Mending injuries and still finding success

Aug 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM

What has been a snapshot of the San Francisco 49ers last year is about the same as it is this year as the injury bug that hampered dozens of players last season has landed with great intensity. Although it is merely pre-season the injuries range in severity that put players watching games from the sidelines and put the team at a distinct disadvantage with starting caliber players incapacitated.

Jeff Garcia continues to be a reoccurring nightmare in the form of a bulging disk that has troubled his back right before training camp. Although he was able to play in the third pre-season game against the New Orleans Saints and did take a hit to test the condition of his back, his status is still peculiar because he has felt tightness in his back after appearing in a public practice within Kezar Stadium.

Jeff who missed 12 days of practice earlier from training camp because of the back condition, was again held out of practice at the team's headquarters in Santa Clara because of the tightness he felt in his back previously. Most are saying that the chilly conditions at the public practice in Kezar Stadium before anxiously awaiting fans was to contribute to the tightness he felt that late afternoon.

"I just told him not to practice, " Erickson said. "He'll be ready to go (today). It was just a precautionary thing. It tightened up a little last night. "
Jeff Garcia in his real first debut before live action on the field at 3-Com Park completed 6-of-7 passes for 52 yards and was sacked once in a test of his durability after such inactivity because of his back. Dennis Erickson insists that Jeff is all right and is ready to go in the pre-season finale against San Diego this Friday. But great measures and conversations will be taken with Jeff, as the 49ers know that Jeff is their ticket to instant stardom this season.

"We have to see how he is, if he's healthy, " Erickson said. "He and I will sit down and talk about it with the trainers. "

Every precaution should be taken in my eyes and I am sure in all of us fans that want a season of prosperity. It is essential that Jeff be given the time off that he needs in order to effectively start the regular season. Dennis Erickson and all the 49er trainers have been vigilant to this fact and I am confident that what ever they recommend will be the right decision. It still leaves an uneasy feeling for all of us expecting the worse in a scenario that leaves us thinking about every hit he takes on the field.

Protecting Jeff Garcia will be the highest recommendation we can give our offensive line as the fewer hits he takes obviously the more effective he will be in regards to healing and recovering from his pre-training camp ordeal. Jeff will have to take measures that put him in a situation that negates extreme physical contact which is very difficult at best when your out on the field at war with an opponent. Limiting those hits to a minimum is what will be recommended, as great pressure on our offensive linemen to protect him will be evident.

Terrell Owens also suffers from groin area tightness that has kept him out of numerous practices and limited action in pre-season games. He continues to nurse this severe injury he suffered early in the year last year, as it has carried over and reared it's ugly self in him this season. Nothing is quite the same with a player suffering a groin injury as one may expect. It affects almost anything that you do because of its tenderness and delicateness. Terrell Owens is severely needed on the field at all times throughout the regular season, so holding him out of live action while you can has to be considered in order to allow him to heal a little more.

Center Jeremy Newberry, has revealed that he has a torn ligament in his left ankle that requires surgery in order to heal effectively. This is very disturbing news when you think at how invaluable he is to the offensive line and calling all the plays at the line of scrimmage. His leadership on that line and his comfort zone with Jeff Garcia are absolute mainstays to the success of this team. Losing him somewhere in the regular season sets the team up to experience failure should he be lost for any length of time.

I had the honor of meeting Jeremy Newberry last year and find him to be one of the toughest son of a guns I've ever met. This great athlete is a giant of a man but his gentleness and his charisma will enlighten you if you were to ever meet and know him. He comes from a very large family that takes up the front parking lot right before the gates of 3-Com Park. The smell of barbecue ribs and sounds of cracking beer cans can be seen and heard as you walk by. Jeremy Newberry can be seen sitting down eating and conversing with the family and friends that he so adores on a daily basis. This is a man that claims he will ignore the injury and wait until after the season to have it surgically repaired. If he were to have the surgery now it would cost him the entire season because doctors claim it takes 18 weeks of recovery after the surgery has been completed. So guess what Newberry does he plays the entire season in pain and has the surgery after the season in typical selfless style because he is what he is, an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers that knows or winces at any pain whatsoever.

Jeremy Newberry did have bone chips removed from the left ankle, that is when doctors discovered the ruptured ligament. With highlight of this Dennis Erickson in conjunction with Jeremy's consent is practicing every other day rather than every day and will try and find his own comfort level of pain as the season wears on.

