D Day Resisting the urge to choose a quarterback first, the 49ers stuck to their plan and used five high-round picks to bolster their shattered defensive unit

April 23, 2000

If this Titanic of an NFL ship, the SS Forty-Niner, gets righted
anytime soon, you would do well to look back at a scene from
last Saturday's NFL Draft. At 11:46 a.m. PDT, just after
commissioner Paul Tagliabue had intoned over the TV at the far
end of the San Francisco 49ers' war room, "With the 14th
selection...the Green Bay Packers select Miami tight end Bubba
Franks," the Niners' brain trust had a momentous decision to
make. It could do the right thing for a horribly
salary-cap-strapped team with one of the league's worst
defenses. Or it could make one of those against-the-grain picks,
as the team had done in recent drafts. (Does the name Jim
Druckenmiller ring a bell?)

In a room papered with draft charts and packed with 31 scouts,
coaches, medics and brass, the 49ers were about 15 minutes from
being on the clock to make the first of their six picks in the
opening three rounds. Coach Steve Mariucci huddled with general
manager Bill Walsh, director of player personnel Terry Donahue,
vice president John McVay, offensive coordinator Marty
Mornhinweg and defensive coordinator Jim Mora. The 49ers were
almost certain that the team then picking, the Denver Broncos,
would take Cal cornerback Deltha O'Neal. That would leave San
Francisco, selecting 16th, to choose from among the four
highest-graded prospects left on its draft board: Marshall
quarterback Chad Pennington, Wisconsin tackle Chris McIntosh,
Michigan State linebacker Julian Peterson and Ohio State
cornerback Ahmed Plummer.

The 49ers hadn't expected Pennington to be available, and with
38-year-old Steve Young's comeback from multiple concussions in
doubt, taking a quarterback didn't seem such a bad idea. San
Francisco, however, had run through all sorts of draft
scenarios, and each time the conclusion was the same: Fix the
defense. Even if the ghost of Joe Montana were available, fix
the defense.

Mariucci, usually effervescent and boisterous, spoke firmly in
the war room. "I know we didn't think Pennington would be here,"
he said, looking from man to man. "But we know what we have to
do, right? Look at our football team. We're not even competitive
on defense. We've got to go with Peterson. We all on board with
that?"

Everyone nodded. Then, when Tagliabue announced that Denver had
indeed picked O'Neal, there wasn't a second thought for
Pennington. "Yesss!" Donahue shouted, pumping his fist. "We got
our guy."

The 49ers needed only 1:35 of the allotted 15 minutes to decide
Peterson was their man. "We couldn't afford to be tempted by
Pennington," Mariucci said on Saturday night, after the Niners
had drafted five defensive players and a quarterback, Giovanni
Carmazzi of Hofstra. "We'd just gotten to the point where it
didn't matter if I had Steve Young and Joe Montana in their
primes. We weren't going to win without massive help for our
defense."

In the moments after they chose Peterson, the 49ers talked to
three teams about their other spot in the first round, the 24th
selection. New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi offered
second- and third-round choices--Nos. 42 and 73 overall--for the
24th pick. With Pennington still on his mind, Walsh talked with
the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren about moving up into Seattle's spot
at No. 19. And Chiefs vice president of football operations Lynn
Stiles, whose team was picking 21st, was willing to swap
first-round picks if San Francisco would throw in a third- or a
fourth-rounder. The 49ers stood pat. "Let's keep in mind what
we've got to do here," Walsh said to McVay.

The 6'4", 240-pound Peterson, whose low Wonderlic score was a
major concern for some teams, will be expected to win the
pass-rushing linebacker job. Plummer, who was taken with the
24th pick, and second-round selection Jason Webster of Texas A&M
are penciled in as starting corners on what was the NFL's worst
pass defense in 1999; both have better-than-average speed and
had at least 30 starts for highly successful programs. Virginia
Tech's John Engelberger, another second-round choice, should
fill the hybrid pass-rushing end-linebacker spot--known as the
elephant--originated by Charles Haley in the 1980s. A fifth
starter could come from a Zach Thomas-type of player, Hawaii
middle linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, whom the Niners got in Round 3
after trading up. The prospect of starting five rookies on
defense is frightening, but San Francisco is expansion-team
needy, in part because of poor drafting (high picks such as
defensive end-linebacker Israel Ifeanyi, a second-round
selection who played only one season before being released in
1997, and struggling cornerback R.W. McQuarters, a first-round
choice in '98) and in part because of cuts that had to be made
(safety Tim McDonald and linebacker Lee Woodall, among others)
to keep the team under the salary cap.

No matter how many 49ers starters emerge from this draft--among
its five selections on Sunday, the team picked up Louisiana Tech
quarterback Tim Rattay in the seventh round--San Francisco still
will not have solved all its problems. What will the Niners do
with Young and 37-year-old wideout Jerry Rice, who can see the
end of their careers but aren't ready to retire? Walsh says two
neurologists must clear Young, who missed the final 13 games
last year after suffering a concussion, before San Francisco
will put him back in the lineup. The team wants Rice, whose
skills are in rapid decline, to take a substantial cut, but he
has refused. Walsh sounds as if he's preparing the ax for both.

"This reminds me of coaching in 1987, when I felt I had to
replace Joe Montana with Steve Young," says Walsh. "Playing Steve
was best for the team. So I took Joe out, embraced him and put
Steve in. It's the same principle now. If it's my role to
facilitate saying goodbye to these men, so be it. It would be the
end of our dynasty, but we all know that day has to come."

If it's out with Young, then it may be in with an unlikely
favorite of Mariucci's and Walsh's--Carmazzi. "Look at this,"
Mariucci said on Saturday night, opening the draft binder on his
desk to the page with quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp's ratings of
the draft-eligible signal-callers. "Greg had Carmazzi rated
higher than Pennington. I'm not going to say he'll be the heir to
our great quarterbacks, but he's got a chance."

Walsh, though, was ready, saying, "He'll definitely be a starter
in the league for years to come."

Have the Niners done enough to get back into the Super Bowl hunt?
Doubtful. This much is certain: They did the best thing for the
team's long-term health. "Every one of us drafted today knows our
job," said Webster, the Texas A&M corner. "We've all got to get
the 49ers back to that dynasty era."

Not so fast. For once, "wild card" would sound awfully sweet in
San Francisco.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Headache Walsh says Young will need clearance from two neurologists before the Niners will let him play.

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)