Now that legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice wears the black and white of the Oakland Raiders, It will be the first time that the 49er’s will be without his services in 17 seasons. It has been preordained that wide receiver Terrell Owens will step in and take his place after an incredible 2000 season.

A year ago at this time, Terrell Owens felt like his whole world had just suddenly caved in on him, and that his career was going to take a dramatic step backwards. The only quarterback he had ever been familiar with Steve Young had just officially retired.

His numbers statistically had plummeted from 1998 to 1999 (343 fewer yards and 10 fewer touchdowns despite being a full-time starter). And what was once close to being a Super Bowl appearance he had suddenly become a member of a (4-12) team drowning in salary cap hell.

Owens was not ready to call it quits as he began lengthy discussions with the new man at the helm quarterback Jeff Garcia. He had a confident pre-season, and he transformed his worst season into a break through year anyone would be proud of.

Even his mentor Jerry Rice watched from both on the sideline and on the playing field in utter admiration as Owens gradually sub-planted him from his position as the 49er’s go-to-guy of the future.

For the very first time in all of 17 long seasons the San Francisco 49er’s will enter a season without Jerry Rice being a part of their starting lineup. But for those that believe or question rather the torch will not be passed smoothly, well you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Owens snatched it away from Jerry Rice before he even left. And he is still running with it today.

“I think maybe the last couple of years I’ve really tried to define myself as a receiver, really better myself,” said Owens, who became unstoppable at times during last season’s All-Pro campaign, when he made 97 catches for 1,451-yards and 13 touchdowns. “The thing is, I’ve been productive and I’ve had Jerry with me. I grew a lot just by his example and his leadership, just watching him play.”

I must say so myself that as I observed the determination and fantastic ease that he demonstrated on the field, in both his receiving capabilities and his ability to gain yardage after the catch left me breathless at times. It was almost like the 49er offense sometimes never stopped beating with his presence there.

Rice even though he was there seemed to be a side-step supporter as he relinquished his role in being the main man, and was thrilled to see his student peak right in front of him.

I find absolutely nothing from any team in the league in slowing us down, our receivers will be able to play and produce with the very best defensive backs in the league.

This is the year they will define themselves, and make enormous strides in completing not only their own learning curves but also moving the chains and scoring points in rampant succession.

“I think we can match up with just about any defensive backs in the league, and I think you can compare us with any receiving corps. In the NFL,” Owens said of a group that includes J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets, among others. “I think once the season starts, people will see that and start giving us credit.”

The positive vibes are really flowing with this unit, and all of them have something to prove. Stokes and Streets seem to be in a battle to prove who will be the second starting wide receiver, many believe that Stokes has taken too long to develop and that he has slippery fingers in securing the ball. Streets demonstrated speed and extraordinary quickness that blew away not only coaches but fans as well.

Both have so much to gain by having a productive season if not a break through season, as they are both in a critical stage of their careers and have so much to gain. Both have openly complained last season that they both deserve more playing time. Well that time has come due and now the talking stops and actions take place with definitive results.

Head Coach Steve Mariucci sounded off with some optimism of his own in signaling that this is where San Francisco has wanted itself to be with these young talented receivers. Now it will be able to maximize its use of all it’s weapons and hopes that the teeth of their offense takes hold right here in their receiving corps.

“It’s a pretty darn good group,” Mariucci said. “I thought last year we had an excellent receiving corps. With a young Tai Streets added to the mix. He will be better and more experienced. And I’m confident that Terrell and J.J will have terrific years.”

If there ever was a position that San Francisco maximized or reaped it’s most rewards from it has always made the receiving unit a first priority. Many teams struggle from year to year trying to identify and have a receiver emerge from their group and be an example to the others to follow. The 49er’s have had lady luck on their side for a very long time for this is where we find our butter for our bread.

“That’s one thing this organization has always done: Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, R.C. Owens, Gene Washington; it always seems like they’ve had a bevy of receivers and it’s my job not to screw them up,” said second-year receivers coach George Stewart, who feels confident that he hasn’t lost too much in the way of experience.

“When I took this job, Jerry Rice was like a dictionary, like an encyclopedia. And Terrell Owens has done an outstanding job of studying that encyclopedia. And now he has to be that source for these players.” “And hopefully, Terrell can continue that same tradition, and maybe add his signature to it.” I believe he can and it will happen despite Jerry being across the Bay.

