Starting Over in San Francisco
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2004; 12:40 PM
Are the San Francisco 49ers really only one season removed from a season in which they went 10-6 and reached the second round of the NFC playoffs, and had one of the league's better coaches (Steve Mariucci) overseeing a Pro Bowl quarterback (Jeff Garcia) and a Pro Bowl wide receiver (Terrell Owens)?
That seems like a long, long time ago, and this is a franchise on the bottom rung of yet another rebuilding project aimed at recapturing the glory of its five Super Bowl triumphs between the 1981 and '94 seasons.
The 49ers went 7-9 last season, getting exactly what they should have expected -- mediocrity -- when they surprised practically everyone by hiring Dennis Erickson as their coach after forcing out Mariucci, who had had four seasons with 10 or more victories in six years in San Francisco. For all of his success in college at Miami and Oregon, Erickson has spent five seasons as an NFL head coach in Seattle and San Francisco and has gone 8-8 three times and 7-9 twice.
He will be lucky to do that well this season.
The 49ers spent the offseason tearing apart their roster. They released Garcia in March after he refused to accept a pay cut. They also cut tailback Garrison Hearst, tackle Derrick Deese, guard Ron Stone and defensive end Sean Moran. Wide receiver Tai Streets, tight end Jed Weaver, cornerback Jason Webster and defensive tackle Travis Kirschke exited as free agents.
The 49ers were prepared to allow Owens to leave as an unrestricted free agent and get nothing in return when they caught a break and he and agent David Joseph missed a February deadline to void the remainder of Owens's contract. The 49ers never had a notion of keeping Owens and traded him to the Baltimore Ravens for a second-round draft choice, then had that deal undone by the settlement that resulted from the case that the Players Association presented to NFL special master Stephen B. Burbank seeking to have Owens declared a free agent. The 49ers traded Owens to the Philadelphia Eagles as part of the compromise, getting defensive end Brandon Whiting (whose shoulder injury eventually could allow the 49ers to accept a third-round draft pick next year instead).
The exodus was not complete because the 49ers used their exclusive franchise tag to keep linebacker Julian Peterson off the unrestricted free-agent market, and re-signed cornerback Ahmed Plummer to a five-year, $25-million contract that included a $5-million signing bonus and a $6 million roster bonus in 2005.
And, very quietly, the 49ers had one of the league's better drafts, trading down in the first-round order and ending up with a half-dozen players who could be solid contributors relatively quickly -- wide receiver Rashaun Woods, guard Justin Smiley, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, wideout Derrick Hamilton, defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and linebacker Richard Seigler.
Woods and Hamilton, along with veteran free-agent addition Curtis Conway, step into the void left by the departures of Owens and free agent Tai Streets, who rejoined Mariucci in Detroit. The 49ers got Smiley in the second round even though a few scouts had him rated as the second-best offensive lineman in the draft, behind only Iowa left tackle Robert Gallery (who went second overall to the Oakland Raiders). Sopoaga was one of the strongest players in the draft and was a terrific value pick for the fourth round.
Still, there was no time for the 49ers to enjoy their draft-weekend success. In his first official practice as Garcia's successor, anointed starting quarterback Tim Rattay tore a groin muscle. He underwent surgery, and the 49ers can only hope that he will be ready to open the season as the starter. They have not dipped back into the still-active quarterback market and have Ken Dorsey penciled in as their starter if Rattay can't come back in time. Even if Rattay is healthy, there is no way of knowing whether the success he has had in limited playing time will result in the former seventh-round draft selection being a solid NFL starter.
The one quarterback the 49ers would be eager to acquire, a league source said, is Cincinnati's Jon Kitna, who was with Erickson in Seattle and lost the Bengals' starting job this offseason to Carson Palmer even after playing well last season. But Kitna signed a new contract with Cincinnati even after Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis decided to go with Palmer, the top overall choice in the 2003 draft, as the starter, and there are no indications at this point that the 49ers will be able to pry him away.
The 49ers will be a younger team, with the 27-year-old Rattay taking over for the 34-year-old Garcia. They should be a far more harmonious club, without Owens around to generate conflicts and controversies. But the 49ers also should be worse. They began to replenish their young talent on draft weekend, but they are still another productive draft or two away from even thinking about getting back to where Mariucci had them in 2002.
Around the League
The Cleveland Browns soon could be facing a decision about whether to release Tim Couch, who has been on the trading block since being replaced by Jeff Garcia as the starting quarterback.
The Green Bay Packers have been negotiating for weeks with Couch and agent Tom Condon, trying to agree to a new contract with Couch as a precursor to a trade with Cleveland for the former top overall draft pick. But the Packers have remained adamant about wanting Couch to sign a two-year contract, and Couch and Condon have remained adamant about wanting a one-year deal that would enable Couch to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason.
The Browns say they can afford to keep Couch on their roster. But it's unrealistic to think they could keep him all season at a salary of $7.6 million, and it appears to be approaching the point at which the Browns might just want to move on rather than hold out longer for the mid-round draft selection they would get from Green Bay in a trade. Couch already has filed a grievance against the Browns for being denied access to their facilities to work out. The Browns apparently didn't want to cut Couch before Baltimore signed a quarterback to replace injured backup Anthony Wright, but now the Ravens have Kordell Stewart.
Maddox Gets New Deal From Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are applying the finishing touches to a new four-year contract with quarterback Tommy Maddox that includes a signing bonus of around $2 million, a source familiar with negotiations said this morning. The agreement could be announced as early as today. Agent Vann McElroy was in Pittsburgh in recent days working on the deal. The Steelers moved forward with negotiations as promised even after drafting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first round. Maddox had three seasons remaining on his previous five-year, $5-million contract -- signed when he was slated to back up Stewart -- with salaries of $750,000 in each of the next two seasons and $900,000 in 2006. Coach Bill Cowher has declared the starter's job up for grabs.
Panthers, Delhomme Working on Extension
The next quarterback to get a new contract could be Carolina's Jake Delhomme. The Panthers are turning their negotiating focus to Delhomme after completing a contract extension last week with Coach John Fox.
Gildon Visits Green Bay
Linebacker Jason Gildon, released by Pittsburgh last week, visited Green Bay on Friday. Agent Peter Schaffer is scheduled to talk to Bears officials today about possibly planning a visit to Chicago for Gildon.
Next: Seattle Seahawks
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