Turning It Around- 08/27/2000
After two decades of supremacy, the 49ers are officially rebuilding. This team was in a state of decay last season, and the front office is not dancing around the topic of rebuilding. They want the world to know that the 49ers are getting ready for action, they have lots of young players with a ton of potential. Entering the team's first rebuilding season there are several factors that will make or break the season. Essentially, what will it take to turn this team around? The answer lies in a number of responses. The defense for example. Last season there wasn't an offense in football that didn't want to play the 49ers. The corner backs were practically giving touchdowns away. Of course quarterback is a main concern with the retirement of future Hall of Fame inductee Steve Young. Many will question the ability of the offense line, that will face its first year without the late Bobb McKittrick. The 49ers have already started to ease our worries in some of these areas, but it will take more than words to make sure that it's a short road back to the top and not a long one.
The defense was one of the greatest concerns last season. After all, even once the offense started clicking, the defense simply could not keep points off the board, and the losses just kept coming. Heading into this season's draft the goal was to get a bunch of defensive players who were starters, and with two first round picks, and a total of eleven in the draft, the 49ers hope they have done just that.
Cornerback was a great concern last season. Seven different players rotated through the position. None but Monty Montgomery were able to avoid getting benched. Montgomery was picked up off the waivers last season from Minnesota, and after two decent showings, broke his arm. He never did play again last season, but he is back and at full strength this season. Montgomery is making progress at his position and is expected to start. Opposite him will be first round draft pick Ahmed Plummer. Plummer has received nothing but praise since his arrival with the team. He has played well enough to have quarterbacks not come after him during pre-season. He will need to continue to improve over the course of the season, and he better be able to keep his confidence up. Both starting corners will make mistakes, but it is important that they bounce back up from making these mistakes. Jason Webster, another rookie, will be the nickel back this season. Webster is slightly smaller than most corners, but plays bigger, and is bigger than what the team had last season. At safety, Lance Schulters will move into Tim McDonald's strong side position, while Pierson Prioleau will take over at free safety. Prioleau was a starter at some points last season at cornerback, his coverage abilities, and natural instincts at safety should help strengthen the defensive backfield. Backing them up will be veteran Zack Bronson and rookie John Keith. Keith has looked extremely impressive this off-season, and he could be starting at safety as early as next season.
The linebackers last season were quite solid. They did not seem to be the ones making the mistakes. Nevertheless, Lee Woodall was cut early in the season, and Ken Norton Jr. may be forced out of his first start in 144 games. The 49ers are hoping Norton will be healthy to help control the run that made a mockery of the 49ers last week. Norton is supposed to move to the inside linebacking position this season, where he can use his veteran skill to aid the two linebackers outside. If Norton is unable to go, Jeff Ulbrich, another draftee who has excelled this off-season will see quite a bit of action. It may also mean that Winfred Tubbs would move back to his inside position, leaving most likely Jeff Posey and first round draft pick Julian Peterson on the outside. If Norton is able to return, the 49ers linebacker will once again be a solid bunch, and more versatile this season. The added speed will be essential in getting to the quarterback, and stopping the running backs in their tracks.
The defensive line this year will finally feature Reggie McGrew. Last season McGrew was the 49ers first pick in the draft, and they were hoping he would step inside next to Bryant Young and make the fans forget about Dana Stubblefield. McGrew however, missed the whole season due to injury. McGrew this off-season has looked good against the run, but he will need to improve as the season progressed. Bryant Young is obviously the man who will be carrying this squad. Young finished with 11 sacs last season, coming off an injury plagued 1998. The addition of McGrew will allow Junior Bryant to move outside. Bryant will be the man on one side, and opposite him will be a Anthony Pleasant. Pleasant, a veteran added to the roster this season, has been out with an injury, but is expected back for the Atlanta game. Pleasant is an every down player, that should make Gabe Wilkins look like an even worse move. The defensive line has lots of versatility, with veteran Brenston Buckner, and second year man Chike Okeafor as well as rookies John Milem and John Engelberger. The versatility along the line should keep everyone fresh throughout the season, and that will be a huge advantage against some offensive lines.
The defense this season has lots more potential than it did last. Everything will bank on the younger players abilities. Will the defensive backfield hold up? Will the linebacker be an improvement? Will the defensive line get to the quarterback in a hurry. These are all questions that need answers, and as we enter this first rebuilding season, we will have the opportunity to watch players grow. They will make mistakes, but it is clear with this infusion of talent that the 49ers are working to turn this team around sooner rather than later.
On the other side of the ball, there is much concern over the quarterback position. Jeff Garcia, who started most of last season will once again be the starter. Coaches say he has improved greatly during the off-season, but many fans don't think so. The general feeling is one of un-ease when it comes to Garcia at quarterback. He did not display the long ball very much in the exhibition games, and many of his passes were dump offs rather than to wide receivers. Garcia will have to learn to find not just the open man, but the right man if he hopes to get the 9ers moving. If not the reigns may fall on veteran, journey man Rick Mirer. Mirer this season has looked quite good against second team defense. He was hitting the receivers, and making the intermediate passes, that have Garcia doubters worried. As the season progresses if Garcia isn't getting the job done, the move to Mirer would seem like. The depth at this position then falls to two rookies. Tim Ratty and Giovanni Carmazzi. Ratty has looked quite good in the off-season. He knows the system and is good under pressure. The 49ers however drafted Carmazzi to be the future. At this point Ratty is the more advanced of the two, but the 49ers hoped to double their odds of finding a starter, and will bring both along slowly. With any luck, one will be the future.
The men in front of the quarterback, the offensive line, have as usual been juggled around this off-season. Last season the line began to gel as the season progressed, and that process should begin again with this new line up. Due to injury, Chris Dalman will hand the reigns of center over to Jeremy Newberry. Newberry's guard position will be taken by Dave Fiore, who will have veteran Ray Brown opposite him. On the outsides will be versatile Derrick Deese, and newcomer Scott Gragg. This squad did not have the opportunity to benefit from the tutelage of Bobb McKittrick, and we can only hope that Pat Morris has given them all they need to know.
There are many concerns regarding the team's play this season. It is clear that even if the 49ers are not a brilliant team this season, that steps have been taken to turn this team around. The infusion of young talent throughout the team, and the omission of some players who were let go maybe just in time, will help the team get back on top. There is no doubt that the 49ers have more talent on their team right now than last season. This talent will have to come together though, and play beyond their years if the 49ers are to get anywhere this season.