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The San Francisco 49ers have always had great receivers. They just always have. The way the Giants always seem to have backs, the Bears always seem to have linebackers, and the Lions always seem to finish 8-8.
J.J. Stokes was supposed to be another one of those great 49ers wideouts. He was drafted 10 years after the 49ers traded up in the first round to grab another wideout – Jerry Rice. Sadly, the careers of the two took drastically different paths after draft day.
Stokes has been telling anyone willing to listen that he has been waiting patiently for his chance to play, and that 2001 is it (somehow forgetting that he was the starting wide receiver for them every game in 1997, his third year in the league).
Granted, Jerry Rice hasn’t helped. Even though he simply wasn’t getting open as often as he used to, the team had to throw Rice 6-8 passes a game or deal with his grumbling afterwards. This took plays away from Stokes and, especially, the exciting Tai Streets. Rice is in Oakland now, and Stokes has a starting role to lose. Everyone points to 1998, when Stokes caught 60 passes and 8 touchdowns off the bench, as a sign that he can makes things happen if given the playing time.
But what did 1998 really tell us about Stokes? That he can be a very good #3 receiver? That is not a big accomplishment for a former 10th overall pick. It’s a fine rookie year. But it’s still a disappointment for a guy who was expected to be an impact player who had been in the league for four years.
Now Stokes has been in the league for six full years, and we have seen only regression – and not just in numbers. Last year he repeatedly celebrated meaningless receptions like a rookie. His career might have been summed up with one play in training camp in 2000, when Zack Bronson – a guy who, it’s important to note, went undrafted and fought his way onto the team – took a jump ball pass away from the considerably taller Stokes. Mariucci must have wanted to boot him off the field.
But Stokes does not just carry the burdon of being a first round disappointment – he is a symbol for a rapid downward spiral of talent assessment within the organization. The fallout of these poor personnel decisions is the reason we are in the current rebuilding phase.
Coming off the 1994 Super Bowl win, the 49ers were on top of the football world. The team was loaded with the fine draft picks (Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield, Merton Hanks, Lee Woodall, Eric Davis, William Floyd, Ricky Watters) and sage free agent signings (Ken Norton, Tim McDonald) that had become expected of the 49ers. The fresh bodies the 49ers pulled in during the early nineties was proof positive of why they had such success sustaining their dynasty.
So the trade with Cleveland to move up in the first round to grab UCLA’s J.J. Stokes was seen as yet another aggressive, genius draft day maneuver for the organization that had become synonymous with such.
What it actually marked was the first blunder in a series of blunders that would begin a four year downward spiral. You know the names (sing along now): Tim Hanshaw, Israel Ifeanyi, Daryl Price, Iheanyi Uwaezuoke, Jim Druckenmiller, R.W. McQuarters…
By the 2000 season, when the players from the previous 3-4 drafts should be stepping into starting roles, the 49ers had only J.J. Stokes, Terrell Owens, and Greg Clark to show for 1995, 1996, and 1997 combined.
The disastrous and puzzling pick of Jim Druckenmiller (DT Trevor Pryce went two picks later to the Broncos, by the way) was the capper. Bill Walsh almost had a heart attack when he was selected – the guy couldn’t even win a job in the XFL. The 1998 draft had far better results, but featured another first round bust in McQuarters (with CB Samari Rolle still on the board).
So what is it about Stokes? I can’t buy the possibility that the 49ers were completely wrong; that he is simply not a very good player. I can’t buy it because of a handful of plays he has made during his career that make you stand up and say, “There! That’s the J.J. Stokes we expected to see!” There was a beautiful extension and grab of a Steve Young pass vs. Dallas in 1997 on a fly pattern down the right sideline; the ball looked uncatchable. There was a great catch and run over the middle last year (I believe it was against New Orleans); he simply exploded through the ball without breaking stride and gained 20 yards. Neither of these were huge plays that influenced the game. But they are proof that, indeed, Stokes can do the things we think he can do.
I believe the problem with Stokes is his head, his passion, his attitude. He simply doesn’t want it enough. In the aftermath of the Bill Romanowski spitting incident during a Monday Night game in 1997, one veteran of the 49ers was asked what he would have done if he had been spit upon.
“They would have had to call in the National Guard to pull me off of (Romanowski),” he said.
Now, I am not a proprietor of violence. I think restraint is professional and appropriate. What Stokes did – make a quick comment and walk away – was probably the right thing to do. But you have to wonder what kind of warrior mentality a guy has when he reacts by being spit upon so impassively.
Let me put it this way: what do you think would have happened to you if, on national T.V., you had decided to spit on Ronnie Lott?
Romanowski then followed up this act by openly ridiculing Stokes before their regular season showdown last year. Yet Romanowski can channel his anger and energy onto the field. All he did was go out and lead the team in tackles that day and add a sack of Jeff Garcia. Stokes’ response, when he had a chance to stick it to the same guy who had embarrassed him three years earlier, was three catches for 43 yards.
Stokes has all the ability in the world, an offense that is the pride of its era, a Pro Bowl quarterback, and a receiving partner who will draw the opposition’s best cover player every play. So listen up J.J: if you don’t have a great year in 2001, you never will. And there can’t be any more excuses after this.