Their free fall from grace came with such stunning swiftness,
it's hard to conceive that at this time last year the 49ers were
talking Super Bowl and carrying themselves with a self-assured
aura of superiority. What a difference a jeer makes: Any
remaining trace of the Niners' bravado was obliterated last Dec.
5 in Cincinnati, where a sickly secondary was shredded by the
wretched Bengals--one of whom, since-departed wideout Carl
Pickens, felt comfortable enough to mock the defenseless
visitors. The eighth consecutive defeat, a 44-30 pasting,
clinched San Francisco's first losing season in 17 years and
was, in the words of linebacker Ken Norton Jr., "an embarrassing
moment. I mean, who the hell is Cincinnati? They had no respect
for us, and Pickens was talking mess and pushing people around.
I thought, If Cincinnati's talking s---, we've hit rock bottom."
During that wipeout in Cincinnati, and for much of a season that
ended with 11 losses in 12 games, San Francisco's overmatched and
undersized coverage men flailed helplessly against an onslaught
of deep passes. Let the record show that the Niners' dynasty came
unraveled at the corners: The team started seven players at the
position in '99 while surrendering 36 touchdown passes, the
fifth-highest total in NFL history.
Not surprisingly, San Francisco addressed its most glaring
weakness in last April's draft, picking two
cornerbacks--first-rounder Ahmed Plummer from Ohio State and
second-rounder Jason Webster from Texas A&M--both of whom the
Niners felt were seasoned enough to step right in and endure
all-out assaults on a weekly basis. "Based on last year, I'm sure
receivers who play us will be licking their chops," Niners
wideout Terrell Owens says. "If we're going to do anything, our
young corners will have to grow up fast."
The Niners have a precedent for dual-edged rookie excellence at
the position: Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright in '81, the season the
team won its first of five Super Bowls, and Tim McKyer and Don
Griffin in '86. While those players thrived from the outset,
coach Steve Mariucci is merely asking Plummer and Webster to
survive. "If we can get even one corner to make a few plays, it
changes everything," says safety Lance Schulters, who made the
Pro Bowl in '99. "Playing in the middle last year was so
frustrating. Stuff was happening on both sides of the field, and
I was like, Man, who do I help?"
August 27, 2000
Among those corners no longer requiring Schulters's assistance
are 5'7" Mark McMillian (out of football), 5'8" Darnell Walker
(who signed with the Vikings) and 5'9" R.W. McQuarters (traded to
the Bears), three players who struggled against stronger, taller
receivers. Both of this year's starters, Plummer and fourth-year
man Monty Montgomery, are 5'11". While only 5'9", Webster has
been lauded by teammates for his aggressiveness when the ball is
in the air and will see plenty of time as the third cornerback.
The secondary's improvement can't be accurately gauged until the
real games begin, but neither Plummer, a three-time academic
All-America who has been married since 1999, nor Webster, chosen
by A&M players as a team spokesman following the bonfire tragedy
that killed 12 people before the Aggies' game against Texas last
November, seems awed by the challenge. "Those two guys have
played in big games, and neither one is going to get overwhelmed
by the transition," says Mariucci.
Even so, recollections of last year's aerial torture sessions
continue to haunt the team's veterans.
Owens: "I hear it all the time from receivers around the
league--'We can't wait to play y'all.' I mean, we made
[Carolina's] Patrick Jeffers look like he was all-world. I'm not
saying he's a garbage receiver, but we put him on every highlight
Norton: "We'd know exactly what the opposing offense's game plan
was--throw deep--and we were powerless to stop it. It didn't matter
what we did up front; we'd just watch the ball sail over our
heads and know they were either going to catch a deep ball on us
or get a pass-interference call."
As encouraged as the other Niners may be about the potential of
their young cornerbacks, few harbor delusions of grandeur. The
franchise is grappling with Steve Young's retirement and an
ongoing salary-cap nightmare, and there is uncertainty at
virtually every other position. It remains to be seen which of
three young safeties (Zack Bronson, Pierson Prioleau or
fourth-round draft pick John Keith) will emerge as a force
opposite Schulters and replace retired defensive leader Tim
"If nothing else, we're going to play with more passion than we
did last season," Schulters says. "These guys are young and
hungry, and we'll try to be aggressive and have some fun."
