San Jose Mercury

Sutherland happy to be back in S.F.
January 03, 2003

By Dennis Georgatos
Mercury News

Vinny Sutherland went from fan to player with a ring of the telephone.

``Hell, yeah!'' Sutherland exclaimed when the 49ers reached him at home in South Florida earlier this week and asked if he was available to play for them.

Sutherland dropped what he was doing -- watching his alma mater, Purdue, play Washington in the Sun Bowl -- threw some clothes into a travel bag and bolted for the airport.

A day after working out for the 49ers, Sutherland completed his improbable return Thursday, signing with the club that cut him last August after he lost a bid to retain his job as the team's return specialist.

``I'm off the street here, and now I've got a shot in the playoffs with the 49ers. I'm really happy to be on board,'' said Sutherland, who was released by Chicago this season after a five-week stay. ``I'm ready to go, however they want to use me.''

Sutherland will be used in Sunday's playoff game against the New York Giants to return kicks and help cover punts, special-teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven said. Sutherland will also back up punt returner Cedrick Wilson.

The 49ers have been weak at the specialist position because of injuries. Jimmy Williams was lost to a season-ending knee injury Dec. 8 in Dallas, and Wilson and cornerback Jason Webster, who serves as the backup punt returner, turned their ankles Monday in a 31-20 loss to St. Louis.

Wilson has practiced and is expected to play, but Webster is listed as questionable and his availability could be a game-day decision.

Webster did not practice Thursday for a second consecutive day, raising the possibility that Mike Rumph could start in his place.

Coach Steve Mariucci said he didn't want to start the game without at least two players capable of returning punts.

To make room for Sutherland, the 49ers placed linebacker Jamie Winborn on injured reserve, finishing his season. Winborn tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Sept. 22 against Washington.

Team doctors initially thought the injury would heal properly through rest and rehabilitation, but Winborn's progress stalled and three weeks ago he underwent arthroscopic surgery.

Great expectations

Quarterback Jeff Garcia says he is looking forward to letting it fly against the Giants.

``I feel like I'm taking a fresh approach to this game,'' he said. ``I really just want to go out and have fun with it.''

But he's not completely carefree heading into his second playoff start. The 49ers lost in the first round to Green Bay last season.

``Finishing 10-6 and being in a playoff game isn't good enough around here, and that starts to wear on you a little,'' Garcia said. ``You're out there trying to do your job, helping a team reach a playoff position. I mean, what do we have to do to satisfy everybody? I think going out there, having fun and winning a playoff game will be a step in the right direction, so that's what I want to focus on.''

Looking good

Terrell Owens practiced for a second consecutive day, the first time he has participated in successive workouts in about a month.

Owens, who had a 33-yard catch to help set up the winning field goal in the 49ers' season-opening victory over the Giants, sat out the last two regular-season games to rest groin and foot injuries. He will be back in the starting lineup Sunday.

``We're not overdoing it with him,'' Mariucci said. ``He's getting the plays in practice that he needs, that are specific to him. But it's good to have him back on the practice field. It's been four or five weeks of very limited practice time.''

Owens declined to discuss his status with reporters this week.

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