The Press Democrat

49ers have come long way since opener, or have they?
January 03, 2003

In mid-July when the 49ers reported to training camp, the organization once again considered itself a Super Bowl contender.

Although the 49ers won the NFC West for the first time since coach Steve Mariucci's first season in 1997, they proved to be a notch below the other top teams in the conference.

They open the playoffs Sunday as the NFC's No. 4 seed and will face the conference's hottest team, the New York Giants, at Candlestick Park.

How did they get here and where are they going?

More than five months ago, The Press Democrat examined the 10 most pressing questions surrounding the 49ers as they began practicing for a season that would start on a Thursday night at the Meadowlands against the Giants.

Some questions have been answered, others will be answered in the playoffs and perhaps the biggest of them all will be addressed shortly after the season is over.

Here are the 10 questions as they were phrased before the season, with a progress report:

Can Mariucci and Terrell Owens get along?

At least well enough so it doesn't become a distraction.

Word is that Owens is still miserable with the 49ers, but at least he is doing a better job of hiding his discontent and keeping it from being a distraction to everyone in the locker room.

A year ago Mariucci and Owens were never seen speaking to each other. This year, they seem to be comfortable with each other. Owens roasted his coach several times in 2001 when speaking with the media. He hasn't made that same mistake this season.

Near the midpoint in the season, Owens stopped talking to the local media, except for selected postgame gatherings. It proved to be a wise move for Owens, who has never learned the art of self-censorship.

Owens' silence has created fewer headaches for Mariucci and the organization.

What happens if Jeff Garcia gets injured?

The 49ers feel a little more confident about the abilities of backup quarterback Tim Rattay. He has a stronger arm and he's a better downfield passer than Garcia, but he is slow afoot and has trouble avoiding pressure.

Rattay is scheduled to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season; the 49ers want to bring him back and continue to groom him as Garcia's understudy.

Can the defense match up with the Rams?

The question is irrelevant because the Rams flopped and failed to make the playoffs. But the answer is still no.

The 49ers have not solved their problems with their third-down defense. They still have trouble getting off the field when going against teams with decent three- and four-receiver formations.

Heck, Rams third-string quarterback Jamie Martin torched them for 222 yards passing in the second half of the season finale.

Is Kevan Barlow going to share load with Garrison Hearst?

Yes and, at times, that two-headed halfback might have caused some problems. The 49ers did not always stick with the hot back because they were so intent on getting work for both.

The 49ers entered the season hoping to get two 1,000-yard backs. They ended with none. Hearst rushed for 972 yards and a career-high eight touchdowns. Barlow gained 675 and four touchdowns while also missing two games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.

Which player should have a breakout season?

The answer back in July was linebacker Julian Peterson. The answer in early January is linebacker/defensive end/cornerback/safety Julian Peterson.

Peterson had a breakout season with his first of perhaps many trips to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He was second on the team in tackles and shut down Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez, as well as playing four positions in a victory over Dallas.

In his first two seasons, Peterson battled nagging injuries that stunted his growth as a pass-rusher. His versatility seemed to be a curse because he never really seemed to settle into a role.

This season with a wider grasp of the defense, Peterson has found himself helping defensive coordinator Jim Mora in a variety of ways. He has a difficult first-round matchup against Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, who caught three passes for 44 yards in the season opener against the 49ers.

Do the 49ers have a legitimate No. 2 receiver?

Yes, and his name is not J.J. Stokes but Tai Streets.

Streets emerged as a solid No. 2 option behind Owens, who missed the final two games of the regular season. Streets looked pretty decent as the top receiver in those games.

With speed and ability to create separation from defenders, Streets earned the confidence of Garcia. Streets had his best season at the right time. He is scheduled to enter the market as a free agent and could command a price the 49ers would be unwilling to pay.

Is the pass rush improved?

Yes, but the numbers don't necessarily prove it. The 49ers finished with 32 sacks -- the same number as last season.

Defensive end Andre Carter recorded 12 to give them the outside pass-rush threat they have lacked for a long time. And Chike Okeafor on the other side had his flashes.

But the 49ers got a combined 51/2 sacks from defensive tackles Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield. The 49ers went through one four-game stretch late in the season during which 162 passes were attempted against them and they recorded just one sack, and that came when Philadelphia quarterback Koy Detmer tripped over his own center and fell.

Will the team miss Ray Brown and Lance Schulters?

The team appeared to miss the leadership of Brown and the fiery enthusiasm of Schulters, but their play on the field was not necessarily missed.

Right guard Ron Stone proved to be a big upgrade, as the 49ers' run attack was essentially "right-handed," which means they run primarily behind Stone and right tackle Scott Gragg.

Tony Parrish was signed for considerably less than Schulters was asking. He responded with a Pro Bowl-worthy season, though he was snubbed in the voting. Parrish, however, became the first first-year 49ers player to win the team's Len Eshmont Award.

Have they solved their place-kicking problems?

Maybe Jeff Chandler will become a solid kicker but right now he is an inconsistent rookie. The 49ers started the season with two kickers when Jose Cortez won the job in training camp. When Cortez faltered, Chandler took over.

As in so many seasons in the past, the 49ers just hope a playoff game does not come down to a last-second field goal.

Will Mariucci get his contract extension?

Contract talks will begin after the season, regardless of how far the 49ers go. Word is that there is a significant canyon between what Mariucci is seeking and what owner John York is willing to pay.

With seven assistant coaches without contracts for next season, the 49ers need to act quickly or they will have a difficult time fielding a coaching staff if Mariucci and York can't agree on an extended deal beyond 2003.

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