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Erickson tinkers with problems, but win over Chiefs signals improvement

Aug 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Head Coach Dennis Erickson brings a business sense to this franchise as he walks the player's field at the Santa Clara headquarters facility.  He is concentrated on one thing and one thing only and that is to coach.  When the media comes a calling he just soon avoid them, where as Steve Mariucci would embrace them.  Players and front office personnel are very excited with the changes that have taken place, the aura that is developing right before their eyes as Erickson takes charge.

What may be the most challenging personnel decision in Erickson's entry as the head coach will be in his star wide receiver in Terrell Owens.  His contract up at the end of the season creates concern for all 49er fans as well as many of the coaches who see Owens as the leading offensive category in their aerial attack.  What will be a marriage in heaven will be the sincere fact that Owens will be more of the focus of attention, as Erickson likes to throw vertically down the field.

Owens who has already skipped two voluntary mini-camps but has attended training camp faithfully has made some subtle protests about his contract situation.  He was close to not attending training camp as a holdout measure in getting his contract re-negotiated sooner rather than later.  But the consensus between his agent and himself was to go ahead and attend training camp in good faith and to show his teammates his good intentions.

However you look at him Terrell Owens shows us an image that is full of controversy and mystery.  He has a side of arrogance and blatant disregard for authority, much like he portrayed in the seasons with Steve Mariucci and his conservative style of play calling.  And then he has a side of heartfelt wishes for children as he distributes school supplies in public appearances sponsored by Sharpie the black felt pen he made famous by signing a touchdown ball in the end zone in Seattle.

Back in the spring he testified at a Senate hearing on Alzheimer's disease, talking about the agony of watching his grandmother slip away.  Alice Black, Owens grandmother suffers from the disease and is the very center of the wide receiver's life in a nutshell.  He becomes so emotional when he talks about her or even within a calm moment to himself, where his mind drifts back to the childhood he remembers with her.

His childhood was a difficult one, spent largely in isolation and was only relieved from that because of his grandmother's undying devotion.  It was here by his own admission that he struggled to learn how to socialize with other people properly.  It is from this that Owens hardened himself to many and limited as to what he would show and tell others.  He has a real inner circle in his life where he only discusses sensitive issues with just a handful of his best friends and family.  His mood swings ring loud and clear while he is on the sidelines or in the locker room.  He has such an energy about him that rings loud and true, that most would never keep up with even with their best effort displayed.

One thing is for sure and that is that Terrell Owens is well liked by many 49er fans including myself.  Jump-starting contract talks seem to be the smart thing to do in my opinion, but the front office thinks otherwise.  The management seems to be waiting to see what happens this season with Terrell Owens to see if his production remains a constant.  When you think about it you scratch your head and wonder as to why his production wouldn't be the same, seeing that he has established himself as the top seed in offense last season and in prior seasons before that.  Whatever happens it will affect the 49ers in the long term as Terrell Owens has cemented his name as the icon in San Francisco as did Jerry Rice for 16 straight years.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia was dealt a major blow just a few weeks ago when he suffered a protruded disc in his back while working out with a personal trainer in Los Angeles.  The news fell like lead on expectations that Jeff would see action in the first pre-season game of the year against the Kansas City Chiefs.  The injury also occurred right before the start of 49er training camp, which in effect left the first team workouts and snaps to quarterback Tim Rattay and company.

"It's not going to be season-ending by any means, but we will just have to take it slower right now," Erickson said. "He had an MRI and he has some pain and spasms, so we will just have to wait and see."

The injury hit Jeff more emotionally then it did physically as his nature is to always be in the thick of things where it is training camp and team related.  Jeff Garcia has started 56 straight games despite some severe pounding he has taken to his small 195-pound frame.  Someone that is experiencing pain and discomfort right beside him is offensive tackle Derrick Deese who underwent surgery on his right ankle six weeks ago.  His ankle went through severe sprains last season in the regular season finale against the St. Louis Rams and the rest of the post-season.

