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Let’s get on with the Bear hunt

Sep 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM

The San Francisco 49ers have been ranked in the middle of the pack when it comes to Power Polls among the leading sports publications. Many of the leading magazines have the 49ers around the 16th and 18th position in terms of rank as an organization. I have to disagree with this assessment as does many of you that we are not being taken seriously, considering we have one of the most powerful offenses in the league.

How paper thin does it get at critical positions seems to be the most glaring weakness we may have. Injuries as always will play a key role in us reaching fame or anguish that is the bottom line in almost every category. Although the 49ers are much better off than last year in terms of depth, we still have inexperience and raw youth that play a significant part in this team progressing throughout the season.

One of the smartest things we did this past week was to sign a pass rusher with proven credentials and will have an immediate impact on the game as we play it. After playing 10 seasons as a starting defensive end Chidi Ahanotu has signed with the 49ers after a brief stint with the Buffalo Bills. Ahanotu will not be the starting defensive end but he will push John Engelberger as the season progresses and he will be used in key situations and in rotation to add a spark in the pass rushing bite we haven't had as of late.

Chidi Ahanotu, 32, is used to almost any situation that presents itself on the field. He's played in 145 games, made 134 starts and has produced 38 sacks. Ahanotu is best known for his eight years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he was a bookend for a very long time and was a part of one of the best defenses in the NFL.

From Tampa Bay he made his way to St. Louis in 2001 and then went to the Buffalo Bills in 2002 and now he is a 49er. In the salary cap world of the NFL it has made this valuable veteran a roving gypsy in search of employment now, as the veteran's minimum salary is something most teams shy away from now.

Chidi Ahanotu has had his share of shoulder injuries though also and this alone has made other teams shy away from him in conjunction with his age. But Terry Donahue and the rest of the 49er coaching staff see something quite different with Ahanotu, as they believe he has one or two more solid seasons left in him for sure.

"He played real hard last year," General Manager Terry Donahue said. "We studied him in the off-season because he was free and thought he'd be a guy, having played at Cal, that would be interested in returning to the Bay Area."

Why the 49ers signed Ahanotu is still a mystery of sorts as you figure that there are back-ups in contention for the starting jobs to a degree in rookie Andrew Williams and veteran Sean Moran. Although Andrew Williams shows a lot of promise you have to expect the guy to take some time to adjust as being the rookie. On top of that the scouts and coaching staff have witnessed him playing tentatively this year and that alone was reason fro concern.

Last year in a reserve role, Sean Moran finished with just nine tackles and no sacks, which equals to a big disappointment for the club. The 49ers are not willing to have an anemic pass rush any longer and went out and acquired the best possible free agent on the market to offset that very concern.

Head Coach Dennis Erickson is also formulating a plan that will rotate linemen like never before in order to keep them fresh throughout the entire game. Erickson feels that the more linemen you have coming in and out the better as it injects freshness and speed that probably is compromised with having the same linemen out on the field for extended periods of time.

"If you suit up seven (linemen) on game day, all seven of them play," Erickson said. "They all have their roles, it keeps everybody fresh and it gets them all out on the football field."

Bringing in Chidi Ahanotu gives the 49ers other options as he can also play defensive tackle on occasion when he is called on to. With veteran Jim Flanigan in constant limbo because of calf injuries the 49ers have chosen to waive him and start fresh with someone else. Flanigan the successor to Dana Stubblefield's position next to Bryant Young became more of a liability to the team then an asset as he sat out almost all of the pre-season games.

The linemen that will be used in his place will be a rotation of sorts between rookie Anthony Adams, Travis Kirschke and of course Bryant Young. Still thin the 49ers have had to believe that Chidi Ahanotu could contribute if needed in a reserve role as a tackle in certain situations.

Ahanotu having played in college at California looks forward to playing with star defensive end Andre Carter as the opposite end and applying a vise squeeze on opposing quarterbacks like they have never experienced before from the San Francisco 49ers.

Defense once again will dictate rather the San Francisco 49ers will fail or succeed, as the problems last year were not in the scoring category but being able to stop their opponents from scoring and of course converting third downs. When the 49er Empire fell in 1999, they gave up a whopping 453 points, highest ever in franchise history. When you look at all of the five Super Bowl teams none of them ever yielded more than 300 points, and the 1984 team gave up just 227.

Dennis Erickson is in town now so offense should not be an issue this year or will it? Those are the questions that will pan out as the season unfolds. Erickson will bring diversity and excitement to the offense there is no doubt and Terrell Owens will get his best shot at proving himself worthy of a fat contract after the season.