Terrell seems to embrace the notion that he is the main man in this season’s 49er offense, after having a career high season in 2000 he is fully confident that he can handle the pressure of having to score points on a regular basis. After his expensive taunting celebration in Texas Stadium on September 24th, 2000, he seems to have all the swagger in the world towards advertising that he is the real deal.

Many believe Terrell has only been successful because he has played side by side with Jerry Rice for so long, therefore he has been able to adopt the same playing principles and techniques used by Jerry to his advantage.

Well of course he has adopted a lot from Jerry and with his blessing as well. Who could be more fortunate than Terrell Owens having played next to the legend for so long and come away simple-minded?

“They had my picture right next to his in a magazine, and it said, 'Diamonds in the Rough,’” Owens said of Rice, who also burst onto the scene from an unheralded Southern school, Mississippi Valley State.” And then they drafted me and I was playing right with him; I took everything I could from him.

Owens was a third round draft pick back in the 1996 NFL Draft out of Tennessee-Chattanooga. He has been so very critical in many a situation where he has used his leaping ability and his run after the catch to produce points to this offense.

Owens holds a high regard for Jerry Rice and is most humble and thankful in his praises of the greatest receiver of all time. He has had a solid relationship with Jerry for many years, and he has matured into something special under his guidance and leadership.

“You know, I was thinking, Jerry is the greatest receiver of all time. Will anybody ever eclipse that thought? Will there ever be a player to come along and they’ll say he’s greater than Jerry? It’s so stuck in everybody’s mind. I was just looking at the statistics in the newspaper, the yardage and the touchdowns that he had every year to get to where he is today. That’s a lot of balls and a lot of yards.”

Just two years ago the 49er’s laid down some major money to secure both Owens and J.J. Stokes to long-term contracts, knowing in their minds that Jerry Rice would not be around forever. Then they released Rice so that they could afford their investment. However Owens is the one that has grown the most, Stokes has been squeezed and diminished in value, catching only 64 passes over the last two seasons.

Stokes the 10th overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft out of UCLA, realizes his golden opportunity is now at hand, and that he must exploit it to it’s fullest capacity. Stokes has lobbied for increased playing time for years, now he will finally have justified time to prove he was worth the wait.

“I’m looking forward to seeing a whole lot of rocks,” said Stokes, a wide smile overtaking his face. “The last two years, 30 balls? For me, that wasn’t getting it done. I can tell you I was not happy after any game last year. I’m looking forward to getting it done.”

Stokes has some new competition in the way of Tai Streets that has really turned the heat up a bit on competing for that second receiver slot in the lineup. Streets intends on keeping that pressure applied so Stokes will have to be on top of his game everyday.

Streets is a pleasant surprise from Michigan who was stolen in the sixth round of the 1999 NFL Draft. Streets was a question mark because of an Achille’s tendon injury, but he healed with two weeks to go in his rookie season and dazzled with his speed and hands in limited action last year.

The bad luck was not over for Streets however as he broke his leg in the final home game of last season. But with a metal rod in place and his speed still intact, he has already returned to practice and is ready to become a key ingredient in this 49er offense.

“It’s time for him to contribute. He’s ready. And he’s capable,” Mariucci said. “Does he replace Jerry Rice? No. Nobody can replace Jerry Rice. But he’s skillful, he’s big enough, he’s smart enough and he’s been sitting by the wayside long enough. I expect big things from him, and I expect big things from the other two guys as well.”

Owens will be in the 49er spotlight and he is well aware of Jerry’s history with the club and all of his high standards. It will be up to Owens to uphold those high standards that Jerry had and formulate them into his own. The other receivers for guidance and leadership will look upon Owens.

Owens will face more double-teams this season as a result of Jerry Rice being gone. But that was becoming more apparent as last season rolled on, Owens became stronger because of it as the season winded down.

One needs no further evidence than his NFL-record 20 receptions in Week 16 against the Chicago Bears. After being named an All-Pro receiver, Owens has welcomed his status as one of the league’s top players, and he only wants to enhance his reputation.

I expect Terrell Owens to work even harder to fill the void left by Jerry Rice this season, he will not rest until he has proven that they can move on without him, in fact maybe move on better without him. All three receivers seem to have settled in comfortably with their new roles in the 49er offense. The training camp coming July 25th will only be more opportunity for all three to strut their stuff.

