49ers following more patient approach

Updated: May 14, 2004, 8:44 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

No, the tremor that reverberated through the Bay Area last weekend wasn't "The Big One," although rabid San Francisco 49ers fans might suggest otherwise.

But the groin injury sustained by new starting quarterback Tim Rattay, and subsequent surgery that will sideline the three-year veteran for three or four months and threaten his availability for the regular-season opener, clearly was a rumble with ominous resonance.

After all, the 49ers are coming off a 7-9 season, and a third-place divisional finish. The team jettisoned three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia over money issues. Tailback Garrison Hearst, for years the conscience of the locker room, was dumped. Both of the coordinators from 2003 departed. There have been no free agency acquisitions of note and, as usual, you can't slip even a piece of parchment between the 49ers' current salary cap status and the league ceiling for spending.

Kevin Barlow
Kevan Barlow is the 49ers' No. 1 running back now that Garrison Hearst is gone.
So, not surprisingly, there has been a hue and din emanating from some quarters about rushing out to sign one of the several veteran quarterbacks still seeking employment -- Kerry Collins, Tim Couch, Kurt Warner, even Kordell Stewart -- and to at least plug the dike until Rattay is ready to return to the field.

And amid all the babble, what personnel response has been enacted by general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson? Uh, absolutely none, zip, zero. No sense of urgency. No panicked phone calls to agents of the aforementioned veteran quarterbacks. No invitations for open casting calls. No visits planned. No nothing.

To which we say: Good move. Or, more accurately, good non-movement on the part of the 49ers' new football brain trust, which, at least for now, has enthusiastically espoused the concept of total inertia.

Nope, we're not buying into all the blue-sky babble about Rattay being fully recovered for the opener. Heck, there isn't a man worth his testosterone who can even discuss the kind of severe groin injury Rattay suffered without crossing his legs and clenching his teeth. It is, to be sure (and, more important, to be less than graphic), a tear right through the heart of the 49ers' rebuilding plans. Nor do we buy into the considerable happy talk suggesting that Ken Dorsey, a seventh-round afterthought only a year ago, has suddenly morphed into the second coming of Joe Montana. Heck, we're not even sure the money the 49ers spent this offseason to re-up enigmatic tailback Kevan Barlow was a sage investment.

But the cap-strapped and talent-challenged 49ers went into this offseason embracing a new blueprint. Donahue and Erickson were ready to swallow hard then, to take some hits that would eventually enable San Francisco to emerge from years of fiscal irresponsibility and dubious management decisions, and the injury to Rattay shouldn't budge their tonsils.

Time may demonstrate that Rattay, who compiled a 2-1 record as a starter in 2003, is not the answer. But to import a high-profile veteran at this point, especially when you would only be bidding against yourself for the services of some, would only raise questions about Rattay's viability. The likelihood is, even under the direst scenario, that Rattay will return sometime in the first month of the season. Bring in a veteran, have him play well for a month, and all it does is muddy the waters. And throw a roadblock in front of Rattay's ascent to the top of the depth chart.

With the condition of the San Francisco offensive line, Rattay is apt to be playing with his head on a swivel, once he does return. No sense inviting whiplash by having him attempt to perform while looking over his shoulder at someone like Collins or Warner or Couch to come off the bench and rescue him. The more appropriate move, should San Francisco officials decide they need a quarterback to get them through Rattay's absence, would be to sign a less-threatening veteran, like Damon Huard or Shane Matthews. As of Friday morning, though, the team hadn't even contacted players of that ilk.

There is no guarantee, of course, that Rattay will prove starter-worthy. Nor is it a given that the 49ers' grand scheme -- to finally escape the salary cap penitentiary in which they have been detainees for too many years, largely by building through the draft (translation: with cheaper, cost-fixed players) -- will succeed. But in this era, you still can't purchase a Vince Lombardi Trophy at the unrestricted free agency pawnshop, and the draft remains the best opportunity for long-term respectability.