"Our big problem last year was on third down," Mora said at the 49ers Santa Clara practice facility. "We have a tendency to look at the big picture and just say we sucked on third down, but when we broke down the game videos, we came up with 41 times when the other team made a first down by a yard or less. If we could have stopped them on those plays, we'd have been around 10th in the league on defense."

"So our emphasis in the off-season was on getting that yard, somehow. We looked at everything. Could we have prepared better, could we have been more aggressive?"

Just last year, the 49ers witnessed their defense folding in the second half of the season, the 49ers went from a 7-2 start to lose four of there last seven. One key to that turnaround will have to be injury free football, something that was magnified considerably last year and blamed on a large part for our inefficiencies.

The top-notch speed of linebackers Julian Peterson, Jamie Winborn and Saleem Rasheed were expected to be key elements to the defense being overwhelming. But Winborn of course was sidelined for the season after the third game and Rasheed played only six games the entire season.

On top of that the 49ers had so many decimating injuries in the defensive backfield that by the season's end, they were playing some defensive backs on Sunday that they had just plucked off the waiver wire on Thursday nonetheless. This in effect forced Jim Mora the 49er defensive coordinator to use a lot of more basic defensive coverage as the season wore on due to the lack of healthy bodies that were present at the time on the field.

San Francisco's 2002 first round pick in Mike Rumph will be relied upon like never before this season. And that is saying something considering his very rocky start last season. Mike has dedicated himself to becoming a better player overall and wants more than anything to put the rookie demons behind him and move forward.

"Except for quarterback, the toughest positions for a rookie are cornerback and left offensive tackle, because you're on the edge," said Mora. "If you get beat, it's obvious to everybody."

And how true that was when Mike Rumph tested the waters at nickel back in the beginning of the season. Opposing quarterbacks discovered that it was in his area where yards could be gained and they attacked that area relentlessly, teaching Mike a game of self-examination. Mike has worked diligently to become a better all around athlete as he has slimmed down to 196 pounds and has attached some more lean mass to a frame that was deemed fragile by NFL standards.

"When Mike got beat, it got to him. We've worked on him to make him understand that he has to adjust. If he's beaten at the line of scrimmage, he has to recover so he has a chance to still make the play. If he's beaten on a play, he has to come back on the next play."

Mike at, 6-2, is one of the tallest cornerbacks ever to be on a 49er roster and he's being looked to provide exceptional cover skills that equal closing down a whole side of the field. Ahmed Plummer has established a semblance of that, but he is not quite there yet. With Jason Webster sidelined for up to eight weeks, it is Mike Rumph that will be on the hot seat yet again. All except that Mike will be a starter instead of a back up, which will show up in the spotlight like a neon sign.

One ace in the hole on defense that I look forward to watching is linebacker Jamie Winborn. His battle with a knee injury last season left him sidelined and useless after putting on a defensive show that rivaled a main event in a circus. Jamie can remember the painful rehabilitation and the glares that rained down on him as he tried to cope with the reality of being out for the season.

"I missed so many games last year and I took it a little hard," Winborn said. "I'm just happy to be out there and be with my fellows instead of watching from the sideline. It hurt watching from the sideline."

Starting last year in the season opener he recorded 16 tackles, 13 of which were solo, a sack and two passes defended in a 16-13 victory over the New York Giants. From that inspiring game he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Just two games later though it all came to an end when he suffered damage to the medial-collateral and posterior-cruciate ligaments in his left knee against the Washington Redskins.

Believing the MRI he moved forward thinking he would not need any surgery, but that thought turned soar as mounds of scar tissue had formed around a nerve in the back of the knee. He found that he could jog and run at half-speed, but as soon as he tried to go all out, the scar tissue choked off his nerve, his leg went limp and he suddenly collapsed.

Jamie checked in and opted to have the surgery to remove the scar tissue, which all resulted in his absence from the field for the remainder of the season. Jamie is back in rare form and you can only get excited in thinking about what he'll bring in the form of a pass rush and stopping the run this season.

He has already dazzled us this pre-season with his electric style playmaking skills and his deceptive speed that he uses to his full advantage. It will be the play of a Jamie Winborn that helps turn this defense into a contending team this season should he make the type of plays he exhibited last year in the season opener.

Anguish befell the 49ers though on defense when 6-foot-2, 290 pound Josh Shaw was suspended without pay for the first four regular season games for violating the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy. Shaw, 23, was a fifth round draft choice from Michigan State in 2002. He has played in only three games last season after spending most of his time rehabilitating a knee injury he had incurred while in college.