Although the injury appeared to be healed, pain returned in his shins during workouts near his Orange County home.  Since then he has been under rehabilitation but the process again sends question marks as to Derrick's overall health.  Durability will be an important tool in gauging how well the wily veteran holds up as the 49ers seem to be carrying him as but a mere mentor to first round draft pick Kwame Harris.

As Derrick enters his 12th NFL season as an un-drafted free agent back in 1992 he again battles the scout inception that he is too small and stout to play the position of left tackle in the NFL.  Well in fact he was the smallest offensive tackle in the league, last season but not once did he surrender a sack throughout the entire season.  Some kind of recognition has to be bestowed upon him for that as Derrick Deese is a fighter and a champion held over from the old glory days that were once the 49er dynasty.

Some of the things you want to think of when looking on Derrick Deese is his amazing durability, dependability and his emotional and invaluable experience.  He knows what is role is now and that is to groom the man that will soon replace him at the left tackle position in Kwame Harris.

"I know eventually he'll play and I won't, and it's cool," Deese said.  "Kwame has a ways to go, and he knows that.  But at the same time, we have to get him ready to play if somebody gets hurt.  You don't know when your day comes here."

Right as training camp opened the San Francisco 49ers answered the call on their first round draft pick by signing Kwame Harris to a five-year contract that included a $3.6 million signing bonus.  Harris was the last to sign and seventh round choice Ken Dorsey was the first to sign making the roster would be the next projects that these two will concentrate on.

Harris was philosophical as he referred to the 49er playbook that he says reminds him of a "phonebook and some of his Stanford textbooks."  The 6-7 rookie will begin his debut as a 49er offensive tackle throughout training camp and the up and coming pre-season games where the 49er coaching staff will scrutinize his every move.

"It feels good to get this done and behind me, really good," said Harris.  "I'm excited about getting out there and getting back to football.  I haven't been able to participate in any football since the first mini-camp and I was starting to get the itch."

One thing is for certain though and that is that Harris will be well coached and mentored as he is now a part of an offensive line that is one of the best in the business.  Harris is looked on as being a long-term solution at the left tackle position much like they invested in Derrick Deese way back in 1992.  The wide spectrum on Harris in the beginning once he was drafted was that he would be a project or someone you would have to put a lot of time in according to one ESPN analyst.  Harris has turned out to be nothing of the sort, but a true competitor and someone that is willing to go to any length to be successful.

"I'm surrounded with an incredible group of offensive linemen," Harris said.  "From Deese, Newberry and Stone to Scott Gragg, there's a lot of experience to draw from.  And I'm going to ask questions until they get annoyed with me."

Meanwhile former Miami Hurricane quarterback Ken Dorsey signed a three-year deal with the 49ers being the first to sign the dotted line.  He fell late in the seventh round to the 49ers because of perceptions to his arm strength.  But it was during a workout that Dorsey was invited to in which Dennis Erickson presided over that cemented the decision to go ahead and grab him.  Erickson is confident about Dorsey and can honestly see no ill effects in his arm at all in regards to making throws and making completions.  Ken Dorsey could be the heir to the throne if handles right as he set just about every passing record recorded with the Miami Hurricanes.

He went on to post a 38-2 record as a starter leading them into the National Championship game the past two seasons.  He is now locked in a battle with Brigham Young University quarterback Brandon Doman for the third string quarterback position.  This is a competition that will be ultimately determined on the playing field during pre-season as the 49ers are not likely to carry four quarterbacks on their roster heading into the 2003 regular season.

The San Francisco 49ers immediately followed suit in signings after Ken Dorsey by signing defensive tackle Anthony Adams, a second round pick from Penn State, to a five-year deal with an avoidable year.  Defensive end Andrew Williams, their third round pick from Miami, got a three-year contract as well.  Williams is a product that the 49ers liked when he displayed great footwork and showed exceptional speed.  He suffered a broken hand while in mini-camps and had a cast put on that hasn't slowed him while in training camp.