Bill Walsh is gone. There is nary a trace of his influence, other than perhaps a partial print, left behind on the training manual he authored for Donahue that educated the new general manager on how to trade back in the draft and stockpile extra picks. For the first time since Walsh arrived as head coach in 1979, the 49ers will operate out of something other than the West Coast offense. The defense, also a source of continuity, will tinker with a 3-4 look on occasion. Personnel guru John McVay, a brilliant behind-the-scenes architect for many years, is out the door, too.

And so, while it might require a step in reverse before San Francisco moves forward once again, the new blueprint deserves a chance. If the times are a-changin' in the Bay Area, well, it might be about time for some revisions, at least if the 49ers franchise is to achieve a dose of lasting health, cap-wise and in other ways.

Consider this: By our unofficial count, the 49ers are currently burdened by $25.3 million in so-called "dead money" -- cap room allocated to players no longer on the roster. That means more than 30 percent of the San Francisco salary cap for 2004 is frittered away to former employees. The departed Garcia is costing San Francisco $10.339 million, among the NFL's highest cap charges. By comparison, the Cleveland Browns, his new team, has a cap charge of only $1.78 million.

There are five other former 49ers players costing the team more than $2 million each in '04 cap charges: wide receiver Terrell Owens ($4.8 million), defensive tackle Junior Bryant ($2.3 million), wide receiver J.J. Stokes ($2.27 million), offensive tackle Derrick Deese ($2.13 million) and Hearst ($2 million).

Little wonder the 49ers are hamstrung, with less than $900,000 in current cap room, and unable to add contributing veterans. The only way out of the mess is to use younger and cheaper players, and Donahue's plan is to bring in 20 new faces through the 2004 and the 2005 drafts. This year appears to represent a good start. The San Francisco draft class, on balance, looks like one of those bounties that will appear even better the more removed from it you get. No one should be surprised if nine of the 10 prospects make the roster. A similar haul next year and the 49ers will be cap friendly, significantly greener, and on a far more solid foundation.

To alter course now, to jump on the panic button in the face of Rattay's injury, would be to concede the long-term plan is flawed. Only a few months into enacting the blueprint, it would be both foolish and hasty to acknowledge some misjudgments, especially since the injury to Rattay was such a freak occurrence. Make a rash move now and all it does is validate the naysayers who have predicted such a bleak future for the 49ers.

Down the road a month or so, once team doctors have had ample time to re-evaluate and assess the condition of Rattay's surgically repaired torn groin, there will still be a veteran quarterback or two holding a tin cup. If the pace of Rattay's recovery at that point dictates a roster move, so be it.

For now, San Francisco's brass is much better served treating last weekend's setback as a temblor, and not a cataclysmic event that transforms Nevada into oceanfront property.

David Boston
Boston
Around the league
  • The move by Miami coach Dave Wannstedt this week, elevating untested Chris Foerster to offensive coordinator after incumbent Joel Collier was forced to relinquish the title for undisclosed health reasons, caused plenty of head scratching around the league. Foerster has never been a coordinator before and spent his previous 11 seasons in the NFL as an offensive line or tight ends coach. Compounding the confusion over the decision: There are two current Miami assistants, quarterbacks coach Marc Trestman and wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, who have been coordinators. In fact, both men were coordinators in 2003 -- Trestman in Oakland and Sullivan with Arizona. But the fact he bypassed the pair probably says more about the importance Wannstedt has placed on the quarterback and wide receiver positions than it does the readiness of Foerster to oversee the offense. The feeling is that, while Foerster will have the coordinator title and perhaps even call plays, the offensive planning will be more of a collaborative effort. Since the playcalling likely will run through Wannstedt's headset anyway, he will have veto power over selection, and can essentially dictate the improved balance he is seeking in the offense. What Wannstedt and the Dolphins need even more, if they are to end a two-year absence from the playoffs, is improved quarterback play and the re-emergence of wide receiver David Boston. Toward that end, Wannstedt was loathe to remove Trestman and Sullivan from those positions, or force the two assistants to split their time by adding the coordinator responsibilities. The significance of having a quarterbacks coach has increased exponentially leaguewide in the last 10-15 years, but Trestman is crucial for the Dolphins, since his tutelage must either enhance the play of Jay Fiedler or prepare A.J. Feeley for the No. 1 job. Sullivan was not hired specifically to baby-sit Boston -- he joined the Miami staff even before the Dolphins opted to trade for the enigmatic wideout -- but keeping him in line is certainly now an unspoken element of his job description. Sullivan was wide receivers coach in Arizona when Boston enjoyed great success there and it is hoped, by Miami officials, that he can get the troubled pass-catcher back on track. If Boston can return to his Pro Bowl form of the past, he and Chris Chambers figure to be a potent tandem, and the Dolphins' aerial attack could be significantly improved. Bottom line: Unless the quarterback and the wide receiver positions come through for Wannstedt in 2004, the Dolphins could be out of the playoffs again, and he could be out of a job. So it was more critical to keep Trestman and Sullivan in place than to reassign either of them to the coordinator post.

