If there was ever a person who was to be more under the analytical eye this season it would be Head Coach Steve Mariucci of the San Francisco 49er’s. There has never been a more charismatic and more open-minded coach than this man, as he has portrayed himself as a coach that shows genuine sincerity for his players.

Mariucci becomes so involved in their individual lives that he has an enormously difficult time in cutting those bonds when some players are waived and move on. He understands the necessity but he never accepts the mentality or the justification of it.

For Mariucci and many other professional coaches, he believes that veteran star playmakers that have been with one franchise all their lives should be permitted to end their professional careers with that same franchise.

Mariucci has had to swallow and make many allowances since he became the Head Coach of the San Francisco 49er’s. It is a career he has embraced and worked hard at all his life, and takes exceptional care of those that contribute to his ultimate goal and that are to win at all costs.

However a great degree of understanding and patience has come over this proud organization, and Mariucci has been very open about acknowledging and communicating that the 49er’s have many hurdles to overcome. He prepares for 2001 believing that we can make more progress that we will increase our winning column to a more acceptable margin.

He comes into 2001 with yet another brand new rookie class with both drafted and un-drafted free agents, that he will work hard with and blend them with the proven talent he has accumulated over the last few years.

He is very frank in banishing the idea that we are a playoff contender this year, as he is very conservative in evaluating and tracking our future through this rebuilding phase of this franchise.

Even though the facts speak for themselves, he will not allow himself to get carried away from the positive marks that were defined just last season. Although he has a Pro Bowl wide receiver, and one of the league’s foremost big-play threats, in Terrell Owens.

Even though he has a Pro Bowl quarterback in Jeff Garcia, who struggled so much when thrown into the starting job in 1999, and is the man who feeds Owens the ball on those many big plays. He is even not getting carried away with the reality that the 49er’s had the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL last season. Or that we had the league’s fourth best passing offense.

What Mariucci does remember is what his team really did in the finality of last season, and that is the fact that they won only six games last season, some in question due to bad officiating but losses none the less. And the fact that they suffered through a five-game losing streak in the middle of the season before rebounding to win four of their final six games.

He has those same images of last year when his defense very young and immature made countless mistakes throughout the season right down to the 38-9 season-ending loss to the Denver Bronco’s.

He still keeps looking at the team’s ledger sheets that show the 49er’s is still up to their facemasks in the salary-cap trouble that new General Manager Terry Donahue is attempting to remedy. That one substance is what did the most damage in knocking this organization out of their once dominant perch high above the rest of the league.

So what do we do until then? Do we just roll over and die? Of course not because we have made enormous lunges at immediate progress on every front within the organization. In essence the 49er’s have had a complete makeover from the front office all the way down to the place-kicker. How far away are we from playoff contention in Mariucci’s mind-set?

“Realistically, two more years,” he said. “By the 2003 season we should be on a fairly level playing field.” Some if not a lot of us will disagree with this evaluation from a far, and even myself is among them. I honestly believe we can sooner as long as all the mechanics and the chemistry is in sync.

However I acknowledge the fact that we are still chuck full of real youth and un-proven talent, and that the competition holds the edge in most instances. But the heart and soul of this team can make a run should we remain healthy.

“We’re trying to get to the playoffs sooner than that, obviously. But, from a money standpoint, with our cap situation, we are shorthanded. We are below the norm until then.”

To acknowledge and believe Mariucci had modest expectations entering last season would be a gross understatement. There was a point in the off-season when he couldn’t remember, or didn’t know, many of the names on a roster that was loaded with youth and would include 19 un-drafted free agents.

His primary goal heading into the 2000 season was “not to crash and burn.” His analogy of the situation was right on the mark, and even though it seems conservative it was the right mind-set to have under the circumstances.

“If you were to equate this to a Division I college situation, with 85 scholarships, we were basically starting the season with 69 scholarships,” Mariucci said, because we were paying for dead-money, players no longer on the team (but whose salaries still counted against the 49er’s salary cap). When you start off short and then you’ve got young guys playing, there was real potential for having some lopsided games. For the most part we avoided that.”

Still the competitive edge as far as having an above average team is still not there, Despite the 49er’s lofty offensive production, especially through the air, they still had the NFL’s 29th-ranked defense last season. They also were 29th against the pass. Still there is great optimism as I have observed tremendous strides in the development of our young defense. And Ex-General Manager now consultant Bill Walsh went to great lengths to address this area in the 2001 Draft and through free agency.

“We were exciting, but we were not a complete team,” Mariucci said. “We were obviously better on offense than we were on defense. Eight different rookies started on defense, many of them at the same time. That’s really unheard of in this league.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re chipping away at it. If you look at the bright side of it, all those young kids who had to play, who gave us gray hair, really benefited from playing and will be better for it this year.”

When you really examine how well the 49er’s did last season one has to remember exactly from where it was to begin with. The surprising emergence of Jeff Garcia, who came through just in time after Steve Young’s retirement before last season. Unheralded for most of his football-playing life, he joined the 49er’s in 1999 after playing in the Canadian Football League. He has since become the next-best late-bloomer story after Kurt Warner.

