His job is to clear out intruding defenders, which he does as well as any fullback in the league. But the 49ers' Fred Beasley makes no effort to block the notion that a seismic shift has occurred in San Francisco, once home to Montana and Young, Rice and Owens, Walsh and his West Coast offense. "We've got to ride our defense, because that's the strength of this team," Beasley says. "Until we get the offense clicking, with all the new guys we're working into the lineup, it's going to be up to the D to carry us."
This is what happens to a team when it is the first in recent NFL history to lose its starting quarterback, halfback and both wideouts during a single off-season. The Niners parted with six offensive starters in all, including four former Pro Bowl performers: quarterback Jeff Garcia, halfback Garrison Hearst, wideout Terrell Owens and guard Ron Stone. The new quarterback, Tim Rattay, has three NFL starts to his credit; Hearst's replacement, Kevan Barlow, fumbled five times in 201 carries last year; Brandon Lloyd and Cedrick Wilson, the projected starters at wideout, have a combined 49 receptions.
The motivation behind the upheaval, naturally, was money--cost-conscious owner John York, citing the team's protracted struggles with the salary cap, has mandated an approach that thrusts unproven players into prominent roles. Call them the $4.99ers: A simple glance at the cover of the team's media guide, featuring a fullback (Beasley) and a center (Jeremy Newberry), tells you all you need to know.
"I know people are looking at us and wondering, How are they going to score?" says strong safety Tony Parrish, who tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions in 2003. "I think we have some guys who are ready, but if it takes time for the offense to jell, I believe defensively we can hold down the fort."
A few years ago it was the defense that was full of untested players, who, for the most part, have evolved into productive performers. Though their best player, versatile outside linebacker Julian Peterson, missed most of training camp because of a contract dispute, the 49ers are confident about the continued progress of a unit that ranked fourth in the NFC in yards allowed in 2003.
Most of the faces are the same, including that of cornerback Ahmed Plummer, whom the organization, in a rare instance of largesse, re-signed to a five-year deal with an $11 million signing bonus. The largest loss on defense was that of coordinator Jim Mora, who left to take over the Falcons. To replace Mora, San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson brought in former Steelers secondary coach Willy Robinson, whom Erickson had recruited while a Fresno State assistant in the mid-1970s. "He was a tough, overachieving defensive back who could knock your a-- off," Erickson says. "He coaches the same way."
Robinson is accustomed to a 3-4, which the Niners will deploy at times, much to the benefit of their aggressive linebackers. "The scheme is perfect for us," says dynamic inside linebacker Jamie Winborn, who missed the last seven games of 2003 with a neck injury. "It utilizes exactly what our strengths are--speed, technique and gap control."
It remains to be seen whether the new scheme will benefit fourth-year defensive end Andre Carter, a speed rusher whose relative lack of size (6' 4", 265 pounds) isn't ideal for the 3-4. With 25 1/2 sacks over three seasons, he still hasn't had that Jevon Kearse--like breakout season. "We'll drop him back, stand him up and play him down--anything to try to get him more involved," Erickson says. "We're going to try to put him in position to make a huge impact."
Carter is just one of many players who'll have to flourish for San Francisco to improve on last year's 7-9 campaign, one in which Owens publicly questioned the leadership and arm strength of his starting quarterback. This season, for better or worse, the Niners plan to stick together, the owner's cost-cutting be damned.
"We have no stars, but we also have no egos," Beasley says. Then, referring to Owens, he adds, "We have no more T.O.s, guys who are in it for their own purposes. Now it's all about the team, and we know we have to believe in ourselves."
Hey, why not? Somebody has to.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Since they began winning Super Bowls 23 seasons ago, the 49ers have had at least one star receiver. It appears the next will be the spindly BRANDON LLOYD, who had 14 catches as a rookie and fills the void left by the trade of Terrell Owens. "He's got deceptive mobility," linebacker Jamie Winborn says. "He's going to make some spectacular catches for us."
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
You don't want to get totally cocky before you play these guys, but they look really bad on paper.... With a lot of weapons around him, Tim Rattay might be able to run the offense and not screw things up. But now it will be very tough for him.... Kevan Barlow is a hard-charging back who has a tendency to fumble. Suddenly he's the guy teams have to stop, so he could be in for a rude awakening.... Brandon Lloyd has great body control and can make the acrobatic catch on the sidelines, but he's not a deep threat.... Kwame Harris was supposed to be an impact tackle coming out, but he was horrendous as a rookie--people just beat the tar out of him.... Scott Gragg struggles against power rushers; he's not the ideal right tackle, but he can't play left tackle.... Andre Carter can run as well as any pass rusher in the league, but he needs to have a huge year.... They really overpaid to keep Ahmed Plummer. When things go bad for him and you keep the pressure on, you can get to him mentally.... Ideally, Ronnie Heard would be a third safety. But that's what this team has become--a lot of the starters should be backups.
"Kwame Harris was supposed to be an impact tackle, but people just beat the tar out of him."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 7-9
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Dennis Erickson; second season with San Francisco (38-42 in NFL)
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (stats¬†for¬†final¬†college¬†year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation¬†on¬†page¬†172)
19 at New Orleans
26 at Seattle
3 ST. LOUIS
17 at N.Y. Jets
24 Open date
31 at Chicago
21 at Tampa Bay
5 at St. Louis
12 at Arizona
18 WASHINGTON (S)
2 at New England
NFL rank: T-7
Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .512
Games against playoff teams: 5