USA Today

Inside slant
February 06, 2003
Terry Donahue is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame after a successful 20-year run as head coach at UCLA.

Now, as general manager of the 49ers, Donahue is faced with the biggest decision of his career. He must select the organization's next head coach.

The first three weeks of the coaching search have been spent on researching a lengthy list of candidates who are professional assistants.

Donahue has acknowledged that pro assistants are the group with which he was least familiar. From that three-week investigative process, Donahue narrowed his choices to 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora, New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache.

Team owner John York began the process of meeting with each of the remaining candidates about non-football matters on Wednesday when he spoke with Cottrell.

Donahue wanted to move cautiously with any college candidates because he was sensitive about disrupting the recruiting process. If word leaked out that the 49ers were interested in a particular college coach, that school's rivals could use it against them in recruiting.

With letter-of-intent day occurring on Wednesday, Donahue said that now he will pursue one or more coaches that he believes would be a good fit for the 49ers.

The 49ers have been without a head coach for three weeks after York fired Steve Mariucci on Jan. 15, citing "philosophical differences."

"I am very familiar with the college head coaches and expect to turn some of my attention to a limited number of viable candidates in that area as well," Donahue said. "The addition of potential candidates from college football along with Greg, Ted and Jim will give us a deep and talented pool from which to choose our head coach."

Among the college candidates are: Washington's Rick Neuheisel, Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Notre Dame's Tyrone Willingham, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Kentucky's Rich Brooks, Oregon State's Dennis Erickson and Oregon's Mike Bellotti.

Three professional assistants used the 49ers' interest in them to get more lucrative contracts from their former teams: Philadelphia's offensive and defensive coordinators, Brad Childress and Jim Johnson, and Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

The slow-moving process has come under fire from some in the San Francisco area, including 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia.

"It's like we don't even have a plan now," Garcia said at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. "To me, it's embarrassing. ... We're almost pulling names out of a hat right now. I don't know where we're going with it."

Garcia has said that he would like to be included in the process to pick the next 49ers coach. Up until making those remarks he had not been getting any kind of progress reports from Donahue or anyone else in the organization.

A team source said that Donahue, however, did call Garcia to leave him a message that everything was proceeding smoothly. The call was placed on Saturday. A couple hours later, Garcia, who might not have checked his voice mail, made his harsh comments.

York said he is pleased with how the coaching search is going.

"Unfortunately, Jeff is talking without knowing the plan," York said. "If he knew the plan he would be comfortable. I'm very comfortable with it."

Donahue went to great lengths to defend his process. He spent two weeks at his home in Southern California, where he entertained and interviewed five candidates. He also interviewed New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel before informing him this week that he did not make the list of finalists.

"When we began our search for a new head coach we established a strategy and are proceeding as planned," Donahue said. "This has been a deliberate and lengthy process because not only have we been getting to know the coaches, but we have been talking to many highly respected football people around the league about our candidates. We have been and will continue to be thorough in our approach because I feel it is the only way to find the best coach for our players, our fans and our organization."

The 49ers are hoping to make a splash with their naming of a head coach, but nothing will match the excitement generated by their former coach finding his new work address.

The 49ers have the only coaching vacancy in the league after the Detroit Lions made Mariucci the second $5 million-a-year coach in the NFL. Mariucci signed a reported five-year, $25 million contract with the Lions to join Washington's Steve Spurrier as the highest-paid coaches in the league.

Mariucci was scheduled to earn $2.2 million in the final year of his contract with the 49ers. The 49ers appear to have done Mariucci a huge favor by firing him three weeks ago, as he more than doubled his salary and returns to his home state of Michigan.

"Congratulations," York said of Mariucci. "I knew he would be back in coaching. I wish him the best."

When asked if he was surprised that the Lions would pay that much for Mariucci, York replied, "It's a big number."


—When coach Steve Mariucci outlined the offseason plans to the team, including their 14-week conditioning program, which begins March 14, none of the players thought they would be losing their coach just a couple days later.

"Not at all," DE Sean Moran said, "nobody saw this coming. He told us about our offseason program and the March mini-camp."

—Owner John York spoke to the team after the season-ending game and reiterated his commitment to build the 49ers into a Super Bowl-winning organization.

