49ers Clubhouse 

UNBELIEVABLE - Is Terry Donahue the Next 49er GM "Genius"?

April 15, 2002

by Jeff Shaffer
Clubhouse Staff Writer

A lot has been made in the press about Terry Donahue following in the footsteps of Bill Walsh. But most of the press has been only mildly complimentary, and much of it skeptical. And most notably, there have been the rumors that he is an ambitious, aloof, cold-hearted man that secretly covets Mariucci's job. Some of those same things had been said about Bill Walsh - he has been criticized as aloof, arrogant (believing he can do anyone's job better), and cold in his evaluations of a players decline (and under performing staff as well) and ruthless in his decisions to jettison a player and bring in youth.

But Bill Walsh's genius as a coach and general manager made such criticisms irrelevant - success always counts most. And now the genius was said to have groomed a protégé. Well, Terry Donahue's maneuvers in this year's free agency are a resounding first step toward living up to those expectations and assuming the "genius" mantle. And if this first step is a harbinger of the future, all the skepticism and criticism will fall by the wayside as irrelevant just as they did of Bill Walsh.

Let's review, did the 49ers meet their goals in free agency? Not only that, did they do it wisely and without sacrificing the future? As overarching goals, the 49ers made a public commitment to retaining their own and not falling victim to the foolish overpaying of talent.

Goal #1: Retain their own    A+

Despite having four premiere players going on the market, the 49ers retained three of them at reasonable contracts, and one at a steal.

A. Jeremy Newberry was wisely taken off the market within a day of free agency starting. And it is a tribute to his character that he accepted a fair market deal with the Niners without feeling the need to stroke his ego by shopping himself around to find the highest bidder.

B. Garrison Hearst was retained and rewarded for his production and comeback, but also as much for what he meant to the team esprit and fans. If anything, his contract may have been the only stretch on value, but what better person to be rewarded so?

C. Fred Beasely was a steal, despite being one of the premiere fullbacks available. But this reflects the lack appreciation for fullbacks around the NFL, and not his talent or critical importance to the team and running game. And it is said he returned partly out of his desire to stay with Hearst as his teammate, backfield tandem, and friend. Hey Garrison, you might want to throw some of your contract his way, he throws a hell of a block for you.

D. Lance Schulters was lost to the Titans, but he was offered a fair contract from the Niners.

E. Zack Bronson was a great move. Even though he technically wasn't a free agent, locking him up with a long term contract and rewarding him for his excellent play and quiet leadership was true wisdom. Kudos for that move.

F. Matt Willig is an excellent back-up all along the offensive line, and this was also a smart signing.

G. Justin Swift's signing shores up the tight-end position. He may not be a glamorous player, but he has been a solid contributor, and has come up with his share of critical blocks and catches.

Goal #2: Bringing in proven talent at the right price    A+

What a difference a few years make. It seems like forever since the Niners actually brought in more talent than they lost. But the amazing thing is they have done it so wisely this year, and at such critical spots:

A. Tony Parrish (Safety) is the replacement to Lance Schulters, and although most rated Schulters a little higher than Parrish, some liked Parrish better. He is a big hitter and run stopper, but also has good speed and range in pass coverage. He is said to not be as vocal and fiery as Lance, but I won't be surprised if he is actually an upgrade at the position, and would be shocked if he was a drop-off there. Most importantly to the Niners goal, he was acquired at a reasonable contract.

B. Sean Moran (DT) was signed with the savings of signing Parrish over Schulters, further validating the wisdom of the Niners abiding their discipline of not overpaying talent. Sean is recognized as a high-motor player of excellent character that again should be an excellent addition to the young team. Another good move.

C. Ron Stone (OG), a pro-bowler the last two seasons, was rumored to be seeking huge contract. And yet the Niners patiently pursued him and gained an outstanding player at another reasonable contract.

This likely means Ray Brown will be released after June 1st. The Niners intended to release the 39 year old Brown to avoid a $500,000 signing bonus and $2.4 million dollar salary next year at a position they wanted to get younger at anyway. Brown restructured his contract to at least receive a $100,000 bonus, with a base salary of $750,000 next year, purportedly with the understanding he would be released after June 1st. This helped the Niners avoid a big salary cap this year. Brown wants to play another year, and given his pro-bowl year last year, he likely can be a starter for one year somewhere. So after June 1st, he will likely test the market for his services. BUT, if he would actually stay with the Niners for this salary, the Niners should give serious consideration to keeping him. He would be an excellent back-up to have on the team. In addition, under the rules of the salary cap aimed at encouraging teams to keep veteran players, he might only count as $450,000 against the cap. That is a great bargain for his talent and leadership.

This free agency period looks like an incredible success without the Niners having to break the bank or the future. The Niners showed an uncanny patience, sound plan, discipline, and resourcefulness.

Any disappointments? Well, in a prior article I mentioned the "wish list" idea the Niners might sign a speedy receiver / return man to compliment Terrell Owens, so I was disappointed to see Jerome Pathon go to the Saints; Az-Hakim to the Lions. A dominant defensive tackle or defensive end would have been nice, or maybe a third cornerback. But there didn't seem to be any great fits or real must haves at these positions out there in the free agent pool. So, the conservative Niners plan is surely the best outcome.

Will Terry Donahue inherit the Walsh GM mantle? He will if he keeps up this kind of work. The April 20th draft is the next step. If it is even half as successful in acquiring talent as the last two years, Donahue will have established the foundation for another era of dominance -- And possibly a new dynasty?

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