Fall From Grace In a loss at home to the lowly Panthers, the once proud 49ers looked more than ever like a franchise in decline

October 24, 1999

The earth moved, roadways collapsed, flames filled the evening
sky--and the San Francisco 49ers calmly went about their
business, impervious to the chaos. The October 1989 Loma Prieta
earthquake rattled the Bay Area, yet the 49ers never skipped a
beat, much less a day of practice. The team went 14-2 in that
regular season, then outscored three playoff opponents by a
combined 126-26 to take home its fourth Super Bowl crown of the
decade. Throughout much of the '90s, while other NFL powers
crashed and burned, the Niners remained a pillar of stability
and strength.

Remember them fondly. On Sunday, 10 years to the day after the
Loma Prieta quake, the many cracks in the 49ers' foundation
became painfully obvious to the 68,151 fans at 3Com Park. San
Francisco's 31-29 loss to the talent-poor Carolina Panthers and
their coach, George Seifert, the man who guided the Niners to
their '89 and '94 Super Bowl triumphs, dropped the home team to
3-3 and served its proudest player a harsh helping of mortality.
"People say we're not the team we used to be, and I agree with
that," says wideout Jerry Rice. "But we've got players with a
lot of pride, and if there's a way to rise to the occasion,
we'll find it."

Perhaps, but the first-class franchise that former coach Bill
Walsh and former owner Eddie DeBartolo built is more likely
headed for a fall. In the past three seasons the organization
has endured a nasty DeBartolo family feud, a front-office
overhaul, a coaching change and a rash of career-threatening
injuries to star players. What may turn out to be the knockout
blow came during a Sept. 27 road victory over the Arizona
Cardinals, when quarterback Steve Young, after being hit by
Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams and colliding with 49ers
tackle Dave Fiore, slumped unconscious to the Sun Devil Stadium

Barring a stunning turn of events, that Monday-night nap will
serve as the final snapshot of Young's spectacular 15-year
career. Young, 38, has experienced postconcussion symptoms, and
team officials expect him to retire soon. If he does not, says
one 49ers executive, "we'll make the decision for him. If we put
him back out there and he got hit in the head again, we couldn't
live with ourselves."

Young's isn't the only head that aches inside the Niners'
castle. Consider coach Steve Mariucci, who, upon being hired to
replace Seifert following the 1996 season, assumed he was
sliding into the sweetest gig in sports. Sure, and running
Pakistan is a plum job. Since Mariucci's arrival, every other
key decision-maker on the team, including DeBartolo and his
former friend and club president, Carmen Policy, has departed.
Also, four franchise-caliber players have suffered serious
injuries: Young, Rice, defensive tackle Bryant Young and
halfback Garrison Hearst.

The energetic, upbeat Mariucci has handled it all with aplomb.
His record is 30-12, and before Sunday, San Francisco's only
home defeat during his tenure had come against Green Bay in the
1997 NFC Championship Game. But when Young went down just before
halftime against Arizona, Mariucci must have wished he were back
in Berkeley, trying to coax a winning season out of Cal. "The
locker room cleared out just before the third quarter started,
and Steve and I were left alone in the training room," Mariucci
recalled last Friday. "He was all revved up, saying, 'Put me in.
I'm all right!' I looked him in the eye and said, 'Steve, I love
you too much to put you back in.' Then he took a towel and
pushed his face into it as he made this horrible groan."

Mariucci stopped to collect himself. He was teary-eyed. "I
remember when Carmen offered me the job," he continued. "He
said, 'Steve, you're in for the ride of your life.' Boy, he
wasn't kidding."

If anyone can relate to the speed bumps in Mariucci's path it's
Seifert, who ran up the highest winning percentage in league
history after succeeding Walsh in 1989. Though he was nudged out
of San Francisco seven years later, he remains a fan of both the
Niners (his hometown team) and Mariucci. When asked on Friday to
account for San Francisco's unprecedented staying power, the
cerebral Seifert, who was an assistant to Walsh from '79 to '88,
invoked an analogy offered by his wife, Linda, who compares the
franchise to sourdough bread. "She suggests that they have the
starter dough," the coach said. "The nucleus was there in the
beginning--Bill, Eddie, John McVay, Carmen, Joe Montana, Ronnie
Lott--and even though they've constantly mixed in new people,
there have always been enough of the original leaders to see
that the tradition is passed on."

Just as Seifert inherited a mess when he took the Panthers' job
last January, Walsh, who became the Niners' general manager the
same month, and McVay, who returned as director of football
operations, faced onerous cleanup chores as a result of the
future-be-damned philosophy of the DeBartolo-Policy regime. The
Niners were $28 million over the salary cap, and they had no '99
second-round draft pick thanks to the disastrous 1998 trade for
washout offensive tackle Jamie Brown. There had been other
dubious decisions, too, including the drafting of defensive end
Israel Ifeanyi as the top pick in '96 and the first-round
selection in '97 of quarterback Jim Druckenmiller. Both have
since left.

Walsh, who had been hired as a consultant by the Niners in '97
to help identify a successor to Young, had recommended drafting
Jake Plummer, but he was overruled by Policy, and Plummer went
to Arizona in the second round. Walsh's shrewdest acquisition
this past off-season was mobile quarterback Jeff Garcia, a
Canadian Football League standout who drew interest from
virtually no other NFL team. Garcia completed just 22 of 45
passes against the Panthers, but he moved the offense
consistently for the third consecutive week, and he'll get a
long audition as the air-it-out apparent to Montana and Young.