"I think I'll be fine, " Newberry said. "I can practice at a high level. When I'm at the line, and I've got the calls going through my mind, the ankle is the last thing on my mind. It's only when I'm jogging back to the huddle that I notice it feeling sore. "
"I can fix it now and miss the season. That was an option of mine, " said Newberry, a sixth-year veteran who's played in the past two Pro Bowls. "But I decided to go ahead with it now and have it fixed afterward. "

Jeremy believes he can trace the injury back to the post-season when he received pain-blocking injections before each of the 49ers two-playoff games. Dennis Erickson has made known that he will be watched closely and realizes just what Jeremy Newberry brings to the line of scrimmage in experience and tenacity, two essentials to the season that he does not want to live without.

Meanwhile besides pain and suffering in the 49er lineup there appears to be dislike in the 49ers ranks with both running back Kevan Barlow and fullback Fred Beasley staring each other down. Just last season they got into an all out brawl in the locker room that carried over and into the running back's room. Accusations were passed between the two about Fred's blocking assignments indicating that Fred favors blocking for his friend in Garrison Hearst over his new found nemesis in Kevan Barlow. Beasley insane after the comment hit Barlow up side the head that led to an all out fight in the locker room. It took then running back's coach Tom Rathman to separate the two in the fight and since then it has been an uneasy cease-fire.

Rathman's version of it now who is in Detroit as an assistant to his old boss in Steve Mariucci recollects that he believes the fight was started when Beasley grew troubled over Kevan Barlow's extremely messy nearby locker. So far time has failed to heal those open wounds but the two continue to do their jobs and continue to work with one another out of pure anxiety of each other.

"I respect what he does on the field, but that's it, " Beasley said. "As far as me and Kevan hanging out, that's far-fetched. That's Fantasyland. "
Barlow said, "I respect Fred as a player. As far as off the field, we aint got no words for each other. "

Kevan Barlow picked by the 49ers in the third round of the 2001 NFL draft came from a rough neighborhood in Pittsburgh and had never really been outside that environment before coming over to San Francisco. Barlow also grew disenchanted with the way that rookie players were treated by the 49er veterans who demanded many odd chores of the rookies as their status dictated that.

"He came in thinking he was Jerry Rice or Terrell Owens, but he hadn't done anything yet, " said Beasley, who was raised in Montgomery, Alabama.

"I figure (the hostility) had a lot to do with rookie hazing; they would tell me to do this and do that in a certain way, and there were some things I wouldn't do, " Barlow said. "I had attitude. Sometimes I would say what's on my mind, and they didn't like that. "

So the animosity exists there between the two, but the higher standard exists where they try and coexist for the benefit of the team. Rivalries and dissent rein in almost every football club with this and that player disliking or is irritated with another. It is a part of the reality we call "learning to identify with one another. " There will always be disagreements and animosity between individual players but it is those players that learn to adapt that are recognized for their sportsmanship.

"Whether it's high school, college or the pros, not everybody is going to get along, " running backs coach Tim Lappano said. "But everybody must respect each other on the field, and we stress that. "

So far Lappano comes away impressed with both of these players, Kevan Barlow continues to make progress in his only known weakness in blitz pickup. He has made enormous strides in this area and will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. Fred Beasley is the number one fullback in this league in terms of true fullbacks. He is under contract until 2005 and no one can blink an eye at that being a bad thing. He will be used in a lot more situations under Dennis Erickson, as his ability to make catches for yardage over the middle will be key this season.

On other injury news Garrison Hearst suffered a mild groin injury back in early August that he is keeping a close eye on. He continues to practice and has seen live action but his involvement continues to be limited. Running back Terry Jackson also continues to recover from a torn right ACL he incurred last season that sidelined him. It has been the second time in suffering from this injury the first back when he was in college in his junior season at Florida.

"I feel like I've been ready since I got here, but with an ACL, you can never be too careful, " Jackson said. "We made extra sure I was ready to go. It's great to be in pads with the guys. "

In relation to Jeremy Newberry's injury the 49ers have been given snaps to offensive guard Eric Heitmann. Heitmann, who played right guard at Stanford, presents an impressive alternative. He is last year's seventh round pick who came in for left guard Dave Fiore after a season-ending injury and picked up almost flawlessly where Fiore left off. He took his knocks here and there but learned quickly along the way. He is 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, which isn't too far off from Newberry at 6-foot-5 310 pounds.

