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Erickson applies his stamp on the team

Feb 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Soon after the news conference and the parade of questions that were asked of newly appointed head coach Dennis Erickson, Dennis stepped up to the podium and clearly defined what he was here to do. He left no doubt to the imaginations of all 49er fans all over the globe as they looked cross-eyed from the Mariucci debacle and all it's insanity to a new man that prophesized a bright new future for our franchise.

"Our goal is to win the world championship," Erickson told a news conference. "I would like to believe that we can compete for a world championship next year."

To say such a bold statement requires a commitment like no other he has ever undertaking on the professional level. Here stands Dennis Erickson refugee of the NFL and cast out into obscurity back into the college ranks only to surface again with another golden opportunity.

He inherits a much more talented team than he did with Seattle, but his inability to bring his team into the post-season speaks for itself despite one bad and very blown call.

All the eyes and ears of the San Francisco 49er faithful are upon Dennis Erickson to deliver on his promises of something new and rejuvenated. There is actual hope for the first time that the team will make that coveted run under a new head coach that will attack continuously until relentlessly without merit or sympathy.

Many fans can attest and I happen to have been one of them, what Bill Walsh thought of the hiring of Dennis Erickson. Even though like others that have faith in Terry Donahue, I still look to the mastermind behind the making of this great franchise. Almost like seeking an answer to the question from someone in a higher level of excellence and in my mind that is what Bill Walsh is all about.

We must not ever forget that it is Bill Walsh that made the very fabric of this organization and molded it into an image that bred championships. He instilled a philosophy and a doctrine that we still follow to the letter today with some varied alterations.

I am proud that he has remained as long as he has with us in mind, body and soul. Without him I honestly believe that we would still be in the midst of rebuilding rather than acquiring winning records the last two years.

We all know about the skeletons that exist in Dennis Erickson's closet. The alcoholism, the lack of attention to details, the poor discipline that undermined a poorly assembled coaching staff he put together while in Seattle.

These are but a few of the mistakes he has been known for as a professional coach. Obviously he has cleaned up his backyard while on the college tour and has won championships and became distinguished as a leader among his peers in the college coaching ranks.

Can you compare Dennis Erickson with Steve Mariucci? I must say that would be most difficult as each are very different in their approach to the game. Remember it was Bill that recommended Steve Mariucci as the next head coach while George Seifert was getting his walking papers. Since then Mariucci has achieved marked results in six years but ultimately failed to get us to the coveted championship and another Super Bowl.

Somehow the consensus came down on to one asset that many of us believe was missing in action throughout the 2002 San Francisco 49er season. Lack of a killer instinct it has been called, a motivational factor that should have been more asserted and practiced throughout the season. This along with seeking more power within the franchise was his ultimate downfall.

Unfortunately Steve never really saw it coming as the overtures he had been reading were genuine and true as to their intent, what happened was a snapshot right over a Friday the 13th motion picture horror show. He was berated over the phone and then found himself faced with the very real prospect of being fired, and he was.

"What more can you ask? He's got a great mind," 49ers consultant Bill Walsh said. "He'll adapt to the 49ers and I think He'll coordinate what we've done and what he's done. He brings a new dimension to our offensive team. We've been concerned about getting the football down the field all last season and I think if anybody can do it, Dennis can."

Dennis is a high profile offensive minded coach. He has been the head coach of Oregon State since 1999, compiling a 31-17 record. He jump started a slumping football program and guided the Oregon Beavers to three bowl games, including a 2000 Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. In his 16 years as a collegiate head coach, Erickson has a combined record of 144-57-1.

He was 63-9 at the University of Miami over a course of six seasons in the late 1980's and early 1990's, winning in the end two national titles. All this at about the same time that the San Francisco 49ers were enjoying their glory years.

Dennis since becoming head coach of the San Francisco 49ers has started to put his stamp on the coaching staff. The first one being the retaining of offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp who also by the way was kept on the staff with the signing of a one-year contract shortly after Steve Mariucci was fired. Many were including myself sort of worried that Dennis Erickson would suddenly trash the West Coast Offense and employ his own offensive system.

"Why change it? It's been very successful," Erickson said. "We're going to look at everything, but I don't see many big changes in store."

Two other assistants retained on the 49er staff include offensive line coach Pat Morris who I have met personally and secondary coach Brett Maxie. Both of these fine coaches will assist Gregg Knapp in keeping the West Coast Offense a staple in San Francisco for a very long time.

Quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner was also retained as part of the staff, a close friend of Erickson's Tollner will continue the work on Jeff Garcia and the rest of the young quarterbacks on the 49er roster.

What can we expect though from Erickson in the way of changes? Certainly Erickson has already begun that process by bringing in Oregon assistant coaches from his previous staff and has even gone to lengths in acquiring other coaches now in the college ranks that were once on his staff while he was head coach in Seattle.

