Search

2 San Francisco 49ers A new coach and his aggressive approach give this aging group hope for one more title shot

Sept. 01, 2003
Sept. 01, 2003

Table of Contents
Sept. 1, 2003

NFL Preview 2003

2 San Francisco 49ers A new coach and his aggressive approach give this aging group hope for one more title shot

By Michael Silver Projected lineups and PVRs compiled by David Sabino

With his team trailing by 22 points and 50 seconds remaining in
the first half of a divisional playoff at Tampa Bay last January,
49ers coach Steve Mariucci watched halfback Garrison Hearst run
nine yards to the San Francisco 40-yard line, swallowed his two
remaining timeouts and ordered his players to the locker room.
Several roared their disapproval; quarterback Jeff Garcia
seethed. "There was a sense of giving up," he says, recalling one
of the more ignominious moments in franchise history. "It showed
the blood that was starting to pour out of us, and it took away
some of our hunger to come back and try to win."

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue

Gone in 50 Seconds would have been a fitting title for the 49ers'
2002 highlight film, with Mariucci's decision to kill the clock
halfway through his team's 31-6 defeat by the Buccaneers as the
lasting image of a mercurial season. Gone was the glow of San
Francisco's stirring 24-point comeback win in the wild-card
playoff against the Giants the previous week. Gone, three days
after the Tampa Bay game, was Mariucci, fired by owner John York.

No one suggested that the Niners, who finished the season 11-7
(including playoffs), would have beaten the eventual Super Bowl
champion Bucs had San Francisco scored before halftime, but
Mariucci's passivity was fuel for the coach's critics. "It was
almost like a dog getting whupped, and he tucked his tail between
his legs," says All-Pro wideout Terrell Owens. "When people come
up with reasons why he was fired, a lot of them refer to that
game. I think now we'll be more aggressive, more creative."

That's because York and general manager Terry Donahue replaced
Mariucci with former Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson, who brings a
vertical twist to the West Coast offense. Erickson retained
Mariucci's offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp, and kept the
terminology installed by system architect Bill Walsh, who remains
as a front-office consultant. Yet Erickson says there will be
changes. "I'm different than Steve in terms of our personalities
and some of our philosophies," he says. Consider this 56-year-old
golf enthusiast's Tin Cup style on the links: "I'm not going to
lay up. I'm going to try to hit it over the water every time."

Garcia is all for that approach. Though he was a Pro Bowl
selection for the third straight year in 2002, Garcia had only 21
touchdown passes after having thrown 63 in the previous two
seasons combined. Owens, football's preeminent receiver, had a
personal-best 100 catches, but the 49ers averaged a mere 6.26
yards per pass attempt, one of the lowest figures in franchise
history. "The system hasn't changed, but the emphasis has," says
Garcia, who has been slowed in training camp by a bulging disk in
his back. "In different ways Coach Erickson has said, Let's not
be afraid to put the ball downfield, to make things happen."

Erickson says there will be more single-back sets and
two-tight-end formations. He'll run the ball out of three-wideout
sets and put players such as Owens and punishing fullback Fred
Beasley, the key to the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack, in
motion more often. Also, Garcia will be encouraged to audible,
particularly when Owens gets single coverage and there's an
opportunity to throw deep.

That should please Garcia and Owens, both of whom criticized
Mariucci in previous seasons for sitting on leads. "I don't think
any lead is safe," says Erickson, who as Seahawks coach from 1995
through '98 went 31-33 before returning to the college ranks and
transforming Oregon State from a patsy into a Fiesta Bowl winner
in 2000.

There's a sense of urgency surrounding defending NFC West
champion San Francisco. Owens's potential free-agent
departure--the outspoken star may be too expensive for York's
cost-conscious tastes--is one more reason for the 49ers to force
the issue in 2003. "Fans are going to see something different on
the field, an aggressiveness on both sides of the ball," Garcia
insists. "We want to be the killer, instead of being the one
waiting around for someone to die." --M.S.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER TURN IT UP Explosive players such as Garcia and Owens (below) weren't happy that Mariucci liked to sit on leads.COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS HARRISCOLOR PHOTO

UNDER THE GUN

With J.J. Stokes gone and starters Terrell Owens and Tai
Streets eligible for free agency after 2003, the 49ers need to
develop a wideout. The pressure is on No. 3 receiver CEDRICK
WILSON, a sixth-round pick in '01 who caught 15 passes last
season, to emerge as that player. Wilson showed up for camp
stronger and more assertive.