Others that came full circle and signed were former Illinois wide receiver Brandon Lloyd who signed a three-year contract with a $277,000 signing bonus.  Aaron Walker, a former Florida tight end, then received a three-year deal with a $107,500 signing bonus.  Then there was least but not last Arnaz Battle, a former Notre Dame quarterback-turned-wide receiver that signed a three-year deal worth a $58,000 signing bonus.

All of these signings represent enormous progress on the San Francisco 49ers part, as they were able to settle the questions as to their rookie class immediately at the beginning of training camp.  Concerns here are unfounded as of yet, so the 49ers did manage to do something constructive in putting a period at the end of every one of these players contracts and moving on with training camp.

As training camp dawned and came to a close in those late days in July, Jeff Garcia continued to rehabilitate from a bulging disc in his back that has all but sidelined him during training camp.  His work load has been drastically reduced and his condition under intense scrutiny and evaluation as the 49er coaching staff shows signs of real concern about their star quarterback's durability.

"We want to be careful and we are certainly going to talk to him about limiting some of his work load," general manager Terry Donahue said.  "It's a long camp and a terribly long season and we need Jeff Garcia in peak shape when we play the opening ballgame."

The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has been forced to endure limited practices and standing more on the sidelines while Tim Rattay gets repetitions with the first team because of his unfortunate condition.  Since the injury he has received an epidural injection and physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the injury.  While he is feeling better, Jeff Garcia knows the cold truth lies in rest and taking time off in order to get back to full strength.

"It actually feels great.  I'm antsy to be in the mix, but I realize the doctors know what's best," Garcia said in his post practice press conference.  "As far as I'm concerned I'm ready to get back."

"According to the MRI I had last week, it showed I had a bulging disc that was pressing against the nerves," said Garcia.  "The good news was it was all centralized and I didn't have any pain down in my legs or anything."

The bandwagon critics of Jeff Garcia have already voiced their criticisms candidly with the press and have targeted him with vicious slams as to his ability to throw the ball long and consistently.  They have maligned the All-Pro quarterback as inept to throwing the ball long optioning instead to throw small dump off passes to preserve him from a terrible beating.

"Tell them to come out here and I'll throw a few passes to them," Garcia said pointedly.  "I can make every throw on the football field.  I don't have any doubt as far as that's concerned.  "No, I can't throw the ball 80 yards down field.  But when I do need to throw the ball 80 yards down field?"

So far in training camp Jeff has been impressed with the way that Dennis Erickson has directed camp.  They are using the same playbook that former coach Steve Mariucci used except that Erickson is gazing at the pages that feature more down field passing and is inclined to wear them out with hard thumb presses.

"Coach Erickson has that killer instinct from the get-go," said Garcia, who averaged 10.2 yards per completion last season, the lowest average for a 49ers starter in team history.  "He has the attitude that we're going to make things happen and not wait for things to happen."

Jeff has struggled with knowing that the injury will keep him out of the first pre-season game against Kansas City.  It was made clear that he will rest and continue upon his treatments to getting himself better.  No one understands better about the timing of such matters as Jeff Garcia does as he realizes that all of the 49er hopes and dreams for victory and accomplishment rest on his performance in a large degree.

"My sense of timing isn't where I want it to be, but that will come in a couple of days," he said.  "I was held back to the shorter throws today with the running backs and tight ends.  For me it's about not overdoing it the first few days."

Concern is big for Jeff Garcia as how he will come out of this injury.  He still looks crisp and sound in his throwing motions and his ability to steer the offense in training camp.  But his time on the field has been cut dramatically.

Then there is concern for our special teams play, as the San Francisco 49ers have flopped and fumbled there way blind many times in this area.  Nothing has really materialized from this unit overall as the 49ers thought they had finally found the answer to a punt return man in Jimmy Williams.  Williams even led the NFL with a 16.8-yard average on punt returns.  But tragedy struck as usual when Williams tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee in Week 13 last season that is when the special teams resurgence suddenly ended.

