2 San Francisco 49ers Seeing no other way to deal with a trouble spot, the Niners take a chance on two running backs whose troubles, the club hopes, are behind them

August 29, 1999

The 49ers have been the NFL's most successful team over the past
20 years, establishing a standard of excellence that carries an
unusual burden: It's not enough that they win, they have to win
with class and style, or their fans start screaming about the
death of a dynasty. Even though San Francisco, which dominated
the '80s with four Super Bowl championships, has put up the best
record of the '90s as an encore, there's a last-days-of-Rome
pessimism in the air--a sense that when the fall finally comes,
it will be by the 49ers' own hand.

That's why there was so much significance attached to the
two-week span in July during which the team signed running backs
Charlie Garner and Lawrence Phillips plus defensive end Charles
Haley--three free agents whose baggage made them potential
threats to San Francisco's locker room harmony. To many northern
Californians, already repulsed by the power struggle that
resulted in Denise DeBartolo York's seizing control of the team
from her brother and co-owner, Eddie DeBartolo, the Niners had
become soulless mercenaries. The signing of Phillips, who while
at Nebraska pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges after
dragging an ex-girlfriend down a flight of stairs, played
horribly in the politically correct Bay Area. The team's
higher-ups spoke of second chances and positive peer pressure
and teaching Phillips the 49er way, but this was the stark
truth: Dealing from weakness and staring up at defending
conference champion Atlanta in the NFC West, San Francisco felt
it had no other choice.

With All-Pro halfback Garrison Hearst still recovering from a
broken ankle and possibly out for the season, the 49ers, who had
the league's best rushing attack in '98, became willing
codependents in Phillips's quest to revive his career. "We've
earned our classy image, and we enjoy the fruits of that image,"
says Steve Mariucci, the team's third-year coach. "We won't even
consider some draft prospects because they don't live up to our
standards. But it's harder to be picky in free agency,
especially when you have a need--and our need cropped up at a
difficult time. We felt we had to take a risk."

In late June doctors declared Hearst's career in jeopardy after
discovering that a bone in his surgically repaired ankle had
begun degenerating. Panic ensued. Suddenly San Francisco, already
thin at cornerback and along the defensive line, had only one
active back on its roster who had gained rushing yards for the
team last season: quarterback Steve Young, who causes heart
palpitations on the Niners' sideline every time he crosses the
line of scrimmage. Mariucci, vice president and general manager
Bill Walsh and other executives assessed their limited options
and settled on Garner, whose unreliable behavior during his five
years in Philadelphia annoyed the Eagles' coaches, and Phillips,
whose disappointing stints in St. Louis and Miami had been
slightly redeemed by an MVP performance in NFL Europe last
spring.

Neither back is likely to approach the team-record 1,570 rushing
yards Hearst established last season, but all the 49ers really
want is a ground game respectable enough to allow Young to throw
to his trio of big-play receivers--emerging star Terrell Owens,
rangy J.J. Stokes and 36-year-old legend Jerry Rice, who quietly
seems to have regained his pre-knee-surgery burst--without
getting brutalized.

There are plenty of football-related concerns about Phillips.
His success at Nebraska and in Europe came when he had ample
running room against slower defenders, and many question whether
he can hit holes quickly and be a tough inside runner in the
NFL. Mariucci hopes to use the 5'9", 187-pound Garner to spell
Phillips and to showcase his open-field skills on third down.
Fifth-round pick Terry Jackson and free-agent signee Travis
Jervey are big backs with speed who might be added to the mix.

The Niners also have concerns at fullback. Walsh, who worked
magic with the team's strained salary-cap situation in the
off-season, raised eyebrows internally by shipping last year's
starter, Marc Edwards, a second-round pick in '97, to Cleveland
for a fourth-round pick this year. Free-agent signee Tommy
Vardell and second-year man Fred Beasley will attempt to fill
the void.

At the outset Garner and Phillips made favorable impressions in
terms of demeanor, dedication and deftness. "A few weeks ago we
were in deep trouble, but they are both dynamic runners and
could create a phenomenal situation," says Young, who turns 38
in October. "'The 49er way' is not metaphorical, it's tangible,
and if someone here behaves inappropriately, he stands out and
is shunned. The attitude is, We're taking another shot at
winning a championship, so come join the group."

