Sacramento Bee

49ers aren't far from the elite
January 15, 2003
Defense and special teams need impact performers.

By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

No, the 49ers were not a better team in 2002 than they were in 2001.

But they are a better team today than they were one year ago.

Keep in mind, this 49ers team was not built for an all-or-nothing 2002 season.

In fact, few teams have a better foundation in place for long-term success.

The 49ers are young, with most of their players still maturing and improving -- and, most importantly, getting healthier. They plan to keep their nucleus together next season and beyond (except, of course, for the possible removal of the coach). And they are in good shape with the salary cap.

No, that last part was not a typo. The 49ers are fiscally fit.

"I think it's been written that we're only eight million over the cap, which is the best number I've heard since I've been here," coach Steve Mariucci said Monday, a day that mostly dealt with him discussing whether he'll be around to reap the rewards. "Every man in (the team meeting room) this morning, coaches and trainers and players and front office and this entire building, feels we've been fighting back now for a few years. We've gone through that now.

"And as I indicated with those numbers, we're kind of climbing our way out of it. And therein lies some optimism that we can continue building this team."

Certainly the 49ers would be better off if management rallied behind Mariucci and convinced the players that it believes in the direction they're heading.

But the truth is, much as the Jon Gruden-less Raiders showed this season, a new coach probably could maintain the success on a team that is built to succeed.

Regardless of who coaches them, the prediction here is that the 49ers have what it takes to reach the NFC championship game at this time next season.

That being said, there are very good reasons -- beyond the obvious injuries -- the 49ers are sitting at home right now.

For starters, the offense underachieved. Quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens are among the elite at their positions, which they proved several times during desperate fourth-quarter comebacks.

The coaching staff needs to do a better job of creating that sense of urgency in the first half of games as well.

The running game is terrific, with tailback Kevan Barlow probably ready to assume more of the workload. But the running game failed late in the season when teams knew it was coming.

The fans who booed the 49ers occasionally at Candlestick Park remembered the olden, golden days. The 49ers must pass to set up the run. Maybe they don't have to do that every week but enough to keep defenses alert.

The good news for the 49ers is that they don't need many personnel changes on offense.

They would like to draft a left tackle of the future, but maybe that can wait one more year.

Emerging receiver Tai Streets is an unrestricted free agent. They should either re-sign him or use a first-or second-round draft pick on a downfield threat.

The personnel changes need to come on defense and special teams. And even those needs aren't too great.

When "consultant" Bill Walsh -- who still has his fingerprints all over this team, including having the ear of management when it comes to who should be coaching it -- was asked if the 49ers are just a player or two away from the Super Bowl, he said "More like six or seven."

But they really need only two impact players, both on defense, to make them equal to any team.

The combination of a bad pass rush and bad pass coverage doomed the 49ers this season. The 49ers' defense is good all the way around, but it's not great anywhere. If they have money to spend in free agency, they should look toward a disruptive defensive tackle and a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback.

They could try to fill those needs in the first round of the draft, but names such as Reggie McGrew and Mike Rumph make it questionable that a late first-round draft pick can deliver the proper impact.

If there is some change left in the piggy bank, the 49ers should pay some attention to special teams, perhaps on a reliable punter.

And that receiver they draft in the first or second round, make sure he can return kicks, too. The 49ers passed on Antwaan Randle El in the second round last year, choosing instead to trade down and select backup linebacker Saleem Rasheed.

That's not too much to ask, is it? Two impact players on defense, a little more attention toward special teams, a bit more urgency in the offensive game plan?

Of course it's not. Then again, the 49ers aren't too far away.

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.