  • While it's true that Tom Benson hasn't religiously lived up to the nickname of the franchise under his stewardship, the Saints' owner has remained steadfastly loyal to New Orleans, even when city and state politicians weren't especially fair to him. But one has to wonder, in the wake of a Thursday announcement that the state is $10 million shy on a $15 million payment due the franchise on July 1, how much longer Benson can maintain his loyalty to the area. The payment is part of a $186 million deal struck in 2001 to keep the Saints in Louisiana, but state officials say the shortfall is the result of not meeting anticipated tax levels, in part because of a drop in tourism following the terrorist events of Sept. 11, 2001. In addition, naming rights to the Louisiana Superdome, projected to be worth $3 million annually, have not been sold. Under the agreement, the state paid the Saints $12.5 million in 2003 but, even then, there was a $3 million shortage that had to be made up by SMG, the private company that managed the Superdome. The company will not, officials said, help compensate for this year's shortage. Craig Gannuch, a budget analyst for the state, acknowledged the only options are to default on the payment or to renegotiate the deal. League sources indicated the Saints, weary of dealing with the state, are unlikely to rework the contract. If the state defaults, it opens up all sorts of possibilities, not the least of which is potential relocation of the franchise. The Los Angeles market remains unfilled, of course, and the Saints have long been rumored as a candidate to move there. No one is suggesting, at least not yet, that Benson and point man Arnold Fielkow have local moving van companies on speed dial. But the events of this week, which didn't get much media play outside Louisiana, certainly bear watching.

  • Butch Davis would probably debunk the notion, and likely in strenuous manner, that he has risen to grand poobah status as Cleveland Browns head coach. But clearly the events of the past month, and the high regard in which Davis is held by new Cleveland owner Randy Lerner, has exponentially increased the sway of the Browns' head coach. It has been a dizzying stretch in Cleveland, with the reshaping of the front office achieved at a breakneck pace, and the expeditious nature of it all has probably contributed to the wide perception that Davis has created quite a fiefdom -- despite a three-year record of 22-27 and just one playoff berth. Truth be told, Lerner has had even more to do with the remaking of the management team, and it is clear he wants to surround himself with contemporaries and people of similar mindset. But it is difficult to dodge the notion that Lerner, who assumed control when his father, Al Lerner, passed away, and Davis have systematically removed most of the ties to the young franchise's past. Just as difficult to debunk is the notion that anyone tied to past team president Carmen Policy, who sold his 10-percent share of the franchise to Lerner and then departed the team on May 1, is squarely in the crosshairs. No doubt, Lerner has a passion for the game, and is decidedly more hands-on than his late father. But in the past month, the front office has been gutted of some key personnel, including Policy, personnel consultant Ron Wolf, executive vice president Kofi Bonner and, on Thursday, vice president Lal Heneghan, who handled virtually all of the toughest contract negotiations. It has been, even some high-ranking league officials acknowledged privately this week, a rather stunning purge. Apparently, John Collins, Policy's successor and the man fingered by many in the league for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl, will take over negotiations of most of the big contracts. Davis, who signed a two-year extension early in the offseason, will oversee the football side of things, aided by top lieutenant Pete Garcia. The widely held perception is that the new-look Browns are in disarray. It's going to be up to Davis, and to a lesser extent Lerner, to demonstrate otherwise.