Even if Garcia rocks, the 49ers appear to be in trouble. They
haven't drafted an offensive lineman in the first round since
1987, and line coach Bobb McKittrick, who has worked wonders for
two decades, has been weakened by his battle with bile-duct
cancer. San Francisco's defensive leader, strong safety Tim
McDonald, has said he expects this to be his final season. The
37-year-old Rice could be on the way out too. Still attempting
to regain his burst following reconstructive surgery on his left
knee in '97 and a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right
knee last December, Rice says he'll return next year only if his
health improves. "It's gotten to the point where I don't think
my body can tolerate any more," he says. "I'm pushing it right

Meanwhile, Hearst, an All-Pro halfback who broke his left ankle
in the 49ers' playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons last January,
hopes to return in December, but the Niners' brass isn't
counting on it. Hearst had surgery in July in an attempt to
reverse a degenerative bone condition in the ankle that
threatens to end his career.

The 49ers may be even shakier upstairs than they are on the
field. DeBartolo stepped away from the team in late 1997 after
news broke that he was being investigated in a bribery scandal
in Louisiana. He later pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to
report a felony, paid a $1 million fine and was suspended by NFL
commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Last April, DeBartolo was sued for
$94 million by the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., the family
company, which is now headed by Denise DeBartolo York, and he
countersued. A resulting series of settlement conferences led to
a still-unsigned agreement that calls for DeBartolo to cede full
ownership of the team to his sister, who appointed her husband,
John York, as vice president and overseer of the franchise's
day-to-day operations. There have been rumblings of tension
between John York and Walsh over the Niners' business practices,
and reports of territorial friction between Walsh and Mariucci,
but all three men insist they are comfortable working with each

York has angered some Niners employees, notably by his decision
to strip Lisa DeBartolo, Eddie's oldest daughter and Denise's
goddaughter, of her title of vice president. Lisa, who runs the
49ers Foundation, learned she was no longer a vice president
when the team released its 1999 media guide. York says Lisa is
employed not by the team but by the 49ers Foundation, which is
run by a separate board of directors. But York concedes that
Lisa's paychecks are issued by the team.

Last month several photos of Eddie DeBartolo were removed from
the team's offices, including shots of him hoisting the Lombardi
Trophy that were featured in a display case in the lobby. After
the disappearance was reported by the San Jose Mercury News, a
spokesperson for York said that the photos, which have since
been returned, were being cleaned. York now claims that
explanation was cooked up by two unnamed employees who, he says,
took down the photos without his knowledge and were later
reprimanded. "That stuff is so petty," York says. "When Denise
heard about it, she was sick."

In January, after noticing payments made by the team to retired
Niners tight end Brent Jones, York reported the expenditures to
the league as a possible salary-cap violation. The issue remains
under NFL investigation, but Eddie DeBartolo's camp believes
York's action was calculated to gain leverage in the battle for
control of the team. York has publicly denied this, and he
defends the suit brought against DeBartolo. "If your sister owed
you $94 million, wouldn't you sue her?" he asked.

"I own half the corporation, so half of that debt is owed to
me," DeBartolo said on Sunday from his Montana vacation home.
"I'd like to move on and not spend my energy fighting with
people, especially through the media. I'm just so sick and tired
of this venomous behavior. My parents would be rolling over in
their graves."

Eddie's second-oldest daughter, Tiffanie, a Los Angeles
filmmaker and a member of the DeBartolo Corp. board of
directors, says that York "has some serious issues with our
family that he should be working out with a therapist, instead
of while running a football team. Everything my uncle does is a
calculated attempt to hurt my father."

Counters York, "I'm sorry that she supports her father to the
point where she's blind to the facts. We did not create the
debt, we did not create Louisiana. Eddie can't find it in
himself to accept responsibility for his actions."

On Sunday the Niners lost their second straight game under
Garcia. The secondary forced four turnovers and scored a pair of
touchdowns, but Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein (23
completions in 36 attempts for 300 yards and four touchdowns)
and his tall receivers exploited San Francisco's undersized
cornerbacks. A few days before the game one Panthers coach had
told his players that the Niners' cornerbacks were more
vulnerable than those Carolina had burned in a 27-3 victory over
the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 26. Ouch! And next up for San
Francisco are Minnesota Vikings wideouts Cris Carter, Randy Moss
and Jake Reed. If the 49ers fall to the 2-4 Vikings, it will
mark the first time they've lost three straight in the same
season since 1980. Think about that--no losing streak to speak
of in nearly two decades.

"We'll keep fighting--I promise you that," Mariucci said as he
headed to the 3Com parking lot on Sunday. "This team will not
mope or feel sorry for itself. We'll continue to battle and show
our character."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Under fire Playing behind a suspect line, Garcia was running for cover from the Panthers' defense. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Twilight time? Rice, beset by injuries in '97 and '98, suggests that this will be his last season if he can't stay healthy. COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARIS Young and younger With Young (center) relegated to the sidelines, Mariucci has turned his attention to Garcia.

"I'm just so sick of this venomous behavior," says DeBartolo.
"My parents would be rolling over in their graves."

One 49ers executive says that if Young won't decide to retire,
then "we'll make the decision for him."

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