flashes last season in their limited playing roles.

Florida’s Terry Jackson is a versatile running back who has played both tailback and fullback in his career. He has good vision and speed and played both offense and defense in college.

Jackson was taken by the 49er’s in the fifth round of the 1999 NFL Draft, he stands 5-11 and weighs 218 pounds, out of two years as a 49er he has played a very limited role. As he has 20 carries for 81-yards and has an average of 4.1-yards per carry and he has eight receptions for 54-yards averaging 6.8-yards per reception.

I am impressed with his lateral movements and his speed as he demonstrates the same running technique used by Charlie Garner to a certain extent, with increased playing time I can only see him developing into a positive force. His play would be greatly enhanced with fullback Fred Beas;ey clearing a path for him to run through.

In the 2000 NFL Draft we again went after a running back to increase the competition by drafting Texas-El Paso’s Paul Smith in the fifth round. Paul is a powerful, elusive runner capable of running through tacklers. Also good receiver out of the backfield with great open field vision. He was timed at 4.55 in the 40-yard dash.

Smith played sparingly in last season’s games to give Charlie the needed rest he deserved, and is primarily a straight up the gut kind of runner. His power and ability to pound off blockers is formidable, as he is as tough as they come in this mold of power back.

He stands at 5-11 and weighs 234-pounds. He definitely could be used in combination with Jackson in changing the pace of the running game from time to time.

These two would be the seemingly best answer to Garner leaving and creating a vacancy, we would still need to draft a quality running back but these two would provide a very intimidating combination while we groom another.

Paul Smith has 18 carries for 72-yards last season averaging 4.0-yards a carry, in receptions he has two for 55-yards averaging 27.5-yards per reception. He really does fit the mold as being a change of pace type of back that would be critical at goal line face-offs.

Then we have an up and rising special teams star in an undrafted free agent and signed by the 49er’s on (4-24-00), San Diego State’s Jonas Lewis. He stands 5-9 and weighs 210-pounds.

What I like about Lewis is that he is always involved in the hit on special teams and is always around the ball or in pursuit of it. He has a creative essence in his running capability that will only improve the special teams as is right now.

And at the same time he provides real quality depth at the running back position should one go down. He reminds me a lot of former running back Terry Kirby but a much better one at that.

Lewis last season had one carry for six-yards, but he mostly spent the bulk of his playing time on special teams where he really is making a name for himself. Our special teams are in dire need of improvement he is one of those diamonds that are rare to find as a special team’s coach.

In college he rushed for 2,843 yards in his career, which ranks second in school history behind now Rams running back Marshall Faulk, he was also named to Sporting News First Team All-MWC as a senior. Lewis has a place on this team in my opinion.

Then there is five-year veteran Drafted in the fifth round in the 1995 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers Travis Jervey. Jervey went to college at the Citadel and he stands 6-0 and weighs 222-pounds.

He was signed by the 49er’s as a free agent on (3-22-99), He has since had very limited success with us, in rushing he has seven carries for 49-yards and one reception for two-yards in two-years with us.

Injuries play a large part in this put the facts are his durability and production are severely questioned, he too will be asked to restructure or be shown the door and at this point it really does not matter which one he chooses because of the previous reasons.

Jervey to has played primarily on special teams and does give that unit a spark when he is fully healthy, but should he stay a 49er he must prove a lot more than he has shown to remain long term that has to be the bottom line.

The reality of continuing on without Charlie Garner becomes more certain each and every day we must not be fearful of moving on without him. Because we have talent that can be molded and formed into a lethal dose of power and elusive speed in both Terry Jackson and Paul Smith as a foundation.

We should draft another running back but not until the third round or so in my opinion, we have glaring needs on defense that must be addressed first and foremost for us to move ahead and into the playoff pack. If our offensive line stays in tact they will help with the debut production of Jackson and Smith.

What scouts are looking for in a running back

Being an outstanding running back in college does not guarantee that you will be a premier running back with instant success in the NFL. The NFL average height for a running back is 5-10 and the weight 210 with a 40-yard dash speed of 4.55. The minimum in height is 5-8 and weight at 195 with a 40-yard dash time of 4.75.

This is one of the most difficult positions in evaluating come Draft day in the NFL, Scouts and coaches tend to grade players more on production more so than their abilities. Qualities such as quickness to the hole, explosion, peripheral vision, balance and good hands all are very important attributes.

There are many backs that have great 40-yard dash speed but at the same time lack quickness and good running skills, which in reality are far more important. Today the professional running back must have great versatility, not only as a runner but also as a receiver and sometimes even a blocker.

Players that fit that mold include Colt’s Edgerrin James, the Rams Marshall Faulk, and even the 49er’s Charlie Garner along with Giant’s Tiki Barber they are all examples of backs with this type of versatility. With great running and receiving skills they each separate themselves from the normal pack of backs and create nightmare match-ups in the passing game.

A running backs ability to make tacklers miss and avoid head-on collisions not only will lengthen a players career, but it will eventually lead to more big plays. Blocking is very underrated when evaluating backs. When a running back is unable to pick up a blitz and protect his quarterback they will find themselves sitting on the bench.

Patience only lasts a short time in the sense of a young back, with a veteran there is zero tolerance. Some backs are exceptional inside runners, such as Saints Ricky Williams and the Ravens Jamal Lewis, but they are not used with regularity in the passing game. But they still manage to have great inside-running skills that give them the ability to avoid tackles and create plays in the open field.

With all these types of learned skills displayed on the playing field on a consistent basis you will find that running back heading towards the Pro Bowl as another success story like in the form of Charlie Garner.