Both Dr. John York and Terry Donahue are steadfast in their beliefs that Erickson will manufacture a successful franchise and have given him room to grow and make his own decisions.

"I would be very disappointed if he didn't approach this team with a sense of independence and freedom to do what he wants to do," Donahue said. "This is his team to coach, and we're just here to work together with him."

What York has done in hindsight is that he has cleared out every major component within the organization that was once hired by former owner Eddie DeBartolo. York's brother-in-law has been the center of disgust for the infighting that occurred between his wife and him left him with a sense of revenge in this purging of the team.

"I think Dennis is going to have a better relationship with the organization (than Mariucci did), and I think he's going to be more aggressive in his offensive approach," York said. "Dennis wants to be here, and he wants to win."

But it was General Manager Terry Donahue that was the main broker in bringing in Dennis Erickson. Not totally satisfied with the professional defensive coordinators in the bidding for the job, Terry looked to the college ranks for a more in depth search at who would be compatible in this present situation.

Erickson and Donahue have known each other since 1982, his very best memory of the relationship was a 1988 game in which Erickson's last Washington State team defeated Donahue's No. #1 ranked UCLA team. Just a few months later after that pivotal game Erickson was hired by the University of Miami, where he went on to win two national titles.

One has to remember when looking at the relationship between the coach and the owner in this organization though is that the owner has say over all matters and the coach is to simply just coach.

Dr. John York had deep reservations about Mariucci as time went on especially when the job opportunities became more frequent for Steve as he accumulated more success with the team. Power in York's mind could never be shared or compromised and it became a sticking point inside his mind as time went on.

So Dennis realizes just what his role is within this organization at has in effect been already spelled out in many instances. He must bring this franchise deeper into the post-season that is the bottom line and even possibly the Super Bowl. If he can accomplish that he will be the key that this franchise has been missing for a very long time.

"I don't want the power to make every decision personnel-wise," Erickson said. "I want to coach football. That's what I was hired to do."

One thing that you know will happen is that Erickson will open this offense up, but at what cost I must ask? Will he abandon the fullback's role in our offense like he was known to do back in Seattle.

Erickson has been known for years as favoring the three wide receiver sets and throwing the ball down the field. So you have to really wonder if some of the West Coast Offense doesn't just become extinct.

The passing game will be emphasized under Dennis Erickson, the prospect of drafting a wide receiver with our first pick in the draft will be a real possibility as Dennis will require a speedy option next to Terrell Owens. Fortunately Tai Streets has had his status upgraded to being a restricted free agent versus a unrestricted free agent as thought to be the matter before the league ruled otherwise.

"We'll certainly be looking at what free-agent (wide receivers) will be available and be looking at that position strongly during the draft," York said.

Added Garcia: "I do believe we have receivers who can get down the field, but it was just not an emphasis in our offense."

Jeff Garcia has always been a proponent for throwing the ball more and has even gone on record as favoring more passing plays versus running plays. Steve Mariucci has always strived to strike a balance in these departments and was rigid when that was compromised in anyway. However Dennis will command more passing plays based on his experience and play calling in general.

We could even see our running game become a minority play in our offense and a feature back could be named over the regular status as of late of using both Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow in rotation of one another. This could in effect eliminate the need of keeping Garrison Hearst and going with the future in Kevan Barlow right away.

As much as I support Barlow and his eventual rise into that role I feel sacrificing the running game and Hearst would be a major mistake on our part. Garrison was clearly a great back in 2002 and even though there were some minor signs of wear and tear he came out on top.

Keeping both backs has been beneficial in so many ways for our offense as both have had the necessary rest to go the full length of a game and remain fresh and agile at all times. Both backs bring something different to the table in both technique and experience, having to pick and choose is an option I would rather them not explore. But in the high stakes world of salary cap it compromises that thought in a large degree.

Optimism runs high now in Santa Clara as Terry Donahue disputes that the 49er organization has resorted to being just another franchise in the league and not staying committed to being a franchise that is revered and sought after. Donahue believes that the stigma about the 49ers remains in place despite reports to the contrary and the horrible controversy that surrounded the Mariucci removal.

"My answer is that this management team took over the franchise when it was $28 million over the salary cap. We cleaned up that mess and got this football team into the playoffs faster than anyone would have predicted. Throughout the entire process we were criticized and were told we were doing the wrong thing," stated Donahue.

"There was real concern by the experts that it would take us 5-10 years to get us out of "cap hell". The reality is we got out of this "cap hell" faster than anyone could have predicted."

One thing is for sure though and that is the management team will still be soundly in place to watch over Erickson this season. Dennis has already started getting rave reviews from 49er players and the quarterback himself.

Since taking over the team from Steve Young in 1999 he has sought to make his place within this franchise, and to be the role model that so many look up to when leading the San Francisco 49ers.