SEPT. 3 at Atlanta
17 at St. Louis
24 at Dallas
OCT. 1 ARIZONA
15 at Green Bay
22 at Carolina
29 ST. LOUIS
NOV. 5 at New Orleans
12 KANSAS CITY
26 Open date
DEC. 3 at San Diego
10 NEW ORLEANS
23 at Denver (Sat.)
1999 Record 4-12 (4th in NFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 1/21/10; defense 15/31/28
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 25
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .457
Games against playoff teams: 3
PLAYER TO WATCH
Because his mother was a 49ers cheerleader during the '60s, Jeff
Ulbrich has heard plenty of stories about the franchise's gory
years. "My mom told me the team was so bad they'd get booed
coming into Kezar Stadium," says the 6-foot, 249-pound rookie
middle linebacker. Three decades later Ulbrich infuses the
rebuilding defense with an old-school intensity. "About a week
into training camp he was picking up all of our stuff," says
offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "He reminds me of Chris
Spielman--he's not the tallest guy, but he's so damn smart and has
great instincts." Says Lance Schulters, the Niners' Pro Bowl
safety, "Once the ball is snapped, he's crazy. We just wind him
up and let him go."
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Steve Mariucci
Fourth season with 49ers (29-19 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Jeff Garcia 78 375 att. 225 comp. 60.0% 2,544 yds.
11 TDs 11 int. 77.9 rtg.
RB Charlie Garner 41 241 att. 1,229 yds. 5.1 avg. 56 rec.
535 yds. 9.6 avg. 6 TDs
RB Travis Jervey 218 6 att. 49 yds. 8.2 avg. 1 rec.
2 yds. 2.0 avg. 1 TD
FB Fred Beasley 220 58 att. 276 yds. 4.8 avg. 32 rec.
282 yds. 8.8 avg. 4 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Terrell Owens 99 60 rec. 754 yds. 4 TDs
WR Jerry Rice 108 67 rec. 830 yds. 5 TDs
WR J.J. Stokes 129 34 rec. 429 yds. 3 TDs
TE Greg Clark 256 34 rec. 347 yds. 0 TDs
K Wade Richey 223 30/31 XPs 21/23 FGs 93 pts.
PR Kevin Williams 289 33 ret. 10.0 avg. 0 TDs
KR Travis Jervey 218 8 ret. 23.9 avg. 0 TDs
LT Derrick Deese 6'3" 289 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Ray Brown 6'5" 318 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeremy Newberry 6'5" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Dave Fiore 6'4" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Scott Gragg 6'8" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Junior Bryant 47 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
LT Bryant Young 40 tackles 11 sacks
RT Reggie McGrew[**] 41 tackles 5 sacks
RE Anthony Pleasant 52 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Julian Peterson (R)74 tackles 12 sacks
MLB Ken Norton 101 tackles 1 sack
OLB Winfred Tubbs 86 tackles 2 sacks
CB Ahmed Plummer (R) 55 tackles 5 int.
SS Lance Schulters 63 tackles 6 int.
FS Pierson Prioleau 44 tackles 0 int.
CB Monty Montgomery 20 tackles 0 int.
P Chad Stanley 69 punts 39.7 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the 49ers
"One thing the Niners' defense never did was beat itself. Until
last year. It was brutal. Cornerbacks getting confused on their
coverage, linebackers who didn't know where to line up.
[Defensive coordinator] Jim Mora better get these guys on the
same page or he'll be gone.... If their young defensive backs
aren't shell-shocked, the Niners will get by on youth and
aggressiveness.... I like their defensive line if everyone's
healthy, but when do they start worrying about Junior Bryant?...
Jeff Garcia is a better quarterback than people think. He won't
thrill you, but he'll move the chains.... Steve Mariucci is a
good coach, but one problem he faces, and it's an almost
impossible one, is what to do with a legend. How does he get
Jerry Rice off the field and give Tai Streets a shot? If he sits
Rice down, it's a problem. If Garcia doesn't get the ball to
Rice, it's another problem. Then when he gets it to him, Rice
can't run with it.... They'll run the ball; they always do. But
now it looks like [center] Chris Dalman's neck injury is
serious; they'll struggle."