Coming and Going

Mar 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM

The San Francisco 49ers have learned some valuable lessons and are trying to come clean in their second purging of the roster due to salary cap ramifications. A steep price has been paid to try and get to where General Manager Terry Donahue describes as a "better place." We appeared as the very model to the entire league in that we had the correct formula for rebuilding a franchise in 1999 and returning back to competitive form.

We reached the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, and we proved that under the right guidelines and formulas blueprinted by former general manager Bill Walsh that we had the directions we needed to reach the Super Bowl.

35% of the 49ers 2004 salary cap room or even better $27.9 million of the $80.6 million total allowed by the league is committed to players no longer with the team. That total of course includes $10.3 million in unamoritized bonus money given to newly released quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Still many fans out there that have followed the 49ers for many years are without an answer as to why? Why has this organization all of a sudden fallen down and is unable to get right back up right away. Are we in another rebuilding mode? Or are we in something else?

"That is a good question. I am not positive that I have a very good answer for you," 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said. "I don't know how to answer that except to say that getting out of salary cap hell is not something that you can do overnight. It's a recovery process."

That is what we are officially in folks a "recovery process." At least that's the best explanation that the front office is giving us out of their Santa Clara headquarters. Bad management decisions have undoubtedly been made and whom do we hold accountable for all these mistakes? When you look back on our history it has always been about "going for it now." And it has always been the mandate of this franchise to try and reach the Super Bowl every season.

It wouldn't be professional football to us by any other means. We were bred to reap success at no matter the cost and this franchise didn't care about what expense it took to reach the final milestone in winning it all at the Super Bowl as we know it. But in an era of salary cap mandates and multiple restrictions, the NFL has changed its collective face and has enabled teams to compete on a more even keel like never before.

Bad luck has followed this franchise, such as when defensive lineman Junior Bryant went down with a career-ending neck injury in 2000, only seven months after signing a seven-year deal. The 49ers delayed Bryant's release until last June, and he winded up costing $2.3 million against the 2004 cap.

Bad personnel decisions were made and admitted to. One great example is when Donahue gave wide receiver J.J. Stokes a five-year contract and a $4.5 million signing bonus in 1999. Now Stokes is no longer with the team after being released last June and will count $2.27 million against the cap.

Contract manipulations are another source of cancer that the team has partaken in. Even general Manager Terry Donahue blames this as being the meat of most of the so-called "dead money" we are responsible for. Donahue now admits that the team from now on is absolutely committed to not restructuring players contracts, which in reality amounts to reducing player's base salaries and awarding them signing bonuses to make up the difference.

So as you can see we have been our own worst enemy in a sense that we have made decisions that have been controversial and downright ludicrous in many instances in that we have lost players that never fulfilled their promises and lost player's that had career ending injuries no fault to our own just plain bad luck that has come back to haunt us.

As with departures of offensive linemen Derrick Deese, Ron Stone, running back Garrison Hearst, defensive lineman Sean Moran, cornerback Jason Webster, wide receivers Tai Streets, Terrell Owens and quarterback Jeff Garcia comes voids in almost every category on the team.

Keeping as many as we can of our own was the speech and commitment that was coming out of the front office in late December as the regular season came to a close and so did our record at 7-9. With all the above gone it seems little penance of what those words honestly meant, as they took a sudden detour in that getting healthier requires the dumping of some very high profile veteran players.

Just after releasing four starters though the San Francisco 49ers did commit to one player and that being defensive end John Engelberger to a three-year deal that once some incentives are reached can be voided after two-years. John Engelberger has been a reliable defensive end for the 49ers in that he started all 16 games last season on the left side and made 35 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

John Engelberger's deal in principle is worth $3.2 million with a $1.2 million dollar signing bonus that can be closed out after two years. Safety reserve Ronnie Heard was also retained for one more year at the cost of $535,000 as well. Derrick Deese who was one of the last holdovers besides defensive tackle Bryant Young from the Super Bowl era landed a starting tackle position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for six-years. His contract is worth $15 million and includes a $2.5 million signing bonus.