"If you look at it in the context of where we were, we had a very good year," York said. "You don't like to lose a game like this. You don't like to lose the last game. I told the team, `The way we want to finish is we want to have a celebration in the locker room.' That's what this organization is going to do. It wasn't this year but you have to congratulate them for where they brought us this year."

LB Julian Peterson said the talk from York was encouraging.

"He never came at us like, `You all stink and you're the worst team in the country,'" Peterson said. "He never came at us like that. It was just all positive stuff, stuff to look forward to next year."

—Team consultant Bill Walsh, in an otherwise humorless locker room, got a chuckle when looking ahead to the 49ers-Bucs regular-season game in 2003: "We play them next year, and we'll win that game. I guarantee it. I'll predict it. Of course, I'll be living down on the Monterey Peninsula."

—With injuries to CBs Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, the 49ers played most of the game with Mike Rumph and Rashad Holman in the base defense and newly acquired Duane Hawthorne in nickel.

"We've been drafting cornerbacks for a long time," team owner John York said. "We didn't have any cornerbacks. Poor ol' Mike Rumph was out there on his own."

Hawthorne was signed in early December but had not played any downs on defense for the 49ers this season.

"You could probably count on one had how many practice snaps he's taken," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "And now all of a sudden, he's out there in your nickel group, and he's playing and he's fighting. Thank goodness we had that guy."

—S Zack Bronson was never able to return to form after missing 11 games with a broken left foot. Bronson tried to return for the playoffs but had to be taken out in both games because of soreness.

"You go to Zack and say `How do you feel?' ... and he says, `I'm going to do whatever I can to help this team,'" Mora said. "I said, `Zack, I've known you for six years; I know that's not the answer I'm looking for.' And he said, `Jim, it hurts.'

"It looked to me in the second quarter it was hurting him. I asked if I needed to take him out, he said, `I'm OK.'"

Bronson surrendered a 20-yard scoring pass to Tampa WR Joe Jurevicius and was slow to cover on several other plays.

—QB Jeff Garcia is generally at his best when he escapes the pocket. But that strategy did not work against the Buccaneers. Garcia's eagerness to leave the safety of the pocket was ill-advised and something from which he can learn, Walsh said.

"They would catch him immediately and he'd have no chance," Walsh said. "So it would have been best if he'd stayed in the pocket. If he stayed in there, he was effective. The minute he left there, they caught him. That's probably a good lesson for Jeff and a good lesson for all of us to remind ourselves."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need to know where we are and who is going to be that man to take us there. There are so many questions in my own mind that nobody knows" — 49ers veteran OL Dave Fiore.


A year ago, the 49ers returned 20 of their 22 starters. They should be able to keep the team together again this offseason, as only two starters (WR Tai Streets and DE Chike Okeafor) are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

Where things start getting uncertain for the 49ers is when you look ahead a year. Among the potential unrestricted free agents in 2004 is WR Terrell Owens. Team general manager Terry Donahue said he would like to work out a contract extension with Owens this offseason, but that appears doubtful.

Owens, whose stay with the 49ers has been rocky, will likely seek a contract that will break the bank. He could easily make a case for the most lucrative contract in the league, and it is doubtful that the 49ers would be willing to put so much money into one player.


QUARTERBACK: Starter — Jeff Garcia. Backups — Tim Rattay, Brandon Doman, Cade McNown.

Garcia turns 33 next month and the 49ers aren't sure of how many more seasons he will be playing at a top level. He has compiled 53 consecutive starts, which is amazing because of his reluctance to avoid hits. Although Garcia earned his third consecutive Pro Bowl this season, there are some in the organization who believe his lack of arm strength puts the offense at a disadvantage. Garcia rarely ever tries to get the ball down the field, even when such plays are called. What Garcia does best is that he does not make silly mistakes. Rattay has a much-stronger arm but does not have the escapability of Garcia. McNown, who had surgery in August to correct a shoulder problem, is throwing the ball much better than he did in training camp. Conceivably, he could be a factor next season.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Garrison Hearst, FB Fred Beasley. Backups — RB Kevan Barlow, FB/HB Paul Smith, RB Jamal Robertson, FB/HB Terry Jackson.