“Everybody is expecting a big slack off,” Stokes said. “At the same time, we’ve been in a situation where (Rice) basically didn’t play a season (in 1997), although we had Steve Young at the time. But Jeff Garcia has proved himself as a Pro Bowl quarterback now, so we’re just going to have to repeat that situation and build upon it.”

I can still relate to that devastating year that we lost Jerry, it was a real test for new Head Coach Steve Mariucci to be without his most potent offensive weapon, however he knew he had the talented depth to step up and deliver, and that is what happened. Owens and Stokes went on to stabilize the passing game and keep it very productive without Rice there.

When Rice suffered his devastating knee injury at the start of the 1997 season in Tampa Bay, Owens and Stokes lit up the scoreboard, combining for 118 catches for 1,669-yards and 12 touchdowns. In the ensuing seasons, Owens emerged as the 49er’s primary go-to-guy and a player defenses must game plan around.

As the order goes Terrell Owens will be the primary first receiver followed by J.J.Stokes who takes Jerry Rice’s position, and then Tai Streets as the third and rookie Cedric Wilson is getting a crash course for his projected role as the fourth receiver.

“I really look at the receivers who could be our foursome as a highly talented group,” Garcia said. “I think when you only have one guy you can rely on and teams know that and they double-cover him, obviously that makes it difficult to have success.”

“But I think we have a few guys we can go to, who can make plays, who can do something with the ball after they make the catch. That’s not to say that Jerry won’t be a loss, but we obviously need to move on, too.”

Terrell Owens in a game last season against the Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium on September 24th, 2000 made a mockery of their arch rival for so many years, in sprinting to midfield twice and standing on the Dallas star with arms raised to the heavens. The 49er’s defeated the Cowboys that day in their home 41-24.

It raised so many questions about what is true sportsmanship in professional football; did Terrell make poor decisions in celebrating so blatant and so openly without regard to his opponent’s feelings? Many 49er fans stand firm with Owens demonstration saying that what he did was no different to what other Cowboys had done to us years ago during our rival years.

But can we honestly justify his brash and intentional actions in defacing the very emblem that represents the Dallas organization it’s very own star in the center of their stadium?

The fallout was tremendous for both teams, and Head Coach Steve Mariucci felt compelled to discipline Terrell Owens with a suspension and a fine. Owens of course has been bitter ever since and disagrees that his actions warranted such a harsh response from the team he helped defeat it’s long hated rival.

The arbitration hearing on the incident between the NFL Players Association and the 49er’s was set to pass final judgment on the incident and settle the issue once and for all between both parties. Owens has lobbied for a refund of the $24,294 that was taken from him out of his paycheck, which was docked because of his brash actions in his celebration in Dallas.

It has sparked a national debate about what is true sportsmanship after taking place nine months ago. The 49er’s all by themselves without league action punished Owens by fining him a week’s pay and banishing him from team facilities for a week. The league later felt the sanctions were justified and enough.

Owens has been fuming about it ever since: “I just didn’t really like the way I was treated,” Owens said one Wednesday after mini-camp practice. “I’ve done a lot for this club and this organization. The way I got treated vs. the way (Dallas) players got treated; I think their players got fined only $1,000 dollars a piece.”

“I can’t shake it,” Owens said. “When I’m out here (practicing or playing), it doesn’t bother me; I forgive, but I never forget.” Owens went on to acknowledge that both Mariucci and himself sat down and discussed the incident just a month ago, and said: “I think things went smooth,” Owens said of the meeting.

Sam Kagel was expected to serve as the neutral arbitrator in the 1 pm. hearing on the matter, and has up to 60 days to make a ruling. Arthur McAfee, who will serve as counsel for the NFLPA, declined to comment.

Richard Berthelsen said: “The best way to look at it is what the league has done in the past with taunting incidents. 99 times out of 100, the league, not the club, imposed the fine. The largest single fine before was $10,000. That’s an apple to an orchard compared to what Terrell Owens was fined.”

Was the fine too severe and was the incident really that serious to warrant such severe action? A league source has admitted that the league typically levies fines between $2,500 and $5,000 for taunting or other un-sportsmanship like cases.

Terrell Owens considered the main racehorse in the 49er receiving arsenal signed a seven-year, $34.2 million contract in 1999. Owens theatrics began just 2 minutes, 49 seconds before halftime when he sprinted to midfield after giving the 49er’s a 17-3 lead on a three-yard touchdown catch. Owens stopped on the Cowboy’s star symbol and raised his arms skyward.

