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49ers embrace change

Mar 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM

There is definitely something to be said of change, and that is the San Francisco 49ers are doing a lot of that and more these days as they undertake a complete facelift in both the coaching staff and the ideology by which they are accustomed to. Since the sacking of Steve Mariucci and the ascension of Dennis Erickson to the ranks, the 49ers have under gone a complete transfusion in the way of new personnel and a change in game planning as a whole as well.

Erickson continues to round out a full coaching staff by announcing Eric Yarber as wide receivers coach to the 49ers replacing former coach George Stewart who is now with the Atlanta Falcons. Yarber was also a part of Dennis Erickson's staff at Oregon State before Erickson's promotion. Yarber a former player himself was a 12th round pick of the Washington Redskins in 1986 after a great collegiate career at the University of Idaho.

There he earned All-America honors as a senior while he was playing for Erickson. Yarber was also a member of the Redskins Super Bowl Championship team in 1988. He started coaching at the University of Idaho, in 1994 as an undergraduate offensive assistant and film coordinator.

He was then named a full time assistant at Idaho in January 1996, as secondary coach. He then spent the 1997 season as the wide receivers coach at University of Las Vegas before joining Erickson's Seattle Seahawks staff in March 1998, as an offensive quality control coach.

Remember two of his wide receivers at Oregon State were NFL draft selections of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000. One was Chad Johnson a second round pick and T.J. Houshmandzadeh was a seventh round selection.

Another addition to the staff is Larry Mac Duff who was the defensive coordinator for the University of Arizona where he joined the program in the spring of 2001 and served there as coordinator and linebacker's coach for two seasons.

His defenses led the nation in scoring defense in 1992 and 1993, led the nation in rushing defense with a Pac-10 record low of 30.1 yards per game in 1993. Was No. #2 nationally in total defense both those years, No. #2 in rushing defense and in the top 10 overall in 1994 and No. #7 in total defense in 1995.

Mac Duff entered the professional ranks from 1997-2000 as he served as special team's coordinator of the New York Giants. He helped the Giants lead the NFL in field goal defense for two years, lead the NFC in punt returns for a season, rank second in blocked kicks for a year and had the club's best kickoff return average in its past quarter century.

So the playing field just became smarter in my estimation because he will be a far cry better than Bruce DeHaven was for us at this position. If there is any position that needs addressing it certainly is the 49er special teams unit. I believe Mac Duff will bring a strong underlying presence here with a mentality for great defense as well, it can only mean improved special teams play in my category of thinking.

What did happen that was a pleasant surprise for San Francisco was the status of wide receiver Tai Streets. Streets suffered an injury before being drafted by the 49ers about four years ago, it was an injury to his Achilles tendon, which severely limited his playing time as a rookie in a 49er uniform. It was thought though that with this season he had accrued the necessary four years of service that qualified him for unrestricted free agency.

But the facts speak plainly that he wasn't fully available in 1999 because he spent most of the time on the reserve/non-football injury list, which was ruled to be true by the league itself upon investigation. Although he was active for two games in the 1999 season it wasn't enough according to the league to mandate him to the player pension plan. This is where a player must be vested for four full seasons to qualify for unrestricted free agency.

So Tai Streets is a restricted free agent meaning that the 49ers have first rights to match any offer and would acquire a first round draft pick as compensation for his services. Streets has already been tendered an offer of $1.318 million dollars so his future with the 49ers remains relatively certain.

I am most happy because I believe Streets is a perfect compliment to Terrell Owens, not to say though that we shouldn't still draft a wide receiver or even look for one on the free agency wire because we should. That becomes especially true since J.J. Stokes looks to be the lame duck of the bunch that needs to be let go after June 1st.

Streets had a great breakout season of 72 receptions for 756 total yards and five touchdowns in 2002. I can't imagine him doing any less unless he is really injured, so keeping him regardless of status was a priority in my head anyway. I see Streets getting even better as the No. #2 wide receiver under a man like Dennis Erickson who will undoubtedly get the ball into his hands more often than Mariucci even fathomed.

The salary cap has been a real blessing this season for the 49ers as Terry Donahue has been able to restructure a number of contracts to get under the approximately $8 million the team was over by this year.

In a move that was a shock to some and sort of expected by others the 49ers released two prominent names from their roster in defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and left guard Dave Fiore.

The NFL has mandated a salary cap of $74.8 million dollars and the 49ers went right to work on getting their business back in line with restructuring deals. With Zack Bronson who was scheduled to earn $1.225 million in base pay instead accepted $695,000 in up front money with a $530,000 base salary. Fullback Fred Beasley also witnessed his $950,000 base contract get split with $420,000 going into a signing bonus and $530,000 going into a base salary for 2003.

"We hated to say goodbye to these guys, but we are excited and delighted to be under the cap," 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said at team headquarters.