I believe signing Safety Ronnie Heard was a smart move in that he solidifies an area that is thinned with the departure of Zack Bronson. Heard has been with San Francisco for four years as a former University of Mississippi football star after making the team as an un-drafted free agent.

In his career with the 49ers he has made 89 tackles, three sacks, eight passes defended and five interceptions. He has started 10 games at both free and strong safety. Another momentous decision happened with the signing of veteran cornerback Ahmed Plummer.

He received a five-year package with an $11 million signing bonus. At the same time they resigned long snapper Brian Jennings and ensured that his status on special teams remains a constant.

"We look at Ahmed the same way we look at a player like (defensive tackle Bryant Young)," general manager Terry Donahue said. It's hard to find that kind of character; it's hard to find that kind of integrity."

Still when you think about the signing of Ahmed Plummer you have to feel some kind of relief in knowing that we retain our best cornerback and still have an improving Mike Rumph on the other side of the field as well. Plummer brings instant credibility to our secondary and he will become a more vocal leader on and off the field as well.

Plummer said: "At the end of the season they made it very clear to me that I was a big part of what they were trying to do and they desired to keep me there, so that made me believe that they would be very competitive so that I could come back as a 49er."

What makes Plummer special is his ability to make plays happen on the field. I have been impressed with his cover4age skills and his ability to create turnovers via defended passes and interceptions as well. He is our blanket corner in comparison to Mike Rumph and we will need both of them to play at a top level in conjunction with a top-flight nickel cornerback as well.

Former right guard Ron Stone landed a deal across the Bay with the Oakland Raiders for three-years worth $8.5 million including a $2.5 million signing bonus. His Pro Bowl experience of three years is something our offensive line will sorely miss even though he was injured often. Kyle Kosier will have very big shoes to fill considering the experience level of a Ron Stone but his experiences from last season will serve him well in this new adventure.

Still in other departures wide receiver Tai Streets signed a one-year deal with his former head coach in Steve Mariucci with the Detroit Lions worth $1.5 million and a $750,000 signing bonus. Defensive tackle Travis Kirscke also signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers for four years in a deal worth $6.4 million that included a $1.1 million signing bonus. Both of these players will be missed and it will take a rookie or a cheap free agent to fulfill their voids they leave on our team.

Still San Francisco despite all the roster losses in high profile names continue to pursue options at strengthening the team and getting it ready to compete in 2004. Free agent guard David Loverne has been brought in to practice and to have a physical. David Loverne is an intriguing candidate to bolster an offensive line manned by seemingly inexperience.

With Derrick Deese and Ron Stone gone second-year players in Kwame Harris and Kyle Kosier have been called up and are expected to play better as time goes on. The New York Jets drafted Loverne as a third round pick in 1999. Since then he has played with the New York Jets, Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams. He was originally from California and welcomes the opportunity should he get a shot at playing for the 49ers.

The San Francisco 49ers have also brought in free agent guard DeMingo Graham who was with the 49ers briefly in a training camp last year. He has battled weight problems since then unable to land on a team anywhere last season. He has spent four years with two franchises in San Diego and Houston. Now he is determined to turn his life around after weighing some 360-pounds and has lost up to 50 pounds already.

This in itself tells me that the San Francisco 49ers are serious about addressing the offensive line and getting it back in order. I have confidence that new left tackle Kwame Harris will play at a high level this season and I have elevated hopes that Kyle Kosier will play at a level that rivals that of Ron Stone himself.

When you look at what the 49ers are doing you have to be happy that they are addressing the needs of the team in some very creative ways. Candidates for the offensive line seem energetic and practical replacements but on the other hand you wonder about other areas of concern.

Tight end Jed Weaver who had a career season with San Francisco after taking over for the injured Eric Johnson signed a three-year contract worth $3.085 million, including a $500,000 signing bonus with the Denver Broncos. Jed Weaver proved his theory that he isn't just a blocking tight end by making 35 catches for 437-yards and one touchdown.