The ball was handed to Cedrick Wilson afterwards who showed distinct signs of struggling, in one post-season game muffing a punt that led to a momentum-changing touchdown in a playoff game over the New York Giants.  It was lucky for us that we still won that game on a botched field goal snap.  This muffed punt prompted the San Francisco 49ers to re-sign Vinny Sutherland, their 2001 return man, who was out of the league at the time he got the call.

When Dennis Erickson was back at the University of Miami, special teams practice was a limited function that centered on kickoff coverage and extra points.  Punting was never a real issue with the high-powered Miami Hurricanes.  It was after that though when Dennis began to invest more into his special teams units, first with the Seattle Seahawks and then at Oregon State.  His philosophy on this matter suddenly changed and he made it a top priority in training camp for the San Francisco 49ers.

Everyone knows including myself that special teams wins football games hands down.  It has proven to be a hot commodity more than ever in the NFL.  Everywhere from kickoffs to proper punting to tackling and coverage schemes, the 49ers like most NFL teams need help in these areas.  The emphasis will be on big special teams plays, from blocking punts to running back punts and kickoffs for touchdowns. If you think back to last year the 49ers never blocked a punt, and a 49ers kick return specialist hasn't scored a touchdown since 1998.

Dennis Erickson has been working in cohesion with special-teams coach Larry Mac Duff and his assistant in Jeff Rodgers. A full special teams practice is held at training camp every other day, which was an unheard of gesture on the part of former head coach Steve Mariucci.  Drills and walk-through practices are conducted and performed on a daily basis, and Mac Duff has spent countless hours in the film room dissecting and evaluating the performance of last season's special teams unit.

Jimmy Williams continues to recover from his catastrophic knee injury last year and hasn't participated in many full contact practices.  The 49ers best coverage-unit man, running back Terry Jackson, also has been out with a sore knee as well.  Both of their conditions are being monitored on a daily basis.

The 49ers are now looking at Cedrick Wilson as well as receivers Aaron Lockett and Arland Bruce, as the team's next possible punt return candidates.  Believe it or not nine players are now auditioning for kick return, including rookie receiver Brandon Lloyd, former Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam and running back Jamal Robertson, who took over those duties when Williams went down last season.

What you'll see in all of these pre-season games is vast improvement in every area of special teams.  Both Dennis Erickson and Larry Mac Duff are committed to making this unit a productive one again, that will contribute to the overall team success this season.  Statistically the 49ers rank last in most categories stacked up against other teams in the league in special teams.  We are among the worst in kickoff-return yardage, kick-return defense, net punting and field goals last season.  All of these areas will be scrutinized by the 49er coaching staff and will be revamped immediately if need be.

The San Francisco 49ers are serious about improving special teams in that the kicking game should be better than it was last year.  They have brought in two high-profile rookies in April to push the incumbents for the starting job.  Nate Fikse, a kicker from UCLA, will challenge Jeff Chandler, while punter Freddie Capshaw from Miami will also compete with Bill LaFleur.

Where these competitions go will ultimately be determined in both training camp and all of the remaining pre-season games. There will be a running tally of "measurable data" such as punt hang time and field goal accuracy.

"We've charted every kick and every punt we've had here from spring through the training camps," Mac Duff said.

Special teams played a key role in the first pre-season victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium this past weekend as well.  It was here that the 49ers showed remarkable progress in every area of their game.  The emphasis that the 49ers have placed on this unit has really proven itself with the plays that have unfolded on the field.

Punt return coverage was excellent in this game as was the returns by Lockett, Bruce and Wilson who all averaged out for 13-yards per return.  Arland Bruce had a nice kick-ff return of 32 total yards on one play that turned a net average of 25.5-yards per return.  Of course we still had opportunity as both Jeff Chandler and Nate Fikse missed field goals that should have been made.  Chandler missed one field goal in the third quarter from just 32-yards that went wide right and Nate Fikse missed a 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that went wide right.