    Charles Woodson
    Woodson
  • Raiders star cornerback Charles Woodson, designated an "exclusive franchise" player by the team two months ago, is adamant that he will only sign a long-term deal. But in light of a recent increase in his "franchise" number, Woodson is being very short-sighted in not just signing the one-year qualifying offer now, then continuing to negotiate toward a long-term contract. The league recently ruled that, because of a required recalculation of the "exclusive franchise" level, which must be divined after the restricted free agency period ends, the qualifying offer has risen from $6.801 million to $8.782 million. That's a jump of nearly $2 million, due in part to the heated free agent market for cornerbacks early in the signing period, and the Raiders must carry it against their cap. But Woodson could guarantee the money, and essentially keep Oakland from rescinding the "franchise" tag, by signing it now. Of course, Oakland isn't apt to rescind the marker, which would make Woodson an unrestricted free agent. But Woodson would be more secure by signing the one-year deal now, particularly given the new and very lucrative level.

  • The news that Penn State officials have inexplicably granted Joe Paterno a four-year contract extension, through the 2008 season, might have been music to the ears of a few NFL franchises with coaches entering 2004 on the hot seat. Why so? One of the names certain to be on NFL candidate "short lists" next spring is that of current Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who is widely admired in league circles. Ferentz is comfortable at Iowa, and has said he has no designs on departing anytime soon, but had been rumored as a potential replacement at Penn State once Paterno stepped down. Now that the Penn State option appears removed for the foreseeable future, Ferentz, if he ever gets itchy, might eye an NFL opportunity more arduously. Ferentz has prior NFL experience, having worked for Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns, has rebuilt a fairly moribund program, and seems to possess the character qualities league owners now desire. His next career move now figures to be vertical, to the NFL, rather than a lateral one to Penn State.

  • By now, many of the pending "cap casualty" veterans have been identified, so much so that it will be a shock if most of them aren't released after June 1. But the fate of Tennessee Titans tailback Eddie George, a true warrior and one of the premier players in recent history, remains unsettled and is creating an intriguing subplot in Nashville. The eight-year veteran, who will turn 31 a week before the regular-season opener, clearly is not the player he was a few years ago. But he is due a salary of $4.25 million, has already collected a $1 million roster bonus in March, and carries a steep salary cap charge of $7.321 million for 2004. There have been few discussions between Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, who seems more comfortable conducting such business with a deadline mentality, and George's representatives. The perennially cap-strapped Titans could certainly use some breathing room. Releasing George would save $4.25 million on this year's cap, and defer a cap hit of more than $4 million to 2005, but one problem for Tennessee is that there is no heir apparent to the starting tailback spot. Second-year pro Chris Brown, whose upright running style eerily mirrors that of George, was injured much of 2003 and logged only 56 carries. That might explain why Titans officials, ESPN.com hears, toyed with the idea of trying to acquire Cincinnati tailback Rudi Johnson during the draft. While the notion was discussed internally, it's believed the Titans never made a call to the Bengals, inquiring about Johnson's availability.

    Troy Hambrick
    Hambrick
  • His 3.5-yard rushing average from last season aside, expect several teams to court Troy Hambrick now that the Dallas Cowboys have axed their 2003 starter. Hambrick might not get a lot of calls from franchises offering a starting job, but the number of clubs seeking an experienced No. 2 tailback is sizable, and the veteran certainly is superior to the players some teams currently have filling that role. Count on Oakland, which is still hoping to upgrade at tailback even after recently signing former Steelers part-time starter Amos Zereoue, to pursue Hambrick. It won't be surprising, either, if one or two teams from the NFC East consider signing him. Hambrick would be wise to just sign a one-year deal, hope to put up good numbers in 2004, and then go back into the free agent market next spring. It's fortunate for Hambrick that coach Bill Parcells released him now, when there is still an opportunity to catch on elsewhere, rather than waiting until next month when most clubs will have rounded out their training camp rosters.

