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NFL Indsider - Mark Maske

49ers Fire Coach Erickson

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; 4:36 PM

San Francisco 49ers co-owner John York has decided to oust the team's coach, Dennis Erickson, and general manager, Terry Donahue, on the heels of a 2-14 season.

York informed Erickson today that he'd been fired and reached a financial settlement by which Donahue will resign, a source familiar with the situation said. The club planned to announce the moves at a news conference later today.

_____Rankings & Picks_____
Mark Maske reveals how teams ended up at the finish of the regular season.
Mark's first-round playoff picks

_____More NFL Insider_____
Decision Time for 49ers' Organization (washingtonpost.com, Jan 4, 2005)
Reid, Eagles Have Huge Impact on Playoff Berths (washingtonpost.com, Jan 3, 2005)
Manning the Only Choice for MVP (washingtonpost.com, Dec 31, 2004)

Erickson had three seasons remaining on a five-year, $12.5-million contract. Donahue received a four-year contract extension through the 2009 season in September. But the 49ers plummeted to the NFL's worst record this season, and matched the worst mark in franchise history. They'll have the top overall draft selection in April.

York is based in Ohio but was in the Bay Area this week for a set of discussions with Erickson and Donahue.

Erickson interviewed for the University of Mississippi's head-coaching job late in the 49ers' season but withdrew from consideration, and he had said that he hoped and expected to remain with the team. But the 49ers were only 9-23 in the two seasons since making Erickson their surprise choice to replace Steve Mariucci, and Erickson is 40-56 in six seasons as an NFL head coach in Seattle and San Francisco. He never has had a winning season as an NFL head coach. York previously had indicated that he felt some changes should be made to Erickson's coaching staff, and Erickson had said he didn't want to make any changes.

Ravens' Savage Negotiating with Cleveland

Cleveland Browns officials have begun contract negotiations with Phil Savage and, barring any last-minute snags, will make the Baltimore Ravens' director of player personnel their new general manager, NFL sources said this afternoon.

If the hiring of Savage is completed, it would increase the chances of Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan becoming the Browns' coach, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations with Savage were at a sensitive stage.

Browns officials met with Savage today for the third time this week and formally offered him the job, according to sources. Savage emerged as the front-runner for the position after Cleveland's top two choices, New England Patriots front-office chief Scott Pioli and Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, were unavailable.

Browns owner Randy Lerner and club president John Collins met with Savage on Monday in Baltimore. They met with him again late Tuesday after interviewing Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress for the team's head-coaching job earlier in the day in the Philadelphia area.

By late Tuesday, one source said the only remaining obstacle to the Browns choosing Savage was Lerner and Collins deciding whether they would make one final run at Pioli, the Patriots' vice president of player personnel who has been the co-architect, with Coach Bill Belichick, of New England's two Super Bowl-winning teams.

Pioli has said that he intends to remain with the Patriots. But the new general manager in Cleveland will have the final say over personnel decisions, something that Belichick -- not Pioli -- has with the Patriots.

The Browns, however, would have had to wait until the Patriots' season is over to hire Pioli. And the Patriots maintain that Pioli's contract prevents him from leaving, even for a GM job. So Lerner and Collins apparently decided to move forward with Savage and launch contract talks.

Cleveland was denied permission to interview Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Browns. Other general manager candidates also were prevented from interviewing or declined to interview with the Browns, including Tennessee Titans GM Floyd Reese, Atlanta Falcons assistant GM Tim Ruskell, Eagles vice president of player personnel Tom Heckert and Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert.

The Browns interviewed Charles Bailey, the Jacksonville Jaguars' pro personnel director, on Monday.

Savage is a former Browns assistant coach and is widely respected around the league as a talent evaluator. He would have been a candidate to be the Miami Dolphins' front-office chief for new coach Nick Saban. Savage was a defensive assistant coach in Cleveland when Saban was the Browns' defensive coordinator and Belichick was the head coach. But Saban has the final say over player-related decisions in Miami, making the Cleveland GM job more attractive to Savage than a position with the Dolphins.

