The San Francisco 49ers once were a great organization, and they have the five Super Bowl trophies to prove it.
They aren't that any more. They aren't anything close to it, coming off a season in which the only team they could beat was the Arizona Cardinals (twice). Co-owner John York perhaps didn't do Mike Nolan any favors when he hired the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator to succeed Dennis Erickson as the 49ers' head coach, and gave Nolan total control over the team's football operations. Nolan is widely respected around the league as a good person and a solid coach, but this situation requires an almost total rebuilding project.
Many people around the league believe that the 49ers were woefully mismanaged under Erickson and former general manager Terry Donahue, who liked to blame the club's predicament on its salary-cap problems without acknowledging his role in creating those problems. It remains mystifying why the 49ers forced out former coach Steve Mariucci following the 2002 season and then hired Erickson, a coach with no history of pro success, to succeed him. The results were predictable. Erickson went 9-23 in two seasons with the 49ers, including 2-14 last season. York fired Donahue and Erickson after the season.
The 49ers hired Nolan after finding that York's apparent first choice, Pete Carroll, wouldn't leave USC and also interviewing New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel (who was hired as the Cleveland Browns' head coach a month later), Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger (now the New York Jets' offensive boss), Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. Nolan hired Scot McCloughan, the Seattle Seahawks' college scouting director, as his top front-office lieutenant, giving him the title of vice president of player personnel.
The first big decision that Nolan and McCloughan faced together came in the NFL draft in late April, and they make the right choice by selecting Utah quarterback Alex Smith with the top overall pick. The problem was that the 49ers could not get Smith's agent, Tom Condon, to agree to a contract before the draft. The 49ers negotiated with Condon and Michael Sullivan, the agent for Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and argued in those separate deliberations that the Giants had overpaid last year when they signed top overall draft selection Eli Manning (another quarterback represented by Condon) to a six-year, $45 million contract that included $20 million in bonus money and $9 million in potential incentives that could push the deal's overall value to $54 million.
The 49ers wanted Smith or Rodgers to agree to a deal worth less in its final two seasons than the $21.5 million that Manning's contract with the Giants potentially could pay him for the 2008 and 2009 seasons alone. Sullivan consented, likely sensing that Rodgers was headed toward a draft-day plummet if the 49ers passed on him. Condon refused, knowing that Smith probably would have been chosen within the next few picks if the 49ers had passed on him.
The 49ers could have taken the easy way out, saved some money and drafted Rodgers. The selection would have been popular among a large segment of their fan base because of Rodgers's Bay Area ties, and the team wouldn't have had to face the prospect of a difficult set of negotiations with Condon and a possible contract dispute that could spill over into training camp and delay the beginning of their franchise quarterback's career. Many scouts league-wide felt there was little to choose from between Smith and Rodgers before the draft, anyway.
But Nolan and McCloughan didn't do what was easiest. They did what they thought was best for the franchise. They had decided that they preferred Smith -- Nolan believes intangibles are important, and he told associates that he loved Smith's intelligence and leadership -- and they chose him, even without a deal with Condon in place. The 49ers, at least, are back to trying to do things the right way. The team's negotiator, Paraag Marathe, has continued to negotiate with Condon, and the 49ers recently had seemed hopeful of signing Smith well before training camp opens in late July. But those hopes have dimmed, with the talks having bogged down. It appears that Smith's contract will end up being richer than Manning's, but much haggling remains to be done.
Nolan will have to decide in training camp whether to make Smith a starter from the outset of his rookie season, or have him sit for a while behind Tim Rattay. Either way, the 49ers and their rookie coach probably are in for a long season overflowing with losses.
The 49ers did make one major addition in free agency to help their quarterback, whichever one Nolan chooses, by signing left tackle Jonas Jennings, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, to a seven-year, $36 million contract that included a $12 million signing bonus. They added kicker Joe Nedney and defensive end Marques Douglas in free agency, and they kept linebacker Julian Peterson off the unrestricted free agent market by naming him their franchise player. Nolan explored the possibility of signing talented but troubled wide receiver David Boston in free agency, but didn't.
Otherwise, the 49ers' offseason was dominated by off-field news, with the league denying Nolan's request to wear a suit on the sideline during games and the club generating controversy when an in-house training video for players featuring ethnic jokes and sexually explicit scenes became public. That was another embarrassment for a once-proud franchise that has become all too accustomed in recent years to being embarrassed, mostly by its play on the field. Things aren't likely to improve much next season, but the 49ers will have to consider it a success if their rookie head coach and their prized rookie quarterback find a way to provide some hope that the club's glorious past can be recaptured at some point in the future.
Around the League
The St. Louis Rams, as expected, released right tackle Kyle Turley, who had feuded with Coach Mike Martz and experienced back problems that put his football future in doubt . . . .
The New England Patriots signed free-agent safety Antuan Edwards . . . . The Seahawks signed free-agent safety John Howell . . . .
The Browns granted left tackle Ross Verba permission to seek a trade and might release him if they can't deal him. Verba has been involved in a contract dispute with the club, and the Browns got a potential replacement when they signed free agent L.J. Shelton over the weekend . . . .
The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., dropped out of the race to be the home of a proposed NFL franchise in Los Angeles. The Pasadena city council voted early this morning to withdraw from consideration. Officials in Carson, Calif., recently removed their 157-acre site from consideration, and the elimination of the Rose Bowl leaves only two sites in the running -- the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Anaheim, Calif. . . .
Free-agent wide receiver Freddie Mitchell visited the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday. The Chiefs are looking for a replacement for wideout Johnnie Morton, who was released last week, and are scheduled to host free-agent receiver Az-Zahir Hakim today. . . .
The league and the Indianapolis Colts are considering possible disciplinary actions against Colts safety Mike Doss.
On Monday, a judge in Akron, Ohio, sentenced Doss to 40 hours of community service and fined him $1,000 plus court costs after he entered no-contest pleas, as part of a deal with prosecutors, to two misdemeanor gun-related charges stemming from an incident nine days ago in which he allegedly fired a handgun into the air outside a crowded Akron nightclub. Doss also received suspended prison sentences totaling 240 days.
Colts officials previously had said that they planned to discipline Doss for the incident.