"We have to find a way to get our five best linemen on the football field, " Coach Dennis Erickson said after one practice. "That's why Eric is somebody that is going to spend some time at center. We're starting to make that move right now. "
The 49ers never resigned back-up center Ben Lynch from last season, which was and still is one of the finer prospects at center out there. They as of now think that NFL Europe star center in Dwayne Ledford will be that answer, but Eric Heitmann will be prepped to do emergency duty as Dennis Erickson wants all options out on the board.

"You always want to be as versatile as you can, " said Heitmann, who also served as an emergency center at Stanford. With Heitmann at center, the 49ers could go with Harris at left tackle, Derrick Deese at left guard, Ron Stone at right guard and Scott Gragg at right tackle.

"We just have to prepare ourselves, " Erickson said. "The area of concern as far as a back-up center is mainly because Jeremy is such a great player. We have to try to develop someone just in case something happens. "

Whatever the prognosis the 49ers know that they must prepare for the worse case scenario and Jeremy Newberry will do what ever it takes to try and remain on the field. Guarantees though are not there as they never are in the NFL. So the 49ers did sign Brock Gutierrez who spent six seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals as a reserve center. He will be and has been in direct competition with Dwayne Ledford but Ledford seems to be pulling away with the competition so far.

In other injuries cornerback Ahmed Plummer continues to rehabilitate from a left ankle injury he suffered in the Oakland pre-season game that was played at 3-Com Park. He played the first two defensive series before being carted off the field for X-rays, which proved negative on a break. Right tackle Scott Gragg also suffered a left ankle injury with 11:42 remaining in the second quarter when ex-teammate Dana Stubblefield rolled over on his ankle, he continues to make progress on that injury.

Back in mid-August during a practice the greatest injury of all came to starting cornerback Jason Webster who was participating in his first padded practice, and fell to the ground wincing in pain in the end zone. He was trying to cover rookie receiver Brandon Lloyd who caught a pass from Jeff Garcia and jumped up to try and defend it from getting into Lloyd's possession. He came down and stayed down with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Webster was just coming back from surgery that cleared out his left ankle after severely spraining it in the regular season finale last season against the St. Louis Rams on December 30th.

He aggravated the old injury during spring workouts and had arthroscopy surgery to clean out the ankle on May 29th. "For a guy who's worked so hard to get on the field, and then all of a sudden have another situation take place, you feel for the guy, " Garcia said. "It's one of those things where you get a little disappointed, a little bit sad, to see that happen to a guy. "

After having MRI scans done on his knee then results came back with mixed bag of both good and bad as Webster will be sidelined 4-8 weeks because his right knee suffered not an ACL tear but enough other damage that warranted pro-longed inactivity on it. Webster walked into the Santa Clara facility on crutches and wearing a large brace to help immobilize his right knee. Second-year replacement for Jason Webster will be none other then Mike Rumph, who struggled immensely last season as veteran quarterbacks tested his coverage skills with pinpoint surgical precision.

"It's not season-ending, but what the doctors are telling me is that Jason will be out 4-8 weeks, " said Dennis Erickson. "He'll miss some of the early season games. He's of course very disappointed, but Jason's a warrior. He'll be back. "

As of August 18th at one time the San Francisco 49ers had a total of 15 players on their injured list. It has to remind you of the playing days last season when they had training camp at Stockton which raises the question. Was the field in Stockton totally responsible for player's injuries last season compared to all the injuries the 49ers have so far suffered this year by making their home in Santa Clara?

So much has been made of the move of training camp and its emphasis on injuries to players, yet in my eyes I see no direct correlation to that because of the injury list that exists now. We have as many if not more injured players than last season heading into the regular season. The only significant difference has been the comfort zone where outside temperatures have played a role in better practices at Santa Clara.
"It was disappointing, very disappointing after all the work I put in from the off-season (to recover from ankle surgery), " Webster said. "I have to put it behind me. Dwelling on that wasn't helping me move forward. "

As for Mike Rumph he is excited at the chance to become a starter as he prepares to assume the role over the next two to six weeks while Jason Webster rehabilitates his hyper-extended right knee. He wants to put the ghosts behind him that haunts him from his rookie season with the 49ers and prove himself worthy of consideration.