The 49ers never found much of a rhythm with their run game, as Hearst and Barlow shared the carries for much of the season. Hearst showed signs of slowing down this season. He still managed to rush for 972 yards and a career-high eight touchdowns. It might be time for the organization to get Barlow on the field more to see what he can do. However, Barlow seems to have a difficult time staying healthy when he gets extended playing time. He openly yearns to be the main man, which has rubbed some of the team's veterans the wrong way. Beasley is a true fullback and a large part of the running game. After the top three men, the 49ers do not have much here. Smith is interchangeable at FB or HB, but he has not distinguished himself in any area. Both Robertson and Jackson finished the season in injured reserve.

TIGHT END: Starter — Eric Johnson. Backups — Justin Swift, Mark Anelli, Brian Jennings.

Johnson made decent strides this season as the team's No. 4 receiver. He caught 36 passes for 321 yards. But the former Yale wide receiver needs to be able to get down the middle of the field against the diet of two-deep zones the 49ers see on a regular basis. Also, Johnson has to become more of a factor in the red zone. Johnson is an all-right pass target but he still needs a lot of work on his run-blocking. The 49ers will look to upgrade this area. Second-stringer Swift is little more than a role player. The 49ers used a draft pick on Anelli, but he spent most of the season on the practice squad. Jennings is the long snapper.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — FL Terrell Owens, SE Tai Streets. Backups — J.J. Stokes, Cedrick Wilson, Vinny Sutherland.

Owens is truly the only game-breaker on the team. Despite missing the final two games of the season with a groin strain, Owens still managed to catch 100 passes for 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. Disliked throughout the locker room a year ago, Owens also made strides this season to become more of a team player. Streets is scheduled to be a free agent and he might command a pretty healthy contract on the open market. He finished with 72 receptions for 756 yards and five touchdowns. He is a priority for the 49ers to re-sign. Stokes has probably played his final game with the 49ers because he is set to earn a $2.25 million base salary. Clearly, the 49ers will not be able to play that kind of money for a player who produced just 32 catches for 332 yards and one touchdown. Wilson should be back as the third or fourth receiver, but Sutherland does not figure into the team's future.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Derrick Deese, LG Eric Heitmann, C Jeremy Newberry, RG Ron Stone, RT Scott Gragg. Backups — T/G Matt Willig, T/G Kyle Kosier, T/G Dave Fiore, C Ben Lynch, T Jerome Davis, G/C Craig Osika.

Toward the end of the season, Deese, Stone and Newberry were all playing with ankle injuries. Deese and Stone could not make it through either playoff game without coming out of the lineup. Team management believes Deese's ankle injury is a result of wear-and-tear through the years. Although he played at a high level when healthy, the 49ers have to start planning for the future at that position. Statistically, the line had a very good season. The 49ers averaged 4.6 yards a rush and Garcia was sacked just 17 times this season. What isn't so clear is whether Garcia routinely escaped the pocket because protection was breaking down or because he was not patient enough to let the patterns develop. Stone and Newberry had solid seasons, as did Gragg, who twice stone-walled N.Y. Giants DE Michael Strahan. Heitmann showed a lot of promise in his 12 starts. Veteran Willig's role as the first reserve off the bench at guard or tackle might be filled next season by Fiore, who was lost three games into the season with a torn ACL.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LDE Chike Okeafor, LDT Bryant Young, RDT Dana Stubblefield, RDE Andre Carter. Backups — DE John Engelberger, DT Jim Flanigan, DE/DT Sean Moran, DT Josh Shaw, DE Jerome Dave.

Carter had a breakout season with 12.5 of the team's 32 sacks. As well as he put pressure on the QB, he also improved dramatically against the run. On the other end, Okeafor was solid with six sacks. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, so if he gets a good offer elsewhere, he could be gone. Young had a disappointing season with a career-low two sacks. Despite being the highest-paid player on the team, Young became more of a role player. His job was to take on double-teams and create opportunities for the linebackers behind him or for Okeafor and Carter. The team is going to have to do a better job of featuring Young in the defense more than it did this season. Stubblefield had a solid season, but with a $2.325 million scheduled salary for 2003, something will probably have to be done to his contract in order for him to return. Young is scheduled to earn $4.5 million, but the 49ers can't even think of getting rid of his salary because of approximately $14 million in future proration that would count against the cap. Engelberger lost his starting role in the preseason to Okeafor. Because he is under contract, he might regain his starting assignment. Flanigan and Moran are solid vets who fit into the equation. Shaw played in three games this season as a rookie, as he spent most of the year rehabbing a knee he injured during his senior season at Michigan State. He figures into the team's plans.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Julian Peterson, MLB Derek Smith, WLB Jeff Ulbrich. Backups — WLB Jamie Winborn, SLB/MLB Brandon Moore, WLB Saleem Rasheed, WLB Frank Strong, MLB Quincy Stewart, SLB Cornelius Anthony, SLB Terry Killens.