I go on record as being a Jeff Garcia supporter even when all the darkness seemed to hang over his head in the murky (4-12) season we had to endure because of the salary cap reality and the loss of key veteran players. Garcia in my eyes epitomized the playing philosophies and techniques used by Steve Young and have even taken it a notch higher in an attempt to convince his teammates he is for real.

Jeff Garcia finished last season as the league’s fifth-rated passer. His 4,278 passing yards broke a record previously held by Young and Joe Montana. “When Steve got hurt (99), Jeff was really unprepared to take it over because he was one of four quarterbacks in training camp and only got nine percent of the snaps,” Mariucci said. “And, all of a sudden, Steve goes down, and Jeff’s in. He’s not ready to go. He hasn’t practiced this stuff enough. So we ended up pulling him, trying (Steve) Stenstrom, then putting Jeff back in. We were just in a rough spot at quarterback.”

“But he’s such a competitive guy and he’s a tough guy and he had a heck of an off-season. He worked his butt off and he became a player for us."

I for one have admired the way Garcia has matured through all the mediocrity he has been subjected through, I am proud to call him my quarterback. And he has shown the same drive and determination resembling that of Steve Young as he is one of the elite few that show up many hours early before practice sessions to work on his own personal agenda.

“It was a very pleasant surprise. If I would have told (the media) before last season, hey, Jeff Garcia’s going to break Joe Montana’s and Steve Young’s record, you’d go, 'Drink up’ Now there’s a reason he threw for more yards. Joe Montana and Steve Young weren’t behind in very many games. They were winning games, so they’re handing the ball off in the fourth quarter. We’re winging it every down because we’re trying to catch up.”

If there was any indication about Jeff’s remarkable athletic ability and pin-point accuracy in his throws, one would realize that this promising quarterback already a Pro Bowl seasoned veteran will be even more deadly this coming season. Jeff has established a personal plateau inside his mind that he will never retreat from, his commitment and unprecedented loyalty will mold him into an elite quarterback.

Mariucci has some mixed feelings going into the 2001 season but is hopefully optimistic as to there ability to again improve upon last season’s (6-10) season. He and all the rest know that we need vast improvement on defense, although even that would, in his view, probably not be enough to put the 49er’s over the top competitively.

“If we can do that, and if our offense stays anywhere close to what we’ve been doing, we should win a few more games,” he said. “We lost four close games last year. Young teams don’t typically win those close games.”

Who is Steve Mariucci? Some people are still trying to figure out what to make of him with his engaging smile and alluring personality, he has a movie-star appearance and an awe-shucks demeanor. Mariucci stands in his fifth season as Head Coach of the 49er’s, and he has defied the categorization as being either a winner or a loser.

He has a genius of an offensive mind, but that seems to be about it, his relationships with his players are sincere and cordial. Or should Mariucci be defined by the team’s two-year run of futility, during which he compiled a 10-22 record? But how fair is that, by all means and explanations he did a marvelous job, with which he had, and was even blessed with Bill Walsh’s acceptance.

Even though he will still be under intense scrutiny this season. It may or may not be fair, given the same circumstances that presently confront the 49er’s, who, by the way must fight their way out of their malaise while facing many of the toughest teams in the league.

Why has it been so easy for Mariucci to escape being riddled with buckshot negativity regarding the team? When he was hired in the spring of 1997, Mariucci assumed control of a team that was heavily manned by older, wiser players who still had a lot to give. His job then was simple: Don’t screw it up.

With that instance Mariucci was a smashing success, compiling a 27-9 record during his first two seasons as head coach. Then, right before his eyes, the team grew old and the franchise had to separate itself from the men who were responsible for much of it’s success. Guys like Merton Hanks, Lee Woodall, Tim McDonald etc. The end came last year, when Steve Young was forced into retirement after a series of concussions.

This is when the 49er’s realized that they had to do an about face, and deal with the reality that their aging roster would not be able to band-aid wins anymore. All of a sudden the 49er’s the team of the 1980’s and owners of five gleaming Super Bowl trophies, were forced to undertake a youth movement that resulted in just 10 victories in the last two seasons.

But now, after the defense has been retooled, with players such as Julian Peterson, Lance Schulters and Andre Carter emerging, as the foundation of the 49er’s uncertain future, the pressure is on Mariucci and his coaching staff to show well.

The front office now under General Manager Terry Donahue knows that expectations still must be reasonable and that honest progress must be gauged accordingly. Anything around eight wins would be considered a success.

Whether Mariucci can take the 49er’s that faces one of the league’s most difficult schedules, at least based on the win-loss percentage of their opponents, beyond .500 remains to be seen, of course.

No matter what the outcome this will be the year that truly defines Steve Mariucci as the head coach of the San Francisco 49er’s. He will have the mixture of both youth and experience and it will be up to his staff and himself to mold the two entities into a formidable force.