Eric Johnson in turn was extended a contract for three-years worth $4.5 million with $2 million guaranteed in its first season. Johnson missed all of last season after suffering a broken collarbone in an August 23rd exhibition game against the New Orleans Saints.

This was a smart move, as I believe Eric Johnson to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL when he is fully functional. In his career he has started 25 of 28 games and caught 76 passes, three for touchdowns, in his career.

With Eric Johnson back in swing and teaming up with fifth round pick Aaron Walker from last year, we should see a formidable duo in the tight end formations we might be willing to deploy on a more complete basis. Eric Johnson needs to establish a solid season in statistics to establish his stature in the NFL and to provide a complete receiving threat for the 49ers with their wide receiving position in flux.

When you think at how important the tight end has become in today's NFL you'll agree that this was a great deal. And on top of that San Francisco will rely upon both Johnson and Walker in that the wide receiving positions will be just developing with Brandon Lloyd and Cedrick Wilson as the expected experienced starters.

"We are really delighted that Eric will be back," 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said. "Eric is an outstanding down-field receiver. We are looking forward to big things from him. Eric will be a major asset for Tim Rattay."

The San Francisco 49ers tried to address their depth concerns at cornerback with the signing of Calvin Carlyle. Carlyle is a corner that played for Dennis Erickson at Oregon State before entering the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.

He was a three-year starter at Oregon State as a safety. As a senior he manufactured 47 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defended. As a junior, he recorded 49 tackles and one pass defended.

Calvin Carlyle has spent time with both the Redskins and Packers last season. He is expected to compete for the nickel corner position that has been weakened by Jason Webster's departure to the Atlanta Falcons. He is expected to compete directly with Rashad Holman for this position along with a possible draft pick in which the 49ers are expected to take in their need to strengthen the secondary.

Renegade wide receiver Donald Hayes was brought in for a workout by the 49ers in their bid to add experience to the receiving element of our offense. To be frank and honest with you I wish they hadn't even bothered.

Hayes has been a bust wherever he has been despite his size and his four years as a Carolina Panther where he caught 132 passes for 1,855-yards and seven touchdowns while starting in 31 games and appearing in 51. His last season as a New England Patriot saw him struggling, catching just 12 passes for 133-yards and two touchdowns.

If we want to have a veteran with statistics like this we are better off bringing back J.J. Stokes for Gods sake. Donald Hayes stands 6-4, and weighs 220-pounds but has never been the physical wide receiver desired by the clubs he has played for. He has struggled to find separation and is consistently easily defended.

If this is the talent pool that the San Francisco 49ers are looking at in free agent wide receivers then we are better off drafting two top wide receivers this year and developing them throughout the season ourselves. Certainly the market is thin and with no great playmakers available so we are faced with playing very raw talent almost immediately.

San Francisco is now at a crossroads in their off-season planning. Pre-draft preparation is now underway and scouting reports are being combined for further analysis. I am very excited for this year's 2004 NFL draft. It is the best football spectacle in the off-season and brings forth the excitement that will be our 2004 season. So much is being said of our inability to compete and our vulnerability revealed due to the salary cap purges we have just been through.

But I am optimistic despite the relatively genuine concerns that exist. I am praying that Dennis Erickson and his crack team of assistant coaches will help find a way to win some games and even possibly generate a season that capitalizes on the .500 marks. Tim Rattay will have to stay healthy and his line will have to protect him at all costs.

Our defense will play a greater role like never before as the offense tinkers with a new receiving corps. Add a running game behind a new offensive line with a new starting back in Kevan Barlow who will need to be a better blitz stopgap if Tim is to play another game without injury.

To this end I conclude that we will be competitive despite the releasing of such a talented pool of veterans. Getting younger, stronger and faster is something that is a fundamental requirement in the NFL today. There are no other substitutes but to trust that these young individuals will learn fast and develop into modern day gladiators on the field that execute with passion and intensity. I raise my glass in toasting the front office, "Please make some good decisions not only for the team but for the fans 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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