Peterson emerged as the star of the season because of his all-around play. He performed well in coverage, limiting Kansas City TE Tony Gonzalez to one catch for 6 yards. He was also the team's second-leading tackler with 104 stops, behind Smith's 138. Though not real productive in coverage, Smith continues to be solid on run downs. Helped tremendously by the selfless attitudes of Young and Stubblefield in front of him, Smith led the team with 88 solo tackles this season. Ulbrich also played solidly. This position group is one of the few on the 49ers that appears as if it does not need an immediate upgrade. A big part of the 49ers' defense was lost after three games when Winborn was lost for the season with a torn medial-collateral ligament. Winborn started the season opener for Ulbrich and recorded 17 tackles against the New York Giants to earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week. He would have been a major contributor in nickel situations. The 49ers also like second-round draft pick Rasheed, though he did not play in 12 games this season. The team is concerned about Rasheed's commitment to his Islam faith, and his observance of the holy month of Ramadan, which falls during the football season. During that month, Rasheed does not eat or drink during daylight hours.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Ahmed Plummer, RCB Jason Webster, SS Tony Parrish, FS Zack Bronson. Backups — CB Mike Rumph, S Ronnie Heard, CB Rashad Holman, CB Jimmy Williams, S John Keith, CB Duane Hawthorne, S Tim Hauck, S Kevin Curtis, CB Anthony Parker.

The 49ers wanted to make significant strides with their nickel pass coverage but, again, that was a glaring weakness. The 49ers failed to stop the opposition on 46.9 percent of their third-down opportunities. In the season-ending loss to Tampa, the 49ers could not make the stop on 8 of 10 third downs in the first half. Plummer is the team's best cover man, but he was playing the last part of the season with a strained groin. Webster missed both playoff games with an ankle sprain. Parrish, who endured a dislocated elbow in early December and continued to play, was the healthiest member of the secondary. Bronson, the leader of the secondary, missed 11 games with a broken left foot and returned for the playoffs despite being nowhere near to 100 percent health. Rumph, a rookie, had some struggles as he took over from Day 1 as the team's nickel back. When he was finally moved into the slot late in the season, he played much better. Ultimately, he will probably be a very effective safety in the league. Heard is a valuable backup at both safety spots. Holman played much better as a second-year player, though the front office would like to see Williams get more of a chance. Williams sustained a torn ACL late in the season. The 49ers can definitely improve their depth in the secondary, though the return of draft pick Curtis should help.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jeff Chandler, P Bill LaFleur, LS Brian Jennings, H LaFleur, KR/PR Jimmy Williams.

Eleven games into the season, the 49ers fired K Jose Cortez and went with Chandler, who was drafted in the third round. Chandler finished off the season making 8 of 12 field-goal attempts. He is not a great kickoff man, but the 49ers are committed to him for next season. LaFleur replaced Jason Baker late in the season and proved to be significantly less productive. LaFleur's 14-yard punt in the divisional playoff game led to the Buccaneers' first TD. The 49ers will be looking to upgrade at that spot. Williams had developed into one of the league's top return men until he sustained a torn ACL in early December. When he went down, so did any production the 49ers were hoping to get out of the return game. Wilson had a costly muffed punt in the 49ers' first-round playoff game, and Sutherland had a fumble that contributed to the loss to Tampa. If Williams is healthy for next season, he will regain his job as the return specialist.

COACHING: Although the 49ers do not have a head coach, they have determined Greg Knapp will return as offensive coordinator, as they signed him to a new one-year deal. Jim Mora Jr. is the only candidate from on the staff to receive an interview for the head job, though he has also interviewed with the Panthers for their defensive coordinator position and might also be in line to follow Steve Mariucci to the Detroit Lions. DL coach Dwaine Board has signed with the Seahawks, special teams coach Bruce DeHaven has left for Dallas, and WR coach George Stewart signed with Atlanta. LB coach Richard Smith will be joining Mariucci in Detroit. Ted Tollner, Pat Morris and Brett Maxie have also been told they will return under the new coach. Tom Batta and Tom Rathman do not have contracts for next season.

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