I for one have great admiration for Steve Mariucci and if there was ever a person I wanted to carry me into this season after a painful rebuilding process that is still ongoing, it would be with him.

He has demonstrated patience and promoted progress on every front within the team’s infrastructure. The staff has been outstanding in dealing with the salary cap situation and at the same time working with so many rookies because of the shortfall in both players and money.

Another note of intense interest for the 49er’s is the welfare and state of health revolving around defensive tackles Junior Bryant. Although Junior has been optimistic about his progress and that he will be able to play for them this season, his fate will hinge on results of a MRI examination sometime this month. Bryant has not been cleared because of a bulging disc in his neck sustained nine months ago.

Bryant, 31, recalled a time in his life when several years ago he had to make contingency plans in the event he did not make it in professional football.

He spent his first season after finishing up at Notre Dame on the 49er’s practice squad in 1993. The next fall, Bryant was among the team’s final cuts and the 49er’s did not have enough money in the first year of the salary cap to even field a practice squad.

There has been so much talk about wide receiver Jerry Rice and his departure to the Oakland Raiders, and what his legacy honestly means to the San Francisco 49er’s. But in another fine instance of Rice’s heart and soul for his team, Junior Bryant probably would not have logged eight seasons with the 49er’s; let alone anywhere else in the NFL, if it weren’t for Jerry Rice.

Rice forfeited $170,000 in likely-to-be-earned incentive money prior to the 1994 season to give the 49er’s enough salary-cap room to carry a five-player practice squad. Bryant, who was ready to join the New Orleans Saint’s practice squad, returned to the 49er’s in the second week of the season because of Rice’s generosity.

This very move was the main reason we were able to have Junior Bryant’s services up to this point, if not for Jerry Rice, Junior Bryant would have probably been a Saint staring at us on the opposite side of the field. I find Rice’s actions humbling and very characteristic of his love and loyalty to a team he helped find glory.

“Obviously, from the standpoint of a player, it’s very selfless to do something like that, to forego some of your own money,” Bryant said. “And he was doing it all for the betterment of the team. I think that’s the thing about Jerry that people don’t acknowledge.”

“At the time, I told him 'Thanks.’ The team told me when all that went down that he gave up some of his bonus money and gave it up so we could get signed on. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Junior’s reaction to Jerry Rice’s departure was typical of any player that knew him so well, after all Rice had been so gracious to Junior’s career seeing his departure had to be very difficult as he felt indebted to Rice for his tenure as a 49er.

“He was the one guy who really represents the 49er’s and now he’s gone,” Bryant said. “You can say it was the glory days or whatever, but he was the last guy from the old days still around. From that standpoint, this really is a new place now. I hate to see any teammate go especially a guy who’s done so many great things for the organization.”

Rice when asked about his good act that saved Junior said he did not regret his decision to give up $170,000 so that the team could sign Bryant, receivers Mike Caldwell, Alfonso Browning, running back John Ivlow, and defensive end Jamal Fountaine to the practice squad.

“I wouldn’t go back and change anything,” Rice said. “That was from the generosity of my heart. That’s something I really enjoyed doing. I got fulfillment out of that.”

Junior Bryant sustained an acute bulging disc in his neck last Sept. 17 when he landed on his head while making a tackle against the St. Louis Rams. He spent the rest of the season on injured reserve.

In January Bryant underwent an MRI that showed that the disc had not improved, though he said he has felt great for six or seven months. He will know, prior to the start of training camp, whether he will play football again.

Even though Bryant’s neck isn’t scarred or crooked, at least visibly, Inside his spinal column, however, there still may be a bulging disc that puts the 49er’s defensive tackle’s career in peril.

“I’m looking forward at it from a positive standpoint, but regardless of whichever way it goes, I’ll be all right,” Bryant said. “If it turns out the way I expect it to and I’m cleared, then I can go ahead and go forward. If not, I’ll feel very comfortable saying 'Thanks for the memories’ and move on to my next stage in my life. I’m not concerned.”

In planning for the ominous news Bryant has worked at an investment management firm and for an Internet company in recent off-season intern programs. He also owns a pilot’s license but says he wants to continue to fly for a hobby, not work.

Losing Junior’s services would be yet another blow to an organization trying to recover from two season’s of torment, in trying to lift itself from the quick sand of the salary cap world. His presence on the defensive line was instrumental in establishing a solid defensive front opposite Bryant Young his beloved teammate.

Even with the signing of ex-49er Dana Stubblefield, Junior’s recovery from such a devastating injury would be more than welcomed to a team that ranked 29th in overall defense last season. Junior Bryant would provide needed depth and experience at a position he excelled in for years. It would also put disappointing defensive tackle Reggie McGrew on notice should he make that turnaround at 100%.

I pray that he can make a complete recovery and that he will be able to resume his NFL career, in a world of ever increasing career-ending injuries one has to be grateful when they are given the miracle of a second chance. Certainly Junior Bryant deserves such a chance.