Missed field goals are something the 49ers can certainly do without as the regular season approaches.  Correcting these problems is something you can be sure that Larry Mac Duff will emphasize back in training camp.  You have to like what you see though in both kick-off and punt returns as we continue to look at alternatives to players that have return capability and potential.

It was the play of the back-up quarterbacks in this game that was the most impressive to me as was too many other people.  Without Jeff Garcia the quarterbacks went to work in this game to solidify their holds on their particular positions.  Tim Rattay was impressive as he went 8-for-9 for 90 total yards including a magnificent scoring strike to Illinois rookie wide receiver Brandon Lloyd from 39-yards out.

"We've been working on it through camp and it felt really good back there, real comfortable," said Rattay.  "The throws we made downfield were good.  We made some adjustments and we were on the same page, so it was good."

Tim's quarterback rating in this game was an astounding 145.4% and he drove the team up and down the field almost at will behind a solid offensive line, despite taking a sack that lost him nine yards.

Former Miami Hurricane quarterback Ken Dorsey was the next that made a distinct mark as he went 4-for-7 for a total of 39 yards that included scoring strikes to Notre Dame rookie wide receiver Arnaz Battle for a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter.  And a two-yard red-zone strike to fullback Jasen Isom after a seven-play drive, that made Dorsey look like the winning quarterback he is so well known as.

The offense did not stop there as it pushed up and down the field with both passing and running attacks that kept the Kansas City Chief defense guessing.  The San Francisco 49ers created 19 first downs and had a third down efficiency rating of 36%.  The 49ers even made a fourth down conversion and had a total of 321 yards with 122-yards rushing and 199-yards passing.

What was even more intriguing was that the 49ers were always on the attack and showed the aggressive style that head coach Dennis Erickson is so well liked for.  Brandon Doman also made his mark by going 11-for-12 for 101-yards but was sacked three times for a negative total of 22-yards.  Doman looked good and made a statement yardage wise in his ability to move the team up and down the field, as he competes against Ken Dorsey for the third slot on the 49er roster.

Offensive power was displayed in NFL Europe MVP star Jamal Robertson who had 10 carries for 70 total yards that netted an average of 7.0 yards per carry with a long run of 33 total yards that was astounding.  Rashaan Salaam the former Heisman Trophy winner also looked crisp with nine carries for 27 total yards and caught four passes in conjunction with Florida rookie tight end Aaron Walker who also had four receptions on the day.

On defense we also looked good as we held the Kansas City Chiefs to 225 total yards and only two field goals throughout the game.  We also registered three sacks and the secondary played excellent coverage for most of the game limiting the Chiefs to 164-yards in passing overall.  Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich led the defense with five tackles followed by Anthony Adams and Mike Rumph with four total tackles.

The Kansas City Chiefs were held to a third down efficiency rating of 29% going 4-for-14 in the game.  The Chiefs running game was limited to averaging only 2.5-yards per carry for a total of 60-yards.  Although a significant pass rush was non-existent in this game pressure was evident on most plays.  The 49ers must have corrections made and in place to not only pressure but also sack the quarterback on a more consistent basis, hopefully we will see this increase as pre-season wears on.

Certainly we have come a long way under Dennis Erickson in his first debut with the 49ers.  Even though it is only pre-season you must be able to see the significant increase in aggressiveness that the team is exhibiting, and the hunger that is apparent when they take to the field.  Offensively we are a powerhouse in both running the ball and passing because of the numerous weapons at our disposal.  Defensively we continue to improve but need more from our line in pressures and sacks, along with a shutdown presence on at least one side of the playing field.

We have to be excited with what we have seen already, without starting quarterback Jeff Garcia and all.  The Oakland Raiders return to 3-Com Park in another Battle of the Bay series, one that will create fireworks again on both sides of the field.  I feel confident that Dennis Erickson and his staff will have a sound game plan in place for this nemesis we face yet again.  The 2003 NFL season is now upon us and so are the aspirations of every 49er fan all around the globe, with health on our side we will succeed.
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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