ENEMY LINES
An opposing scout's view

"Jeff Garcia's their most important player, but if his cranky back
doesn't hold up, backup Tim Rattay makes them a question mark at
quarterback. Rattay's intelligent and has talent, so he's got a
chance to be productive.... It's time for Tai Streets to become a
force; if not, there'll be a void at wide receiver.... [Rookie
tackle] Kwame Harris has Pro Bowl ability; he'll emerge as a
standout lineman, though maybe not this year. I don't know how
Derrick Deese does it: He's limited athletically, but he's also a
very aggressive, tough guy.... Kevan Barlow should be ready to
take over the halfback job--it could be a breakout year for
him.... Bryant Young's not what he was before all the injuries,
but he's still solid at defensive tackle. Jim Flanigan's a
dirt-sucker, and you need those.... Julian Peterson's a smart,
active linebacker who's in the right place at the right time. He
makes plays because of his instincts.... The secondary doesn't do
much for me. Ahmed Plummer struggles in the vertical game; good
receivers beat him on the deep cutouts. Jason Webster's not good
on deep coverage, either, but he's fine on short-to medium-range
patterns."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 7 CHICAGO
14 at St. Louis
21 CLEVELAND
28 at Minnesota

Oct. 5 DETROIT
12 at Seattle
19 TAMPA BAY
26 at Arizona

Nov. 2 ST. LOUIS
9 Open Date
17 PITTSBURGH (Mon.)
23 at Green Bay
30 at Baltimore

Dec. 7 ARIZONA
14 at Cincinnati
21 at Philadelphia
27 SEATTLE (Sat.)

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 29
Opponents' 2002 winning percentage: .451
Games against playoff teams: 5

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2002 statistics

2002 RECORD: 10-6
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 6/14/8
DEFENSE 7/22/14

COACH: Dennis Erickson; first season with San Francisco (31-33 in
NFL)

GARRISON HEARST

POS. PVR ATT. TDs AVG.
RB 69 215 972 4.5

REC YARDS AVG. TDs
48 317 6.6 9

JEFF GARCIA

POS. PVR ATT. COMP. %
QB 33 528 328 62.1

YARDS TDs INT. RATING
3,344 21 10 85.6

FRED BEASLEY

POS. PVR ATT. TDs AVG.
FB 187 26 75 2.9

REC YARDS AVG. TDs
22 152 6.9 1

TERRELL OWENS

POS. PVR REC YARDS TDs
WR 7 100 1,300 13

JED WEAVER [1]

POS. PVR REC YARDS TDs
TE 258 6 75 3

DERRICK DEESE

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS STARTS
LT 6'3" 289 lbs. 14 14

ERIC HEITMANN

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS STARTS
LG 6'3" 305 lbs. 16 12

JEREMY NEWBERRY

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS STARTS
C 6'5" 310 lbs. 16 16

RON STONE

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS STARTS
RG 6'5" 325 lbs. 15 15

SCOTT GRAGG

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS STARTS
RT 6'8" 315 lbs. 16 16

TAI STREETS

POS. PVR REC YARDS TDs
WR 107 72 756 5

DEFENSE

RE ANDRE CARTER 54 tackles 12 1/2 sacks
RT JIM FLANIGAN 12 tackles 1 sack
LT BRYANT YOUNG 36 tackles 2 sacks
LE JOHN ENGELBERGER 10 tackles 0 sacks
OLB JULIAN PETERSON 96 tackles 2 sacks
ILB JEFF ULBRICH 68 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
ILB DEREK SMITH 112 tackles 1 sack
CB JASON WEBSTER 85 tackles 1 int.
SS TONY PARRISH 72 tackles 7 int.
FS ZACK BRONSON 21 tackles 3 int.
CB AHMED PLUMMER 63 tackles 1 int.

SPECIAL TEAMS PVR

K JEFF CHANDLER 200 14/14 XPS 8/12 FGS 38 PTS.
PR JIMMY WILLIAMS 444 20 RET. 16.8 AVG. 1 TD
KR JIMMY WILLIAMS 444 35 RET. 21.9 AVG. 0 TDS
P BILLY LAFLEUR 22 PUNTS 36.6 AVG.

[1] New acquisition
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 89)

"Harris has Pro Bowl ability; he'll emerge as a standout
lineman, though maybe not this year."