  • The agent for Oakland Raiders' first-round draft choice Robert Gallery, the former Iowa offensive tackle and second overall player selected last month, isn't inclined to wait on the contract market to be defined by other signings. Citing the fact that contracts can be prorated over just six seasons now (as compared to seven seasons in most years), and that there is a relatively finite number even for first-round deals, Rick Smith said he is likely to begin negotiations for Gallery toward the end of this month. That doesn't mean Smith is going to jump at the Raiders' first proposal, of course, but he could set the market with a relatively early deal. "When they hit my number, we're going (to sign), I can tell you," Smith said. "If Robert is going to be the starting left tackle there, he has to be in on time, and there is no logical reason he shouldn't be."

  • The NFL and NFL Players Association don't get nearly enough credit for their efforts in nudging players back to school to complete their degree work. But with several players slated to earn degrees in the next few weeks, a nod of the mortar board to both entities for continuing to stress the values of consummating a college education. Among the players who will graduate in coming days: Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis will receive his B.A. in business administration from the University of Maryland on Saturday. Next week, Kansas City fullback Tony Richardson earns his MBA in finance from Webster University. Congratulations to all players collecting their degrees this offseason.

  • Now that the draft is over, and the NFL has entered its brief May lull period, 'tis the time for reshuffling scouting staffs around the league. Most teams do not announce the changes in their scouting department, unless they include men of "director" level, but some alterations have come to light. The Atlanta Falcons have parted ways with at least three scouts, including college scouting supervisor Mike Hagen and area scouts Ken Blair and Jeff Smith. There have been at least two dismissals in Washington, although the club has not identified the scouts released, and Joel Patten has rejoined the Redskins staff for a second time. Marc Ross, recently dismissed as college scouting director in Philadelphia, has landed in Buffalo, where the Bills created a new position for him as the national scout. Jacksonville dismissed at least one scout, David Dougherty, from its staff.

  • There are so few unallocated players in the NFL Europe League this season that NFL scouts, seeking at least semi-experienced bodies to fill out camp rosters, are experiencing a difficult time finding viable prospects overseas. But two players whose rights are not held by NFL teams, and who are starting to draw interest, are offensive tackle Reese Hicks of the Scottish Claymores and Rhein Fire free safety Abdual Howard. A former Philadelphia Eagles camp player, Hicks last week blanked NFLEL sack leader Bobby Setzer, and that prompted calls from at least three teams. Howard has three interceptions and, while not particularly quick, seems like a good "ball" athlete with some range.

    Jake Delhomme
    Delhomme
  • Punts: Negotiations aimed at a contract extension for Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme have not yet commenced, but both sides are committed to striking a new deal sometime this summer. ... A sleeper in the Kurt Warner Derby could be Detroit, where the Lions are attempting to trade backup quarterback Mike McMahon, and coaches are not fully sold yet on starter Joey Harrington. That said, the possibility that Warner will land with the Giants next month, after his release by St. Louis, is very strong. It is likely that Rams officials will request that Warner not attend a minicamp late next week. ... The Cowboys continue to seek a veteran cornerback and will scour the waiver wires next month to scrutinize the post-June 1 cuts. ... Packers coaches say that second-year defensive lineman Kenny Peterson, a disappointment as a rookie, has been among the team's most improved players this spring.

  • Stat of the week: In 1984, only nine franchises employed assistant coaches whose exclusive responsibility was to work with quarterbacks, and tutoring the signal-callers usually came under the purview of offensive coordinators. Twenty years later, there are 26 teams that list quarterback-specific assistant coaches for the 2004 season.

  • The last word: "I don't always make the right decision, but I do what I feel is right. The fact that the (minicamp) was on Mother's Day weekend was inconsiderate toward the guys on the team, especially since (ownership) here stresses family first." -- Pittsburgh wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who claimed he skipped last weekend's minicamp because it included a Mother's Day practice, and he wanted to honor his late mother.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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