There may not be many chances left. --M.S.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP ONE STEP AT A TIME After gaining six yards on three carries in his preseason debut with the Niners, Phillips had nowhere to go but up. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS

SCHEDULE

Sept. 12 at Jacksonville
19 NEW ORLEANS
27 at Arizona (Mon.)
Oct. 3 TENNESSEE
10 at St. Louis
17 CAROLINA
24 at Minnesota
31 Open date
Nov. 7 PITTSBURGH
14 at New Orleans
21 ST. LOUIS
29 GREEN BAY (Mon.)
Dec. 5 at Cincinnati
12 ATLANTA
18 at Carolina (Sat.)
26 WASHINGTON
Jan. 3 at Atlanta (Mon.)

FAST FACTS

1998 Record 12-4 (2nd in NFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 1/2/1; defense 9 (tie)/29/23

1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 19 (tie) Opponents' 1998
winning percentage: .492 Games against playoff teams: 6

FILLING BIG SHOES

It's difficult enough to follow one coach who had multiple Super
Bowl victories, but Steve Mariucci has had the pressure of
following two such men. He's off to a good start, having put
together a 25-7 record in two seasons and a better winning
percentage than either of his predecessors, Bill Walsh and
George Seifert. This trio represents only the second case in NFL
history of three successive coaches each leading a team to a
.600 winning percentage or better (minimum 25 games for each
coach).

Team Coach Years W-L-T Pct.

49ers Bill Walsh 1979-88 92-59-1 .609
George Seifert 1989-96 98-30 .766
Steve Mariucci 1997-98 25-7 .781

Raiders John Rauch 1966-68 33-8-1 .798
John Madden 1969-78 103-32-7 .750
Tom Flores 1979-87 83-53 .610

PLAYER TO WATCH

Jeremy Newberry didn't play a down as a rookie last season
because of a torn ACL in his left knee, but that didn't mean he
missed out on all the action. When teammate Derrick Deese began
brawling with the Chargers' William Fuller during a joint
workout in training camp last summer, Newberry, who was standing
around in street clothes less than two months after undergoing
surgery, entered the fray. "I fight too much," says Newberry,
who while at Cal in 1996 broke his right hand in a fight outside
a theater. Had Newberry been healthy last year, he probably
would have been entrenched as a starter at center or guard now.
Instead, he will be protecting Steve Young's blind side as the
starting right tackle, with Deese shifting to guard.

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS

Coach: Steve Mariucci
Third season with 49ers (25-7 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Steve Young 2
517 att. 322 comp. 62.3% 4,170 yds. 36 TDs 12 int. 101.1 rtg.

RB Lawrence Phillips[1,2] 43
201 att. 677 yds. 3.4 avg. 11 rec. 39 yds. 3.5 avg. 8 TDs

RB Charlie Garner[1] 203
96 att. 381 yds. 4.0 avg. 19 rec. 110 yds. 5.8 avg. 4 TDs

FB Tommy Vardell[1] 171
18 att. 37 yds. 2.1 avg. 14 rec. 143 yds. 10.2 avg. 7 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
[PVR]

WR Jerry Rice 10 82 rec. 1,157 yds. 9 TDs
WR Terrell Owens 16 67 rec. 1,097 yds. 14 TDs
WR J.J. Stokes 86 63 rec. 770 yds. 8 TDs
TE Greg Clark 115 12 rec. 124 yds. 1 TD
K Wade Richey 160 49/51 XPs 18/27 FGs 103 pts.
PR R.W. McQuarters 311 47 ret. 8.6 avg. 1 TD
KR R.W. McQuarters 311 17 ret. 19.9 avg. 0 TDs
LT Dave Fiore 6'4" 290 lbs. 9 games 3 starts
LG Ray Brown 6'5" 318 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Chris Dalman 6'3" 297 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RG Derrick Deese 6'3" 289 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Jeremy Newberry[3] 6'5" 315 lbs. 11 games 11 starts

Defense

LE Marvin Washington[1] 23 tackles 2 sacks
LT Bryant Young 54 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
RT Junior Bryant 44 tackles 5 sacks
RE Gabe Wilkins 10 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Lee Woodall 59 tackles 1 int.
MLB Winfred Tubbs 86 tackles 1 int.
OLB Ken Norton 115 tackles 2 sacks
CB Darnell Walker 51 tackles 4 int.
SS Tim McDonald 78 tackles 4 int.
FS Merton Hanks 48 tackles 4 int.
CB R.W. McQuarters 49 tackles 0 int.
P Chad Stanley (R) 58 punts 46.6 avg.

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)
[2]1997 statistics [3]1997 college statistics

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)