It was by all accounts one of the most unusual sights of the
49ers' training camp. During an afternoon workout, new coach
Steve Mariucci had his quarterbacks take snaps, drop into the
pocket and then practice running for their lives. With Mariucci
providing the defensive pressure, the players rehearsed, one by
one, sprinting for the safety of the sidelines or simply
throwing the ball away. Once, as he closed in on starter Steve
Young, Mariucci hollered for him to get rid of the ball, and
when Young obliged, the coach clapped his hands
enthusiastically. "There," Mariucci shouted, "now we've got you
for another week."
While the drill was designed to help all the quarterbacks, it
was largely meant for Young--who in July became the league's
highest-paid player ($45 million over six years). He must remain
healthy if San Francisco is to return to the Super Bowl for the
first time since '94.
That has proved to be much easier said than done. Since the
35-year-old Young was named MVP of the NFL and the Super Bowl
three years ago, he has missed all or parts of 18 games. During
that time the 49ers lost their stranglehold on the NFC West, a
division they had won nine of the past 10 years heading into
'96. The upstart Panthers have not only beaten the 49ers in
three of the team's first four meetings, but they also won the
division last season. Meanwhile, Young endured his most trying
year as a starter in San Francisco, sustaining two concussions
as well as injuries to his ribs and groin. Consequently, Jerry
Rice averaged a career-low 11.6 yards per catch. "We can't get
done what we need to get done on this team without Steve Young,"
says 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
That being the case, the club would have been wise to take some
of the money it gave Young (not to mention some of the $24
million that went to extend defensive tackle Bryant Young's
contract) and use it to upgrade a line that was shaky at best in
'96. In language that the real estate tycoon DeBartolo would
understand, San Francisco purchased a $45 million home and is
protecting it with a toy poodle.
Left tackle Harris Barton, who sat out three games last year,
will miss the first four to six weeks of this season with a
sprained left knee. He'll be replaced by third-year veteran Tim
Hanshaw, who was released twice by the 49ers last year and whose
NFL experience amounts to one kneel-down play at the end of a
game last season. The right tackle will be Kirk Scrafford, who
was limited to one start last year because of a foot injury.
Twelve-year veteran Ray Brown returns at left guard, and San
Francisco signed free agent Kevin Gogan, 32, formerly of the
Raiders, to play right guard. Center Chris Dalman will miss at
least the first three weeks after spraining his left knee. To
replace him the team re-signed Jesse Sapolu, a 15-year veteran
who had surgery to repair a valve in his heart in the off-season
and was released by the club in February.
"The line truly is key to the team," says Young, who not
surprisingly is being encouraged to take more three- and
five-step drops. "I was hoping the line would be a real cohesive
group, and now we're having to fill holes because of injuries."
Lacking a marquee back since the departure of Ricky Watters
after the '94 season, San Francisco signed free agent Garrison
Hearst, who ran for 847 yards last year with the Bengals. "This
may be sacrilegious, but Hearst may be the best back we've ever
had here," says offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick, who has
been with the team since '79.
That's good news for Young, who could use a little help.