Mike has attempted to quiet the disdain from last season by tuning up his body for the season by dropping his weight from 208 pounds to 196. Rumph has already displayed exceptional speed with an interception in the exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders.
However as soon as they named Mike Rumph the starter he too injured himself during practice by straining his groin area. He was carted off the field in a golf cart after pulling his groin, which will cost him some time. Rashad Holman gets the nod to start in his place and defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. is confident in his abilities to get the job done.

Mike Rumph's unfortunate injury though was later diagnosed as not being overly serious being categorized as a mild pull and he'll be anxiously awaiting a start in the regular season against the Chicago Bears. His injury will be closely watched but coaches and trainers are pretty confident that Mike will be able to go with some rest and rehabilitation come the first week of the regular season.

Just when you thought all was lost with injuries to the 49ers, they came back and beat the New Orleans Saints 27-12 in the third week of pre-season play. The San Francisco offense under Dennis Erickson is rolling up both yardage and points in a blitz of its old self from last year as Jeff Garcia had a wonderful day where he received his first live hit with no ill results.

The 49er offense rolled up 350 total yards of tremendous offense with back-up quarterback Tim Rattay getting the limelight by completing 12-of-13 passes for 147 yards and one touchdown. Jeff Garcia earlier put together a 52-yard scoring drive with Garrison Hearst delivering the ball to the end zone and then Tim Rattay put together a 64-yard drive that was capped with Jamal Robertson touchdown run.

"I didn't feel any rust, it was just the timing. Everything speeds up. I just need to make sure that I am on the same level as everybody else, " Garcia said. "I think that I made some good decisions and made some good throws. It felt great just to be out there again. "

Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd continued to impress as he had five receptions for 81 total yards and a magnificent touchdown catch. Running back Rashaan Salaam had a good day with seven carries for 29-yards and a 10-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter but it was a little too late as he became a cut on the 49er roster almost immediately after the game was done.

Tight end Jed Weaver showed some promise as a receiver by catching four passes for 39 total yards and helped set up the touchdown run made by Garrison Hearst. It was fortunate that he did after starting tight end Eric Johnson went down from a vicious hit that fractured the tight end's collarbone.

"Lloyd may be a rookie, but he showed savvy out there, " New Orleans cornerback Fred Thomas said. "They say he is not all that fast. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. All I know is that he makes plays. "

Now that Eric Johnson is out 10-12 weeks with his fractured clavicle it will be Jed Weaver and rookie Aaron Walker that will see expanded roles in the Dennis Erickson offense.

"It is unfortunate, " Garcia said of the injury to Johnson, who caught 36 passes for 321 yards last season. "Eric is such a great player for this team. He is really coming into his own as far as experience goes. It is just one of those things that unfortunately is the nature of the business. "

The San Francisco 49ers looked good in almost every category except for maybe run defense as Deuce McAllister had 17 carries for 74 total yards. But it was the 49er defense that held the New Orleans Saints to kicking field goals for all of their points on the board. The relentless defensive attack inflicted five sacks on Saint quarterbacks and applied tremendous pressure all day long.

However you look at it the 49ers shined in this exhibition game probably the best so far barring their contest with San Diego. But a lot was decided in this game with player cuts being the big news as Rashaan Salaam was released because of a very talented backfield in 49er running backs and others such as Cornerback Keith Heyward-Johnson, defensive end Dwight Johnson, tackle Jason Jowers, wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, wide receiver Aaron Lockett, linebacker Darnell Robinson and wide receiver Justin Skaggs.

So we prepare for even more cuts in the coming days as the 49ers waive even more players battling for employment on this hallowed team in crimson red and gold. The San Francisco 49ers are 3-0 in exhibition play but the excitement is toned down a lot as what really counts is soon approaching.

Still you have to like what you see so far as I can honestly say this team seems to be going places under Dennis Erickson. The aggressiveness is like nothing I've seen before since the glory days and the nature of attacking on defense and blitzing has my eyes watering. We can instill a pass rush and we can make completions down the field, all of the things that we could not do effectively are suddenly being done with accuracy and thoroughness.
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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