"I guess from a selfish standpoint, I do look at this as being a positive. I think that he brings so much experience to the game. So much success to the game as far as what he has done as an offensive coach.," said Garcia of Erickson. "I think that is only going to help our coaches, Gregg Knapp and Ted Tollner obviously have a lot of experience. I think its going to be a very positive thing."

Supporters of Dennis Erickson ring his praises as does his former Seattle Seahawk quarterback in Warren Moon. Erickson is well known in the football circles as a risk taker and not afraid to pull out all the stops in his quest for gold. He will certainly have a challenge in striking a balance as abased on the west Coast Offense dictates.

"I remember he's a very aggressive guy as far as offense is concerned. He doesn't wait for the defense to dictate what they're going to do, he wants to attack the defense at all times and always to find the best mismatches but always making sure protection is sound and to keep his quarterback protected," said Warren Moon who spent two seasons playing for Erickson in Seattle. "He's always looking to throw the ball down field. Looking for the big plays first everything else is secondary."

Keying in on our playmakers will be essential for us to repeat back into the post-season. I believe Dennis Erickson will explore this to the maximum this upcoming season. Erickson will strive to make a big splash in his first year as our head coach by demanding an attacking offense over one that covers a lead and hopes that the defense will execute as well.

Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia will be a focus like never before as the passing game will be heightened to a point where opposition may fear they are witnessing a rebirth of the Kurt Warner St. Louis Rams.

"I think Jeff would probably like to throw the football down the field more, Terrell Owens would love to have the football thrown down the field a little bit more. I think it's what is going to make them a more explosive football team. Not so close in the end as they were before," said Moon.

"They were a very efficient team before and they really moved the chains and run out time on the clock and all those things but I really think they can become a little more explosive so games won't be so close and as tight as they were in the past few years."

One thing I am sold on is the aggressive style. The other is that Erickson probably will call a lot of the offensive calls himself with advice from offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp. Knapp will be held more accountable in my opinion than he was in the past under Mariucci who believed that a coordinator grew up best by learning from their mistakes.

The lack of accountability had to have a damaging effect on Mariucci over the long haul. Playing conservative and entrusting the offense to a coordinator still on the learning curve was something Mariucci knew and accepted. Many games last season were much closer as a result and consequently lost due to lack of imagination and aggressiveness.

What was a feather in the hat for the San Francisco 49ers though was retaining defensive coordinator Jim Mora. Continuity and balance will continue to happen under his influence and leadership. Jim will continue the work despite losing out on the head coaching position that Erickson now holds. For a long time he was genuinely considered a front runner for the position based upon his familiarity with the players and the present day system.

Dennis went about interviewing the 49er staff still in existence and found that Mora was a great fit already so why change it? Mora came to the 49ers back in 1997 as a defensive backs coach and helped groom a very young defense into one of the league's better and most improved units. Under his direction Mora's San Francisco defense improved from 28th in 1999 to 14th in 2002 and has earned it's bread and butter by being stout against the run.

What is more interesting is that during his four seasons as defensive coordinator, the 49ers have never ranked lower than seventh in the National Football Conference at stopping the run. They have gone on to average 25.5 takeaways since 1999, including 27 in 2002. Of all the comments I have heard and seen about Mora I have to commend this young man for staying the course with the 49ers.

He has helped raise the bar on this defense and has been responsible for it's continued growth through the years. I can't think of anyone out there right now that I would rather have at the coordinator position than Mora. The Carolina Panthers played with thoughts of hiring Mora as their own defensive coordinator, but as the head coaching search continued he lost out on that in the long run.

"Jim has done a tremendous job here," Erickson said. "He has helped this defense improve each year and I felt it was best for this team to have Jim remain as defensive coordinator. He has tremendous knowledge and a great passion for the game and this organization. I'm very happy to have Jim as my defensive coordinator."

Jim's only black mark on his resume in my opinion is his inability to improve upon our pass defense. But in his defense I must say that injuries and the level of talent at his disposal have been challenging almost every year. It would be highly recommended that he find some form of balance between defending the run and the pass.

The hopes and wishes of many 49er faithful is that rookie cornerback Mike Rumph will have learned enough with one season under his belt to make a legitimate contribution to our pass defense. The draft in April the notion that a cornerback could be drafted is also another real possibility.

Terry Donahue has a vision for this team and I believe he is steering us into the right course that we must follow. As much controversy that has been generated over the Steve Mariucci firing and the Dennis Erickson hiring, he has maintained a silent resolve that everything is going to be alright.

His introduction to the real life in the NFL has been nothing short of dramatic and he has learned the ropes from the very man that brought him aboard in the first place team consultant Bill Walsh.