Donahue has been very busy in getting the team under the cap, and restructuring contracts is where most of the money is usually saved. The contracts of seven players were restructured of which were quarterback Jeff Garcia, defensive end Andre Carter, right tackle Scott Gragg, center Jeremy Newberry, fullback Fred Beasley and safeties Tony Parrish and Zack Bronson.

Tendered to offers already have been restricted free agents in wide receiver Tai Streets ($1.318 million), back-up quarterback Tim Rattay ($650,000) and long snapper Brian Jennings ($650,000) and two exclusive rights free agents cornerback/return specialist Jimmy Williams ($375,000) and punter Bill LaFleur ($300,000).

The two that were released hit many fans like a rock thrown at full speed at the mid-section. It was mind blowing to see Dana and Dave suddenly cut from the roster after many distinguished years of service. But Stubblefield was owed $700,000 dollars by March 4th as part of his original signing bonus.

His base salary then would escalate to $3 million dollars, with another $500,000 to $1 million due in a roster bonus later in the week. Could have the 49ers restructured his deal? Of course they could have but there seemed to be consensus on cutting him all together for some reasons.

Dana Stubblefield was courted last off-season as being the ultimate prize the 49ers coveted to play again alongside old friend and teammate Bryant Young. It was a match made in heaven back in 1997 when the two were at their best as a sack machine duo. Bryant Young was elated to have his old friend and teammate back in the 49er fold and I am sure equally as upset to see him go.

Dana Stubblefield played well in 2002 but didn't play hard enough to keep his position on the team next to Young. He started 15 games for the 49ers making 43 tackles and just three sacks. The coaching staff and front office in their minds needed to see more in order to justify keeping an aging veteran with that sort of numbers in overall production. The pass rush was certainly spotty throughout the season and his inability to get to the opposing quarterback was evident, as were others as well.

Stubblefield is a field general of 10 years and probably in reality has played his best football already. He was scheduled to make $2.325 million in base salary in 2003 so the chopping block was seen as the only alternative based on his physical being and his numbers. This was Stubblefield's second return to the 49ers as he played his first five years with the 49ers after he was drafted in the first round back in 1993.

After that five year service his salary expectations were so enormous that the team opted to go on without him so he was picked up by the Washington Redskins where he had three very unproductive seasons with them before being cut.

After his release Dana saw an opportunity to comeback to his old home and was ultimately signed back as a 49er. I saw Dana back at training camp in Stockton last season and can tell you in all honesty that he was a joy to see and hear him talk.

Dana has always been fan friendly and went out of his way to sign autographs and mingle with the fans. He carries himself as a determined athlete but a practical joker at the same time. He undoubtedly was having a lot of fun being back in his old surrounding as a 49er I can say with certainty that he will be missed, his signature that adorns my team helmet will mean that much more to me now as I gaze at that everyday before work.

The front office viewed Dana as being a liability down the road though, and upon analysis they saw Dana slow down significantly as the season began to wind down in the later stages in December and the post-season. Dana Stubblefield was the 1997 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but he never was able to match that unbelievable season afterwards and became a simple defensive tackle with some punch.

"At times, Dana played very well," Donahue said. "At other times, he struggled, particularly toward the end of the year, when his weight got higher on him. And he's not as young as he used to be."

Dana last season was listed at 290-pounds but according to sources on the team he was marginally higher than that as the season went on. Stubblefield was also a recipient of the Gary Niver Award from which Bay Area beat writers vote on for the player with the best relationship with the media, Dana won hands down for his professional conduct.

It will be sad to see Dana go as he was a true athlete with a soft side to him, he was always willing to make a comment when it was necessary or was asked of him to do so. He carried himself in a positive manner and is very much a family oriented type of person.

I know that Dana in my mind will always have a place as a San Francisco 49er here and wherever he decides to go or do. He gave a good part of his life to us and assisted us in accomplishing milestones and being successful. I wish him the best in his future decisions and all of his travels, as he will be successful in whatever he does in life.

The possibilities at Dana's replacement include nine-year veteran Jim Flanigan or even second-year player Josh Shaw. I believe you will see both having increased playing time as they rotate back in forth next to Bryant Young, but you can be certain that the 49ers will draft another defensive tackle this year because the draft is seemingly rich in that category.

Dave Fiore's release was another shocker to me only because I saw him as a fighter and a winner wherever he was placed and whatever was expected of him he did it without complaint. If there is anybody you'd want on your offensive line it would be this man, he is so versatile and so focused that he simply blows the competition away, it was his physical battles over time that ultimately led to his release.

As you all know Dave tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Sept. 22, 2002 for the second time in his career. It was here that rookie Eric Heitmann received his baptism of fire and played exceptionally well all season long with Dave coaching him on the sideline every single game. Dave had surgery on his knee and as usual Dave fashion was rehabilitating very well as he was determined to make yet another comeback.