The 49ers took a chance on signing him believing there was real hidden value in Shaw. Now that chance is turning out to be a negative risk we shouldn't have taken. Now Shaw is required to enter the league's substance-abuse treatment program in Florida for four weeks. Players fall under this policy should they fail a drug test, through self-referral, or if they are deemed to need treatment after a behavioral assessment.

It is most unfortunate for this to happen at a time where the defensive tackle picture is so blurry for the team. After waiving Dana Stubblefield the bubble is still yet to be completely filled. Rookie Anthony Adams has filled that role adequately as has Travis Kirschke, but neither seems to be of the starting caliber and just may be forced into that role since Jim Flanigan has failed to nurse himself back to full health.

The 49ers have terminated their relationship with Jim Flanigan as he has been sidelined for the majority of the summer with, first a bulging disc in his back that caused pain in his lower legs and more recently with a pulled calf muscle. It has been one thing right after another with Jim that kept him from playing in pre-season games that highlighted the playing time of Anthony Adams and Travis Kirschke.

Saleem Rasheed is another fine option that the 49ers missed out on last year on defense. Rasheed combined with a Jamie Winborn provide extraordinary speed that equals big plays all over the field from special teams to lightening quick strikes to the opposing quarterback.

As a rookie with San Francisco, he missed 10 games with various quadriceps injuries. Rasheed was selected in the third round believe it or not in the 2002 NFL draft, and has struggled thus far to find his true identity with the team as of yet. Since these injuries have passed he has worked very hard in getting his legs into better physical condition.

But yet again on the fourth day of training camp, Rasheed sustained an injury to his left hamstring that sidelined him yet again for 28 days of practice. He has seemingly been behind the eight ball no matter how you look at his career thus far in the NFL. It has been defensive coordinator Jim Mora though that has rallied to his side and still believes that Saleem can still contribute in a positive manner to this football team.

"It was actually a pretty good strain. It wasn't a pull," Rasheed said of his latest injury. "They wanted to keep me out to make sure I fully recovered. To be safe, it was good that I stayed out as long as I did. They didn't want me to feel anything when I came back."

Saleem Rasheed is a devout Muslim, and goes through a fasting stage in honor of their holy season pf Ramaden. It was under former head coach Steve Mariucci's opinion that it was his fasting that led to his injured leg, and later aggravated it yet again putting him out for the season.

Rasheed though thinks otherwise and has been in close consultation with 49er trainers in looking at different intakes his body will need in order to sustain a fast he takes yet again this season.

The physical war an athlete's body goes through in the NFL leads one to believe that it will be difficult at best to avoid another injury should his strength be sapped from fasting. It is the trainers that will need to invest time in doing their homework and finding ways to replenish Rasheed's body of the nourishment he receives from eating.

So there you have it with a defensive overview of the current and the past. It will be a defensive journey that all of us will take together as fans as we watch this season. We all have little doubts about what the offense will be able to do, but it will be how the defense dictates the rest of the game that will hold true for the season as the writing is on the wall for us to stop highflying teams such as St. Louis and Seattle.

On a less notable night it was the last pre-season game of the season at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego that featured the 49ers losing their only contest 24-3. It was a game of little importance though keeps in mind except from the standpoint of making final player evaluations. It is from here that the 49ers made some real hard decisions and choices that rocked even the most conventional minds in most 49er fan faithful.

It was penalties like you've never seen before as the 49ers were penalized 11 times for 139 total yards, sometimes this is what you see for total offense in an entire game so just think of the negative ramifications this has. Jeff Garcia played in only one series and many of the starters were held out to prevent an unneeded injury at this juncture in the season.

Ken Dorsey was the star in this lopsided game for the 49ers by going 5-of-13 for 82 yards and one interception. He made tremendous progress throughout the pre-season enough in fact to unseat Brandon Doman as the third string quarterback. He threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Arland Bruce in this game but it was called back on an illegal procedure call against Jerome Davis.

This was the only significant action on the part of the 49ers in this contest, which really wasn't one considering all that was on display here. Many un-drafted and drafted athletes fighting to shine in a spotlight that was too bright for many of them. It is from this loss that San Francisco will rise to the occasion and fight another day. So many are against us this season as there was last season.

But I say to heck with the skeptics and the sports analysts. It is what we know and believe that count in our hearts and minds and in those of our coaches and players. I believe we have more than a splinters chance in nosing into the post-season. I feel it coming on already as the hours tick by and the glorious season dawns upon us. Are you ready for some 49er football?

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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