The Browns' top coaching candidates with Savage as the general manager likely would include Nolan and Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, Belichick's offensive line coach in Cleveland when Savage coached there. The candidate list also might include former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel, who served as a consultant this season to Ravens Coach Brian Billick. And Belichick might offer an endorsement to Savage of Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, whom the Browns have been given permission to interview this week.

Crennel's interview likely will take place Friday.

The Browns also have received permission to interview Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm and Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Grimm interviewed for the Chicago Bears' head-coaching job last winter but was passed over for the position in favor of Lovie Smith. Grimm could be interviewed Saturday, the same day that Browns interim coach Terry Robiskie is to interview for the job. . . .

Saban officially started work with the Dolphins on Tuesday and immediately met with Jim Bates, who went 3-4 as the team's interim coach after Dave Wannstedt's resignation in November, about the possibility of Bates remaining with the club as defensive coordinator.

Bates said earlier in the week that, even with his friendship with Saban going back to their days coaching together in -- where else? -- Cleveland, it would be difficult for him to stay as an assistant after getting a taste of being a head coach. But Bates's head-coaching opportunities could be limited, and he and Saban are scheduled to discuss the matter again next week.

During his introductory news conference, Saban left open the possibility of retired tailback Ricky Williams returning to the team if Williams ever wants to play football again.

"If Ricky Williams has value to this organization, he certainly is somebody that we would like to have be part of this organization,'' Saban said. "I would be open to that.''

First-Round Receivers Mostly Productive

The wide receivers who dominated the first round of the NFL draft last spring didn't, for the most part, dominate the league this season.

But four of the seven wideouts drafted in the first round in April had solid rookie seasons, and their continued development might end up making last year's draft memorable for more than just the ushering of Ben Roethlisberger into the NFL.

The fifth wideout taken was the most productive, as Michael Clayton had 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Clayton, the 15th overall choice in the draft, was the only of the seven to reach 900 receiving yards.

The two most coveted receivers on draft day were Larry Fitzgerald and Roy Williams, and each -- like Clayton -- led his team in receptions. Williams, in particular, looked at times like an all-time-great wideout in the making, but was plagued by injuries and finished with 54 catches for 817 yards and eight touchdowns for the Detroit Lions. Fitzgerald was plagued most by the Arizona Cardinals' spotty quarterback play, and had 58 catches for 780 yards and eight touchdowns. The Buffalo Bills' Lee Evans led the group in touchdown receptions, with nine, and had 48 catches for 843 yards as a solid complement to veteran wide receiver Eric Moulds.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Reggie Williams, the ninth overall selection in the draft by Jacksonville who never became a major factor in the Jaguars' offense and finished with 27 receptions for 268 yards and a touchdown. The last two wideouts drafted in the first round, the Falcons' Michael Jenkins and the 49ers' Rashaun Woods, were virtual non-factors, with seven catches apiece. . . .

It also ended up being a promising year for rookie tailbacks, even though none were all that coveted last spring.

The Lions' Kevin Jones ran for 1,133 yards, making him the NFC's fifth-leading rusher. He overcame a sluggish, injury-filled beginning to his rookie season and had four 100-yard rushing performances (and another 99-yard outing) in the final seven games. After failing to run for 70 yards in any game in the first half of the season, he never was under 70 yards in any game in the season's second half.

Steven Jackson, the only other tailback drafted in the first round, became the St. Louis Rams' most effective runner late in the season and looked like a worthy successor to Marshall Faulk. He ran for 673 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry, and displayed an eye-catching combination of power and speed.

But the most impressive rookie runner of all might have been the Dallas Cowboys' Julius Jones, who played only half the season -- thanks to a broken shoulder blade -- but ran for 819 yards and seven touchdowns. He justified the decision by Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells to pass over Jackson and Kevin Jones on draft day and trade out of the first round, getting Julius Jones in the second round and adding the Buffalo Bills' first-round pick this spring. When he got healthy, he gave Parcells the workhorse that the Cowboys lacked when he was sidelined.