In the beginning the 49ers looked at keeping Dave after his surgery and his rehabilitation at the league's minimum salary of $655,000 an have him play as a back-up. But Fiore was due to earn $2.5 million in salary, including $500,000 in a roster bonus set to take place in early March.

The front office saw Dave as a coveted lineman but one that had too many battle scars for them to be safe about. The latest setback seemed to be the straw that broke the camels back in their minds as they have dealt with Dave's familiar injuries before.

"Dave's had four knee operations and that was a major concern, and at the financial point he was at, it was very difficult for us to continue at that," Donahue said.

What is really unfortunate in this sport is that injuries are going to happen, Dave just so happened to be on the unfortunate end of too many. Dave though is a true champion in that he never quits on anyone he fights everything right to the finish, and is as determined and resolute as I have ever seen them come.

Dave has played both right and left tackle on the team and has even been the emergency center on occasions when both Jeremy Newberry and Ben Lynch went down with injuries. He does whatever you ask him and is one of the best human beings you'd ever come across.

I remember him outside the stadium in a pre-season game I attended and had him autograph my helmet, and at training camp and having my picture taken with him. He was a monster of a lineman but as gentle at heart as they ever come. Dave's story is even more special in that he was an un-drafted free agent went the 49ers picked him up and he has been a part of this team for seven years.

What happened shortly after his release was that the Washington Redskins picked him up and signed him to four years worth close to $8 million dollars. In a sense you can tell that Dave was annoyed at the way the 49ers treated him, as was Dana Stubblefield. To have such decorated years of service with a team that never even asked to try and restructure sheds speculation on the ownership and management of this team as to why not?

The mentality of this is peculiar to me in that why not keep continuity and balance on the team if these veterans have proven capable? Both have done just that and in my opinion deserved at least that simple consideration of getting at least an offer to stay at the minimum of a veteran's salary. The 49ers saved close to $8 million on the restructured deals of other teammates and saved another $5 million with the release of both Stubblefield and Fiore.

To acknowledge that these veteran athletes were not a part of the backboard in the locker room and barricades surrounding Candlestick is ludicrous. The management of this team is doing some very weird things when you consider that owner Dr. John York has been tampering with various assets and programs associated with the team more so than he ever has. It is starting to show that this organization once renown for it's quality and integrity as well as it's sincerity to it's players is in a state of severe erosion.

"I really wanted to retire as a 49er," said Stubblefield, who wasn't surprised by his release. "I knew something was going on. I could feel it when I went to the facility."

What Dana did feel was a sense of abandonment by the 49er management, a sense of leaving him out for dry. There was a indication that once Dana was cut that the 49ers would try and pick him back up after June 1st, but the likelihood of him being left on the free agent wire was never to be as the Oakland Raiders picked him up shortly thereafter.

"It's never an easy thing to do, but Dave and Dana handled it with class," said General Manager Terry Donahue. "We had great assistance from our seven other players who agreed to restructure their contracts to help us out. We're excited to get this plan over with and now we can move on."

But did they handle it with class? I beg to differ with Donahue on this one. It was obvious to both players that they were not wanted in any sense of the word. Almost cast out like some yesterday's trash. If you can honestly say that the management of this team actually had spoken to each of them regarding restructuring then you would say they did make a pitch at them.

But the actual truth is they never did, and in my view that is just plain wrong, don't leave a player out on an island to figure it out on their own. Have some sort of open and honest communication for God's sake.

One thing is for certain are that the 49ers are not going to be very active in the free agent market because of the marginal money that they are below the salary cap. I would expect no more than two or three mid-level free agents at the most in my opinion as most of the money will go to resigning restricted free agents and getting a deal done for Terrell Owens.

"We'd like to keep as many of our players as we can," said Donahue. "We're not going to be real active in the free agent market, but that doesn't mean we won't look at upgrading the team. We'll just do it selectively in free agency while we focus on getting younger, faster and healthier."

When you look at these words spoken from Donahue and break them down regarding both Dave and Dana, you can see where youth would be a factor as Dana is 32 years old and aging. You would also see that speed is beginning to be a factor in management's eyes when you have men with many years of experience and health is related to Fiore's five knee operations.

"The Redskins welcomed me and were eager to have me," Fiore said. "I like the aggressiveness and the will to win in this organization."

Dave is expected to be the starting left guard next to Chris Samuels on the Washington Redskin offensive line. He will be able to adjust rather quickly and should have an immediate impact on the line by staying put. However what the Redskins will also know in the back of their minds is the fact that Dave is very versatile and will be able to fill in anywhere on a moments notice.