Cowboy’s running back Emmitt Smith scored a touchdown 1:07 later and then mimicked Owens by sprinting to midfield and symbolically reclaiming the sacred star logo. The anger along the Cowboy sideline was apparent as I observed that game in September; I will never forget the faces with utter disdain and rage.

With 4:05 remaining in the game, Owens made his second controversial dash to midfield. After he put the 49er’s ahead 41-17 on a one-yard touchdown catch, he headed for the star and, upon reaching it, he got blindsided by Cowboys free safety George Teague. An on-field brawl nearly ensued between the two teams.

In all I have gone on record as supporting the 49er disciplinary action taken against Owens, the only stipulation I have is that maybe the fine was a little severe. His actions did warrant some form of corrective action and I believe Mariucci handled it with distinction.

“As far as the treatment, the punishment; I just feel like it was too severe. I can understand the suspension, but to fine me a whole game check, I think that was really too excessive,” Owens said. “I’ll be the first to admit it’s really not about the money. At the same time, it’s about a way to treat a person.”

However in a dramatic twist right before the arbitration hearing was to begin both Owens and Mariucci said they had both reached a settlement on the issue, thus avoiding an arbitration hearing regarding Owens $24,294 fine from his midfield celebrations Sept. 24th in Dallas.

“We came to a mutual agreement between coach and I and agreed to settle it,” Owens said after a mini-camp practice. “Instead of keep bringing it up, I want to put it behind me and play football.” “The most important thing with me right now is to focus on the upcoming season and not really reflect on anything that happened last year. Let bygones be bygones.”

Mariucci would not admit or confirm if the 49er’s had made any financial concessions to Owens. “I do not deal with that whatsoever, so let’s move on,” Mariucci said. “This is the final chapter. Close the book.” “It’s behind us and we’ve moved forward,” Mariucci said. “Terrell Owens is having a great off-season and we’re both looking forward to having a fantastic season.”

I believe The San Francisco 49er’s will find some real gems in their receiving foursome, as Terrell Owens is more than ready to take over the limelight after a breakout season last year. He will always remember the shadow of Jerry Rice and it will be some positive form of reinforcement for him as he starts out on his own.

Stokes and Streets are going to be electrifying in my opinion as each will be eager to bypass the other in the race to establish their hold on the number two position. Intense competition will enhance their edge and define their abilities for the season to be.

Rookie Cedric Wilson will also get a long look from the training and coaching staff as he starts his journey as the athlete to prove something this year. He will be a valuable asset on special teams and a fresh face on the roster. I am very optimistic over the future production of this unit, we have a proud heritage and tradition in this area and I find it to be at the top of the league in regards to overall talent and potential.

Finally I would like to address the realignment of the National Football League and how it effects the San Francisco 49er’s. It is such a positive for this franchise to have it’s division rivals so close in proximity as overall travel time will be cut virtually in half because of the realignment.

All over are the journeys annually to Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans and they no inherit Mike Holmgren and the Seattle Seahawks twice a year. Beginning in 2002, the 49er’s and Rams will be joined in the National Football Conference West Division by the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.

The league will have eight four-team divisions. For now, the 12 playoff format is still in the plans, although there have been talks to change; possibly as many as 16 teams but more likely 14.

“When I came here,” said General Manager Terry Donahue, on KNBR 680. “I couldn’t believe how much travel this team did. We travel on Friday nights. Coaches are unable to see their sons play football on Friday nights, or watch their daughters do cheerleading.”

“We’re developing new rivalries,” said Mariucci. “Fans are going to become familiar with Arizona and Seattle as time goes on, these will be the teams we’ll be accustomed to playing.”

The realignment process was thought to be a long and dragged out affair as individual teams were thought to be upset to lose rivalries with certain teams, they had been accustomed to playing over the years.

Just the opposite came true as the decisions on realignment moved swiftly and was approved by the owners almost as quickly, with only a few having stipulations. I know I was one of those that thought the worst in this case scenario and where would the 49er’s fit into the system, along with what kind of competition we would face.

I am able to come away satisfied that our overall travel time has been cut down to allow our players not only quality time home with their families but keep them that much more rested to face their opposition after a long traveling ordeal from thousands of miles away.

I believe everyone comes out a winner in this situation, and most of all it will be invaluable to team morale and enhance chemistry among one another. Being that jet lag and exhaustion will no longer be a hindrance and freshness and crispness in practice repetition will be an asset obtained.