Top 2001 Draft Prospects

Mississippi’s Deuce McAllister has been rated the very best running back for the taking in the upcoming 2001 NFL Draft. He has been compared to St. Louis Ram elite running back Marshall Faulk. He stands 6-1 and weighs 221 with a 40-yard dash speed of 4.38.

The possibility of San Francisco obtaining his services with the ninth pick is unlikely, due to other teams having that position as a pressing need more so than us.

Inside running: Unlike most versatile backs, Deuce has the size and power to run right up between the tackles. He will have to demonstrate more patience being a rookie but he has quick feet, change-of-direction skills and the burst to excel as an inside runner. He is not afraid to lower a shoulder even though it is not natural for him. If a flaw he has to work on running with better leverage.

Outside running: Rarely will lose race to the corner, and he has an excellent second speed once he reaches the open field. He lacks some creativity as a runner, but that will come with experience. He is a huge threat because of his speed, burst, acceleration and change-of-direction skills.

Blocking: He has some talent here but he has not been asked to block very much while in college. He will need time to learn NFL blocking schemes, but with his strength and athletic ability he will do just fine.

Hands/routes: This is a distinct strength of McAllister’s as he has wide receiver-type skills and he will be split wide sometimes. Much like the same way Rams Marshall Faulk is used now. He has tremendous hands and is great after the catch.

Durability: He has a weakness in this category because he has battled injuries his entire career. He has never been asked to carry the entire load. So the jury will still be out as to how he lasts an entire season.

Bottom line: Duece is an all-purpose back that can do everything run, catch and block. He is a very gifted college running back, but he must be able to prove he can handle an every down workload. He will be a top ten-draft pick and he will be able to start immediately after drafting.

Even though he is tempting and has the same qualities as a Charlie Garner I still find myself hopeful that we will address our ninth pick with a defensive player.

Wisconsin’s Michael Bennett is another bright 2001 NFL Draft prospect that will probably go in the first or second round. He has been compared to former Minnesota Viking Robert Smith. He stands 5-10 and weighs 208 pounds having a 40-yard speed time of 4.36.

Inside running: He plows through the hole hard, and can rarely be caught dancing behind the line still has to demonstrate more patience and trust his eyes more. But that again will come with experience. He has great speed and burst, and is built well enough to handle punishment between the tackles.

Outside running: His speed is a sight to behold, and this should make him an exceptional outside runner in the league. He has a burst to get to the corner and the acceleration to win a race down the sideline. He is a bit too much of a straight-line runner and needs to improve on lateral movements.

Blocking: He is most willing to block but has had trouble picking up the blitz. He has good lower-body strength, and can hold his ground against pass rushers, but he needs to read the blitz better that should come with coaching and experience.

Hands/routes: Has solid hands but not great hands. Uses his body too often to catch the ball, but he does have soft hands. He can run solid routes and never gets lost in the passing game. In the correct NFL system, he should be a huge threat in the passing game because of his open-field speed.

Durability: He is a tough, compact runner with not a lot of carries under his belt because of his sitting behind now Giant Ron Dayne for two years at Wisconsin. Durability should be strength based on his few carries.

Bottom line: Bennett’s off-field judgment has come into question and could drop his stock in the draft. He retains his skills though and could be one of the fastest backs to come out of college similar to Bo Jackson. He is very productive and tough. He has marginal vision, and has trouble moving the pile. He is a finesse-style runner. Might take awhile to learn a pro offense.

San Francisco could look at Bennett as an alternative to passing on Mc Allister if he should fall into the right round, I would definitely consider him as a back to bring in and provide competition to push the running backs now on our roster.

Texas Christian’s LaDainian Tomlinson has been another running back that has drawn interest from the San Francisco front office especially while attending the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. His standing in rank is right there in the first two rounds expecting to be obtained.

Tomlinson stands 5-10 and weighs 221 pounds and has a recorded speed in the 40-yard dash of 4.45. He has been compared to Dallas superstar Emmitt Smith in category and style.

Inside running: He is a short, squatty runner with a compact running style bearing a perfect technique. Establishes a good center of gravity when he runs, and shows good lower body strength. Because of Texas Christian University’s style of offense he has not had to run very much between the tackles, his cutback style is virtually untested.

Outside running: He is all that in this area. He shows great speed and acceleration, knows how to get to the edge, and does a masterful job of turning up field. He does put in a second gear once in the open field, and is a powerful runner who is not afraid to lower the shoulder.

Blocking: He is very raw and untested here, but he has a willingness to learn, he attacks the defender and does a good job of holding his ground against the blitz.

Hands/route’s: He has the capability of catching just needs more experience, He is a reliable route runner and a huge threat in the open field.

Durability: Was nicked up in college but nothing serious, being a strict outside runner he has not taken the punishment normal backs have received. This is where we must be concerned. Is he capable of taking a between the tackles, game-day beating?

Bottom line: Tomlinson remains very difficult to evaluate, he is a straight-line runner with a burst. Breaks tackles, not exceptionally fast, powerful or elusive. He has piled up a lot of yardage, although much has come against inferior competition, and out of an option system. Is a bigger version of the Rams Trung Canidate.

San Francisco must take the approach as to what are their most pressing needs? Certainly this 2001 NFL Draft is most critical to continuing the rebuilding phase of our franchise. If all the cards are played right even after surviving a whopping $15 million dollar salary cap issue we could still find ourselves as playoff contenders.

That can only happen though if we use this draft to address our most important needs at critical key positions. Linebacker or a defensive end seem to be the most pressing, acquiring a running back is also but mostly a mid-round choice at this point even if we lose Charlie Garner.

We all pray that Garrison Hearst will comeback, but we must also prepare for the worst, and that is to look at all the possibilities I like the thought of combining Terry Jackson and Paul Smith as our featured backs. But at the same time we must draft another quality running back to season the depth.