"Jim did a tremendous job with his interviews for our head coaching position and there is no question in my mind that he will develop over the next couple of years into an outstanding head coach," General Manager Terry Donahue said.

"There were numerous teams that tried to hire Jim as their defensive coordinator and I'm just delighted that Dennis and Jim were able to work things out here at the 49ers. Jim is a very valuable member of this organization."

You have to believe that Jim realizes his best option for securing a future head coaching position is to stay and continue the success he has right here in San Francisco. All is hard work and dedication can continue in recognition as other franchises go through another season. Jim has displayed the qualities I hope will be even more successful for us as a defense this upcoming season.

"I was thrilled about being one of the finalists for the head coaching job and I know that I will be a head coach someday in the near future," Mora said. "I'm excited about this opportunity because I love th direction this team is heading. I love the players and the way they work. I've been with many of them since the start of their careers, helping them develop and I wanted to see it through. I have a commitment to this organization, to Coach Erickson and to our players."

When you look at Gregg Knapp our offensive coordinator he carries a resume of eight seasons with the 49ers, including the last two as the coordinator. He has helped this offense in averaging 24.3 points per game since 2001 and helped tutor Jeff Garcia into a three-time Pro Bowl selection. The 49ers rank second in the league in rushing yards, sixth in total yards and fifth in scoring since Knapp took over.

The bottom line remains though that Knapp played to the vest too conservatively and will have to make a complete turnaround once Erickson wears the 49er fashions on the sideline. Erickson saw something in Knapp though that begs to answer the question at how much play calling will be handled between the two.

"Greg and I have similar beliefs about offensive philosophy and I felt it was a good match for our offense," Erickson said. "He derstands the offense that has been in place here for more than two decades and keeping that continuity was very important to me."

Pat Morris is an enigma in the NFL when you think of offensive line coaches. he is truly one of the best at his position, serving under the guidance and leadership of former 49er offensive line coach Bob McKittrick. Morris has helped produce three linemen into the Pro Bowl already in the last two seasons (Jeremy Newberry, Ron Stone and Ray Brown).

Ted Tollner has just completed his first year as the 49ers quarterbacks coach. He has a culmination of 31 years coaching experience to lean on of which 12 of them he has served as a head coach also. He will continue to work with the quarterback corps. of this team and mold them into a more rounded and competitive bunch.

"I've known Ted and Pat for many years and having followed their careers and competed against them I know they are two of the finest coaches in all of football," Erickson said. "I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to keep both of them here and maintain that continuity on offense."

So the coaching staff continues to take shape with Dennis at the helm. One of the great losses in coaches was the loss of running backs coach Tom Rathman. Rathman met with Erickson and was informed after discussions that his services would no longer be needed.

Erickson informed Rathman he planned on hiring his former offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Oregon State in Tim Lappano. Lappano spent the last four seasons with Erickson in Oregon State, and was also on Erickson's staff at Seattle (1998), Idaho (1982-85), Wyoming (1986) and Washington State (1987-88). So friendship has come full circle to eliminate Tom Rathman.

So fortunate for Rathman though is that he will be coaching under his old boss in Steve Mariucci once again. Tom was a great success in San Francisco not only as a player but as a coach as well. He helped the 49ers rank in the top eight in rushing five of his six seasons. Also, his main forte was training his players in blitz pickups. Running backs Charlie Garner, Garrison Hearst and Fred Beasley were among the very best in the league in pass protection.

San Francisco certainly lost a great player, coach and icon in Tom Rathman. He signifies all that is to be a 49er. I know for one he will be sorely missed but I am happy for his new challenges ahead with the Detroit Lions. Rathman used to play moderator in heated discussions when Kevan Barlow and Fred Beasley went at it. He played a variety of roles and wore many symbolic hats as a coach.

He was instrumental in keeping the 49ers one of the best rushing franchises in the NFL. He was always committed to seeking the best from every individual player and developing them into better overall athletes. He was a stickler on the field during practices and demanded hard work and dedication to the cause that is the 49ers and that was to win.

"I think whoever's coaching them will be inheriting an awesome group," Rathman said. "My intentions were to stay here, but Coach Erickson wanted to surround himself with his own people."

In his playing career, Rathman was known as one of the toughest fullbacks in the league. A close photo type is present day fullback Fred Beasley. Rathman often played with a beaten up old helmet. Although he never made a Pro Bowl team, mainly because the fullback position is an unglamorous position. He was a three-time selection to the All-Madden team, signifying a type of cult status. He did rush for seven touchdowns in 1990 and had 73 receptions in 1989.

Dennis Erickson continues to make and mold the coaching staff into his own image. This was expected to happen and did. I am enthusiastic though that he did keep key coaches in place to help absorb all the newness on the team. They will be instrumental in providing Erickson with the necessary tools and assets to help make him successful and themselves as well.
The opinions 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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