Offensive Coordinators Getting Tossed Aside

Offensive coordinators continued to be fired faster than head coaches league-wide with Tuesday's dismissals of Bill Musgrave by the Jaguars and Terry Shea by the Bears. That brought the two-day total around the league to five offensive-coordinator changes, with Monday's firing of Alex Wood by the Cardinals, forced resignation of Matt Cavanaugh in Baltimore and retirement of Sherman Lewis in Detroit. And the New York Jets' Paul Hackett and the Minnesota Vikings' Scott Linehan still could go after their clubs are eliminated from the playoffs.

All the openings could make Linehan a coveted commodity as a coaching free agent. He did not sign the contract extension once offered to him by the Vikings because Coach Mike Tice's future with the organization was unclear. He received some unwanted notoriety this season with the ill-fated trick play that contributed to a loss to Seattle, when wide receiver Randy Moss threw a costly interception in the end zone. But the Vikings ranked fourth in the league this season in total offense after ranking second in 2002 under Linehan and first last year.

It's possible that an NFL team or two will attempt to try offensive guru Norm Chow from USC, and former University of Illinois coach Ron Turner (the brother of Oakland Raiders Coach Norv Turner) also could be an offensive-coordinator candidate league-wide. . . .

Cincinnati today fired defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The Bengals ranked 26th in the league against the run and 19th in total defense this season and Coach Marvin Lewis, who was a highly successful defensive coordinator in Baltimore and Washington, at one point temporarily ran the unit. The Bengals are 16-16 in Lewis's two seasons as head coach, and Frazier's defense has been the weak link both years. Last season, Cincinnati ranked 24th in the NFL against the rush and 28th in total defense . . .

Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio also dismissed linebackers coach Mike Haluchak and assistant defensive backs coach Steve Shafer. Del Rio has fired six assistants in two years as an NFL head coach. . . .

The NFL on Tuesday fined Denver safety John Lynch $75,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark last Sunday. It was the second $75,000 fine imposed by the league on a safety in two weeks. Jacksonville's Donovin Darius was fined the same amount for a forearm hit on Green Bay wide receiver Robert Ferguson that left Ferguson temporarily paralyzed before later regaining feeling in his legs. Clark left the game with a concussion. The teams face each other again Sunday in Indianapolis in a first-round AFC playoff game, and Lynch is to play with a cast on the fractured thumb that he suffered on the first play of last weekend's game. . . .

Raiders officials say they don't have any idea whether quarterback Rich Gannon will attempt to resume his career next season after suffering a broken vertebra in his neck during a September game against the Buccaneers. Gannon still faces at least two months of rehabilitation and probably won't make any determinations about his football future before that's completed. . . .

The Raiders made a contract offer last week to wide receiver Jerry Porter, who's eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. Porter came up only two yards shy of his first 1,000-yard receiving season and the Raiders would like to retain him, not only for his productivity but also for his ability to aid the development of the team's young wideouts -- Ronald Curry, Doug Gabriel and Alvis Whitted. . . .

Arizona signed punter Scott Player to a two-year contract extension through the 2007 season.

Robinson's Status Unclear

Seattle wide receiver Koren Robinson participated in the Seahawks' practice Tuesday, but Coach Mike Holmgren indicated he wouldn't make a decision until later in the week about Robinson's status for Saturday's first-round NFC playoff game against the Rams. Robinson has missed six of the last seven games for disciplinary reasons. He was placed on the inactive list and sent home by Holmgren before last Sunday's triumph over the Falcons, reportedly for missing a practice Saturday. Holmgren met with Robinson on Monday.

Holmgren said during his news conference Tuesday that he didn't think this week's controversy surrounding tailback Shaun Alexander would affect his team's preparations for the Rams game. Alexander issued a public apology Monday after saying Sunday he'd been "stabbed in the back'' by Holmgren when the coach ran a quarterback sneak for a touchdown instead of giving the ball to Alexander, who finished one yard behind the Jets' Curtis Martin for the NFL rushing title.

"To me, it wasn't that complicated,'' said Holmgren, who indicated he would have gotten two yards for Alexander on Seattle's next drive but the Seahawks never got the ball back. "No one was intentionally doing anything. Inches? Quarterback sneak. That's it.''

© 2005 washingtonpost.com