"That is one of the things that drove me here," Fiore said. "I'll be able to stay at one position and concentrate on that. In the long term, that will make me a better player and make the team better."

One thing is for certain in my opinion and that is this team will miss the services of a Dave Fiore, they will be very hard to replace and I believe that offensive line coach Pat Morris would be the first to agree with this statement.

Dave was a special person on the team in that he was so selfless and so giving all of the time, he was very instrumental in training rookie Eric Heitmann after he was injured and getting him ready for active duty.

Heitmann would be the first person to tell you that Fiore was responsible for assisting him in such a smooth transition and transformation from college to the pro's. I am proud to have met this man and feel that the Redskins picked up a true fighter and a hero in every sense of the word. Regardless of injuries Dave Fiore was and still is a rock of a man, he will assist the Redskins in achieving great offensive success and I wish him well.

Now another member of the offensive line of the 49ers is fuming at not getting an offer to restructure his contract, after every other member was approached and asked to do so. Usually more times than not this is a pure indication that the team has other motives or intentions for you and left tackle Derrick Deese is no dummy when it comes to analyzing what is going down.

What the 49ers did is that all of the line restructured but Deese leaving his contract untouched and vulnerable to a cut after June 1st to soften the blow to the salary cap.

Derrick is one of the oldest players on the team going back to the last Super Bowl that was part of the Jerry Rice and Steve Young formula. Deese and Bryant Young are the last aging dinosaurs on a team that has suddenly found the fountain of youth and continues to take a dip in that fountain almost every season. There is great concern for Derrick that he will be cut even though management has indicated that there is no plan to do that at all.

Derrick has been with the team for 11 years and continues to be a source of great strength on the offensive line that is a trademark of the team as a whole. In fact Derrick Deese is coming off probably his best season as an offensive lineman as he hasn't allowed a sack in 20 games and has greatly improved his run blocking after a grueling off-season regimen.

Derrick can only wait and see exactly what is in store for him after June 1st as that date draws near. He was even told upon defending his position that he had a great season that it was his post-season performance that counted and not his regular season play at all.

"I shouldn't have to worry about whether my team is going to ambush me (after June 1)," Deese said. "How can they say that when I played well all year and helped them get to the playoffs?" Deese wondered.

Derrick is another comedian that has existed on this team for a very long time, he has the pulse of the team almost absolutely as he is a great locker room presence because of his practical jokes and jives at most of the players. I had the honor of getting close to Derrick who is a mountain of a man in the player's parking lot outside Candlestick Park.

Derrick has been a champion in making sure that Jeff Garcia has the time to make the critical throws that are required of him in almost every situation. He also has been improving on the run blocking that is required of him in assisting Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow finds creases to run through. Despite the nagging ankle injuries that he suffered late in the season he never allowed the injury to slow him down and jeopardize his degree of play.

Unfortunately the ankle sprain became so severe that he had to play in rotation with Matt Willig and Kyle Kosier as he was forced due to extreme pain to play on a part time basis in the post season. This is thought to be the only negative upon a man that has taken the word pain and made it a household item of daily occurrence. Deese played through it and with a sense of determination that can only be described as courageous and dedicated.

"If I had gotten the rest I needed during the season, it wouldn't have been a problem," said Deese, who called the injury a little more than a sprain. But Deese never got two straight games to rest the injury.

Every player on the 49er offensive line played in some sort of pain throughout the season. The are a different breeds so to say in a business where they are expected to play through pain. These men are so overlooked and so very much a part of the background that many never take notice.

But in real terms they are what makes the offense click and move down the field, they provide all the mechanisms to work properly by providing protection and attacking in unison to clear running lanes.

These are the men that I would call modern day gladiators if there ever were a name to give them because they all play from the heart and would do anything for anybody on the team. They are the first ones to come to a player's assistance when they get in trouble and will defend the honor of their quarterback till the death.

These men deserve the recognition that has never been forwarded to them and they need to be applauded for the services they provide, as this offense would be stagnant without them.

One has to question this team's real motives. I am at a standstill as to what direction they are really going. One thing is for sure and that is change, changes that are happening almost at warp speed right out of a Star Trek sequel.

Owner Dr. John York has a new agenda and Dennis Erickson is a part of that new era so to say. But we must never lose our sense of professionalism and badge of honor that defines us as being San Francisco 49ers.

It makes me wonder and I am sure there are many out there that share my sentiments that the 49ers have ditched that philosophy and that very doctrine that helped make us what we are today.

We cannot turn away from our past, there are many things that must be carried over and taught to others, this is essential so that others can continue a proud tradition.

But that enrollment and that teaching are really being coerced into retirement folks in my opinion as no one deserves just to be shelved and cast off as a nuisance of sorts. The truth is in the pudding as they have done just that from head coach to marquee players what they continue to do is anyone's best guess.
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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